If these gums could talk

Jo Hegerty straps on her hiking boots and walks with the ghosts of bullockies and pioneers.

Spicers Gap Road looks more like an overgrown fire trail than a major trade route. Grand old gums and she oaks line the incline and the flora formerly known as blackboys protrude from the undergrowth like comic sentinels. David Stent gathers his charges close and brushes aside some dirt with a worn hiking boot to reveal the stones beneath. They're not just any old rocks - they're cobblestones.

David sets the scene: it's the 1850s and Spicers Gap Road is a main link for supplies. Bullock teams haul drays laden with supplies to the settlers on the Darling Downs in south-east Queensland, then return to the coast weeks later, carrying wool ready to be loaded on to ships at Moreton Bay.

Other bullock teams negotiate the road's tricky descent, hauling loads of timber destined for the penal colony; some of the larger wagons drag a small tree behind to act as a brake.

A few inns and hotels are dotted along the road, stopping points to help break up the journey, and there's the relentless "chip, chip, chip" of workers smashing boulders to use to maintain the road.

Now that's hard work, I think, as David uses the pause to examine our packs and make sure we're carrying them correctly.

Just minutes earlier, we set out from Governor's Chair, a rock jutting into the void at the edge of the Great Dividing Range. Between us and the distant wink on the horizon that is Brisbane, the landscape is largely unchanged from those days of bullockies and pioneers. Queensland's first governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen, stood on that rock and described "an incomparable panorama". Indeed, it is all that: covered in woolly scrub and punctuated by sudden mountains, the land gradually levelling to the mudflats of the east.

For the next two days, we'll walk in the footsteps of the pioneers who made sense of this insane land. We're five women: myself and a group of four from the bayside Brisbane suburb of Manly. These women are preparing for a longer hike in New Zealand and don't have a lot of experience walking; however, we couldn't be in better hands. With his business partner Graham Hickson, a local farmer, David set up Hidden Peaks Walks and is a passionate and experienced bushwalker, with resonant humour and a mental library of information covering birds and trees, colonial history and great walks of the world.

After an hour's easy trek, we leave henind Main Range National Park and Spicers Gap Road and enter more than 3000 hectares of private property David knows better than his own two feet. This area is now both a nature refuge and a cattle station; as we walk along Millarvale Creek, David explains how the two seemingly contradictory concepts can co-exist.

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This whole area has taken a beating since the explorer and botanist Allan Cunningham discovered a passage from the Darling Downs to Moreton Bay in 1828. First, the timber getters cleared the forest of red cedar, white beech and rosewood, plus all but the highest lying specimens of hoop pine, or Araucaria cunninghamii, named after the explorer. When valuable, often centuries-old, trees were found, they were cut down first and only then did they debate how to get them out of the forest. If it was an impossible task, the trees were left to rot.

Next came land clearing for cattle and industrial farming. Our walk today takes us through a petrified forest where the victims of fairly recent ringbarking stand as dry as matches and as white as ghosts. Later, we pause at a disused cattle dip, which is a covered trench close to the creek that was once filled with diluted arsenic to treat the herd for ticks. It's amazing to think the idea this might poison the earth and waterway is so very new.

With this many hectares to play with, there's no need for us to see these scars of the past but David has included them on the route because he wants us to consider how attitudes have changed in just 30 or 40 years.

"Imagine how they will have changed again a few decades into the future," he says. "We can only hope it continues to be for the better."

A little further on, brimming with enthusiasm for what lies ahead, he stops and tells us that the next part of the walk is something he and Graham feel strongly about. Spreading out along the track, we're to walk this next section alone and experience the bush in silence. We're by the creek again.

It's a particularly beautiful stretch alongside a squat, lumpy cliff face, rich with fallen trees and foliage. I wait until the last walker is out of sight, then step on to the slippery stones to cross the creek. The track is shaded and a chill comes off the shallow water. Above, I can hear bellbirds and, from below, my footsteps cracking a twig or some dry leaves; I wouldn't make a good hunter. I can smell the richness of the soil and the freshness of the water.

When we regroup, there's no need to discuss our individual experiences, we just smile and carry on, soon to be rewarded by our first glimpse of Spicers Canopy in the midst of frost-burnt paddocks. This is the fanciest campsite I've laid eyes on, with beautifully furnished canvas dwellings - I can't call them tents - on hardwood platforms. The lodge, where we will eat and drink before the enormous fireplace, is based on luxury New Zealand trekking lodges. But for all the care and attention that has gone into our camp for the night, it's the 360-degree view that is most astounding.

The campsite is overlooked by a crowded ring of basalt ranges and, in front of us, slung low like the bridge between a camel's humps, is Cunningham's Gap. It was through there the explorer connected the fertile planes beyond the Great Dividing Range to what would become Brisbane.

The sound of a popping cork brings us all to the lodge deck, where we heave off our not-heavy packs and sink into leather chairs. Hot showers await and it's a relief to slip into more comfortable footwear and sit by the fire with a book from the lodge's library.

It's a warm and convivial evening as our guides fuss over us and serve a delicious three-course meal. Night-time is surprisingly cold - yes, Queensland has a winter - but there's no denying it's beautiful one day, perfect the next, as we set out for our hike up, up, up to Spicers Peak Lodge.

Yesterday was a walk in the park compared with today's climb and we skirt along ridges, occasionally encountering a confused Brangus cow.

The higher we get, the more spectacular the view and we can see the course of our walk - the campsite a speck far below.

In the middle of the afternoon, we scrabble up a hill to what Graham swears is the final peak and are relieved to discover we will go around rather than over this one.

A path has been carved along the side of the mountain and, once again, we're asked to spread out and enjoy the serenity.

It's a much longer "spirit walk" than yesterday's and I amble along the track marvelling at both the skills of the earth-moving machine driver who created the path and the dense rainforest dripping with ferns, lichen, grass trees and rotting logs.

Today's hike has been more serious but certainly very rewarding - and we haven't even reached the lodge yet, which is a five-star hotel set in a clearing where an outdoor hot spa, bar and seven-course dinner await.

Even without the luxuries to come, it's been a magnificent walk. As the sun sets over what Cunningham described as a "stupendous chain of mountains", I think about the pioneers and am truly grateful that tomorrow, after our morning walk, we'll be travelling back to Brisbane by bus - along the Cunningham Highway, no less.

The writer was a guest of Hidden Peaks Walks.

TRIP NOTES

WALKING THERE

Hidden Peaks Walks has three- and four-day versions of the Spicers Private Walk. The three-day walk, priced from $1550 twin share, includes guided walking (between four and six hours a day), one night's accommodation at Spicers Canopy and one night at Peppers Spicers Lodge. The package includes all drinks, snacks, meals and a seven-course degustation dinner at the lodge. Four-day walks cost $1800, twin share. Both types of walks include Brisbane transfers. Friday and Monday departures take place from now until November.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Phone 1300 773 425, see hiddenpeaks.com.au.

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