Exploring the breathtaking Gold Coast hinterland

Walking along the beach of the Gold Coast, one sometimes gets a glimpse past the highrise hotels and apartments to a blue smudge of inland mountains.

This is the Gold Coast hinterland, less than an hour's drive away, but far removed from the coast in terms of scenery, atmosphere and approach to tourism.

Indeed, the Gold Coast and its hinterland are completely different worlds. On the coast, nature provided the raw materials of sun and surf and man has built it into a ribbon development of urban attractions. In the mountain mists, the Lamington National Park looks much as it did when Captain Cook sailed past and named Mt Warning. It forms part of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia.

When we hear “Lamington” our first thoughts are likely to be more of cake than trees. In fact both the cake and the national park are named after Lord Lamington who was Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901.

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The sunrise over the Gold Coast hinterland is beautiful to wake up to

Mount Warning is the first part of mainland Australia to receive the sun's rays each morning. The lava outflow from what has now been reduced to this isolated volcanic plug formed the McPherson Range that delineates the border between NSW and Queensland. On the southern side is the Border Range National Park. The Queensland side is Lamington National Park.

The best way to gain an appreciation for the grand layout of the landscape is to take an early morning balloon flight. You can be picked up from your hotel on the coast and an hour later be floating over mist-shrouded farmland with views back to the building spires of the Gold Coast in one direction and Brisbane in the other.

There are only two bases for excursions within Lamington: O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat and Binna Burra Lodge. An indication of the rugged lie of the land is that these two historic properties are only seven kilometres apart but the most direct walking route spans 22 kilometres. By car, they are separated by 67 km of tortuous mountain road.

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 Fly over the stunning Gold Coast hinterland in a hot air balloon

O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat is perched in bushland on top of a ridge within the national park with views to the farmland far below. Crimson rosellas, rainbow lorikeets and king parrots gather in the surrounding trees, especially near the feeding area, and brush turkeys scrabble in the undergrowth.

Established in 1826, O'Reilly's was the centre of attention in 1937 when a Stinson aircraft with seven people crashed nearby. Despite reports that the plane had been lost out to sea, Bernard O'Reilly went to check the surrounding forests. In a superb piece of bushcraft, he found the aircraft and rescued two survivors. A model of the aircraft stands on front lawn of the lodge.

O'Reilly's special attraction is a tree-top walk that allows you to walk through the forest canopy some 15 metres above the leaf-strewn forest floor. Every hike from here is a journey of discovery. There are some 500 waterfalls in the Lamington area - and 160 km of walking trails that lead past caves and viewpoints and through fern-filled gullies. One has to be observant to notice the small grey Queensland koalas dozing in the eucalypts.

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O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat is a great location for hiking trails

The rich basaltic soil and high rainfall have combined to produce a profusion of vegetation. The towering red cedars and Moreton Bay figs are dwarfed by huge hoop pines that can be 70 metres high. Strangler figs stand around the hollows of the trees they killed while treacherously relying on their support. Vines lace between the trees like sailor's ropes, while bird's nest ferns cling to their trunks. The forest floor is a patchwork of fallen leaves, mosses and lichens. This is nature at its abundant best.

One species of tree should be sought out: the Antarctic beech ("Binna Burra" in Wangerriburra language means "the land of the Antarctic beech trees"). This is the Australian remnant forest of a type of beech found in Patagonia (at the bottom of South America) as well in New Zealand. Fossil remains of these trees have been found in Antarctica itself – providing a clear link to Gondwanaland.

Further north of Lamington and to the north west of the Gold Coast, Mount Tamborine is another feature of the hinterland. The beautiful bustling little town is a hive of craft shops, restaurants and cafes. The mountain is 560 metres high with natural attractions within several small national parks including waterfalls, a variety of forest types, cascades, and groves of cycads.

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The scenery around the Natural Bridge is spectacular

In a way, it seems as if the hinterland's proximity to the Gold Coast may not work to its advantage. If the hinterlands were anywhere else in Australia, visitors would flock to explore the nooks and crannies.

Although these mountains may cast afternoon shadows over the beaches of the coast, in the public eye, the high profile of the Gold Coast casts the hinterland into the shade. It’s worth heading inland to a special, timeless world of its own. 

What are your favourite hidden gems on the Gold Coast? Join the conversation below.