“The path to paradise begins in hell.” When 13th century Italian poet, Dante, wrote these words in Divine Comedy, he couldn’t have predicted how applicable they would be to my first walk in the Bunya Mountains.
I was literally on the trail to a place called Paradise, when a lapse in concentration led to pain described as a combination of hot acid burn and electrocution. Could hell be much worse?
Before I elaborate on my unfortunate error, let me wind back the clock to a few days before my trip.
Whatever happened to Lycra Man? If you’ve been a reader of my blog from the early days, you may be acquainted with my occasional walking partner, dubbed Lycra Man due to his love affair with two wheels and matching fluorescent attire. (See How to Torture a Hiking Partner, Great Expectations, and Lycra Man’s Attachment Problems. ) It seems he’s amassed a dedicated following, with a few readers asking if he will ever return.
Well, I’m finally able to provide some satisfaction to fans of his sarcasm. He does receive a mention in this account. However, this is not because he participated in my Bunya Mountains adventure. No, the reason for Lycra Man’s inclusion is because my choice of trip almost resulted in him being rushed to an emergency department a week afterwards.
Before heading off 12 months ago on my solo 3 day camping adventure, I mentioned the potential for a shattered skull to Lycra Man. While Bunya Pines only produce a bumper crop every three years, they may still drop huge cones weighing up to 10 kilograms annually. These crash to the ground without warning in late January to early March. I was expecting words of concern from my audience, or at least a little comforting reassurance.
My news threw Lycra Man into an excited spin. His eyes glazed over like Homer Simpson contemplating a doughnut-filled stadium. Luckily, he stopped just short of drooling. You see, Lycra Man’s alternative nickname could be Squirrel, due to his nut addiction. And what are his favourites? Bunya nuts. I was commanded to satisfy his desires.
I told him I couldn’t remove them from a national park, but if I saw any lying on the side of the highway, I might bring one back for him. I also mentioned, with perhaps a tiny hint of sarcasm, that I was incredibly moved by his overwhelming concern for my safety.
After a lengthy pause, he replied, “Obviously, I didn’t comment on the possible danger to you, because I have complete confidence in your vast experience, knowledge, and judgement.”
Have I mentioned his political aspirations?
Unfortunately, poor Lycra Man was to be bitterly disappointed on my return. No, not because I survived. I had raised his hopes to heavenly heights, only to send them crashing down by returning cone-less.
This was far too much for the Lycra-clad Squirrel to bear. After Googling frantically, he secured a nutty feast from a suburban backyard dealer. The sellers seemed less enamoured than he by the bounty of their magnificent Bunya Pine, perhaps due to the impressions left in their concrete driveway and garage roof by the deadly delicacies.
After revealing his fan base, I asked if I could photograph the roasting process for my blog. He readily agreed, remarking, “It’s inevitable your audience has noticed my charming qualities.”
I’ll share the unexpected outcome of his culinary endeavours at the end of this post. For now, let’s return to my camping trip.
The Bunya Mountains, 250 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, preserve the largest natural stand of Bunya Pines (Araucaria bidwillii ) in the world. These are not true pines, but belong to the Araucariaceae family, and were a dominant feature of Australian forests in wetter times.
The mountains have immense spiritual significance to the Traditional Custodians and other visiting Indigenous groups, and are referred to as Booburrgan Ngmmunge (meaning “mothers milk.”) During bumper crops, Traditional Custodians would invite other groups from New South Wales and Queensland to gather and share in the bounty.
These were huge festivals and incredibly important socially, culturally and spiritually. It was a time to trade, solve disputes, arrange marriages, perform ceremonies, develop and enforce laws, review spiritual connections, and to revitalise spirits.
European farming, grazing and logging not only severely disrupted these large gatherings by making it difficult for visiting Indigenous groups to travel along their traditional pathways, but also resulted in the killing and forced removal of many Traditional Custodians.
For more information about this history and what is being done now to revive the festivals and strengthen existing Indigenous connections to the Bunya Mountains, please read the Bonye Buru Booburrgan Ngmmunge: Bunya Mountains and Aboriginal Aspirations and Caring for Country Plan.
The Bunya Mountains are indeed a very special place – so special, that I’ve been grappling with how to write about them for twelve months.
The incredible diversity of vegetation will draw me back again and again.
With at least nine types of rainforest, woodlands, vine-tangled scrub, impressive grass trees, grasslands (known as “balds”), wildflowers, numerous lookouts, waterfalls and streams, the Bunya Mountains offer a unique combination of experiences in one wilderness location.
I cannot hope to cover the many delights. Instead, I will share a few highlights from my 40 kilometres of walking, including my brief encounter with hell.
With hot showers and toilets, covered barbecue areas, lush green lawns, and a restaurant, cafe and whiskey bar within walking distance, the Dandabah camping ground can hardly be called spartan.
You don’t even need to leave the camping area to enjoy some of the many natural treasures of Bunya Mountains National Park. Birds and mammals frequent the grounds.
Red-necked wallabies rest and feed under trees during the day and evidence of their night grazing is spread across the lawn at first light.
Unless the dedicated national parks rangers have an industrial roo-poo vacuum cleaner, there must be a super-sized dung beetle population, as the lawns are remarkably poo-free by midday.
I could have stayed at the campground mesmerised by the maternal marsupial magic forever, but the promise of exciting forest discoveries eventually enticed me onto the first trail – the path to Paradise.
If you want to be pedantic, it was actually the 10 kilometre Barker Creek Circuit, but it does include a trip to Paradise and Paradise Falls along the way. So, what was it that inflicted so much pain on my path to Paradise?
Heading along the trail, I was struck by how dry and warm this part of the national park was. An occasional breeze showered me with golden foliage. The path looked more like an autumnal carpet. Finding an interesting feather, I paused to take a shot.
I usually photograph exactly what I see and don’t try to artificially improve the composition by rearranging foliage or rocks. However, in this case, I really wanted the the feather to stand out against a contrasting background. Rather than opting to relocate the feather, I decided to remove a few surrounding leaves. I was to regret this decision for many weeks to come.
Here is the before shot. Can you recognise anything in this picture which may have landed me in hell? No, it wasn’t a venomous spider. I’ve never been bitten by those much maligned creatures.
The culprit – the object responsible for my agony – was the small yellow leaf on the left with three holes chewed out of it. I should have known better (my mantra really.) I’d been walking past the trees that drop these and am well aware of the dangers. It may look totally benign, but when I picked it up between my thumb and forefinger, this innocent-looking leaf revealed its lingering shocking defence mechanism.
This is a young leaf of a species of stinging tree. Now while most people are familiar with stinging nettles, many may not be aware that Australian Stinging Trees have been labelled the most painful trees in the world, with one variety being dubbed the suicide tree, due to anecdotes of soldiers killing themselves to escape the agony.
Many native creatures appear to be immune to the sting and even devour the fruit and leaves, but dogs, horses, and humans are severely affected. It was ecologist, Marina Hurley, who described the pain as “like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time”. During her studies on stinging trees she had to use thick welders’ gloves and a mask.
Stinging trees tend to grow in more open sunlit areas of a rainforest – along paths, or where the canopy has been opened up by a falling tree or storm damage. Queensland National Parks and Wildlife usually have plenty of warnings in brochures and on signs about avoiding these trees. Simple precautions can almost eliminate risk, so please don’t be discouraged from visiting the Bunya Mountains because of my lapse in judgement.
The tiny silicon tipped hairs are like transparent glass tubes and contain a very stable neurotoxin. So stable in fact, that 150 year old dried leaves have still been found to contain this neurotoxin. These hairs, found on the leaves, trunk and fruit, break off in the skin and the neurotoxin is released with temperature changes. Some people continue to suffer for weeks, months and even years from hairs which are buried in their skin as the residual neurotoxin is activated when they have showers or exercise.
The trees also shed hairs continuously into the air. It’s not recommended that you stand beneath the trees for long periods, as the hairs can be breathed in, causing nosebleeds and lung problems. If it is necessary to work underneath, it’s best to wear a filter mask and a hat.
So, what is the treatment for these stinging hairs? Some sources recommend including hair removal wax strips in your first aid kit, as these will help remove hairs without rubbing. However, I’ve also read that a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid is used first in some hospitals to soak the affected area and that this is far more effective in the long term. As with many reactions to stings and bites, the effects vary between individuals, and the part of the body exposed also affects the intensity of pain.
At the time of my close encounter, I was ignorant of the recommended treatment and did not carry wax strips or dilute HCL. Using a sticky band-aid was not effective and seemed to exacerbate the pain. Rinsing the area with water had no effect either. I considered turning back to camp immediately, but assumed the pain would eventually disappear so continued on. Besides, I was close to midway around the circuit.
The pain did not disappear quickly. It was several weeks before my fingers returned to normal, and in the meantime it affected my ability to hold a camera, limiting my photographic offerings to you.
While researching the pain inflicted by stinging trees I came across this vivid description by a hiker (Skywalker) on the forum of bushwalker.com After losing his footing, he accidentally pressed his hand on the leaf of one notorious species of stinging tree, known as the Gympie-Gympie. In the interests of helping others to avoid his terrible experience, he kindly shared these words on the forum:
“The following pain was nothing I had ever dreamt of and to say it was unbearable would be an understatement. The pain was so intense, that it was radiating up my left arm and into my chest, which made me to believe I was about to go into cardiac arrest. It was like holding your hand into fire coals. I was paralysed. To cut a long story short, I had to be rescued by emergency helicopter and taken to hospital (thankfully we had phone reception and a gps). No amount of morphine, fentanyl, endone, neurofen, ibuprofen and paracetomal that the triage gave me did anything at all to reduce the pain. After hours of agonising pain, they received advice from a James Cook University tropical medicine professional to use diluted hydrochloric acid on my hand. Upon inital application which involved placing my whole hand into a bucket of the solution, the sting was five times as bad as the sting itself. I screamed the place down and almost cried like a baby (im a 35yo male) but no amount of pain was going to see me pull my hand out if this was meant to be a cure. Two minutes later…complete and total relief. The pain was 100% gone. No redness, no swelling, no marks. I was calling it a miracle. I was sent home half an hour later. I was almost embarrassed about the whole affair. The reason for my post is to make everyone aware of the only real treatment for this horrific plant….HYDROCHLORIC ACID, diluted to 1:8 to 1:10. You hear of other treatments that have been used in the past that don’t properly treat the pain, but only try to unsuccessfully “remove” the stinging hairs only to aggravate them even further whilst pushing them deeper into their skin or breaking them off and releasing more toxins, and the victim is still in pain years later if they accidentally bump the same place or if they come into contact with cold water etc”
I was much luckier than poor Mr Skywalker and the little taste of hell didn’t dampen my appreciation for the Bunya Mountains.
I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to dislike chocolate until I discovered three close relatives are not fans. Is there an anti-chocolate gene in my family? It’s a terrifying prospect. Such mutations threaten the very fabric of society. The Bunya Mountains provided me with 2 chocolatey treats, one with wings and one to satisfy my mycologist proclivities.
Close to the camping ground lies the old Dandabah School House, which is home to Australia’s largest known maternity colony of chocolate wattled bats (Chalinolobus morio). During warmer months, these tiny bats, weighing only 8 -11g, emerge just after dark from the walls and roof of this tiny building.
I’ve read reports of the colony increasing to 3000 in breeding season. The females nest higher in the ceiling to help keep the babies warm, while the males tend to roost in the walls. About 24 different bat species have been recorded at the Bunya Mountains, including two rare species. Late one evening I waited patiently for them to emerge. I was expecting a mass exodus of wings, but on this occasion, the bats trickled out slowly from an opening near the roof.
In the past, I’ve sometimes noticed brown and white blobs on logs in rainforest. It wasn’t until I got up close and took a picture of one at the Bunya Mountains that I realised how amazing these blobs are when magnified.
Chocolate brown slime mould (from the genus Stemonitis) goes through a rapid and fascinating life cycle. Initially, the slime mould begins as a white plasmodium mass and ends up as dry chocolate tubes, dusty with spores.
Here’s a high speed You Tube video which shows the sporangia development over 24 hours.
This discovery actually solved a puzzle which relates to an experience in my youth. Perhaps this is a story only nature nerds may appreciate though. As a teenager attending a highschool in a coastal town, I eventually learnt it was “not cool” to express my intense passion for the natural world. Before I learned to hide my enthusiasm for the delights of fungi and insects, I was prone to embarrassing gaffes. Sitting conspicuously alone one day on a grassy bank by the swimming pool, I was shocked when a popular lad approached. He probably said something incredibly suave like, “How’s it going?”
The whole conversation is mostly a blur apart from my enthusiastic question: “Do you like fungi?”
The day before, I had been exploring my local neighbourhood after rain looking for fungi, and was amazed by how many species I’d found. For some reason the young Casanova looked awkward and left quickly.
Many years later I received a Facebook friend request from a curly haired man I did not recognise although his name seemed vaguely familiar. I ignored it. After all, he could have been a Ted Bundy clone. It wasn’t until I researched chocolate brown slime mould that something in my mind clicked and I realised the request was from Bruce, the young man from my scintillating teenage encounter.
It seems in the many years since that afternoon he must have been dwelling on my fascinating fungi facts. Obviously, my mycological words of passion had left him temporarily speechless and that is why he walked away. He just needed time to compose himself – about 25 years. In reality, Bruce was obviously deeply impressed even though I’d assumed the worst. There’s a lesson here, people. Be true to yourself. Don’t hide those fungal fantasies that give you joy. When I mentioned this to Lycra Man, he replied, “I doubt it was the fungi he was fantasising about all these years, Jane.”
Oh, he of little faith! I reiterate – to thine own self be true. Someone, somewhere, some day will appreciate the nature nerd within. Embrace it.
Back to the Bunya Mountains again. I doubt I’ll ever make it up Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, but if I mumble when I say I’ve been up Mt Kiangarow (the highest point of the Bunya Mountains) perhaps I’ll get some impressed looks. At 1135 metres, it is less than a quarter of the height of Tanzania’s iconic climb, but the 2.3 kilometre walk still had me panting in the heat.
It’s no secret I’m in love with grass trees. I devoted a whole post to this romance. The western walks at the Bunya Mountains had me swooning.
Not only are there numerous grass trees along the ridge tracks, but they tower over you. Xanthorrhoea glauca grow on Mt Kiangarow, with some reaching 5 metres.
These are hundreds of years old and are some of the oldest grass trees in Australia.
While recovering at the lookout, I noticed an old friend – actually, many old friends. I’d first encountered a sand wasp on the summit of Mt Ngun Ngun. At Mt Kiangarow lookout there were hundreds of burrows.
Do sand wasps appreciate a good view like we humans?
I knew they could inflict a painful sting when provoked and are not strictly social insects, but it was only when I returned home and read further that I discovered they may defend as a group if their burrows are disturbed.
After unwittingly trampling their holes with my hiking boots while admiring the expansive views, it was probably unwise of me to lie on the ground, just inches away, taking photos. However, on this occasion I left unscathed, unlike my encounter with the aggressive dried leaf the day before.
I also survived a close encounter with a curious trapdoor spider. In this case, I was midway through emptying my bulging bladder when I noticed an audience near my foot.
I spied many lace monitors on my wanders at the Bunya Mountains with one bailing me up on the morning I left. Wanting a few more photographs on what was meant to be a quick repeat of one of my western walks, I left my backpack (and water) back in the carpark, and bolted up the track. However, on my way back I was stopped by this specimen sprawled on a narrow path bordered by a cliff edge and a steep scrub-covered bank.
Usually lace monitors don’t linger. They’ll move away as soon as I approach. Not so in this case.
I took the opportunity to take a few close-ups and noticed patches of shedding skin as well as red parasites congregated around an eye. I’m wondering now if the stress of the moulting process, the parasites, or both, affected the animal’s behaviour.
As the day warmed up I quickly regretted leaving my backpack in the car and considered detouring via the scrubby embankment, but my paralysis tick phobia screamed at me to seek an alternative.
I tentatively placed a long branch near the monitor to gauge whether it would allow me to pass. Within seconds I was treated to what I imagine to be the lace monitor equivalent of a crocodile death roll. The branch was well and truly engulfed by those strong claws. It now took up a new position. You can see the old injuries to its tail in this shot, as well as part of the branch I used to test its reaction.
Then it closed its eyes and settled in for a snooze.
Thankfully, Mr Sleepyhead eventually headed down the cliff and I could continue my trip home.
The incident had me researching lace monitors on my return and I was fascinated to read that the females lay their 6 – 12 eggs inside termite nests. Initially, they dig a hole in the side of a termite mound which is then quickly sealed over by termites. This keeps the eggs incubated at a constant temperature of 30 C and after 8-9 months the female will return to dig them out.
Initially, I assumed the 119 grasslands, known as “balds,” dotted across the Bunya Mountains were the result of tree clearing by loggers and farmers. Once again further reading surprised me.
Some scientists believe that these grasslands covered even larger areas of the Bunya Mountains for thousands of years. It appears these balds (which contain temperate plant species preferring cooler, moister climates) are slowly disappearing under forest, in response to Australia’s warming climate. Also, it’s thought that some of the recent rapid invasion by woody plants has occurred because regular fire events undertaken as part of past Aboriginal land management stopped during the 1900s.
These balds are important endangered ecosystems. They contain many kinds of native grasses on which numerous species of birds and mammals depend. One blue grass species, Bothriochloa bunyensis, grows nowhere else in the world. The rare skink, Lampropholis colossus, lives in the Bunya balds.
Fortunately, trickle burning has now been reintroduced by Traditional Owners and is helping to protect these important grasslands.
It’s a stark contrast to walk from the glare of open grasslands to heavily shaded subtropical rainforest.
This is one of the reasons why the Bunya Mountains is such an interesting place to walk. It’s difficult to become bored when the vegetation changes so dramatically.
And now, if you haven’t nodded off, it’s time to sate your curiosity about Lycra Man’s close call.
The process of roasting Bunya Nuts requires some effort. First we needed to remove the nuts from the cone.
Then Lycra Man cut an “x” in the hard outer shell of each nut and popped them on a tray in the oven. He was so eager to get them into the oven that I missed photographing this step.
We sat down to have a cuppa in another room while the nuts were roasting. It wasn’t long before I could smell something burning. I learnt some years ago never to question Lycra Man’s cooking prowess so kept silent.
When the nuts started exploding, Lycra Man leapt up, removed the tray and placed it on top of the oven. Just after bending down to retrieve the shards of shell from the bottom of the oven, more exploded above his head, spraying the kitchen with bunya nut shrapnel. A temporary retreat was in order until the bombs were cold. Had he not been bending down retrieving the shards from the oven, he may have lost an eye.
Fortunately, some of the much desired morsels were still intact and here they are for you to see. They taste similar to chestnuts which I think resemble a combination of woodiness, mature cheese and a hint of field mushroom. There are a variety of ways to prepare them including boiling, barbequing, and roasting. Being high in protein, fats, carbohydrates and essential minerals, they make a nourishing meal. They do take some work to prepare though, as you can see by the box full of extraneous cone material!
In defending his culinary expertise, Lycra Man suggested that the explosions were an intentional demonstration of how willing he was to put himself at risk to prepare a tasty treat for me. According to him, anyone can boil Bunya Nuts, but roasting them requires a unique kind of valour.
So let this be a warning to you all – roasting these delicious treats can be just as deadly as collecting them. Food safety is not just about food contamination. Bunya nuts can be tasty mortars as well as tasty morsels.
Thank you for persevering to the end of this mammoth account. I hope you enjoyed a taste of what is a very special part of the world. It is my hope that together we can work to preserve its treasures, whether they be deadly, or delicious…