Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is a subtropical playground of great natural beauty from its golden beaches washed by the Coral Sea to the verdant ranges reclining at the edge of the Great Divide. Those with a taste for adventure will not want to miss one of its best hinterland assets, the magnificent Conondale National Park.
This rugged 35,500-ha park in the Conondale Range embraces a network of crystal mountain streams that cascade through deep gorges, flanked by luxuriant rainforests and stands of towering eucalypts. Not only does this spectacular environment conserve critical habitats for rare wildlife, it also offers great opportunities for a wide range of outdoor recreation, from family camping to remote high altitude trekking.
The spectacular Conondale Range originated as muddy sediment and silica-rich ooze in a deep ocean trench off Gondwana about 370 million years ago, when amphibians were just wading onto land where simple woody plants had not long evolved. Movements of the continental plates compressed sediment and crumpled the hardened layers into steep mountains. Erosion wore the mountains down to a handful of peaks, the highest being Mt Langley (868m), and rivers worked relentlessly to carve the gorges we see today.
The Range is a catchment protection area embracing the headwaters of the Mary, Stanley and Brisbane Rivers. Booloumba Creek flows through the middle of the park and is the southernmost tributary of the Mary. The park also contains wetlands of national significance for threatened species of freshwater fish, frogs and crayfish. Two species endemic to the Mary River — a lungfish and a turtle — are critically endangered.
Across this rugged terrain developed many different ecosystems, each one specially adapted to the varied forms and folds, altitudes, soils and aquatic environments. Although much of the range’s original vegetation has been cleared by agricultural and forestry activities, the national park protects large areas of forests and un-managed regrowth over gullies and steep ridges. Nearly 800 species of native plants have been identified in widely different communities, such as subtropical rainforest, wet and dry eucalypt forest, woodlands and palm groves. The temperate climate and copious rainfall (about 1500mm annually) have nurtured enormous specimens among the forests, including Queensland's tallest tree — a 73m rose gum (Eucalyptus grandis), affectionately known as ‘Big Bob’.
These varied communities provide vital habitat for more than 295 native animals, including 27 species listed as endangered or vulnerable. Among these are the yellow-bellied glider, the rufous bettong (largest of the potoroos), the long-nosed potoroo (smallest of the kangaroo superfamily) and the spotted-tail quoll (mainland Australia's largest carnivorous marsupial). The national park is classified internationally as an Important Bird Area for its 174 kinds of resident natives and a number of migratory species. Some of the more vulnerable include the eastern bristlebird, black-breasted button quail, paradise riflebird and plumed frogmouth. Thirty-one frog species occur in the ranges, including several of scientific interest such as the giant barred frog, Fleay's barred frog and the vulnerable tusked frog. Sadly, the unusual gastric brooding frog and southern dayfrog have not been sighted since 1981 and are presumed extinct.
For thousands of years before Europeans arrived, the Jinibara and Kabi Kabi people occupied the Conondale Range, sustained by the natural foods and plentiful water in the forests. One of their most important food sources was Bunya pine that grew abundantly throughout the area. The pines’ large nut crops peaked every three years, heralding congregations of neighbouring clans who travelled great distances to share food, celebrate in song and dance, and cement alliances through trade and marriage. Traditional pathways permeated the range, enabling the clans to move between the regions and from one camp to another depending on the seasonal availability of resources.
Culturally significant sites remain in the form of artefact scatters and at least one bora ring. In recognition of their timeless connection with the land, native title determinations have been made in favour of the Jinibara and Kabi Kabi covering the whole of the national park and parts of surrounding districts.
European colonisation changed the Indigenous way of life forever. In 1842, Andrew Petrie explored the region for farming land to accommodate settlers from the growing Moreton Bay settlement. He found a substantial river, which was later named the Mary in honour of the wife of Queensland’s Governor Fitzroy. Pioneers moved into the Mary Valley in the 1850s to take up pastoral runs along the river banks. One of these was ‘Kenilworth’, which grew to a 10,000ha cattle station and lent its name to a town later established in the district. (Heritage-listed Kenilworth Homestead is now a much smaller property that serves as a camping and riding centre.)
In 1860, the Queensland Parliament rescinded the reserve status of bunya forests that had been proclaimed 18 years earlier in deference to Indigenous reliance on them as a major food source. This paved the way for an influx of settlers who felled the vast forests for timber and cleared the land for livestock and fodder crops. Many Indigenous people were forcibly displaced from their land and moved to distant reserves for their ‘protection’. In their place, townships grew around gold fossicking areas, farming hubs and timber camps.
The gold rush at Gympie in 1867 spurred settlement in the Mary Valley by farmers hoping to grow crops to feed the miners, but a succession of devastating floods forced them to take up dairying and cattle grazing. By the 1890s, dairy farming was the predominant pastoral activity in the valley, with enough producers to form an association to supply a cooperative butter factory at Caboolture. In 1952, the Kraft Corporation opened a dairy factory that operated in Kenilworth until 1989 when it was taken over by the local cooperative and continues to run as a popular cheese factory under the name Kenilworth Dairies.
The early 1900s marked a turning point for the Conondale Ranges when State forests were progressively declared, and logging of old growth forests was gradually superseded by native pine plantations that continue to supply the building industry. The 1970s saw further conservation developments in the range amid growing concerns about the logging of pristine catchments and its impact on endangered wildlife. After lobbying by the Conondale Range Committee, the Forestry Department set aside catchment areas for scientific and conservation purposes and, in 1977, the national park was declared to protect 35,000 hectares of the range’s most sensitive and valuable ecosystems. Many parts of the region have also been re-vegetated by private landowners and Landcare groups. As well as conserving the environment, the national park and surrounding ranges provide opportunities for a wealth of recreational activities.
The picturesque Mary Valley between Gympie and Maleny provides some of the best scenic driving in the hinterland, with good, sealed roads that weave through verdant pastures flanked by the forested ridges of the Conondale and Blackall Ranges.
Booloumba Creek Road is the main access to the national park and crosses the creek several times on its way to the camping and day-use areas (high-clearance 4WD vehicles recommended). At the last camping area (4) the road begins a steep, winding climb through 10km of dense eucalypt forest to the Booloumba Falls car park. Part way there, a lookout provides are spectacular panorama of the creek valley and the Conondale Range beyond.
After the falls, the road plunges into the valley and crosses Peters Creek before climbing up to the next ridge. At the junction with Summer Creek Road, travellers can turn left towards Jimna or right to descend on a loop that takes in more tall timber and another lookout across the pine plantations of the Imbil State Forest. Near the bottom of the mountain, the road passes the Charlie Moreland camping and day-use areas on the banks of Little Yabba Creek before rejoining the Maleny-Kenilworth Road. The whole circuit is about 30km and you should allow at least 90 minutes for the drive and extra time for picnics and bushwalks.
Walking is one of the best ways to explore Conondale and the national park has several tracks ranging from short strolls to the challenging 56km multi-day Conondale Range Great Walk. In the centre of the park, the Peters Creek walk (500m return) follows the picturesque watercourse interspersed with pools and cascades, before looping back through sun-dappled rainforest to the carpark. The fern lined Booloumba Falls trail (3km return) meanders through tall, open forest to a cascade where the creek splashes merrily into a deep pool and burbles among massive boulders to disappear into the unseen gorge below. The Breadknife rock formation can be seen at the junction of Peters and Booloumba creeks.
The Booloumba Creek walk to the Artists Cascades is about 12km (return) including a couple of interesting side tracks. Beginning with a cobblestone water crossing, the trail skirts the creek for several kilometres through dense rainforest before branching off towards an old gold mine deep in a forested gully. In the 1920s, the mine was worked into the side of a hill for about 60m and, after it was abandoned, became colonised by Common Bentwing and Eastern Horseshoe bats.
Further on, another side-track leads to a clearing in which stands the impressive 3.7m ‘Strangler Cairn’ sculpture by internationally renowned artist Andy Goldsworthy. Made from hundreds of hand-cut, precisely-fitting granite blocks, the Cairn is topped with a strangler fig sapling — time will tell whether the mature fig will strangle the sculpture, or if its roots push the blocks asunder.
Eventually, the trail descends a steep slope to emerge from the rainforest at the Artists Cascades, where the creek flows into a tree-lined grotto before tumbling through a series of pools among grey boulders smoothly rounded by the passage of countless torrents. This is a great place for a picnic and a swim before resuming the return leg to the camping areas.
Other excursions include an 11km (return) walk from Booloumba Creek day-use area to Mount Allan where you can climb the 9.6m fire tower for a panoramic view of the surrounding ranges, and the 9km extension through the pine plantations of Imbil State Forest from Mount Allan to Charlie Moreland camping area. Another gem is the Fig Tree walk at the confluence of Little Yabba Creek and the Mary River, about 5km south of Kenilworth. From the bridge on the Maleny-Kenilworth Road the 800m circuit loops through rainforest filled with towering Moreton Bay figs, giant gums and piccabeen palms that echo to the calls of exotic birdlife.
There is so much to see and do here that you won’t get through it all in one day. Luckily, there are several camping areas within the magnificent forest environment close to Booloumba Creek. All are supplied with water (treat before drinking), toilets (wheelchair accessible) and individual fire rings (bring your own wood). Camping area 1 comprises 24 secluded sites suitable for tent camping; camping area 3 has 20 shady tent sites, some of which are double size to suit larger family groups; and camping area 4 is an open, grassy area suitable for high-clearance caravans and camper-trailers. Camping permits are required and fees apply.
For day-trippers, an expansive day-use area (Booloumba 2) beside Booloumba Creek is well-equipped with toilets, wood barbecues and picnic tables, and provides easy access to several walking trails.
Location: 130km north of Brisbane, 70km south of Gympie.
Access: Main roads to the park are sealed but inside all are gravel, and a high clearance 4WD vehicle is required to access the Booloumba Creek camping and day-use areas through several creek crossings.
Best time to visit: Autumn and spring. Summer days can be hot and winter nights can be cold.
Fuel and supplies: Nearest towns are Kenilworth, Conondale, Maleny and Eumundi (on the Bruce Hwy).
Activities: Scenic driving, bushwalking, mountain biking, horse riding, bird watching, picnicking and camping.
Camping: There are three camping areas at Booloumba Creek — camping areas 1 and 3 are for tents only; camping area 4 is suitable for high clearance caravans and campers and high clearance 4WD campervans. Sites must be pre-booked, and fees apply. Charlie Moreland camping area in nearby Imbil State Forest is accessible by conventional 2WD vehicles and caravans.
Facilities: Camping areas have toilets, fire rings (bring own wood) and water (boil before drinking). The day-use area has wood barbeques, picnic tables and toilets.
Other accommodation: A range of holiday accommodations are available in the local area and on the Sunshine Coast.
KENILWORTH INFORMATION CENTRE
9 Elizabeth St, Kenilworth
P: (07) 5446 0122
MALENY VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE
23 Maple St, Maleny
P: (07) 5499 9033
KILCOY INFORMATION CENTRE
41 Hope Street, Kilcoy QLD 4515
P: (07) 5424 4000
SUNSHINE COAST TOURIST INFORMATION
P: 1300 847 481
QUEENSLAND NATIONAL PARKS
W: parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/conondale and parks.des.qld.gov.au/camping (bookings)