I take a five-day, 61-kilometre guided walk through rainforest along the edge of an extinct volcano on terrain so untouched by the modern world that some of it has only been seen by Indigenous Australians and early cedar cutters.
1. Feeling connected to nature
There’s nothing to disrupt my connection with nature: no roads, no houses… and barely another hiker except my group (many sections of the hike are completely private). But this is Queensland’s biggest ever eco-tourism project, so I should’ve expected this: it allows me to traverse Main Range National Park, the northern-most of Australia’s World-Heritage-listed Gondwana rainforest on trails cut through private land owned by Spicers Retreats. The trails provide a wildlife corridor for almost 500 endemic animal species and more than 250 bird species, while retracing the movements of three local Aboriginal clans.
If I really open my ears and eyes, I might notice every single species: endangered Albert’s Lyrebirds with their sharp, mimicking calls somewhere just beyond our place in the forest, and the mournful wail of the yellow-tailed black cockatoo. I don’t pause my immersion in nature for a minute; even at night I sleep suspended from the forest floor in specially constructed sleeping pods, or in cabins built kilometres from the nearest TV, or leaf blower. Though for all the immersion I feel while surrounded by all this ancient rainforest, perhaps my greatest moments on this journey come high on top of escarpments with views for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. It’s worth the puffing.
2. Feeling a sense of ‘magical’ within your accommodation – a ‘treehouse for adults’
I’ve walked all day through forest, through terrain anyone’s barely seen in 100 years – and yet, I ain’t seen nothing yet. Late on day three, after steering myself along the edge of an escarpment looking down onto a green valley, I see my bed for the night … built right on the forest floor.
The first buildings constructed within a national park in Queensland – these eco-cabins barely touch the earth. There’s seven sleeping pods here connected by walkways on demountable platforms, and bathrooms, remarkably, with steaming hot showers and flush toilets. Inside my sleeping pod, a huge louvre door opens to the national park beyond.
It’s chilly as dusk arrives and the birds make their last frantic moves before bedtime, but I don’t dare shut the door till I’ve caught sunset from my bed. Besides: there’s warmth waiting for me: a glass of red wine on a rug by a gas fire in the common room before dinner should sort me out.
The next night, my sleeping pod offers a different perspective – it branches out into the tree canopy five metres above the forest floor. I’m not sure which perspective I prefer: cosy and nestled amid the leaf litter, or like a bird, suspended here above the creatures of the forest without wings.
3. Feeling safe with expert guides
I couldn’t do it without them. Sure, it’s my legs doing the walking, but it’s them holding the harness lines as I climb the ladder up the edge of the volcano; it’s them guiding me through every twist and turn of this 61-kilometre journey north-to-south along the edge of the escarpment of the Main Range National Park, through more than 600 metres of elevation changes, and through rainforest not seen by non-Indigenous people since cedar cutters a century and more ago. And it’s them telling me what noise was that, and the history of Indigenous Australians in the area – who for thousands of years used these highest peaks to send smoke signals for other clans to gather.
They bring with them years of experience guiding through the bush – and years spent in this region. And let’s not forget the supporting cast; the staff at each stop waiting with cold towels and chilled wine, ready to prepare gourmet dinners. I need them too… badly.
And yet, for all the knowledge passed on by guides, it’s the quietest moments of all that will stay with me the longest. I’ll separate from my guide and the group to study the sounds of the forest, with no distraction, and to smell the scents in a ritual called shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing.
4. Feeling a sense of achievement
This sort of nature immersion doesn’t come without sweat… perhaps even a tear or two, even a bit of blood if I’m ever unsteady on my feet. To get to the top of the 1100-metre-high Main Range National Park, I’ll climb a 40-metre-long ladder built onto a sheer rock face, held on by harness. And forget the flat stuff, most of this 61-kilometre-long hike comes with plenty of gradient – uphill and down, testing my quads, my calves and my fancy new hiking boots. I’ll cover as much as 18 kilometres in a day, and usually not much less – though I won’t be carrying luggage on my back – ATVs make stealth missions along fire trails cut through the forest to deliver your possessions to you each night.
But where I’ll be going, any blister will be worth it. I’ll find secret deep green valleys of palm forest, split by streams where I’ll rest on cool volcanic rocks and stare up at ancient hoop pines, their trunks covered in birds’ nest ferns and blooming orchids. And I’ll stand on the edge of an old volcano at the end of it all, looking back on the trail I forged, feeling bloody proud.
5. Feeling rejuvenated and inspired from being disconnected, and good because you made such a low impact on your surroundings
The world’s still spinning outside – Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere, folks – but inside my private forest, I barely know about it… outbreaks, shutdowns… they’re all happening in another universe, I get a break for a few days. There’s fleeting opportunities for wi-fi along the way, but I opt out, and concentrate on the sounds of the forest instead. There’s noises I can’t Google out there. I’m entrenched dark and deep within Gondwana rainforest, the remnants of ancient forest that covered the supercontinent, Gondwanaland, 150 million years old.
There’s mosses, liverworts, ferns and hoop pines that can be traced back to that era. There’s something about being surrounded by so much history that rejuvenates me, and puts my problems in their place. And just by being here, I’m part of Queensland’s biggest ever eco-tourism project. It’s taken years of planning and the purchase of 105 hectares of land adjoining the national park to complete the walk and to create a nature refuge for hundreds of endemic animals, including some critically endangered. I can imagine them in my mind strolling about.