If social distancing is truly the new luxury, a 61 kilometre guided walk through rainforest along the edge of a volcano might just be the epitome of extravagance. There's a catch, of course: that 61 kilometre walk part.
What's more, the dictionary explains that a walk is "done on flat, hard and level surfaces". This walk, however, scales kilometre-high mountain ranges, plunges into valleys, and heads right back out again. There's nothing remotely flat, hard or level about that. Hiking, the dictionary warns me, is what this is called.
But where might be better to ease ourselves back into travel than in an empty forest, on a guided trail?
Spicers' new five-day Scenic Rim trail is Queensland's first contribution to the Great Walks of Australia collection. The trail will take us through terrain previously only seen by Indigenous Australians and early cedar cutters. Spicers' owners, Graham and Jude Turner, have the Peak Lodge and Hidden Vale properties which are an hour's drive apart (and about 75 minutes west of Brisbane). It's been their 20-year dream to connect the properties along a hiking trail. It has been cut through private land bought to create nature refuges alongside Main Range National Park which surrounds one of Australia's World Heritage-Listed Gondwana rainforests. This walk - one of the largest ecotourism ventures ever attempted in Queensland - creates a wildlife corridor for almost 500 endemic animal species and over 250 bird species, while retracing the movements of three local Aboriginal clans.
We won't be camping, mind you. Luggage is delivered by all terrain vehicles that navigate fire trails through the forest, meals are prepared by a chef, beds come king-sized, toilets flush, showers are hot and there's enough cheese to compensate the calories the hiking robs from our bodies.
DAYS ONE & TWO – 10 KILOMETRES
Day one barely dirtied my pretty new hiking shoes. The walk was an easy introduction, spotting koalas high in the trunks of eucalypts before sundowners at the 5000-hectare cattle station, Hidden Vale. Dinner is beef brisket cooked over a fire, with smoked cheddar. The task to contemplate for day two involves an extinct volcano. Around 23 million years ago, the Main Range shield volcano erupted, creating part of south-east Queensland's Scenic Rim. In the years since, rainwater has eroded steep cliff lines on the volcano's eastern edge. That's what we'll be walking up, on brand-new switchback trails cut through forest.
There's 550 metres of elevation to scale in seven kilometres; finishing with a clamber up a 40-metre ladder, secured by harness. At the top, we are seated for lunch at the edge of a cliff staring down on the valley from which we rose. Towns down there aren't well known. Settled from the mid-1800s, they're tiny communities founded on farming, separated by mountain ranges. We may be only an hour from Brisbane, but few there know this part of the neighbourhood. There's 40 peaks around me. This is Queensland's take on Montana's Big Sky country. And who knew?
The surrounding sclerophyll forest turns to farmland as we make our way to Mount Mistake Farmhouse, a six-bedroom cottage built at the edge of the volcano. A host hands me a hot towel; maybe this is a walk, after all.
DAY THREE – 18 KILOMETRES
Could there be a better seat for sunrise on the east coast than this; perched on the edge of a crater, 100 metres from the farmhouse? A wedge-tailed eagle circles the sky. The last stars are fading fast, daylight illuminates the fissures of crater walls below and the green gaps in foliage on the steep walls where timber cutters rolled red cedar trunks to the valley below.
Today will be our longest hike. But we'll follow century-old logging trails some of the way through Main Range National Park, so the flattish pathway offers a reprieve from yesterday's scramble. We shift into the Gondwana rainforest now, the remnants of ancient forest which covered the supercontinent, Gondwanaland, 150 million years old. There are mosses, liverworts, ferns and hoop pines which can be traced back to that era. Endangered Albert's Lyrebird (only 7000 remain) sing loud from the trees; during breeding season males call constantly, their cries range from baritone lullabies to shrieks. We separate to concentrate on the sounds of the forest, and the scent of the trees and the way the sunlight plays out through them. Our guide calls this shinrin-yoku – forest bathing.
When we shift onto single trail cut through nature refuge, the foliage gets thicker, until we reach the edge of an escarpment facing west. The trail's cut close to the abyss, looking down across valleys of rainforest. Seven sleeping pods are built like treehouses by the edge, connected by a raised walking platform to a dining room warmed by open fire, positioned for the sunset. On my way back to my pod after dinner, I'm delayed by the stars: gleaming planets shine down, auroras of tiny star grains twinkle. Despite the chill at this elevation (1100 metres), I sleep with my door open to the park.
DAY FOUR – 16 KILOMETRES
I have a hit of Wi-Fi with my eggs: COVID-19 spikes in Melbourne… the US has 55,000 cases a day. The virus hasn't felt this far away in four months. Twelve of us (including guides and hosts) – travel in a bubble that smells of leaf litter and wet soil. We haven't seen another human since we clocked out of Hidden Vale. This morning's climb strains my hamstrings, but we level out and take morning tea on a narrow cliff edge, both sides dropping hundreds of metres to Fassifern Valley below.
We pass through palm forest into the crevice of a valley split by a stream. I lie on cool volcanic rocks and stare up at hoop pines, their trunks covered in birds' nest ferns and orchids. The sky is barely visible through canopy and sunlight is filtered so I don't need sunscreen. Timber cutters stripped parts of these forests, using bullock teams to drag out their precious bounty. But pockets of rainforest like this escaped and exist as they have for hundreds of millions of years.
A waterfall rushes past as we climb towards a second set of eco cabins. I forgo an hour of wine and cheese time to raise the louvre door in my pod and stare across another empty valley.
DAY FIVE – 16 KILOMETRES
It's the last day of hiking (tonight we'll stay in Hidden Peaks Cabins off these mountains) and I sense the mood changing. The paediatrician thinks about the kids she treats now on Zoom calls, the restaurateur wonders if he'll ever turn a profit offering four-square-metres per diner. No one wants their holiday to end. But it's more pronounced in these times of COVID. The places that used to scare us now offer total escape.
Our target for lunch is Mount Cordeaux. For thousands of years, Indigenous clans used these high peaks to send smoke signals to other clans to gather. The most important gathering was the Bunya Nut celebration. For three months every three years, thousands of Aboriginals gathered for corroborees, food sharing, trading and marriages – traipsing across these forests to get together. The last known mass gathering happened in 1902. The advance of Europeans changed all that, of course, but up here, in these quietest moments, it's not hard to picture the pilgrimage.
Now we're descending. My quads are brakes, and my brakes are burning. But I'm distracted by the views, there's seven kilometres of trail here along open ridgeline which allows me to see the vastness of the Scenic Rim. Below is one of the major vegetable growing regions of south-east Queensland. Drop-offs are dramatic on both sides; I'm struggling to keep up with the group as I vacillate between watching where my boots go and just staring at the view.
But even with this grandeur, I feel the spell breaking. People – no more than a handful – pass us on the path. Their presence feels like a trespass. It's been five days since I saw anyone beyond our group. And below I can hear big rigs changing gears to counter Cunningham's Gap, the major transport route between the coast and the Darling Downs.
At least we have one more night. We're escorted to a set of six wooden cabins with a dining room built beside an outside fire pit, and a view back to the ranges we've traversed from north to south.
An outsider – a chef – is here for dinner, but otherwise it's just our little pod of forest hikers – or walkers – hiding out for one more night from a world we sometimes barely recognise.
Fly to Brisbane, then drive an hour to Spicers Hidden Peaks Cabins. Spicers also offer return transfers from Brisbane airport or their Brisbane property, Spicers Balfour, for $150 per person.
Spicers Five Day Scenic Rim walks depart every Sunday for $3190 per person, twin share (all inclusive), see spicersretreats.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Spicers Retreats
Scott Roberts, guide leader on the Spicers Scenic Rim Trail has these five tips for prospective walkers...
Buy new shoes well before you hike in them so they soften to your feet.
Training should start when you first think of the idea to go for the hike. Leave the car at home, walk to the coffee shop.
Tighten the waist strap first on your backpack to allow weight to be borne by your hips, not your shoulders and back.
Do 10 minute of stretching before and after hiking each day.
Always pack a lightweight waterproof/windproof jacket and a fleece.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE AND DO
At Spicers Hidden Vale, try Australia's largest privately-owned mountain bike park, take a koala safari, tour the wildlife centre or dine at hatted restaurant, Homage.
Boonah is the the biggest town in the area and is full of lively cafes, breweries, arts and crafts, weekly markets and lavender farms.
Hot air ballooning with Floating Images involves a flight floating over the Scenic Rim, with views all the way to Brisbane.
At Peaks Lodge, Spicers' signature luxury property, there are wildlife tours, mountain biking, hiking, a day spa and one of regional Australia's best restaurants.
This part of the Scenic Rim is Australia's most under-rated wine region. Taste varieties rare in Australia and sleep at cabins within the vines at estates like Bunjurgen and Kooroomba.