Driving the rainforest way

There’s no better way to explore the ‘Green Cauldron’ of the Queensland and New South Wales border than in an Isuzu D-MAX or MU-X.

Words: Stephan Corby

Photos: Thomas Wielecki

One of the least-known attributes of the Isuzu D-MAX is that it can operate as a time machine. It may not resemble a blue English police phone box, or come with a quirky, hyper-intelligent alien copilot, but Isuzu’s ever-reliable ute can transport you from the restive rat-race of modern life to a place—and a time—that feels unsullied by human hands, or axes.

Standing, staggered, among the towering trees of the Lamington National Park in Queensland, happily separated from other people by the quiet of a weekday, and the fact that we’d driven further, and harder, into the bush than any faux-wheel-drive city car could go, there’s a stillness among the whipping and whistling bird calls and the chatter of the leaves.

With the end of a bush track at our backs, there’s nothing before us but an ancient rainforest landscape, tree roots entwined with vines and rich mud, and covered with the kind of slow, unbothered growth that’s been a feature here for millions of years.

"We find the coals of a dead fire that could have been made a few days ago or, just as equally, a few millennia ago. Nothing changes here, unless we change it."

It’s the kind of peace and reflection time you can only get out here, the only foreign sound being the ticking of our cooling D-MAX and the MU-X we’ve brought along for company.

What our Isuzus can’t do for us is create the kind of time it takes to get this far out, to leave the world behind and stand in forests so important and unparalleled that even a politician, or a forestry enthusiast, can appreciate them.

The Lamington is protected ground and part of the magical, and strangely un-famous, Rainforest Way, a staggering string of no less than 14 national parks that stretch from southern Queensland into northern NSW and that contain the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. First inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1986, these are the most extensive subtropical rainforests in the world.

The thing that is almost as incredible as experiencing their depth and beauty is considering just how close they are to civilisation, and just how little of that precious modern commodity—time—it takes to explore them.

From Brisbane Airport, you can be on the Rainforest Way in barely 70km and, depending which of many routes you take (check out rainforestway.com for options), you can cover the whole lot in a journey of just 650km.

They will be slow kilometres, of course. You’ll want to take your time and skip down every inviting dirt side road to get away from the occasional crowds you’ll find along the way.

It’s down such a diversion that we find ourselves on the first day of our adventures, after taking in the vista at the world’s first treetop walkway at O’Reilly’s Green Mountains (yes, being the first means it now feels quite old, and about as far removed from modern OH&S standards as a concrete playground). We battered our way down Duck Creek Road, a 4WD-only gravel track that is, according to the warning signs, impassable when wet.

This is the kind of challenge that sings to the heart of a D-MAX owner. We’re off into what feels like a tunnel made of forest canopy before you can ask, “So, why is this called a rainforest?”

“All day the radio has been warning of supercell storms approaching and advising Brisbanites to head home early to avoid hail and high water”

All day the radio has been warning of supercell storms approaching and advising Brisbanites to head home early to avoid hail and high water (sounds like typical Queenslander skiving). But the skies we glimpse between the tall timbers are clear blue and sunlight streams over the jaw-dropping vistas that occasionally open up on either side of us.

It’s only as we reach the end of a descent and some Road Closed signs—which, curiously, barely block the road at all—that we catch the scent of rain among the eucalyptus and mulch smells. Swamping, roiling black clouds are heading over the escarpments of the Scenic Rim and the doom-like Wollumbin, aka Mount Warning, anextinct volcano, in the distance.

The blue is bleeding out of the sky as we turn tail, shattering the silence with our engines’ roar and the skipping and scattering rocks as we power up the hill towards relative safety. I’m struck, once again, by the way these vehicles make light work of challenging driving conditions.

Ensconced in our cabin, we enjoy listening to radio callers’ stories about hailstones the size of watermelons as raindrops start smashing onto our windscreens like watery babies’ fists.

As the dirt roads turn into mud ones, and then into gritty waterfalls, we switch to low range with a flick of the wrist and enjoy the battle with the elements, finally making it back to sealed roads as the full fury of the storm turns the sky into a Metallica concert.

After a night sheltering in a safe pub in Kyogle, we find the world washed clean the next morning and set off to explore more awe-inspiring national parks, each of which appears to have its own distinctive foliage and character.

“The effect is so primordial you expect to see dinosaurs poking their heads through the canopy above”

Choosing your favourite rainforest is akin to pinning down your best-ever sunset, but there’s no question that Wollumbin National Park feels like the oldest and grandest. Everything here seems writ large, from vines as thick as tree trunks to ferns as tall as buildings. The overall effect is so primordial you expect to see the world’s first legged creatures crawling out of the noisy streams, or dinosaurs poking their heads through the canopy above.

An absence of other humans does not mean an absence of sound, you soon realise, with whipbirds and lyrebirds setting a cacophonous chorus, joined by frogs and the buzzing of a billion insects, only a million of which want to your blood.

It’s a place that has the same sense of magnitude you feel when visiting the Daintree in Far North Queensland. And yet, with its easy proximity to Brisbane, it’s so much easier to get to.

While there are plenty of river crossings and meandering back roads to enjoy along the Rainforest Way, there are also loads of sweeping blacktop bends that allow you to revel in the on-road skills and poise of the MU-X and D-MAX. One of the best is the Uki Road, which takes you from Mount Warning to the beautiful Springbrook National Park. It’s home to the Natural Bridge, which must surely rival Bondi Beach or the 12 Apostles for its outstanding beauty (yes, it needs a better name, as well as better PR).

Here, you can walk through what feels like a permanently damp, always-dripping forest of almost luminous greens and deep-brown furry barks to a cave under a natural basalt bridge, which is fed by a waterfall through a hole worn in the roof and populated with glow-worms. It feels more like a postcard than a place.

We’ve given ourselves just a few short days to rip into the Rainforest Way and there’s so much more to see, including Lake Moogerah and the spectacular Queen Mary Falls. But, frankly, we can’t believe how much we’ve seen already—and all on just a single tank of diesel in each vehicle.

If you want to make the most of your time, and your time machine, this really is the place to visit.

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