Retreat to rainforest

Cameron Wilson explores Lamington National Park's forests and birdlife along its extensive network of walking tracks.

A dozen hikers are gathered at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park to do the Stinson Walk, a "day hike" through 35 kilometres of rugged mountain terrain that will begin at 5am tomorrow - without me. I am tempted to join them, though, mainly because the Stinson story is enshrined in Queensland bush folklore.

On February 19, 1937, a Stinson aircraft left Brisbane and disappeared in bad weather over the McPherson Ranges en route to Lismore. News travelled slowly then, so a week went by before anyone at O'Reilly's, which sits atop one of the mountain plateaus, heard about the missing plane.

When Bernard O'Reilly heard the news, he sketched out a possible flight path and set off into the rainforest, alone. Two days later O'Reilly, one of three brothers who built the original guesthouse, found the plane and rescued two survivors - 10 days after the crash.

Retracing O'Reilly's steps has become something of a hiker's pilgrimage, but 35 kilometres in this terrain isn't a walk in the park. The wonderful thing about staying at O'Reilly's is that Australia's largest subtropical rainforest is right on the doorstep.

I'm not too far behind the hiking party next morning when I join a short guided walk at 6.45 to meet the early birds: rosellas, bright green-and-red king parrots and glorious black-and-gold regent bowerbirds. Over a hiker's breakfast (fruit and yoghurt, french toast and bacon), I scrutinise the Lamington National Park walking track map. There are 15 trails spanning distances from 400 metres to 32 kilometres. I settle on the 21-kilometre Albert River Circuit, which passes several waterfalls with evocative names such as Gurragungalli Falls and Jimbolongerri Cascades.

Two hundred metres from the guesthouse, I take a detour to a suspended walkway through the treetops, alive with a symphony of twitters, bells, shrieks, hoots and trills. From here it's four kilometres to a turn-off towards Albert River. Fossicking in the leaf litter along the way are scrub wrens, robins, bush turkeys and log-runners, doing just as their name suggests.

As the trail begins its winding descent, I pass stands of Antarctic beech trees, their trunks green with moss. I refill my water bottle at one of the waterfalls, and sit for a while. Anywhere there's a fallen tree, competing plant species are engaged in a race to occupy the new corridor to the sun. Giant strangler figs, monstrous in size and deed, are mercilessly consuming their host trees, even as they themselves are colonised by fungi.

The trail edges for a kilometre or so across the Queensland border, with three lookouts on the edge of an escarpment with views of neighbouring peaks in NSW. In the final two kilometres I slow to an amble. By 5pm, I've returned and am installed on my balcony with a glass of shiraz, with the Lost World valley below.

Later I meet Shane O'Reilly, a third-generation family member in charge of the retreat. We share a crispy garlic pizza, and for dinner I order slow-roasted pork belly with prosciutto-wrapped scallops. Later we shift upstairs to the deck of the Rainforest Room bar, where I watch mist and cloud gather in the valley and creep up to the plateau. Then there's nothing to do but sink into a fireside armchair in the library with a book of short stories - out of touch with the world and never happier. Though 45 luxury villas with the usual telecoms have been added to the property in recent years, 66 rooms at the retreat remain defiantly no frills: no TV, no phone, no Wi-Fi.

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Next day, an hour or so before I have to leave, I take a seat along with 10 others at a birds of prey flight show, the newest bird-watching activity at O'Reilly's. Watching birds such as a brown falcon sit patiently on the arm of bird man Mark Culleton is fascinating, in part because there's nothing to stop them flying away. As Culleton tells it, the only predictable thing about each show is its unpredictability. "Our big wedgie, Bill, has had some trouble recently with a pair of eagles nesting in the area. [It] gets a scream or two from the crowd when they swoop in out of nowhere, and next thing I'm fending them off with my hat. No one's exactly sure whether it's part of the show." And, he adds: "It's not."

We're introduced to a barking owl and Culleton throws scraps to entice it to hop close to us. I learn that owls have ordinary eyesight and hunt at night because it's easier to surprise prey in the dark. "An owl will hear a scurrying mouse long before it sees it," Culleton says. When at last we meet Bill the wedge-tail eagle, Culleton points skyward. "See the two eagles circling way up there? I'll have to keep an eye on them." Bill, however, seems unperturbed.

When I catch up with O'Reilly, he reports the Stinson hiking party returned safe and sound after a 17-hour trek. The 75th anniversary of the Stinson rescue is on February 19, and hikers are lining up to join one of several guided winter walks to the crash site (winter is the best season to walk this terrain). The tale of Bernard O'Reilly's heroics in the McPherson Ranges is in no danger of being forgotten.

Cameron Wilson travelled courtesy of O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

From Brisbane, it's a two-hour drive south to O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park via Canungra.

Staying there

Rooms at O'Reilly's cost from $278 a night. Villas with kitchens, valley-view decks and jacuzzis cost from $400 a night and sleep four people. Packages available include meals, bushwalks, activities and spa treatments. Phone (07) 5502 4911, see oreillys.com.au.

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