The Bald Rocks of Girraween

Feb 2015

A little more than 200km SW of Brisbane lies Stanthorpe, the self-proclaimed wine and apple capital of Queensland. Indeed, with well-drained soils and a relatively cool climate there are several high quality wineries and fruit farms throughout the surrounding countryside. In addition to these horticultural attractions one can also find Girraween, Sundown, and Bald Rock National Parks for those inclined to keep the "energy in/energy out” equation in check. It was the cyclone weekend of Feb 2015 when the Queensland Coast was inundated with rain. After nearly cancelling the trip we ventured forth. Apart from a few drops in the evenings the rain stayed away, and it was perfect weather for the outdoors.

Granite Domes

The Granite Belt of Southern Queensland forms part of the enormous New England Batholith, a vast body of igneous rock intruded into the earth’s crust. Researchers suggest that intrusion of the magma (the name used for underground lava) occurred throughout the Carboniferous and Permian Periods (from 360 to 255 million years ago), at which time the earth's crust in the area we know today as Stanthorpe was undergoing significant change in the form of an active subduction zone. A subduction zone develops when dense rock at the bottom of the ocean dives beneath another body of rock when they are pressed together due to tectonic movement. Typically the subduction of oceanic crust is accompanied by various forms of volcanic activity. The Andes is a modern day example of such volcanism. A generally accepted mechanism to initiate volcanism is called dehydration melting. Deep beneath the subduction zone the rocks are exposed to high temperature and pressure, but not quite high enough to cause melting. In a subduction zone the downward moving oceanic rock brings with it sea water. Because of the increased pressure and temperature the sea water is expelled from the oceanic rock into the surrounding mantle rock. The addition of water causes a lowering of the melting temperature, which results in the formation of magma, which rises up and forces its way into the overlying rock. Sometimes the magma makes it all the way to the surface and forms a volcano, but other times it doesn’t, and that’s when it forms something like the New England Batholith. Over many millions of years the softer rock covering the igneous rocks have been eroded away, leaving the granite domes as we see them today.

“A word of practical advice: beware the wind, loose fitting hats, and the deep cracks in the outcrop…”

Girraween National Park

Girraween and Bald Rock are a hiker’s paradise, with multiple trails winding their ways through the lush forested hills, capped with impressive granite exposures. We spent our first night at Girraween National Park, where you have a choice of two campsite: Bald Rock Creek Camping Area (not to be confused with Bald Rock National Park) and Castle Rock Camping Area. Bald Rock Creek is a little smaller and more isolated than Castle Rock. Both camp sites have hot showers and running water, but it is advised to boil the water for consumption. The standard online map is pretty good and shows the main walking tracks, but if you’re interested in exploring a little further afield think about buying the HEMA Regional Map from the Stanthorpe visitor centre. It shows topography, streams and creeks, fire trails (open for walking, but not push bikes or other vehicles), and peaks and their altitude.

The trailheads and trails themselves are generally well signposted. After a night in Bald Rock Creek Camping Area we parked the car in the day-use area and set off on the trail towards Castle Rock. For the most part the path is well-defined and easy to follow. The ground underfoot is gravelly and sometimes a little slippery so be careful with your footing in the steeper sections. The vegetation is pretty cool with plenty of large eucalypti and thick undergrowth. Towards the top of Castle Rock the trail starts heading up granite slabs (look for the trail markers painted on the rock) and at one point squeezes through a narrow opening to present you with a wonderful view over the bushland below and the peaks towards the North. Just a little further along the trail heads towards the top of the hill and gives you a wonderful 360degree view. A word of practical advice: beware the wind, loose fitting hats and the deep cracks in the Castle Rock…you guessed it, both our hats were blown off our heads and into two separate deep cracks. Desperate to retrieve our protection from the sun we spent 45 minutes fishing for hats with long sticks and hooks fashioned from smaller sticks and hair ties.

After eventual success we set off for Mt Norman fully protected from the sun. This longer trail is clearly less frequented, but as luck would have it this is where we met the only other people during a whole day of walking. To reach the very top of Mt Norman one requires a bit of rock climbing skills and equipment. Unfortunately people have died trying to scramble to the top of some the outcrops in the area. Be careful and don’t take any unreasonable risks. The rock outcrops in the Mt Norman area is very impressive. There are plenty of massive boulders, excellent views, and good demonstrations of how trees can grow out of rock. The granite slabs around Mt Norman can be very slippery in wet conditions. Fortunately the rain clouds just missed us so there were no worries about slipping and sliding back down the hill.

Sundown and Boonoo Boonoo

There are several wineries in the Stanthorpe area and a push bike trail connecting many of them. We decided to spend our second night nearer to Stanthorpe in the Sommerville Valley Tourist Park, with the idea of doing some wine tasting by bike the next day. They had excellent showers, clean running water, and it was almost completely deserted, but we thought $30/night for just pitching a hiking tent was a bit expensive (mind you there are plenty of facilities, so it is justified to some extent). Nevertheless, waking up the next morning we weren’t in the mood for wine tasting, so after waiting until 10h00 for the office to open so we can pay, we set off towards Sundown National Park. It is 4x4 access only and the idea was to ride our mountain bikes on the 4x4 road to one of the lookouts. Entering the park at the eastern Ballandean entrance it was supposed to be a short ride to Red Rock Gorge, but the road conditions, steep inclines, and midday sun made for some unexpectedly difficult riding. Wanting to also stop off at Boonoo Boonoo falls before camping in Bald Rock National Park we called it a day, turned around and headed back to the car. The drive to Boonoo Boonoo falls from Sundown took about 90 minutes; the waterfall is spectacular, and there are several swimming holes near the top. In hindsight, why we didn’t take a swim I cannot say, but we regretted it once we got to Bald Rock.

Bald Rock National Park

Certainly the main attraction is the giant bald granite dome. The main walking track takes you straight to the top of the hill, and once again the view is a 360degree feast. It is short and steep. I’d be very cautious in the wet, but when it’s dry there is plenty of grip on the course granite. There is also a slightly longer less steep alternative for those wetdays, or for those not keen on testing their stability on the steeper slopes. Compared to the $30/night at Sommerville and $11/night at Girraween the camping at Bald Rock is a little overpriced. I’m all for camping in the bush without a shower and a flushing toilet, in fact I prefer it that way, but don’t ask me $28/night for it. Nonetheless, the campsite was picturesque in the middle of a surprisingly green bush and it even had a resident possum scrounging food from unsuspecting campers. I’d recommend to make this a day trip from somewhere else, unless the remote camping at a premium price is acceptable. It’s easy to camp at Girraween and just drive down to Bald Rock and/or Boonoo Boonoo for a day.

Overall this was a great little trip. It gave us a really good introduction to the area and plenty of new ideas for what is possible next time we want to go and explore.