ALASTAIR OAKMAN HANDS me a 40L rucksack. Inside it is a lunch pack, a two-litre water bladder and a camp mug. With my own sunscreen and camera gear added, it’s all I’ll need for the day.
Then I notice his gaze. It’s fixed upon my bare legs.
“Shorts man, are you?” he asks.
I prefer to hike in shorts, I say. Prevents overheating.
“It will be cold up on Mt Mitchell, where we’ll be having lunch,” he advises. “And there are lots of grass seeds and stinging nettles along the way. Got any gaiters?”
I do, but they’re old and stiff. Not very comfortable, I tell him.
“No problems,” he says, with a nod and a smile. “We’ve got some here. But they’ll cost you.”
No thanks, I say. I’ll manage as I am.
“Okay. Be aware though that we might come across the odd wriggly on the trail,” he says, referring to snakes. “We recommend you wear long pants, but it’s up to you.”
Scenic Rim Trail Guide Alistair Oakman leads the group up the final gentle pitch towards Spicer’s Canopy Eco Lodge, beneath the twin summits of Mt Mitchell.
Oakman loads us into a van and we drive from our meeting point in Cumber to the start of the hike at Cunningham’s Gap, inside Main Range National Park. The summit trail to Mt Mitchell commences across the highway from the carpark and as we huddle together beside the van Oakman warns us to be careful when crossing the busy highway.
“It’s the most dangerous part of the hike,” he jokes.
There’s a chill in the air as our nine-strong hiking group – including two guides – commences the climb towards the summit. Overnight temperatures dipped close to freezing a week earlier and it’s still cool now, despite the clear skies and bright sunshine overhead.
Oakman leads from the front, pausing often inside the first kilometre to pass on tidbits of information about our surroundings. He bends to pick up seedpods resembling exploded grenade casings, telling us in his rubber-faced style that they belong to native teak trees, or crows ash. And he points out indigenous varieties of ginger and grape vine, and sarsaparilla, raspberry and mint.
At one stage he stops beside a hoop pine. It’s a good 40m high and he says that specimens like this one have been around for hundreds of years. “They’re distant relatives of Wollemi pines – one of our oldest trees. I reckon they give you a pretty good insight into what the world might have looked like when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”
The track to the summit of Mt Mitchell forms part of the Scenic Rim Trail, a member of the Great Walks of Australia.
More than 1000 plant species are found inside the national park, and our self-effacing guide estimates that he’d only know around 200 of them. Throughout the next three days, I reckon he picks out almost every one of those, reciting their common and scientific names, their uses and their genealogical history. He’s a walking, talking encyclopaedia.
Too often I’ll set off on a hike and pay little attention to the finer details of my surroundings, so I appreciate Oakman’s insights. I have a tendency to focus on the trail ahead of me instead of looking around or up. As a result, I tend to miss the micro stuff. This way I’m forced to, and it isn’t long before I find myself asking Oakman what certain things are before he’s had a chance to tell me about them. I’m learning as I go. And in doing so, I’m making an emotional connection to the area – even if I don’t realise it until later.
Part of the reason for Oakman stopping so often in this early part of the trek is to allow us time to catch our breath. I always find the first uphill hike the hardest; it’s when my breathing is at its most laboured, before my lungs and legs have had a chance to find their rhythm. I tend to stop more then.
But Oakman is also using these stops as opportunities to assess his clientele. By observing us and seeing how red-faced we are or how quickly we recover, he can set a pace accordingly. Years of experience in leading hikes around the Kimberley region and on Kangaroo Island, as well as across the Bamurru Plains area in the Northern Territory, have taught him that much. And he seems to know his stuff. Even his guiding colleague, Reece Barker, has brought a notebook to jot down interesting pointers he overhears along the way.
The higher we climb, the more the din from the highway recedes. Oakman pauses beside strangler figs whose seeds germinate as bird droppings on higher branches then grow downwards, towards the ground, slowly suffocating their host. Epiphytes and orchids sprout from the trunks of larger trees.
He also warns us about the heart-shaped leaves of the giant stinging nettle. “They irritate 10 times more than ordinary stinging nettles. People have been known to reach for them when nature calls.”
He pauses. “I’d advise against that,” he warns, sternly. The term ‘ring of fire’ springs to mind.
Birds aplenty hide in this richly tangled rainforest, and there are all sorts of unsavoury critters about. Oakman crouches down low, signalling towards the nests of tube spiders and the tousled snares of basket weaving spiders beside the track. Cleverly concealed beneath a mossy lid nearby is the entrance to a trapdoor spider’s lair that we’d never have found on our own.
In the distance, we hear the calls of Albert’s lyrebirds. A plump yellow robin clings to a tree trunk. And crested whipbirds, and bell minors that have caused motorists on the highway to pull over in the mistaken belief that their brakes are squealing, are constant companions – heard, but unseen.
After two hours of hiking up and around the double-humped Mt Mitchell, we reach its East Peak summit. A savage wind whips across a precipitous ridge that ends abruptly, affording uninterrupted views over the Fassifern Valley and Spicers Gap – so named by explorer and botanist, Allan Cunningham, when he passed through here almost 200 years ago.
Cunningham discovered this route when he camped atop Cedar Mountain – the endpoint of our trek – in 1827. By finding a way through the ranges, pastoralists were accorded access to the fertile Darling Downs region. Coincidently, we’ve timed our hike with the 188th anniversary of that stay.
“The digs weren’t quite as flash as the ones that are there today,” Oakman opines, referring to Spicers Peak Lodge, the first of seven luxury lodgings built or purchased by Flight Centre founder and managing director, Graham ‘Scroo’ Turner, and his wife, Jude. It’s where we’ll bed down on our last night, after we’ve completed the 36km-long Scenic Rim Trail. But first, we’ll spend two nights in Spicer’s Canopy Eco Lodge, a tented camp purpose-built as a base for hikers in 2014. With the exception of the occasional intimate conference gathering, it’s otherwise off limits to interlopers.
The hike back off the summit of Mt Mitchell exits the national park halfway down. At this point we enter Spicers Peak Station, a 3000ha mixed-use property that’s two-thirds nature refuge and one-third pastoral. Gone now are the lush rain forest surrounds we’ve been walking through. From hereon in, it’s all eucalypts, she-oaks and towering grass trees, with kangaroo grasses and fallen tree limbs brushing up against our legs. Sure enough, I’m soon starting to question my decision to ignore Oakman’s wardrobe advice. Branches and needles scar my bare skin and hundreds of grass seeds cling to my socks.
On the positive side, native wildlife sightings become more prominent. Glossy black cockatoos fly overhead and pretty-faced wallabies bound away from our path. Oakman suggests we also keep an eye out for koalas.
“We haven’t seen them for a few weeks, but they do live around this area,” he assures us.
Our ridge track slopes down to the inky waters of Millar Vale Creek, where we hike along flat ground until it joins the purer Oakey Creek. The track deviates along the banks of this watercourse until it eventually branches off and climbs a rise to the Canopy Eco Lodge. There, 10 tastefully appointed safari-style tents are spread across a clearing offering unbroken views of Mt Mitchell’s twin peaks and the pyramidal Mt Cordeaux.
Husband and wife management team, Josh and Rebecca Humphryis, are waiting there for us and they’re quick to offer cold drinks with delicious, freshly baked scones. The feast continues later that evening when we all sit down around a table inside the Canopy shelter for a hearty roast dinner. It’s accompanied by a selection of local Granite Belt wines, with chocolate cake for dessert.
Over dinner, Oakman outlines our plans for the next 24 hours and suggests that if any of us were inclined to skip a day’s hiking, then this would be the time to do it. It’s the laziest day on the program – a mere 6.5km of hiking, following a route that’s more educational than active. But we enjoy it nonetheless. And I find hiking in long trousers to be far less abrasive this time.
After another night of sumptuous dining and peaceful slumbers, we’re ready to tackle the beast – a steep, 13.5km hike up a slender ridgeline to the top of Spicers Peak. Without a doubt this part of the itinerary is the highlight of the Scenic Rim Trail, and by the end of it I’ve declared it one of the best days’ hiking I’ve ever done.
The vegetation and topography are ever changing, all the way up to the 1200m summit. Some 10 different ecosystems coexist on the property, and most of them are on display getting to Cedar Mountain. One minute we’re hiking through cottonhead bushes beside Oakey Creek and the next we’re climbing a fire track through dry eucalypts. Soon that changes to a goat track weaving between flowering banksias and salmon-trunked brush boxes. Then we reach a patch of grass trees that are perched on the edge of an escarpment plunging straight down towards Spicers Gap. It’s a magnificent spot to rest and take in the views.
The vegetation condenses more and more the higher we climb. After scrambling up a rock face known as the Get Up, it’s tangled buttress roots, twisted limbs and fluorescent rainforest ferns all the way to the summit. Then just as quick, we’re out of the rainforest and entering a dry eucalyptus forest on the saddle connecting Spicers Peak with Cedar Mountain. The change is as sudden as if we’ve walked from one room to another.
Only a last little obstacle stands in our way now and that comes in the form of what Oakman calls a “ski jump” to the top. At the end of that climb is our pot of gold – Spicers Peak Lodge. There, we’ll find hot tubs and five-course degustation meals, open fires and opulent surroundings. I just hope the dress code is malleable.
*Mark Daffey hiked the Scenic Rim Trail courtesy of Spicers Retreats.