Sunday, 28 January 2018

Lower Bellbird Circuit (Lamington National Park)

A good half day walk in Lamington National Park, the Lower Bellbird Circuit explores a section of World Heritage-listed rainforest. Taking hikers down into the valley, the trail provides an assortment of worthwhile side trips, including outstanding views from the Yangahla Lookout and a return trip to Lower Ballunjui Falls. A nice introduction to one of Queensland's best national parks

Distance: 12 km (loop; add 3 kilometres for the Lower Ballunjui Falls side trip)
Gradient: A mix of gentle, level walking and steep descents and ascents via switchbacks
Quality of Path: Generally clear and well maintained trail with constructed steps in plaes
Quality of Signage: Clear and easy to follow trailhead, but no markers along the way. Trail junctions are clearly marked
Experience Required: Some Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time: 3-4 Hours
Steps: Many steps, particularly leading up and down the cliffs
Best Time to Visit: All year round
Entry Fee: No
Getting There: The trail starts at the car park near the end of Binna Burra Road. The trail start point is not immediately obvious but is near the Lamington Teahouse before the road rises to the Binna Burra Mountain Lodge. 

With Australia Day upon us, Alissa heading back to Perth to start her working year and Simon off for the long weekend to visit his family, Zach and I took our new temporary housemate Richard out to Lamington National Park to check out one of the country's most well regarded parks. Having promised to Simon that I would wait for him before tackling the Coomera Circuit and with a Real Trail Talk podcasting session with Mark from the Life of Py booked in for later in the afternoon, the half-day 12 kilometre Lower Bellbell Circuit ticked all the right boxes for our Sunday morning walk.

The Lower Bellbird Circuit starts in the Binna Burra section of the park, with several trails branching off from the connector track that runs from the main picnic area. At the start of the trail is a boot cleaning station very similar to those found in Western Australia. As is common with these stations in WA, the spray pump was empty, however the three of us ensured our boots were as clean as we could get them by using the supplied brushes.

Having visited Tamborine and Springbrook National Parks two weekends prior, I knew what to expect in terms of subtropical rainforest, however the giant Eucalypts of the area took my by surprise. These tall trees with their broad root systems bore more than a passing resemblance to the Tingle Trees back home in Western Australia's Southern Forests and made me feel a little homesick - especially given that Alissa had flown home the previous evening.

Having noticed that Queensland doesn't really embrace directional markers nailed to trees as signage along their walks, I wasn't sure how we'd go finding the correct turn offs along the walk. I needn't have worried however as while directional markers were absent, each turn off featured a clear and easy to follow sign indicating the way to go.

As we followed the Lower Bellbird Circuit's trail, we descended a switchback leading down towards the dense rainforest below. As we rounded the corner I noticed a particularly impression Elkhorn Fern growing on a tree nearby. When I was a kid, my parents tried growing a few of these epiphytic plants in Perth's dry climate (big mistake) however before the ferns died their inevitable deaths, our 7 year old neighbour referred to them as 'funny looking pwants'. That's a memory that has stuck with me through all these years, and it was really cool to see these funny looking pwants in their native habitat.

For the next few kilometres, the trail was a continually zig-zagging switchback heading down the mountainside. At times, the trail was narrow and potentially slippery, with minor watercourses running down the mountain to the valley below. Used to the incredible dryness of waterways in Perth, I was still getting used to the fact that Summer walking did not necessarily mean dehydration in South East Queensland.

For the most part, the dense rainforest meant that views beyond the trees were fairly rare, however we would cross several ephemeral watercourses which generally resulted in a clearing through which we could see the surrounding mountains.

An interesting aspect of hiking in South East Queensland is the fact that many of the trails run along narrow ledges next to potential falls. While they never feel particularly dangerous, I always think about how risk-averse Western Australia would probably avoid such hazards rather than making them part of the trail experience.

Continuing along, the track runs along some rocky cliffs. Although not a series of slot canyons, these cliffs reminded me of the Grand Canyon Walk Trail in the Blue Mountains.

While the Lower Bellbird Circuit had been enjoyable, there had been a lack of truly 'wow' moments for the first few kilometres of the trail. This changed as we took the short side trip to the Yangahla Lookout.

A rocky precipice jutting out into the valley, the lookout provided outstanding views across the Hinterland and its magnificent rainforests. This was a truly great moment of the walk, and I would thoroughly recommend hikers taking the short detour for the views. 

Continuing along the trail, the Lower Bellbird Circuit took us deeper into the rainforest, with palms and strangler figs becoming increasingly dominant.

Unlike many other walks in the Gold Coast Hinterland, the Lower Bellbird Circuit does not go past a waterfall along its 12 kilometre length however the Lower Ballunjui Falls are only a 3 kilometre return extension off the main trail. Having smashed the estimated walking time up to this point, Zach, Richard and I were happy to extend the walk with this side trip.

The trail to Lower Ballunjui Falls immediately descends a series of steps as it branches off the main trail. While the trail is basically downhill all the way to the falls, the side trail is largely gentle in its descent.

One of the wildlife highlights of the trail was seeing a native turkey walking down the trail. A somewhat distant relative to the American Turkey in spite of a similar appearance, this particular individual seemed completely unfazed by our presence and moved off the trail in the most unhurried and blazé manner.

We knew we had to be close to the falls when we turned to head alongside a creek. While fairly shallow, this broad watercourse showed signs of becoming quite full at certain times of the year, and I can imagine the trail along the river being completely underwater during a major storm event.

Lower Ballunjui Falls - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

While less spectacular than the two waterfalls along the Twin Falls Circuit in Springbrook National Park and lacking a good swimming hole at the bottom, Lower Ballunjui Falls was worth the side trip visit. It was incredible looking up at where the falls were coming from and seeing how high above the water begins its cascading flow down from the top of the cliffs to the creek below.

After enjoying the side trip to the falls, we returned back to the trial junction and to the Lower Bellbird Circuit. At this point, we noticed that the Circuit runs concurrently with one of Queensland's Great Walks, namely the Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk. I've heard mixed reports about these Great Walks as some are apparently outstanding while others are a bit ho-hum, however I was nevertheless disappointed to know that I would not be able to squeeze one of these into my time in South East Queensland due to my work commitments.

Back on the trail, the Lower Bellbird Circuit began its slow but steady return back up to the top of Binna Burra. Along the way, the trail passed by a number of small waterfalls and streams that provided a number of low key highlights along this stretch of the track.

Besides the waterfalls, the views of the forest canopy from up high were spectacular, with the beautiful mix of palms and eucalypts. 

An interesting section of the trail took the three of us through a particularly rugged stretch filled with massive boulders and sheer cliff walls. This again reminded me strongly of the Grand Canyon Walk Trail in the Blue Mountains. 

As the trail continued its rise to the top of the valley, the lush rainforest gave way to a drier Eucalypt dominated forest type. Again, the forest here bore a striking similarity to the Southern Forests back home in Western Australia, with the wide trees that reminded me of the Tingles becoming fairly common. 

After following a section of track with steep drop offs and views across the valley, the trail heads inland to a grassy field before following what looks like an old service track to the main road. 

The Lower Bellbird Circuit officially ends abruptly at the main road into the Binna Burra section of the park, and then requires walkers to continually ascend up the road back to the car park. Usually, hikers are able to head along the Cave Circuit to have a scenic final few kilometres back to the car park, however the trail was closed at the time due to severe damage caused by Cyclone Debbie. With no other option, Zach, Richard and I had no choice but to take the boring and arduous road back up to the top. To make matter worse, it started to rain really heavily along the last two kilometres, and we were absolutely drenched by the time we reached the car. In hindsight, it would probably have been advisable to have left the car at the lower end of the circuit and done the road walking to begin with. Oh well - live and learn.

Overall the Lower Bellbird Circuit was a good walk of a decent length through lovely subtropical rainforest. While the walk was worthwhile and enjoyable, I have to admit that Lower Ballunjui Falls was less spectacular than Twin Falls and Blackfellow Falls along the Twin Falls Circuit in Springbrook National Park, or the very impressive Minyon Falls in Nightcap National Park across the border in New South Wales. It is an excellent option for those looking for a half day walk within easy reach of the Gold Coast, however I would recommend either the Twin Falls Circuit or Minyon Falls as superior walks for those looking for that wow factor. 


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