After Christmas we spent four days in the Granite Belt south of Stanthorpe, checking out the splendours of Girraween National Park. Girraween is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of flowers’ though sadly for us the best time to see those flowers is in July when the golden wattle blooms. Nevertheless it is the home of great bushwalks through the granite outcroppings any time of year. Girraween is part of a larger ecosystem with Bald Rock National Park just across the border in New South Wales. But with Covid playing havoc with border restrictions we confine ourselves to the Queensland side.
The National Park covers 11,700 hectares of bushland. Arriving mid afternoon of the first day there is only time for one walk to probably the signature walk of the Park: the Pyramids. The walk starts from the Bald Rock Creek day area, 40km south of Stanthorpe. Nearby is the Bald Rock Creek which has swimming waterholes. There are also two camping grounds here.
We prefer to walk and set off on the 3.6km return hike to the Pyramid. There are two pyramids side by side but only one is walkable to the summit. Along the way we see the first of many granite outcrops precariously held in position, which remind me of my visit to Karlu Karlu in the NT (the Devils Marbles). Like the Marbles these stones are made of granite, just one small section of a great mass of rock that covers the region – the Stanthorpe Granite.
The Stanthorpe Granite was a molten mass of magma that rose up and pushed into the older rocks surrounding it 240 million years ago. The magma resulted from heat in the crust when the eastern side of the continent was compressed by two tectonic plates combining. It melted the surrounding rock and assimilated fragments known as xenoliths into its mass. Some xenoliths are still visible within the granite but most have eroded due to weathering. After a kilometre, we left the bushland behind and started the difficult climb up the Pyramid. Extreme care needs to be taken on the rocks which are slippery and which have few handrails.
It’s tough work heading up but there is the thought that the gravity-assisted trip down will have its own issues. The view from the top banishes all those concerns with magnificent granite outcrops in every direction.
The Cunningham’s Skink blends naturally into the landscape. Egernia cunninghami is a sun-loving variety of spiny-tailed skink named for explorer and botanist Allan Cunningham who collected the first specimen in the Blue Mountains. This large skink has a long tail with keeled scales along from the back of the neck to the tip of the pointed tail. The legs are short, requiring it to slide on its belly when moving around. It occurs in forests and woodlands with rock outcrops. The species occurs within forests and open woodland which feature rock outcrops anywhere from south-east Queensland down through New South Wales and into central Victoria.
North of our pyramid is its twin, which is too dangerous to climb. Also here is the massive Balancing Rock, probably the single-most photographed feature of the park, with people getting into all sorts of Instagram poses to “keep up” the precarious rock. Normally 120,000 visitors a year check this out, but with COVID ruling out interstate visitors it was a quiet site to contemplate nature’s wonders.
When we came down we stayed 20km away at Ballandean. The old railway station is on the southern line from Toowoomba to Wallangarra on the border. Opened in the 1880s it survived 100 years as a passenger line and then as a freight line to 2007. Heritage rail services still run from time to time. The Ballandean station has been rotated so its entrance now faces the New England Hwy rather than the railway.
As the evening ends we enjoy the sunset on the Granite Belt and plot further adventures in the days to come.
The following morning it was back to the park and our most ambitious trek of the stay – a 15km hike taking in The Sphinx, Castle Rock and the park’s highest peak Mt Norman. We passed few tree ferns along the way before we were climbing in the granite again.
Sphinx Rock bears passing resemblance to the Egyptian Sphinx but its beauty does not need any comparison. It is a granite pinnacle with a massive balancing topside tor. Cunningham was the first European known to enter the Girraween area. In 1827 he noted “large detached masses of granite of every shape towering above each other and in many instances standing in almost tottering positions constituted a barrier before us”. He reported he saw Aborigines only five times during his journey to and from the present-day locations of Tamworth and Warwick “And they, he said, “suffered us for the moment to view them at a distance.”
Below the Sphinx is this giant carved rock like a wheel that towers over humans.
Turtle Rock lives up to its description.
Then we turn back and head to Castle Rock which we see ahead through the foliage.
Castle Rock is almost as difficult to climb as the Pyramid but the views from the top are equally breathtaking.
After a rest, we move on cross country to Mt Norman. After going through some rainforest we emerge again to climb the granite boulders.
Again there is the feeling of being of the roof of the world at the top. Mount Norman is the highest point in the park at 1267 metres
The view looking back to Castle Rock from Mt Norman. From here we could either head to the southern car park which links to the road to Wallangara on the border but after a five hour hike we head back the way we came to the day area.
On Day 3 we did part of the Granite Belt bike ride between Ballandean and Stanthorpe. The bike route tackles 30km of the regions backroads with wineries aplenty along the way. The bike trail is well marked and worth getting off the beaten track for.
In the afternoon we head back to Girraween and take the shorter walk to the Granite Arch. A combination of forces including water, wind and plants have combined over a million years to sculpt this creation. Blotchy lichens eat away at the granite by concocting a weak acid that breaks down the felspar, the pink material in the granite.
The walk heads on to The Junction, a lovely swimming hole where the Ramsay Creek and Bald Rock Creek meet. The area is full of rockslides and pools, white sandy beaches and welcoming waterholes. The water comes down from the western side of the Great Dividing Range and continues as one as part of the mighty Murray-Darling system that empties into the sea at South Australia, thousands of kilometres away.
On the last day, we do more of the bike trails. Names of localities such as The Somme are a reminder that this area was soldier settlement blocks. Under the Discharged soldiers’ settlement Act, 1917 discharged soldiers were entitled to apply for land and financial assistance. Around 7000 hectares was set aside near Stanthorpe and more than seven hundred returned soldiers were allocated blocks in the Pikedale Soldier Settlement. A number of locations were named by those returning servicemen in honour of famous battlefields including The Somme, Amiens, Messines, Bapaume, Passchendaele, Bullecourt, Pozieres and Fleurbaix.
We stopped in Stanthorpe for a coffee afterwards. Stanthorpe was founded by tin miners in 1872. When the tin prices fell, many miners turned to farming as the subtropical highland climate was suitable for growing cool climate fruits and vegetables. Grapes were first planted here in the 1860s with encouragement from the local Catholic parish priest Father Jerome Davadi to produce altar wine and the idea caught on among Italian settlers.
After coffee we went up to Mt Marlay to check out the lookout over town. The hill was named for Edward Marlay, a selector and tin miner. There is a short walk around the summit, which follows a path through the trees offering a scenic vantage point towards the north.
That afternoon it was time for a final look at Girraween. This time we drove a little further into the park to the Dr Roberts car park. We finished off with a walk to the Dr Roberts waterhole. First stop was a 2.8km return trip to the underground creek. Millions of years ago this rock formation probably resembled a tumbling wave but gradually cracks and crevices occurred causing masses of rocks to collapse onto the flowing Bald Creek below. The water now flows below the cluster of boulders.
We finished with another 2km trek to Dr Roberts Waterhole. In the 1930s local doctor Spencer Roberts was a guardian of the local superb lyrebird and wombat populations. He lobbied the government to protect them in a national park. Dr Roberts died in 1939 aged 59 but his visionary work was rewarded. In 1930 Bald Rock Creek National Park was declared followed two years later by Castle Rock National Park. Together they were known as Wyberba National Park but they were formally amalgamated in 1966 as Girraween National Park.