A dramatic 90ha stand of Australian bush on steep Queensland slopes is a fabulous theatre for a dawn walk, writes Anne Gibson.
"Listen, what's that?" asks balaclava-clad rugged-up David Ball, leading six hopeful guests on the twice-a-week nature walk at Queensland's Golden Door Retreat.
"It's usually the Eastern Yellow Robin which starts the dawn chorus with three definite cheeew, cheeew, cheeews. But that's actually the Scarlet Honeyeater," he says, shaking his head in amazement.
Scarlet Honeyeater is going tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in a descending cadence, high above the group on the trek pre-8am breakfast.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" the retreat's physical education manager encourages on the dawn after Brisbane's coldest since 1916.
We are wearing at least three layers after a 6.10am 15-minute tai chi session, hopeful of spotting the tiny native Australian birds many metres above us in the top canopy of the shady south-facing gully well before the light is bright.
The sun has only just struck Mount Wongawallan's summit where the property finishes on the ridge line. Once, a marathon-running guest set a record, up there and back: 11 minutes.
An alternative to Ball's nature walk is scaling the mountain, itself beginning to come alive in golden hues showing off the blue trees as a low winter sun slants in over the Gold Coast into the hill territories.
On this day, the hill climbers achieve the return tramp in just over an hour.
Down on the tracks near the retreat, Ball's group has only started the walk which requires nothing except the ability to shut up, look up and listen hard.
The sun is yet to reach this much denser bush where the canopy is brush box, the birds dance about in the distance and a keen gaze is needed as much as an attuned ear.
The wind whips up on the summit, sounding like waves hitting the beach.
To a Kiwi, this Australian bush might seem somewhat deserted, tired, chewed, forlorn. Green, certainly, after Brisbane's terrible downpours but with only a lower layer of vegetation and then upper canopy far, far above.
There is simply no mid-canopy in this part, unlike New Zealand's native bush.
Nor are many of the sounds at this hour loud like the wonderfully ridiculous rhythm of our tui or the sweet notes of our bellbird.
Certainly the voices are unfamiliar and the thought of a grey warbler's distinctive call occurs as the most beautiful sound made. But that's on the other side of the ocean, a Tasman away from this winding, scarlet, dusty track on the old continent.
Wattles are profuse in parts, dropping a soft layer of finespun green on the track to carpet the walk.
At other points, rocky gullies and tall gum stands open out the bush to glimpses of a cloudless chilly sky.
Suddenly, the group freezes on the wide graded red bush track: a Whipbird, very near by.
We all heard it: the male's artificial electronic 'whip' on the ascending cadence, answered by the female's 'chew chew'.
Astonishing, a noise far more likely to have been made by Deadmau5 than a wee birdie, so loud and definite, it almost seems like a recording. Is the resort tricking? Speakers planted in the bush?
Opening the guide book, Ball points to the bird's profile, the elegant elongated tail, the startling crest, its habitat.
"Is the crest always up?" a guest asks. "I think I saw one yesterday."
"Yes, always up," says Ball in a sure no-nonsense manner.
It is only about eight degrees but that makes little difference to the engaged bird watchers who are listening closely to Ball's trained observations, benefiting from his years of guiding on these tracks.
Ball, 11 years at the resort, in his early 40s, father to two daughters, suddenly stops the group a few steps later.
"Hear that? The staccato? Anyone know what that is?
"No? It's the Lewin's Honeyeater."
A rat-a-tat-tat rings through the upper gum canopy once again, as if to reinforce his diagnosis.
"Wait, look up!" he demands, gazing at the Striated Pardlow, explaining how it differs from the Spotted Pardlow and opening the book to illustrate.
After nearly an hour, we are reaching the summit and suddenly the brilliant warm gold of a Queensland winter dawn is upon us.
We are in a wonderland of Australian native birds, flitting only metres from our faces, chasing insects, climbing the trees, gliding and swooping. Down on the lower slopes, the birds were sparse - but not here.
Best of all, a White-throated Treecreeper, the dainty little bird that walks up the bow of trees, is performing a dance only a few metres away.
The sun is sparkling on the brilliant feathers that are regularly given a good shaking.
"It's upside down," exclaims one guest as Ball tells of the bird's agility.
Grey Fantails skip and glide above that little treecreeper, also on the hunt for insects.
The sun lights up the bark on a Spotted Gum and Ball shimmies part way down a bank to get closer and uncover a hidden, deathly feasting going on.
"White ants," he exclaims, using one piece of bark to uncover their mini-city just beneath a layer of deep bark.
Faster-moving black ants are visible on the surface but something else is going on. The larger, slower-moving and lighter-coloured termites are doing their arduous work with determination and some gusto on the inside.
"In five years' time, that tree will die,'' Ball predicts, turning his back on one of the forest's giants with its huge swaying boughs 20m above and striding off down the sloping track.
"What... is... that?" asks a startled walker as Ball stops to use the tip of his shoe to turn over a limp, almost-dead, cane toad - as large as a rat but a very dark green.
"Not a happy chappie. They don't like the cold," he explains, exposing a white underbelly before wandering off.
A guest rights the toad to four feet, scoops it up and puts it safely off the track.
"I wished him well. He wants happiness too, just like all of us," she explained with a smile.
"Marks. What do you think made those?" Ball asks, as he stops by the side of a towering Grey Gum.
Striations up the trunk at shoulder height look to be carved and are repeated where the bark is stripped away but are in fact the claw marks of an echidna.
None of those spiky wonders are spotted this June day. Goanna as large as men walk this forest but are now hibernating and are also unseen.
Ball assures the sceptics that koala live here too, pointing up to the gums.
"Yup. Lots. People usually don't see them though, they're not looking up."
Swamp wallabies and foxes roam here, the latter to chase and sometimes even catch the massive stroppy bush turkeys often seen around the resort.
Fox excrement appears in front of us on the track to support Ball's claims before he goes on to explain the geology of the area.
The earth is layered Rhyolite, dense claggy red soil. Mount Warning or Wollumbin, near the coast, is the remnant of a volcano 200 kilometres wide and 2km high which erupted 250 million years ago.
But what about the kookaburras? No laughter this morning.
"Nup, they like clearer areas," explains Ball before finishing the walk and turning to lead the 9am stretch session.
For that, he picked a sunny glade near the day spa instead of the giant gym with its cold, wooden floor and draughty doors wide open to the bush.
The sky glowed a brilliant blue above as about 20 stretchers laid their mats on the dewy lawn and assumed the Sleeping Beauty pose.
Ball paused and waited.
"Imagine that," he says quietly to himself before starting the pilates workout.
A bird has called and it is the loud and somewhat frightening sound of a predatory one, quite big, perched in the bush below.
Getting there: Fly to Brisbane or the Gold Coast. The retreat is about 50km from Brisbane CBD.
Further information: See goldendoor.com.au or phone 0800 775 779.
Anne Gibson visited Australia as the guest of The Golden Door Retreat.