The entrance to the Main Border Track, Lamington National Park. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
Those who follow this blog will know I have done quite a bit of hiking around the Sunshine Coast Hinterland Great Walk in recent years. In 2016 I decided it was time to seek out new trails. To the south of my hometown Brisbane is the Gold Coast and nearby rainforests of the Tamborine mountains. I started thinking about finding a trail in that area when a quick internet search turned up the Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk. From there I looked at various tracks before settling on one at Lamington National Park on the Main Border Track. It would take me 6kms down the track to Mt Bithongabel for a return journey of just over 12kms with differing vegetation. It was said that from Bithongabel one could see the path Bernard O’Reilly‘s journey when searching for a lost Stinson aeroplane in 1937. O’Reilly’s Retreat an accommodation and picnic ground site is located in Lamington National Park and was started by Bernard and his brothers. In 1937 a Stinson airliner enroute from Brisbane to Sydney went missing. Bernard a bushman and author suspected the plane had failed to clear the McPherson range due to heavy rain. He went looking for it and found the survivors of the crash.
A Replica of the Stinson that was used in the 1987 movie The Riddle of the Stinson starring Jack Thompson onsite at O’Reilly’s Retreat. Copyright Lloyd Marken
On the 10th of April, 2016 Karen and I set off from the northside of Brisbane to get to Lamington National Park. It can be tricky sometimes driving out to Lamington. A wrong turn on those mountain highways cannot always be remedied by a quick 3 point turn. I took such a wrong turn and it cost us time. Eventually we knew we were on the right path as we ascended a mountain with sections of one lane only and two way traffic. I’d never driven on such a road before and found it exciting to say the least. Part of it has been carved out of rock which is quite neat to drive through. We arrived halfway through the afternoon and started down the Border Track at 3:09pm. Where I can become obsessed-Karen can see reason. We walked for 3kms together through beautiful rainforest that included ancient Antarctic Beech trees (some examples have been known to have lived for over 12,000 years). Yet having walked through a rainforest at night Karen sensibly turned around at that point. I knew I could push further but knew time was not on my side.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I walked on at a much quicker pace alone passing more parties on their way back with looks of puzzlement at the direction I was heading in. Onward I went checking the time unsure of how far I had come. Could it be just around the corner? When up on the path ahead lay a collapsed tree, as I went to step over it a reptilian head darted around an opening. Was it a snake or a lizard? It didn’t seem to have ill intentions towards me and I figured it was probably a lizard.
Very friendly and probably a lizard. Copyright Lloyd Marken
The sun was setting. What would it be like to come back across this tree when it was dark knowing there was potentially a snake nearby. Keen readers will note I have been in rainforests before when it is dark. I stepped over the tree and kept walking.
The time I planned to turn around and go back came and went. Fifteen minutes past it. Half an hour. I reasoned with myself what was the new time to go no further. That time came and went too, the sun was low, the path was becoming gloomier and the rainforest noisier. I came down to the end of a long path hoping for a sign. I knew I was close to 6kms. I looked at the terrain, where did the land stop to rise? How much further could the path ascend? I was walking to a mountain lookout and it didn’t seem the ground climbed much further. I walked down a long straight path long after the point of no return, my blood was pumping, my T-shirt stained with sweat but my body was working in a rhythmic exuberance. I wasn’t tired, I was possessed. But at the end of that stretch, the path winded around to another stretch. Bithongabel could be a mere five hundred metres ahead but it was too far. My wife was waiting for me and it would be dark before I made it back.
I pivoted and walked back frustrated to have travelled so far and yet to have not planned it better to have given myself enough time to reach my goal. Coming back I moved even faster knowing the path now and with a bit of downward slant for the most part. Having only just walked it for the first time that day I could not judge where all landmarks were and how much farther I had left. I just pressed on but when I became sure I was close I saw an opening in the rainforest on my way back with a sunset sky. It was the closest I came to a payoff that day.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t have a working torch that day as I usually would so I was glad to see the dirt path turn to red concrete as the rainforest became dark. The red concrete told me I was near a path to nearby villas and had less than a kilometre to go. Possibly much less.
Karen at the entrance to the Main Border Track. Copyright Lloyd Marken
Finally the light at the end of the track and Karen came into view. I had made it but I would need to return and reach Bithongabel next time.
Life stepped in though and I never set out again for Lamington until the 23rd of October. Karen couldn’t come so I set out alone without my navigator. Google maps was not my friend that day going offline up in the mountains. I corrected my course but at some point found myself on my way to Mt Tamborine. I knew I wasn’t going to make it in time to get out and there and back before dark. So I headed for Tamborine and stopped on the side of the road at one of those mountain car parks where people will stop and take photos together of the view.
The view from Mt Tamborine 23OCT16. Copyright Lloyd Marken
My plans were a bust. I turned and saw across the road one of those touristy themed eateries and heard my stomach rumble. Trying my best to be a impromptu weekend traveller of windswept interest I sauntered into the German themed restaurant and asked for a table at the back. Beautiful red flowers covered the outside, inside was fine wooden furniture and out the back a pretty water feature. I sat down and looked at the plastic laminated menu and saw a variety of schnitzel and pork loin meals. A fan of neither I asked for the loin with a helping of mashed potato. If you love your German schnitzel or pork loin I cannot recommend this place enough but sadly as I gave up finishing my loin and polished off the mash I felt complete failure in my endeavours for the day. I couldn’t even order the right food for myself. As I headed for home I let Karen know I would get pizza on the way from a southside place I had grown up on. The day would not be a complete bust but I was now more determined that ever to achieve my goal. Next Sunday I would go to Mt Bithongabel.
Sadly again Karen could not come so I set off alone with a different path to O’Reilly’s. Unsure of how this would play out. Google maps at one point pulled me off in the opposite direction at Yatala and then directed me around in circles through an industrial area. I knew we were in the wrong place and losing time but as I continued to drive I found myself on a familiar road and my hopes were raised. Eventually I came to the same mountain driving cautiously through the one lane sections. I passed an abandoned car at the top off to the side of the road on an angle. Noting traffic around me I went on and let the volunteers at the Information Centre know whom then called the police. A reminder that these roads were dangerous. It was still later than I could afford it to be but the sun was setting later this time of year and I bought a brand new torch from the O’Reilly’s gift shop and a fridge magnet for my Mum before setting off in earnest.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I had not gone long down the path when I saw a massive tree had collapsed with its giant stump lying next to the path which was sunk in. Six months had passed and there were many new sights as well as familiar ones to take in. The rainforest was alive and constantly evolving. Along the way I passed a guy who asked me where I was headed. I answered ” We’ll see.” knowing the sun was descending to which he helpfully pointed out ” It would be dark soon.” He was not the only one as I moved forward and I can’t blame them but at least I had not set off as late as I had in April even if I knew it should have been earlier than it was.
Eventually I reached as far as I had come – now I would see how much further it was. The track moved into a more open area with pine needles everywhere and a chance to turn down another path. I racked my brain, I had turned off my phone due to the google maps having drained most of its power on the way up. I was on the Main Border Track and surely I remained on it to get to Bithongabel but if I was wrong then this decision would cost me any chance of reaching my goal destination. I went forward fairly confident and the path ahead went along the side of the mountain. There was a golden sheen to the vegetation as the lowering sun pierced the canopy. It truly was beautiful but I began to worry. I had already reached a point where I was glad I had turned back in April. There was no way I would have made it to Bithongabel before it was dark that day but now I wondered if I had taken the wrong path. The sun was fading and the path started to dip. We were going down the mountain and I had not reached the top. Had I taken the wrong path after all?
That’s when I saw it and I knew it was it.
At the end of the path to the right is the sign for Bithongabel. Copyright Lloyd Marken
Bithongabel on a simple wooden sign. I had made it but there was no lookout to speak of. Where was I supposed to look out to retrace Bernard O’Reilly’s steps? I reasoned it could be a bit a further down so I stomped off down that way but soon I had gone several metres without anything in sight. I knew not much further along was the Tooloona lookout. Bithongabel had disappointed me and I needed a prize for my efforts. Once again I found myself bartering with my better angels about when to turn back. The path became muddy and my sneakers squelched and slipped through some pretty big puddles. I continued to descend not sure how much further I could go when I saw a young man up ahead with a camera. I stopped where he was standing and looked out. This was Tooloona lookout. What the hell was this guy doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Didn’t he know the sun was about to set. Maybe I wasn’t an idiot. He was staying nearby at the campsite at Bithongabel. Oh okay so I was the only idiot present. He left me to it and I took a picture. Mist came off a nearby peak and with the setting sun it truly was a beautiful sight. My phone gave out at that point. I smiled grateful for the photos. I moved off back to Bithongabel where I looked for the campsite and found it down from the sign along with the young man I had met at Tooloona lookout. We discussed the lack of a lookout and I went further and climbed over some boulders to the edge of the outcrop. From there you could imagine seeing much if the rainforest hadn’t grown up some trees blocking the view. Maybe this had offered better visibility in the past, maybe I had unfairly expected more. No matter I was pleased with the sights I had seen. I bid the young camper farewell and headed for what would now be a long trek home. On and on I went and the rainforest again came alive and the shadows grew darker. With a torch now available and picking up a wooden stick I feared not but it was a long trek back and my camelback came close to being empty.
As night came I once again reached the red concrete and knew I would make it. Up ahead in the dark I saw a light flashing and wondered if a Wildlife Ranger or someone else had waited for me after hearing tales from other hikers of some fat bozo with a shopping bag walking up the Border Track mid-afternoon. I turned my torch on just in case but as I walked on I came to realise no one was there. I turned my torch off and kept walking. On the ground I saw what appeared to be a red light flickering. Odd I thought and walked up to it and turned my flashlight on it to see what was there but there only leaves. I turned off my torch again and this little light flashed again. Then I turned on my torch and saw a little creature move. I turned off my torch but no further light shone. Many years ago I had gone with my wife to a tourist attraction of the Glow Worm caves at Tamborine Mountain. I say Glow Worms but technically they were Glow Maggots but you can understand why the place wasn’t called that. I’m 36 years old and have gone camping on and off for various organisations throughout my life. I found the Glow Worms caves interesting, was I seeing something similar now in the wild? I’d never seen anything like it before.
I turned and walked down the path and a flickering golden light lit up and off dancing in front of me. It danced around my whole body in a full circle and then lit up the sky directly in front of me. With my phone dead there was no millennial impulse to reach for it to take a photo. What technology could possibly capture this as beautifully as it looked right there in real life without the use of special effects. Here was a special effect from mother nature herself. This expression gets overused a lot but ‘It was a moment’. One I wished I could have shared with Karen but Karen may not have allowed herself to be stuck in a rainforest after dark…again.
I had spent recent months more bound to a desk than I have been in most jobs and glued to screens in my downtime. Here was a unique and rare reward for getting out and moving through the world and all it had to offer. A reminder that life was to be lived for such moments. I came out of the entrance not many more metres after that and headed home. On the way back I checked that the crashed car was empty and ended up behind a convoy of vehicles going down the side of the ranges which made that part a lot easier. I arrived home that night to my lovely wife with a fond memory. Bring on 2017.
The view from Tooloona Lookout. Copyright Lloyd Marken