Sunshine Coast rainforest: things that go ‘bunya’

Travelling Well | Jeremy Bourke | Posted on 03 December 2018

The trees are alive – and kicking – in the forest behind Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

If you’re lucky and have good eyesight, you’ll spot a bunya cone high in the canopy of the rainforests behind the Sunshine Coast. It looks like a big brown pineapple.

If you’re unlucky, you’ll hear one. It will be the sound of the cone, all 15 kilograms or so, breaking away from the tree, maybe right above where you’re standing.

The bunya pine is the hero tree of south-east Queensland, with a national park dedicated to it south of Kingaroy. The kernel inside tastes like a blend of almond and chestnut, and Indigenous people would travel from all over to gather at massive festivals to feast on them. They’d time these ‘summits’ – disputes would be settled, goods traded, marriages arranged – to coincide with the kernels’ ripening, when the weight of the cone would cause it to fall.

Kondalilla Falls surrounded with green shrubbery

Kondalilla Falls in Kondalilla National Park.

This is usually January to March, so luckily we’ve chosen the safety of a brilliant Queensland winter’s day to take a trek through Blackall Ranges, in the Kondalilla National Park near Montville. And even then, our forest guide Steve Grainger of Tropical Treks knows of no deaths attributed to copping a bunya on your bonce. Our minds at rest, we’re free to absorb other wonderful details about this environment.

For instance, we can’t miss an impressive termite mound abut 150 centimetres high. But what’s not obvious is we’re viewing only about a third of this amazing construction; the real genius is that most of it has been built underground where the sunlight-averse termites’ nest is in a state of constant humidity. It’s also where goannas like to incubate their eggs.

Man walks along street with Bunya pines

Bunya pines.

Wallaby and its joey in the pouch

Wallabies in the Bunya mountains.

Woman standing on bridge among the forest

Bridge in the Bunya Mountains.

Then there’s a small circle of pebbly stuff on the path, arranged in a loose circle. “Interesting bit of faecal matter here,” Steve says. “Because it’s pooed on a rock, it’s probably a quoll.”

None of us fail to see a large green cycad – “the dinosaur plant”, one of our group blurts out. And yes, Steve agrees it’s an old species. And while he can’t tell whether the one we’re inspecting is a male or female, he can confirm one pertinent point: its leaves contain cyanide.

A tiny thing scurrying across the track turns out to be a bush cockroach, important for the forest ecology as it breaks down the soil and is food for the birds. “These sort never go into your house.” The best sort, then.

White car driving on hilly road at low sun

Road up to the Bunya Mountains. 

A lot of early public buildings in south-east Queensland were built with blackbutt, and even the dead examples in the forest are impressive. Some of them live up to 800 years, but without being too much of a wet blanket Steve is obliged to point out that danger lurks here too. Their limbs “drop like spears”, he says. “Don’t camp underneath a blackbutt.”

The forest is a noisy place today, but Steve’s ears are as good as his eyes, and he breaks the sound down into its constituent sources.

I spot the distinctive bark of a you-know-what just past the verandah.

The koalas are being quite verbal, he says, and what we think is just one call is actually two brown gerygone, aka the brown warbler, warbling to each other.

And that constant “hoo-hoo-hoo” turns out to be the wonga pigeon. “Once it’s inside your head you never get it out when camping at night,” Steve says. “It’s the only noise they make.”

We’re climbing out of the forest in late afternoon when Steve pulls us up to point out a small bush that, he says, “I should have told you about earlier”. The gympie-gympie bush, aka the giant stinging tree, has leaves which carry little toxin sacs. “The pain is immense and continuous and can go on for four to five days. There is no sleep.” And no antidote, apparently. In a final irony, the leaves are heart-shaped.

Sunset view in between forest trees

Bunya Mountains sunset. 

We leave behind an instructive day of what to see, hear and, without being dramatic, avoid in the Sunshine Coast rainforest and settle into our sumptuous pavilion accommodation at the nearby Narrows Escape Rainforest Retreat. There’s the prospect of a lovely dinner at Wild Rocket, the restaurant attached to Misty’s Micro Brewery in Montville, and a full-blown cook-your-own breakfast supplemented by freshly baked croissants left at your door.

So we settle into the private spa and relax – until I spot the distinctive bark of a you-know-what just past the verandah.

“Have any trouble with bunyas here?” we ask the owner Mark Skinner next morning. Well, the dents in the roof of his house and the guest carport weren’t made by wonga pigeon droppings. “When you hear the crack (of the cone dropping), you’ve got about a second and a half to get out of the way,” he says, before adding: “Bunya pine is very good for guitar picks.”

The author toured the region as a guest of Visit Sunshine Coast.

Need to know

The Bunya Mountains National Park, 200 kilometres west of the Sunshine Coast, is Queensland’s second oldest and is dedicated to this unique pine. The bunya is easy to pick on the walking trails in the park – it has a grey, gnarly trunk, and many examples will have toeholds, cut into the tree by Aboriginal people who, with the aid of climbing vine, would scale them to harvest the cones for their delicious seeds.

  • The forest is equally stocked with hoop pine, some impressive strangler figs, and giant vines hanging low from the canopy.
  • You'll also spy brush turkeys, distinctive red-headed king parrots, and tame wallabies grazing by the carpark.
  • And the drive up the mountain, from either Kingaroy to the north or Dalby to the south, is spectacular.