A magical history tour of Queensland’s earliest national parks
Issued: 6 Feb 2020

South-East Queensland is the cradle of Queensland National Parks. So let’s take a tour of 4 of our earliest parks to learn the fascinating stories behind their creation and find out how to best enjoy them today.

Photo credit: Nick Hill © Queensland Government

South-East Queensland is the cradle of Queensland National Parks. So let’s take a tour of 4 of our earliest parks to learn the fascinating stories behind their creation and find out how to best enjoy them today.

Set the scene

An old sepia photo of person with dog standing in shallow creek surrounded by forest.View of landscape on Tamborine Mountain, 1879 | State Library of Queensland

Step back to the early-1800s. First Nations peoples have a close relationship with their traditional land—a relationship that has lasted at least 65,000 years—based on respect. Land sustains people and people sustain the land through culture and ceremony.

It’s now mid-1800s and European settlers have arrived. They see the land and its resources very differently… as they spread out across the country, they harvest timber and clear the land for grazing and farming.

While economic development is the settlers’ mantra, some are becoming concerned about changes to the landscape.

The world’s first national park, Yellowstone in the USA, is declared in 1872, ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ and where all ‘timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders’ would be kept ‘in their natural condition.’

Inspired by Yellowstone, pastoralist and parliamentarian Robert Collins begins his 30-year campaign to establish national parks legislation in Queensland.

The scene is set for the creation of our first national parks!

Witches Falls, Tamborine National Park

Old sepia image of waterfall surrounded by rainforest with two men standing and sitting nearby.Waterfall in Tamborine Mountain, 1879 | State Library of Queensland

The first stop in your magical history tour is Tamborine National Park.

Just south of Brisbane, Tamborine Mountain is the northernmost remnant of the ancient Mount Warning volcano. Tamborine is part of the traditional lands of the Danggan Balun people who relied on its rainforest and eucalypt forest for food and materials.

In 1875, the mountain was ‘opened’ to European settlers, who began clearing the land for timber and grazing.

An old sepia image of sawn-off tree stumps, fallen logs and foliage on a hillslope fringed by forest.Mount Tamborine, 1911 | State Library of Queensland

Alarm at the rate of forest clearing on Tamborine Mountain led to the declaration, in March 1908, of Queensland’s first (albeit small) national park—131 hectares at Witches Falls.

Old black and white image of people sitting on a rockface and around the rock pool underneath a waterfall surrounded by rainforest.Cedar Creek Falls, Tamborine Mountain, 1917 | State Library of Queensland

Early visitors, like visitors today, enjoyed the park as a chance to experience nature and admire beautiful scenery. Witches Falls, together with other sections of forest on the mountain, is now part of Tamborine National Park.

Danggan Balun people still walk the land of their ancestors, telling stories and reminding visitors that this land has a shared heritage.

Two people sit on a rock with a rockpool and waterfall in the background.Cedar Creek Falls, Tamborine National Park, 2017 | Bluedog Photography © Queensland Government

Visit this very first national park to explore the 3.6km Witches Falls circuit. Meander through open banksia forest, rainforest with giant strangler figs and piccabeen palm groves before reaching Witches Falls (which only flow after recent rain). Extend your walk by branching onto the 2.6km Witches Chase track to gaze at large red cedars and eucalypts.

A track leads through a forest of tall slender palm trunks with light green foliage above.Witches Falls track, Tamborine National Park | © Jess Rosewell

Here’s a question to ponder as you walk—what is it about this place that led people to first recognise the need to preserve our native plants and animals against economic development? Is it the outstanding beauty of subtropical rainforest, the majesty of huge red cedars and strangler figs or the sense of peace that nature offers?

Bunya Mountains National Park

Old black and white image of three distinctive bunya pines emerging above forest canopy.Bunya pines, Bunya Mountains, 1920 | State Library of Queensland

Our second national park followed hot on the heels of the first—Bunya Mountains National Park was declared just a few months later in July 1908.

Three people pose on a huge sawn log of a bunya pine.Large bunya pine log cut from Bunya Mountains in 1927 | State Library of Queensland

The Bunya Mountains—and bunya pines—hold great significance for First Nations peoples. For countless generations, First Nations peoples from far and wide gathered at the Bunyas for ‘festivals’, coinciding with bunya nut season.

Then, around the mid-1800s, European settlers moved into the region and began logging—firstly for red cedar and then for bunya and hoop pines. It took 20 years of lobbying against timber and grazing interests to set aside 9,000 hectares on the mountain for a national park.

Meanwhile, settlers had begun visiting the Bunyas for relaxation and beautiful scenery, just as we do today…

Old black and white image of man walking on track through bunya pines.Man on bullock wagon track in the Bunya Mountains, 1920 | State Library of Queensland

Despite being declared as a national park, timber continued to be harvested in the Bunyas until 1917. Then, a new era (of conservation and tourism) dawned in 1939 with the construction of the first walking tracks in Bunya Mountains National Park.

First Nations peoples have a strong enduring cultural connection with the Bunyas, through trading, family, songs and stories—and they assist with the management of the national park.

A walking track fringed by low ferns and tall fig trees. Bunya Mountains National Park | Maxime Coquard © Tourism and Events Queensland

Today, you can visit the Bunyas and follow in the footsteps of early nature-lovers. Relax in the cool mountain air, gaze up at towering ancient bunya pines and learn about the cultural importance of the Bunyas.

An old black and white image of a grassy area with a background of a bunya pine tree covered ridge.Grassy ‘bald’ and pine-clad ridge, Bunya Mountains 1920 | State Library of Queensland

Discover patches of grassland known as ‘balds’, explore delightful rock pools and waterfalls, and marvel at spectacular mountain views from several lookouts.

Sunset view from ridge over mountains and valleys clad in forest and bathed in golden light and purple hues.View from Bunya Mountains | © Tourism and Events Queensland

Feel gratitude towards those early visionaries who believed, back in 1908, that ‘it would be a disgrace to allow this beautiful spot to be alienated or otherwise lost to the public'.

Cunninghams Gap, Main Range National Park

Old black and white image of tall rounded peaks of Great Dividing Range clad in forest.Cunninghams Gap, 1950 | State Library of Queensland

In 1828, European explorer Alan Cunningham ‘found’ a gap in the Great Dividing Range—already known of course to First Nations peoples, who lived in the area and felt a strong connection with the forests, steams and landforms, long before European settlers found ways to cross the ranges…

Old black and white photo of man loading huge logs onto old truck with bullock team in background.Loading timber at Cunninghams Gap, 1935 | State Library of Queensland

Cunninghams Gap seemed to offer a transport route between Moreton Bay and the ‘newly-discovered’ Darling Downs. It soon proved too steep for bullock wagons and an alternative route was found.

Timber-getters followed in the explorers’ wake and began harvesting the extensive forests of the ranges. By the early 1900s, they had depleted red cedar and turned to other timbers.

Old black and white image of waterfall flowing into rock pool surrounded by rainforest. Cunninghams Gap Creek Falls, 1897 | State Library of Queensland

Locals lobbied to protect Cunninghams Gap from this heavy logging, and the national park was declared in July 1909.

Man leans against rock face on walking track with distant peaks in background. Cunninghams Gap view, 1940 | State Library of Queensland

Walking tracks were built in the park from the late 1930s, and later, other parks were reserved along Main Range. In 1980, they were amalgamated to form Main Range National Park.

Woman walks on walking track beside rock face on one side and cliff edge on the other, with trees and fog in the background. Mount Mitchell track, Cunninghams Gap, Main Range National Park | © Mike Petty

Visit Cunninghams Gap section, Main Range National Park, today to pay silent homage to those who fought for its protection, and the First Nations peoples who have cared for this country for countless generations.

Take an easy stroll on the 1.6km Rainforest circuit to gaze over extensive views of volcanic peaks, the Fassifern Valley and Lake Moogerah.

A leaf-covered rainforest walking track fringed by moss-clad tree roots and ferns.Palm Grove circuit, Main Range National Park | Maxime Coquard © Queensland Government

To truly immerse yourself in this breathtaking landscape, take your pick of longer hikes such as the 9.8km return Gap Creek Falls track (best after rain when the falls are flowing) or the 6.8km return Mount Cordeaux track to the mountain’s exposed upper slopes (not for the faint-hearted!).

Extensive view over forest ridges and valleys from high vantage point.View from Mount Cordeaux track, Main Range National Park | © Sarah Haskmann

By 1910, Queensland had 7 national parks—most of them close to Brisbane. They became popular places of recreation for harried city-dwellers!

Lamington National Park

Old black and white photo of a man posing in front of huge beech tree trunks.Antarctic beech trees, Lamington National Park, 1909–1915 | State Library of Queensland

Five years later saw the declaration of Queensland’s most significant early park, Lamington National Park, in 1915.

The McPherson Ranges, on the New South Wales–Queensland border, are home to the Danggan Balun people—they view the mountains as sacred and spiritual, places to be nurtured and respected.

Old black and white image of a man standing on an overgrown track dwarfed by very tall trees.Old cedar logging track, Lamington National Park 1909–1915 | State Library of Queensland

European explorers arrived in the area in the mid-1800s and timber-getters soon followed, on their relentless quest for red cedar.

By the 1870s, battle lines were drawn between land clearers (for timber and farming) and people who believed forests should be preserved. Pastoralist Robert Collins, inspired by the ideal of Yellowstone, began to campaign to conserve the McPherson Ranges and their grand forests.

Old black and white image of people standing at the base of a huge waterfall surrounded by very tall forest.Waterfall, Lamington National Park, 1909–1915 | State Library of Queensland

By the 1900s, with timber all but gone from the surrounding area, the fight to preserve the precious remnants of the McPherson Ranges forests intensified. Collins (who died before the park was declared) was joined in the struggle by Romeo Lahey (from a local saw-milling family). He was determined to have these places kept for ‘people who would love them, but who did not even dream of their existence.’

A person sits on a rock as water cascades down a rocky creek surrounded by lush rainforest.Lamington National Park | © Tourism and Events Queensland

Today, in World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park, you can explore this wondrous ancient forest, carved by clear-flowing creeks and cascading waterfalls, on an extensive network of walking tracks, ranging from short strolls to full day hikes.

One visit is not enough—each time you visit is a different experience. The challenge is deciding where to start!

Discover ancient hoop pines and Antarctic beech forests, gaze at breathtaking views over forested ranges and valleys, spot elusive wildlife and colourful birds, discover dramatic waterfalls and picnic in peaceful forest surrounds… the list goes on…

A couple stands on a walking track gazing up at a huge old moss-shrouded tree, surrounded by lush forest.Green Mountains, Lamington National Park | Lightcapturer © Queensland Government

Whatever you do when you visit, find out more about the Danggan Balun people who belong to this land—starting with a visit to the Binna Burra Information Centre.

And be sure to cast a silent vote of thanks to the far-sighted passionate dreamers who fought to preserve this special place for the future.

Ninety years on

Old black and white image of family of 8 sitting on the ground in a forest around a picnic spread, wearing clothing of the period.Family picnic at Tamborine Mountain 1910-1920 | State Library of Queensland

Romeo Lahey was not finished! In 1930, he and Arthur Groom set up the National Parks Association of Queensland to continue lobbying for the protection and preservation of national parks.

Over the past 90 years, people have increasingly valued parks for their recreational possibilities—picnics, walking, rock climbing, bird watching and camping.

If the ‘harried city-dwellers’ of the early 1900s needed a ‘nature escape’, it is even more important for us today, with our increasingly urban and digitally-connected lifestyles. We now recognise the health and well-being benefits of spending time in nature.

We have also come to realise the importance of protecting parks for natural values—since the 1970s, parks have been protected for biodiversity. Today parks are managed in partnership with First Nations peoples for the protection of both natural and cultural values.

All aboard!

‘Roll up, that’s an invitation, roll up for the magical history tour that’s waiting to take you away…’

We hope you’ve been inspired to take a tour of our earliest parks—they’ve got everything you need, satisfaction guaranteed!

Find out more about the National Parks Association of Queensland.