Gondwana rainforests in Queensland, New South Wales show what Australia was like before it existed

Australia is a worn-down continent, rubbed away to hot brown stubs by millions of years of tectonic battering, floods, winds and sun. But here and there in lush green pockets, landscapes of unimaginable age linger on.

We're talking landscapes that were here long before humans. Before birds evolved. Before dinosaurs came crashing through. In fact, landscapes born before Australia itself declared its independence from super-continent Gondwanaland.

You don't need a telescope or geologist's hammer for your peek into the distant past. You can get there within an hour's drive of cities such as Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. Right here on our east coast are some of the world's oldest landscapes, and certainly the world's oldest forests.

The easiest way to get there is to drive 50 minutes from the Gold Coast to Tamborine National Park. You might call this Gondwanaland Lite thanks to all the surrounding cellar doors and fudge shops, plus tourist attractions such as Tamborine Mountain Rainforest Skywalk, which gets you among butterflies drifting like confetti in the tree canopy.

But the rainforest is still serious. The zigzagging Witches Falls track will bring you between stranger figs and waterfalls to a magnificent view, though at the cost of heaving lungs.

South towards the NSW border, glow worms wink from cave ceilings near the Natural Bridge rock formation in Springbrook National Park. But the best Queensland slice of Gondwanaland is in Lamington National Park, whose high plateaux make for comfortably cooler hiking through huge stands of strangler figs and mossy beech trees, all under the watchful gaze of king parrots.

Gondwana rainforest once covered most of the super-continent that began splitting up 500 million years ago to become Australia, India, Africa, Antarctica and South America. Most of the rainforest shrivelled as the new continents drifted.

In Australia, surviving patches – like time capsules of the Earth's early evolution – cling stubbornly to the Great Dividing Range, a remnant of that geologically active era. The rainforest shelters living plants and animals similar to those found in fossil records – plus lots of new species such as upstart mammals. A significant number are threatened or rare.

Gondwana rainforest is now World Heritage listed and scattered across some 40 national parks and other protected areas in south-east Queensland and north-east NSW. In Queensland, you'll also find Gondwana rainforest in Mt Barney National Park and the deeply eroded escarpments and valleys of Main Range National Park, which are both graced with crystal-clear waterholes and giant trees well over 2000 years old.

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Main Range's chief attraction is Queen Mary Falls, whose mist provides a refreshing spritz against the heat. However, in cooler weather, remote hikes for experienced bushwalkers, such as the four-day Scenic Rim Trail, will really get you back into ancient biological history and deep among the tree ferns, palms and figs. Look out for spotted-tailed quolls, many frog species and gorgeously patterned Richmond birdwing butterflies.

In NSW, nearly 30 national parks and reserves preserve Gondwana rainforest. For an easy option, follow Waterfall Way between Coffs Harbour and Armidale and you can admire spectacular trees without getting out of the car as you pass through Dorrigo, New England and three other national parks.

Dorrigo Rainforest Centre has another Skywalk above the canopy and some easy rainforest walks through 40-metre red cedars, tallowwoods and carabeen trees. Less well known is the incredibly rugged Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, whose Wollomombi Falls lookout allows you to gaze over untouched landscapes.

You can also take in several Gondwana national parks on the Hastings Forest Way that heads northwest from Wauchope near Port Macquarie. Carabeen Walk in Werrikimbe National Park provides a good example of the rainforest's diversity in both plant and bird species.

In Willi Willi National Park, the easy 30-minute Palm Grove walk between slender blue-gum trees is lovely, while Botanic Walk showcases Gondwana trees such as green palms, cedar and yellow carabeen. Some of the trees have spectacular cathedral-sized buttresses.

Barrington Tops National Park north of Newcastle is as far south as you'll find old Gondwanaland. Tackle the 4WD and mountain-biking Barrington Trail to really get in amongst it and enjoy the rugged views.

The eight-kilometre Gloucester Tops walk will have you plunging back into geological time, starting in snow gums and sub-alpine woodland and then moving into temperate Antarctic beech forest that shelters ferns, mosses and swamp-loving plants.

These are the same forests that the very first indigenous Australians saw, and that dinosaurs once munched on. There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world, right here on our doorstep.

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