Hidden in the highlands above Mackay, the small township of Eungella and the surrounding Eungella National Park claim an isolated stretch of mountain rainforest. Often shrouded in cloud and mist, it was known as the Land of the Clouds in the tongue of the Wirra people, and it’s one of the best places in Australia to spot the elusive platypus in the wild.
I had known for some time that Eungella National Park was apparently one of the better places to spot platypuses. Even so, I hadn’t been expecting to find one within literal moments of stepping out of the car. I almost couldn’t believe how easy it was, and I spent so much time by the tranquil river watching them that it was a real struggle to pull myself away, at least long enough to explore everything else this fantastic area has to offer.
The Eungella plateau is part of the larger Clarke Range, in turn part of the longest continual stretch of sub-tropical rainforest in Australia. It’s one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the country too, home to flora and wildlife from both tropical and subtropical zones. With birds, frogs, geckos, crayfish, fungi and a multitude of plants found nowhere else, it’s a uniquely beautiful stretch of rainforest.
The Eungella township is the easiest point of access, and it sits perched atop the range about 80km inland from Mackay. We managed to get a little lost taking a shortcut from the north, and after traversing a maze of cane fields, joined the main road through the stunning Pioneer Valley.
There’s a steep and magnificent climb to the top of the range, and it’s worth pulling into the lookout at the top for an incredible view back across the valley. In town, there’s accommodation, shops, pubs, cafes and access to several different areas of the park, as well as plenty of information on the fascinating logging and gold mining history of the area.
As for platypuses, head for Broken River campground, no more than five kilometres from town. We parked right beside the river, climbed out of the car, and there one was, swimming casually upstream. It wasn’t even that late in the day, and at no point did they seem overly bothered by the gaggle of onlookers. From the grassy banks of the campground or the viewing platform on the far side of the river, you can sit back and spend an afternoon watching the delightful monotremes swim and forage, along with hordes of mossy turtles.
Broken River isn’t the only choice of campground, with Fern Flat tucked back a little way along the same stretch of river, and the Diggings a short 4WD journey away.
After a lazy afternoon of platypus watching, I could then set out to look for another target species I had come in search of, the equally elusive Eungella honeyeater, whose range is restricted to these tropics. As it happened, I managed to track one down within an hour or two, and so I devoted the next couple of days to exploring the 20km of fantastic walking trails that weave throughout the area.
From the Eungella township, I set out beneath towering red cedars along the track to the Sky Window, which offers another fantastic view over Pioneer Valley. From here, the Clarke Range Track skirts the edge of the range and heads through some dense rainforest as it links up with the Granite Bend Circuit, which ends back at Broken River campground.
It’s some of the prettiest forest I’ve ever walked through, from the gnarled trees forming the dense canopy, black trunks all wrapped up in creeping vines and strangling figs, to the buttressed roots thick with moss and colourful fungi. Slender palms form barriers of delicately patterned fronds, providing a sheltered understorey for colourful noisy pittas and secretive red-legged pademelons. Fruiting trees thick with orange and purple berries always seemed to have a handful of resident fruit-doves, while vibrant azure kingfishers patrolled the gently cascading streams.
The Clarke Range Track is part of the 56km Mackay Highlands Great Walk, which is definitely something I’d like to come back for one day. There’s more camping out at Eungella Dam too, and if you keep following the winding mountain tracks to the south you’ll eventually reach Homevale National Park, while much of the northern section is remote wilderness accessible only to the most intrepid of off-track explorers.
When it came time to leave, we headed back down to Pioneer Valley, and sidetracked to Finch-Hatton Gorge, a recent addition to the National Park. Within the lush rainforest against the base of the range is a granite haven of rocky volcanic formations. Boulder-strewn creeks of vibrant emerald water are broken by tranquil waterfalls and deep pools beneath the shelter of the forest.
A 4km walking track heads through gnarled tulip-oak forest first to Araluen Falls, and then along the cascading river and up a haul of slippery stone stairs to the Wheel of Fire. The carved path of the falls here tumble into a deep emerald rockpool surrounded by gnarled cliffs and weathered boulders. The water was pretty damn cool when I was there, but it was just too beautiful to pass up for a quick swim.