Nature, culture and history
The Bunya Mountains were formed about 30 million years ago and are thought to be the remains of an old shield volcano. The lava flows cooled and hardened into basalt, and over millions of years the rock has eroded and weathered to form deep, nutrient-rich, red-brown and black soils.
The deep, moist gullies and varying aspects and altitudes of the Bunya Mountains provide sheltered environments and geographically isolated habitats in which a diverse range of plant and animal communities thrive. A mix of moist rainforest, dry rainforest, grasslands, open forests and woodlands cover the mountains.
The Bunya Mountains are like an island surrounded by plains and cleared farming land. They are a refuge of biodiversity, harbouring ancient species, distinct plant and animal communities and more than 30 rare and threatened species.
Rainforest covers most of the Bunya Mountains, and not just the distinctive subtropical rainforest with bunya pine emergents. At least nine different kinds of rainforest, including dry rainforest, can be found on the mountains and lower slopes.
Bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii) tower over tall, moist rainforest along the range crest. You can recognise the distinctive dome-shaped crowns of bunya pines emerging above the canopy. Under the canopy it is relatively open and ferns carpet much of the forest floor.
On steep, lower slopes, hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii) emerge above dry rainforests and vine thickets. The forest canopy is lower and the understorey is a mass of prickly, small-leaved shrubs and vines.
Drier rainforests and vine thickets cover less elevated areas. Narrow-leaved myrtle (Backhousia angustifolia) is prominent in places, but on the western and northern slopes, where it is drier, rainforests are dominated by narrow-leaved bottletree (Brachychiton rupestris). On some lower western slopes of the park, belah (Casuarina cristata) and brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) occur in open forest, woodland and vine thicket communities. Vast areas of brigalow forests and bottle-tree scrubs have been cleared across southern Queensland and these are now considered to be endangered regional ecosystems.
The Bunya Mountains' rainforests are known for their bird life. Hear the ‘crying baby’ calls of green catbirds, raucous ‘yaas’ of paradise riflebirds and two-part ‘whip-crack’ calls of eastern whipbirds. See flocks of topknot pigeons feeding at fig trees and colourful crimson rosellas inside the rainforest or at its edge. Be scolded by noisy yellow-throated scrubwrens as you walk, stalked by a bold brush turkey or amazed by a satin bowerbird tending to his highly decorated bower.
Shy black-breasted button-quails (considered vulnerable to extinction) live in dense scrub. Dish-shaped scrapes in the dirt are the tell-tale signs that these secretive birds have been searching for food on the forest floor. You sometimes hear the 'walk-to-work' call of noisy pittas or see the piles of land snails' broken shells that pittas leave beside large rocks.
If you shine a torch at night on a rainforest track or in the camping area, you might spy short-eared possums or ringtail possums feeding high up in trees on leaves, fruit and flowers. Yellow-footed antechinus dart about on the ground to pounce on insects and 'bulldoze' leaf litter in search of prey. Keep watch for red-legged pademelons and swamp wallabies bounding through the undergrowth.
One hundred and nineteen native grasslands, known locally as 'balds', are dotted across the Bunya Mountains. The blue grass (Bothriochloa bunyensis), considered vulnerable to extinction, was first discovered in the Bunya Mountains and grows only in the eastern Darling Downs.
Swamp rats, brown quail, red-backed, variegated and superb blue fairy-wrens live in the grasslands, as do other animals that would not survive inside dense forests. The rare skink Lampropholis colossus can be found on the Bunyas balds.
The balds are an endangered regional ecosystem. A quarter of the area of grassland on the Bunya Mountains was invaded by woodland and rainforest between 1951 and 1991. Scientists believe that grasslands covered more of the Bunya Mountains during the last ice age (18,000 years ago) than now, and that the grasslands (which contain temperate plant species preferring cooler, moister climates) are gradually disappearing under forest in response to Australia's warming climate. The rapid invasion of the balds by woody plants could be because regular fire events undertaken as part of past Aboriginal land management no longer occurred during the 1900s.
Regular fire has been re-introduced to the grasslands through experimental burns of varying frequencies and intensities. Researchers, traditional owners and rangers are working together to find the right fire regimes to maintain the open character and species diversity of the balds before they are lost forever.
One step from the closed, dimly lit rainforest brings you into bright, warm sunshine of open eucalypt forests and woodlands. Here fire-adapted flowering plants such as forest red gum (Eucalyptus tereticornis) and thin-leaved stringybark (E. eugenioides) tower over wattles, grasstrees and other shrubs. Wedge-tailed eagles soar overhead, while Burton's legless lizard and the vulnerable collared delma (Delma torquata) hide in the grass. Carpet pythons bask in sunny spots. Koalas, greater gliders, squirrel gliders, sugar gliders and other possums forage at night in the tree tops, while by day, grey fantails, tree-creepers and honeyeaters forage among leaves and flowers.
Tall grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea glauca subsp glauca) grow on Mount Kiangarow. At almost 5m high, they are some of the tallest grasstrees you will ever see and are at least several hundred years old. Grasstrees shoot out tall flower spikes that attract butterflies, bees, other insects and birds such as the tiny eastern spinebills.
A walk through the bunya pine forest takes you back to prehistoric times when ferns, followed by gymnosperms (cone-bearing plants such as conifers), then flowering plants appeared. The Bunyas are now rich in all these plant types.
Conifers, including the ancestors of the bunya pine and hoop pine, replaced ferns as the major vegetation about 200 million years ago. Despite their name, neither are true pines. They belong to the cone-bearing Araucariaceae family, which was once distributed worldwide but is now restricted to Australia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, New Zealand, islands in the Pacific and South America (from where the family gets its name).
Araucarias were a major part of Australia's forests in wetter times. Today bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii) are mainly found between Gympie and the Bunya Mountains, with a small population in the wet tropics of northern Queensland giving a hint to their past distribution. Bunya Mountains National Park protects the largest stand of bunya pines in the world today.
Hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii) are distinguished from bunya pines by their less rounded crowns, smaller leaves and darker, rougher bark, which is shed in a hoop shape.
Hoop pine seeds are light and disperse on the wind with fine, papery wings. In contrast, bunya pines produce large, pineapple-shaped cones with 50–100 edible 'nuts', each surrounded by a thick, fleshy outer-casing. Heavy cones can't travel very far, except if they roll downhill after plummeting to the ground. Hungry short-eared possums, fawn-footed melomys and other animals devour seeds and help spread them away from the mother tree. One can only imagine what kind of dinosaurs feasted on bunya nuts more than 100 million years ago, before marsupials became dominant across Australia.
The revered 'bonye bonye' tree was first officially recorded by a non-Indigenous Australian in the 1830s when collected by Mr Andrew Petrie, the Moreton Bay settlement's Superintendent of Works. It became known to some as Petrie's pine. But the bunya pine's botanical name, Araucaria bidwillii, honours the botanist John Bidwill who sent specimens to Kew Gardens in London.
The loud 'wark' calls of great barred frogs (Mixophes fasciolatus) resonate during summer when their huge tadpoles can be seen in mountain streams. The vulnerable tusked frog (Adelotus brevis) can also be found here, even though this and many other frog species from rainforest streams along the Great Dividing Range, seem to have disappeared without trace.
Chocolate wattled bats (Chalinolobus morio) emerge just after dark from the walls and roof of the old timber school house (now known as the bat house) at Dandabah to feed upon insects on and around the mountains during the warmer months of the year. This is Australia's largest known maternity colony of chocolate wattled bats. About 24 different bat species have been recorded at the Bunya Mountains, including little pied bats (Chalinolobus picatus) and golden-tipped bats (Kerivoula papuensis). Both are considered rare.
At night, owls take to the skies to hunt. Rare sooty owls prefer the dark, damp rainforest while powerful owls (listed as vulnerable) live in open forest and woodlands, snatching greater gliders, sugar gliders and ringtail or brushtail possums and sometimes birds from among the leaves.
Rare grey goshawks are active during the day, swooping upon insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals. Peregrine falcons are magnificent hunters that can be seen darting out from cliffs to seize unsuspecting birds.
The bunya pine is as central to the human story of the mountains as it is to the landform's name.
From December to March, bunya pines drop cones containing edible seeds known as bunya ‘nuts’. Heavy crops normally occur about every three years. For countless generations, large groups of Aboriginal people gathered at the Bunya Mountains to take part in what today are known as the bunya festivals, coinciding with this natural event.
Aboriginal people of the Bunya Mountains and Blackall Ranges (nearer the coast) invited people from as far south as the Clarence River in northern New South Wales, west to the Maranoa River and east to Wide Bay to join the gatherings. For local and visiting groups, the bunya festivals were times for ceremonies, law-making and resolving disputes, renewing friendships, passing on lore, sharing ideas and revitalizing spirituality.
The soft, juicy, young nuts were eaten raw while the mature nuts were roasted. After cracking the outer shells of mature nuts on an open fire, kernels were pounded into meal and roasted into a kind of cake that could be stored for several weeks. Rich nutty meals were the main food. Hunting of wildlife was strictly controlled during the gatherings which could last for several months.
Expansion of European settlements, along with increased logging activity and clearing for grazing and farming, disrupted the large gatherings, making it difficult for visiting Aboriginal groups to travel along their traditional pathways. Aboriginal people left or were removed from their country. The last great festival was held in the late 1800s, but the connections still run deep. Local Aboriginal people and even groups that didn’t attend festivals still have ties with the Bunyas through trading, family, songs and stories.
European settlement spread rapidly across the Darling Downs and South Burnett during the 1840s and 1850s. It wasn't long before timber-getters were drawn to the abundant supply of red cedar and other valuable timber growing in the mountains. Cedar workers were tough and resourceful people, who felled trees and snigged them to sawpits to cut them up. Timber was carted to Dalby and other fledgling townships.
From small sawpits to engine-driven mills, about 25 sawmills are believed to have operated on or around the Bunyas. Each had its own small community of workers and their families.
Initially bunya pines were left unharmed (for Aboriginal people) but soon the cedar stands were depleted. When the Great Bunya Sawmill opened during 1883 in the foothills on the mountains' southern side, the assault on hoop and bunya pines began in earnest.
Timber was hauled out of the forest by bullocks or horses (and later trucks), but getting logs to sawmills in the foothills was a challenge. Carbine's chute (an earthen trench running almost vertically down the mountain) was the first of many chutes down which slippery, wet logs hurtled to the valley below. It can still be reached today after a 1.5km walk from Munros camp in Russell Park.
However, logs sent down the chutes splintered, and the rocks that pounded into the wood damaged saws. When Lars Andersen built a mill at Wengenville in the eastern foothills of the mountain in 1923, he developed an ingenious log transport solution consisting of winches, winders, flying foxes and a 670m long tramway. Logs made the 250m descent undamaged in minutes. However, by 1928 timber prices had crashed, the mill was sold and the tramway dismantled.
Harvestable stands of timber were still available on the mountain top in the 1930s. A mill was operating at Munros Camp and another at Dandabah (known at that time as the Lucerne Patch) opposite where the national park office now stands. The last sawmill on the mountain operated until 1950 and when the mill at Wengenville ceased operation in 1961, nearly 100 years of logging in the Bunyas came to an end.
Even as far back as the 1860s, European settlers were travelling to the Bunyas for the scenery and to relax. During a visit in the 1880s, the Premier of Queensland was shown (by the Superintendent of the Great Bunya Sawmill) visions of a tourist town with accommodation and roads allowing people to experience the mountains and views.
In 1881 a timber reserve was declared over 12,150 hectares. Following more than 20 years of lobbying against powerful timber and grazing interests and numerous visits by inspectors of forests, a 9,112 hectare national park was declared in July 1908. The words of Inspector of Forests GL Board in 1903 reflect widespread sentiment '...it would be a disgrace to allow this beautiful spot to be alienated or otherwise lost to the public'. The Bunya Mountains National Park became Queensland's second national park and first of substantial size.
Despite national park status, and contrary to today's strict legislation, timber from the park continued to be cut and sold until about 1917. By the early 1930s roads had replaced snig tracks to the mountain top. With construction of the first walking tracks in 1939, a new age of conservation and tourism dawned. By the end of the 20th century many private houses had been built for rent on the area surrounding Dandabah.
Additions to the park, including donations by the Stirling family, and conversion of some state forests, have increased its area to 19,600ha.
In 1842, Governor Gipps declared that no licences be granted for logging of lands bearing bunya pines, in recognition of the importance of these plants to Aboriginal people. Long before such laws were written on paper, an ancient system of rules and protocols dictated who could harvest bunya cones.
Bunya pines and their ancestors have outlasted dinosaurs, while many other primitive plant species have been overtaken by more modern, flowering plants. Araucarias have survived a decline from being a widespread feature of Australia's warm and wet environment during Cretaceous and Jurassic times (65–210 million years ago) to become mountain refugees in today's warmer and drier climate. While the bunya pines are protected today from direct human disturbance, it is not known what effects human-induced climate change might have on these prehistoric survivors.
- The Bunya Bunya walking track is closed 29 January 2023 to 29 January 2024