Ewan McDonald explores ancient lands and new taste sensations beyond the Gold Coast.
The satnav insists it's an hour down the M1 from Surfers Paradise to the turnoff, but it's wrong. It'll take something closer to 180 million years, for I'm driving into the heart of Gondwanaland.
World Heritage-listed, the mountains behind the Gold Coast are still cloaked in rainforests akin to those that covered the ancient supercontinent. They're home to more frog, snake, bird and marsupial species than anywhere else in Australia. Many plants and animals are found nowhere else; most are rare and threatened.
And that's only the wildlife. Hinterland towns and villages, and the surrounding Scenic Rim region, are a total change of pace and space from the beaches, restaurants and nightlife down on the coast.
I park at one end of the largest town, Tamborine Mountain (or Mount Tamborine — no one quite knows where the hinterland starts and ends, and local signwriters have a similar lack of agreement about their town's name).
It's Titirangi on steroids; arts and crafts, tea and coffee shops, cake and fudge boutiques. Because "The Mountain" is ringed by hobby farms growing avocados, kiwifruit and macadamia nuts, there's an impressive menu of artisan food and beverage producers.
The place feels like a ring of happy accidents. Witches Chase cheesemakers Meredith and Andre Morris wanted to find a place that served their two great loves. They couldn't, so they built their own cheesery and invited Fortitude Brewery to join them and Long Road Bistro too.
Michael and Alla Ward bought a citrus farm and turned the second-grade fruit into schnapps. Twenty years on, the current owners of Tamborine Mountain Distillery create more than 60 award-winning vodkas, gins and liqueurs, with flavours such as eucalyptus, honey and macadamia.
Witches Falls is the mountain's only winery, although its grapes come from a wee way away in Queensland's Granite Belt. Around the hinterland and Scenic Rim are a growing number of well-regarded vineyards, most offering cellar-door tastings or restaurants.
You're close to nature here. At just about every bend in the road there's a walking track through rainforests with panoramas of cliffs and waterfalls. One of the easiest strolls is to Curtis Falls; in half an hour I've walked through rainforest to the viewing platform where waters cascade into the rockpools below.
Back in the car for the 50km of single lanes, hairpin bends, blind corners, major roadworks to repair cyclone damage, into Lamington National Park, 20,000ha of subtropical rainforest. We'd probably call the drive a state highway over here, although few of our major roads have the spellbinding views over sheer cliffs.
The air clears and cools — it's sometimes up to 7C cooler here than on the coast — as I reach O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, a family-owned guesthouse and resort on private land inside the national park.
Threatened by logging and farming, the park was created in 1915, one of Queensland's first protected areas, after vigorous campaigning from locals led by the romantically named Romeo Lahey.
The O'Reilly family had come to the plateau to set up a dairy farm. That didn't turn out well but the hospitality business, founded in 1926, did.
I park outside my chalet and get the bags out of the boot. A friendly pademelon — smallest member of the kangaroo family — scurries out of the bush to show me the way down to my digs. The door was open, so he poked his nose inside to check all was well before bounding back into the bush. At least he didn't hang around with his paw out, waiting for a tip.
The resort is at the centre of more than 150km of trails designed by Lahey and built during the 1930s Depression. He noticed that cows' paths on the hills never had a gradient of more than 1:10 and laid out the tracks so walkers would not be out of breath. Some are short, others take up to seven hours.
At night, it's a mere 15 minutes' drive then a 10-minute walk to creek banks to sit in the deep dark silence and watch glow worms at play. On the way there's an encounter with a possum; as the only Kiwi in the group I have to justify to a dozen Australians why we think they're a pest. "I've never heard of one eating a bird's egg," I'm told. "They're vegetarians." Just another one of those transtasman cultural differences, I guess.
The Tree Top Walk, 15m above the ground, provides the opportunity to walk through the forest canopy; braver hearts can climb the ladder up a strangler fig to a 30m-high observation deck.
Lamington's plants are among the oldest and rarest on Earth. Roots of some Antarctic beeches are more than 5000 years old; other plants are relics from the last ice age.
The Lamington underground orchid is one of only four flowering plants to complete its life cycle entirely underground.
This area is also home to an incredible variety of wildlife, including marsupials (and not only pademelon and possums), rare and threatened birds and butterflies. The blue Lamington crayfish is found only here, in pools and streams 450m above sea level.
Some of it's quite tame: the park guides' favourite trick is to feed the birdlife every morning, a wheeling and chirping and squawking and diving and pecking riot of feathers and colours. Perching, too, usually on visitor's heads or hands.
And, as the fiery red sun drops behind the grey-granite cliffs, sitting at the rustic bar with a local craft beer, there's a sense of wonder at the myriad shades of the rainforest, here in "the green behind the Goldie".
Qantas flies from Auckland to Brisbane, with return Economy Class fares from $587.
The drive from Brisbane to Mt Tamborine takes a little more than an hour.
For information and room rates at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, go to oreillys.com.au.