Sundown National Park has been on my trip radar for quite a while. The combination of pioneer history and rugged country was appealing and the park’s location on the Qld-NSW border somehow made it seem more remote than it is.
I headed down to Sundown mid week and as it turned out that was a good decision because I ended up being the only person there – its a great feeling knowing that you have complete run of a whole National Park to yourself, it somehow increases the sense of solitude and feeling that you are remote. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
After climbing the Cunningham’s Gap escarpment it was easy driving across the undulating fields of the Darling Downs. I passed through Warwick and continued slowly climbing the great dividing range into the orchard growing Granite Belt where I peeled off to grab a coffee in Stanthorpe, and a great coffee it turned out to be, a good café is always worth noting for future trips. I also grabbed some goodies for lunch to be had later in the day.
Only a twenty kilometres further along the New England Highway is Ballandean, where the Sundown access road exits to the west. The twelve kilometres across to the park entrance held plenty of interesting sights of its own. I love to find old car wrecks and machinery, its strange how rusty old cars from the chrome bumper bar and round headlight era are now considered to be sculptures, whereas a modern plastic fendered car that has been ditched down a side road is an eye sore waiting to be cleared away.
I arrived at the park entrance gate and noticed fresh tyre tracks exiting, looking like they had a camper trailer in tow. other than that there was no sign of activity which pleased me. While here I aired down the tyres to 20psi all around in anticipation of rough tracks and scrambling rocky climbs.
My plan was to work into furthest corner of the park that tracks could take me, which would be near a bend of the Servern River with the intimidating name of Hell Hole, at least according to the Hema map. On the way in I would check out each campground, starting with Redrock Gorge.
Redrock Gorge campground is a simple bare clearing in the eucalypt forest with no views or distinctive features. The views to be had at end of the short gorge access trail are however worth the trip, where a timber viewing platform provides a spectacular vantage point to look across the gorge. A cool breeze pushed up from the gorge carrying scent of a wattle tree in flower and eagles could be seen gliding along the cliff faces in the distance, it was worth lingering for a while to soak it all in.
As I got back to the car the day was starting to warm, time for a cool drink and to put lunch in the Road Chef oven to warm it up as I drove to my next stop. Hema showed a track that would save me doubling back from where I came, but when I got to the turn off it was barely discernible through the scrub and attempting to push through would have given the Cruiser plenty of pinstripes, so I took the main access track back to the intersection that would continue into the park.
The access track wound through eucalypt forest with some stunning old grasstrees before climbing onto ridgelines where the tress became more stunted, with hardier species such as wattle and cypress pines taking over. There were also plenty of prickly pears that must have evaded eradication attempts in the early 1900s when they were being targeted as an unwanted introduced pest.
The area encompassing Sundown was opened up for grazing in the late 1800s, mainly sheep wool production because the steep craggy countryside was not well suited to cattle. Hints at this pastoral past can be found in parts of the park, such as the remnants of old holding pens and yards and dilapidated wire fences. There were also various small scale mines ventures targeting tin and copper and parts of the park are fenced off due to the toxic legacy of these projects and the open shafts they left behind.
The Servern River starts in the national park and has created gorges and cuttings on its way, as well as leaving some beautiful water holes and cascades. This river continues into New South Wales to become the Darling River, which eventually joins with the Murray River, forming Australia’s largest river system, eventually emptying into the sea in South Australia.
Next stop was Reedy Waterhole camping area where I stopped for lunch. The track down to the campground is steep and stoney and the campground itself is spread over a small area that would have a lot of water running through it in rainy weather. There are a few camp sites right by the river but most are further back in clearings amongst the gum forest. A nice enough spot that is sheltered from wind but it was quite warm with the afternoon sun reflecting of the flinty ground.
After scrambling back up the steep trail to the ridge line I continued to the only other designated campground on this side of the park, at Burrows Waterhole. The ridge track had some fantastic views across cypress pine covered hillsides, with wallabies frequently scurrying across the track when disturbed by the Landcruiser crunching steadily across the rocky terrain.
Burrows Waterhole campground is nicely laid out along bank of the Servern River with flat grassy sites and several drop toilets. The river would be a good swimming hole in warm weather and looks deep enough for fishing as well.
I pushed on toward the rocky ford across the river and the track that accessed the renowned Rats Castle Loop, a rugged 4WD track that circles the hills in middle of Sundown. It was apparently so named by early miners because of the number of wallabies seen to be moving around on the rocky hillside. Rats Castle in the dry is not terribly difficult or technical but it is interesting when on your own without a spotter to get the right line across some of the ruts and obstacles. In the wet would be a different story as I’m sure some of the slopes would get difficult to navigate and some winching might be required.
The lengthening shadows told me it was time to look for a campsite for the night. I hadn’t seen another soul all day and there was no evidence of other vehicles in the park so I could choose anywhere I wanted, but none of the campgrounds appealed. Instead I chose a clearing I saw coming into the park on top of a hill, which had the risk of getting windy if the weather came in but would be cooler and insect free compared to the waterside camps.
My solo camp set up is pretty quick to get in place, around ten minutes to spread the awning and unroll the swag onto a stretcher. Another benefit of this chosen camp site was abundance of cypress timber laying around, which burns well and with a distinctive scent.
The sky drifted from gold to mauve as the sun sank deeper below the horizon, then the near full moon rose to spread a silvery blue light. Then on cue the kangaroos and wallabies started to move around in search of food. It was a beautiful and peaceful setting to kick back and admire before cooking dinner.
I had a restless sleep, which is unusual because I normally sleep well in the swag in this type of setting. I could hear something moving around in the leaves nearby at one point, I think a rat of some sort, but otherwise it was eerily quiet. When morning came it didn’t take long for the sun to find me on top of a hill, and as soon as the sun came out so did sticky black flies that I hadn’t noticed the day before. Trying to cook and eat breakfast with them swarming around me was no fun so I got that done as quickly as I could, taking great care when eating my scrambled eggs that there were no added protein supplements. Even though it was barely 8 o’clock it was hot work packing camp with the sun beating down and I was glad to finish and jump into the Cruiser for a last scout around the park.
I finished off my tour of the park by investigating some side tracks shown on Hema. Most disappeared into the scrub and became heavily overgrown, if I was in an old truck I might have pushed further along but there was nothing showing on Hema to encourage me to scratch the Cruiser up to get there.
I made my way to the park entrance just in time to meet the Ranger checking the sign in book. I stopped for a chat and let him know I hadn’t seen anybody else about. He mentioned that a blast of hot dry weather was due to blow in and he was worried about fire risk to the park as there was a high fuel load about, so it seems that I timed my visit well. He headed off and I aired back up to highway tyre pressures before following his tracks out of the park.
Sundown National Park is a great destination for self contained off grid adventurers. There is some very satisfying 4WD drives and also peaceful camp sites for those wanting a more relaxing stay. More information on the park can be found at this link. South East Queensland has some great National Park destination, the guide at this link provides some ideas for your next get away.