Australia: Wined and dined in the forest

By Patrice Gaffaney

Patrice Gaffaney finds an Aussie ecowarrior chef.

Offbeat Tours' eco-trips take you for a leisurely, entrancing taste of Conondale National Park rainforest in Queensland's hinterland.
Offbeat Tours' eco-trips take you for a leisurely, entrancing taste of Conondale National Park rainforest in Queensland's hinterland.

All of a sudden, Pete the driver and tour guide has morphed into Pierre the chef, maitre d' and sommelier. In the middle of a rainforest in the Conondale National Park in Queensland's Hinterland we are sitting at a white-cloth-bedecked table to a morning tea of still-warm damper baked in Pete's oven that morning served on white china plates, and steaming hot tea in china cups.

A few hours later and further into the rainforest, the same tablecloth is topped with an entree of a trio of native dips made with bush spices and served on freshly baked bread, alongside barbecued marinated chicken and salads and champagne in glass flutes. Then in the afternoon he presents us with lemon myrtle leaf tea and wattle seed cheesecakes.

In case you're wondering, I haven't come on the tour for the food, but it is a highlight of an extraordinary day.

I'm on a day tour of the rainforest with Pete Blashki, the owner-operator of Offbeat Eco Tours.

Pete is passionate about the rainforest and his knowledge, enthusiasm and energy is boundless.

As we set off from Noosa in his 13-seater, brightly painted 4WD bus he chats about the history of the area, once home to the Gabi Gabi people and now a Unesco-designated biosphere, and before we know it we're deep in the heart of the forest at our first stop, Fig Tree Walk.

At ground level, Pete points out an innocent-looking plant that I reach out to touch. He pulls back my hand and tells me it's one of the world's most venomous plants, the gympie gympie. One brief touch and you're in for hours, possibly days, of pain, he says, grinning.

Best to be avoided, then, I decide.

We crane our necks upwards and it's impossible to see the sky through the thick canopy of trees. Giant strangler figs are everywhere, their snakelike, aerial roots growing downwards from their limbs, literally strangling their host tree. Some are so huge they'd give Tane Mahuta a run for its money.

We continue on our circular walk and suddenly there's a swishing from the bushes. I'm frozen to the spot fearing a snake, but it's the cutest little marsupial I've ever seen, a pademelon.

Its quizzical little eyes bore into mine as I quietly reach for my camera, but I'm not quick enough. Just as suddenly, its mum arrives from nowhere and the two disappear back into the bushes and safety.

Our stroll around Fig Tree Walk comes to an end, it's back to the 4WD and we're bouncing our way towards the park's Booloumba area, fording streams and negotiating the "whoa boys" drainage channels in the dirt track as we climb higher into the ranges.

We're on our way to the Booloumba Falls and on the short, steepish climb to the falls a lone whipbird calls out its plaintive cry and bellbirds seem to serenade us as we approach the falls, 500m up.

They are quite spectacular. Water trickles over jagged rocks into a deep, clear-blue waterhole. The water comes from an underground spring so is cold year-round and is a welcome respite from the heat and humidity that seem relentless on the walk, despite the tree canopy.

After a dip (for my feet) and a rest we happily take to the path to return to our bus and begin the journey home.

We continue climbing through the forest and Pete points out rosewoods, blackbean, eucalyptus, ironbark with native orchids growing from them, staghorn ferns, grass trees, palms and vines. A goanna waddles through the undergrowth at a leisurely pace.

Pete tells me and my travel companion, Liz, we've been lucky - goannas are reasonably common but it's rare to hear whipbirds, and pademelons are so shy not many people see them either.

He's only half joking when he says he's disappointed for me that we didn't come across a snake. As if on cue a red-bellied black snake - one of Australia's most venomous - slides across the road in front of the bus and slithers away into the undergrowth.

Four treats in a day. Well five, if you count the food, which I do. What a day.

Patrice Gaffaney travelled to the Sunshine Coast courtesy of Sunshine Coast Destination and Air New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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