Rocky mountain high

WHAT A STUNNER: Some of the sights on the Scenic Rim.
WHAT A STUNNER: Some of the sights on the Scenic Rim.

The English Romantic poets may have given the world the best vocabulary for mountainous grandeur, but in Australia people have been quietly enjoying such spectacles for more than 50,000 years.

They didn't, at least until recently, arrive at vantage points in Land Cruisers, nor did they contemplate sunsets while sipping bubbly and nibbling canapes. Then as now, though, the vistas in the Great Dividing Range of southeast Queensland are sublime.

Directly ahead of our lookout atop a 1200-metre bluff, the sun declined operatically into a pillowy mass of pink clouds. On either side, the massive shoulders of the mountains were already sinking into evening gloom.

"You are standing on the rooftop of Australia," intones our guide. "These mountains form the eastern spine of the continent. They run more or less continuously from Cape York in the north, right down to western Victoria. They're one of the longest mountain chains in the world."

Mountains they certainly are, even to geologically jaded New Zealanders.

A Rocky Road-type agglomeration of sedimentary, alluvial and volcanic rocks dating back 400 million years, the Great Dividing Range is the result of an ancient collision between Australia and parts of New Zealand and South America.

It is also a geography lesson on a colossal scale.

At an average height of 1000 metres, the mountains efficiently separate the humid east coast of Australia from the arid interior.

To their west, rivers either drain north into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura and Timor Seas or south, via the vast Murray-Darling basin, into the Southern Ocean.

The range's sheer escarpments and pleated gorges posed a formidable barrier to early European settlement; nobody at the time thought to ask directions from the Aboriginal people who had been quietly following trails over the high passes for millennia.

These days, Interstate Highway 15 breezes through a particularly fine stretch of highlands two hours southwest of Brisbane that has been given the touristic moniker of The Scenic Rim.

Brisbane-ites have been escaping to these cool heights from the summer heat for more than a century, but now there are walking trails, active pursuits, B&Bs and luxury lodges.

Pause for breath on an outcrop these days and you are as likely to be buzzed by a paraglider as by a rare red-faced fig parrot - there are plenty of protected native birds in several nearby national parks.

In the late afternoons in these latitudes there is little time for geophysical ponderings because night falls swiftly. And at 1200 metres, the temperatures in the winter months are cool.

As the Land Cruiser headed back to our lodge, tooling along knife-edged ridges with bionic surefootedness, the pale trunks of ghost gums caught the last rays of light and lived up to their name.

When the vehicle reached the wide, bare upland that surrounds Spicers Peak Lodge, its headlights picked out the demonically glowing eyes of dozens of small wallabies that had come out of the bush to feed.

The day had begun straightforwardly enough in Brisbane with a drive south on the Pacific Motorway.

Just north of the Gold Coast in the locality of Oxenford, Highway 95 takes you west to Tamborine Mountain, the road winding prettily at first through lifestyle blocks and macadamia orchards and then, up some very steep grades, through stands of eucalypts and rainforest.

Tamborine Mountain (elevation 518 metres) is an outrider of the Central Dividing Range, a giant lava splat, geologists say, from the prehistoric eruption of the Tweed Volcano just over the border in New South Wales.

Like the rest of the Scenic Rim, Mt Tamborine is eroded and among the sprinkle of settlements on its broad and rolling summit is Quarry Walk, a half-kilometre precinct of cafes, galleries and craft shops.

After a helter-skelter down the vertiginous western side of the mountain, the cross-country route to the Scenic Rim takes you through the Shire of Beaudesert, a former sheep-grazing region that has turned its hand, with mixed success, to viticulture and other pursuits.

The floods of January 2011 that devastated Brisbane scoured through here too but thankfully few traces remain.

Also in fine fettle is the Dugandan (pronounced: "Doug and Dan") Hotel, which occupies its own rural intersection near the town of Boonah.

A classic Queensland country pub dating back to 1886, the "Dugie" has an idiosyncratic decor of pastel-coloured walls, eclectic memorabilia and "candeliers" - lighting fixtures made from cans of Bundaberg Rum & Cola.

Even if you haven't shared a companionable lager with the locals, the Scenic Rim still jumps out at you 30 minutes later on.

Its craggy eastern face zooms up from the coastal plain and colossal geography kicks in again with an ear-popping ascent and a roadscape that segues swiftly from generic eucalypt to high-altitude rainforest.

A few kilometres past the 787-metre summit at Cunningham's Gap the road to Spicers Peak Lodge heads off the grid, or at least the GPS.

Twelve kilometres along an unsealed trail, up hill and down dale through farm gates and over creeks, gullies and 10 cattle grids, brings you to a car park at the foot of Spicer's Peak.

If your vehicle isn't up to the final climb, the lodge will ferry you there in a Land Cruiser.

At the top of the trail, the lodge hoves into view. The full splendour of its setting becomes apparent on its north-facing terrace: all around the ridges and masses of the Great Dividing Range stretch away into the distance.

Far to the south, where the range swells into the Australian Alps, there are deep winter snows and full-on mountain pursuits.

The colder months here bring only hard frosts and the occasional flurry of sleet. The lodge is the highest sub-alpine accommodation in Australia.

Fortunately, staying inside has its own attractions, not least of which is the food.

The lodge's restaurant has a chef's hat in the Queensland Good Food Guide Awards; other accolades include 2012 Brisbane Restaurant of the Year in the Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence.

John Corbett travelled to the Scenic Rim and Spicers Peak Lodge with the assistance of Brisbane Marketing.

Sunday Star Times