Bunya Mountains NP, QLD
Natural vistas and a millennia of history come together in south-east QLD
One of the best scenic drives in south-east Queensland is the Great Bunya Drive between Gympie and Toowoomba. As it meanders 390km among the red-soil farmlands and lush grazing pastures of the South Burnett and Darling Downs, travellers are guided by small brown signs bearing the unmistakable outline of a bunya pine, emblematic of the regions’ principal natural attraction, the Bunya Mountains.
The mountains are seen from far away as a great green island rising above the surrounding countryside, looming ever larger after passing through Kingaroy from the north and Dalby in the south. Suddenly, you’re in the foothills and the road begins the ‘climb into the clouds’. All main access roads are sealed, and the ascent should present no difficulty for most vehicles, but caution should be exercised, especially if towing caravans or camper trailers. Use your discretion and take it slow and steady. If you decide not to tow your rig to the top, several nearby towns have caravan parks that would make a great base.
THE LAND’S CREATION
The Bunyas owe their impressive topography to dynamic geological forces in prehistoric times. About 30 million years ago this part of Queensland passed slowly northwards over a ‘hot-spot’ in the Earth’s mantle triggering a series of volcanoes. Bunya was not a classical steep-sided peak such as cataclysmic Mount Vesuvius, but a gently sloping dome (or shield) formed as successive eruptions squeezed lava through a weakness in the crust to f low across the wide plains.
Weathering and erosion over subsequent eons gradually wore away the shield to expose its resilient core — an elongated basalt range about 975m high with peaks over 1100m — and carved valleys in its sides through which creeks still drain the ridges. The mountains’ altitude creates a highland climate that is significantly cooler and wetter than the subtropical plains below, producing fog and mist at any time of year and early morning frosts in winter. When visiting the Bunya Mountains, it ’s a good idea to bring some warm clothing, even in summer.
THE EPONYMOUS PINE
The mountains are named after the bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii), a massive conifer with a distinctive dome-shaped crown. Its scientific name honours the botanist John Carne Bidwill, who encountered the tree in 1842 and sent the first specimens to Kew Gardens in London.
This majestic tree is a ‘living fossil’, a modern descendant of the ancient cone-bearing Araucariaceae family that f lourished during the age of dinosaurs.
Now found only in the southern hemisphere, its cousins include the New Zealand kauri, the Norfolk Island pine and the Monkey Puzzle tree of Chile. The bunya once grew abundantly in Queensland rainforests during wetter times but is now restricted to small pockets in the state’s south-east and far northern Wet Tropics. The mountains conserve the largest population of bunya pines in the world.
This remarkable tree typically grows to between 30-45m, with the tallest living specimen recorded at 51.5m. They pollinate in spring and, from December to March,
develop dozens of soccer ball-sized cones weighing up to 10kg, which drop without warning. (QPWS advises against lingering under the trees during cone season to avoid serious injury.) The cones contain large edible seeds, known as ‘bunya nuts’, that are highly nutritious.
Not only a dominant feature of the environment, the bunya pine has played a central role in the human history of the mountains. About every three years, the trees produce a bumper crop of nuts and, for countless generations before European colonisation, Indigenous people gathered to take part in triennial ‘bonye bonye festivals’ that coincided with this natural phenomenon.
At the invitation of the mountains’ traditional custodians — the Wakka Wakka, Jarowair, Djaku-nde and Barrumgum — tribes trekked hundreds of kilometres from the coast, central and south- east Queensland and northern New South
Wales to share i n the bunya’s bounty. These
“The mountains' altitude creates a highland climate that is significantly cooler and wetter than the subtropical plains below, producing fog and mist at any time of year”
unique festivals were arguably the largest and most significant cultural gatherings of Indigenous people in Australia, attracting an estimated 3,000 people and lasting several months. They were occasions for celebration and feasting, trade and exchanging of gifts, for story, dancing and song. Disputes were settled, alliances were affirmed, marriages arranged, and laws were discussed and developed in what has been described as a ‘ tribal Parliament’.
In the 1840s, European settlement spread rapidly across the Darling Downs and South Burnett, and timber-getters were soon drawn to the Bunya Mountains to log red cedar and other valuable timber. In 1842, recognising the tree’s cultural importance to Aboriginals and to lessen conf lict with white loggers, colonial authorities prohibited settlers from occupying land or cutting timber within a proclaimed Bunya district, and granted Indigenous people sole use of bunya trees wherever they grew.
For a time, the bunya pines escaped the saws but, when Queensland officially separated from New South Wales in 1859, the ‘Bunya Proclamation’ was abolished, and the felling began in earnest and
“In 1881, a timber reserve was again declared followed by decades of lobbying that resulted in the gazettal of the Bunya Mountains National Park in 1908”
would continue for another one hundred years. At the industry’s peak, 25 sawmills operated, each with its own community of workers and their families who raised cattle and cultivated vegetables on small freehold selections. Settlement, industry and the forced removal of Aboriginals to government reserves made it impossible to maintain the time-honoured bunya festivals and they eventually ceased in the early 1900s.
Not all Europeans saw the mountains as an opportunity for mere economic gain and, as far back as the 1860s, were travelling to the mountains for rest and recreation. Many fought to preserve the Bunyas’ natural beauty and unique wildlife for the benefit of future generations. In 1881, a timber reserve was again declared, followed by decades of lobbying that resulted in the gazettal of the Bunya Mountains National Park in 1908, Queensland’s second national park and the first of substantial size (9,112ha). Subsequent additions, through donations of private land and conversion of some adjoining State forests, have increased its