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Granite Boulders, Pyramids and Forests – Girraween National Park

Pyramid Girraween NP

One of the Pyramids of Girraween NP

The Granite Belt on the Queensland/New South Wales border South of Warwick has been long known for its cool-climate fruit and more recently for its vineyards and wineries. But it is famous for something older – its rock-strewn landscape whose foundations were laid about 240 million years ago (see Geology below).

The prominent features of the landscape around Stanthorpe are large, rounded boulders (tors), exposed rock slabs and large, mostly bare dome-like hills (the Pyramids, Girraween). The landscape continues over the Qld/NSW Border to the Bald Rock area near Tenterfield. Areas of significance are set-aside as national parks – Girraween National Park in Qld and Bald Rock National Park in NSW. Both are very popular.

Other National Parks in this border area include Sundown National Park Qld (different geological formation) and Bnoo Bnoo National Park, near Bald Rock National Park, which lacks the boulder and the dome-like hill landscape, but has a waterfall over a granite cliff.

This blog deals with Girraween National Park, but some mention is made of Bald Rock National Park because of its similar landscape.

The attraction at Girraween and Bald Rock National Parks is not just the landscape, but also the open woodlands with their wildflowers (best time spring/early summer), the taller rough-barked eucalypt forests and the lichens on the granite boulders. The national parks have a series of walking trails, from easy to difficult, offering many views of the landscapes, forests and creeks. Girraween also has a scenic 4×4 drive.

GETTING THERE AND PIT STOP

Cafe Jacqui's Warwick

Cafe Jacqui’s Warwick

From Brisbane take the Cunningham Highway exit from the Ipswich Motorway and follow this through Cunningham’s Gap, keeping the windows down as you approach the top of the Gap to hear the Bell Birds. The trip up the range offers a wonderful view of the escarpment (ramparts) running north from Cunningham’s Gap towards Toowomba and the Basalt layers of Mount Mitchell (dead ahead as you ascend the range).

After the rain forest covered Gap the highway continues across the lovely “patchwork quilt” farming areas of the Darling Downs until it comes to a T-junction – turn left to Warwick. As you enter Warwick there is an excellent coffee and cake opportunity at Café Jacqui’s – second street on the left just after the bridge and sweeping left-hand curve as you enter Warwick (Albion street). This establishment also serves meals, including homemade quiches and pies. It is also an outlet for high quality jams, condiments and other culinary delights from the Berry Patch. This is a must stop for Judy and I – both coming and going.

Return to the Cunningham Highway staying in the right lane and turn right at the 6th intersection (well sign-posted). Continue on in the left lane for 12 blocks and turn left into the New England Highway and follow to Stanthorpe (turn well sign-posted).

Accommodation

We stayed at the very comfortable and well-appointed Wisteria Cottages at Wyberba Road off the New England Highway about 32k south from Stanthorpe and 252k from Brisbane. Apart from their excellent standard and rural setting they are nicely placed between Giraween and Bald Rock National Parks.

The elevated view from our cabin’s balcony was across a field, with wallabies and Grey Kangaroos at dusk, to forested hills – a great place to finish the day relaxing with a glass of wine after a day in the bush.

GEOLOGY

The landscape of the Stanthorpe and Bald Rock districts is the result of volcanic intrusions deep underground, the subsequent weathering of the overburden and the “granite” itself, erosion and the transportation of the eroded material by streams (the rock cycle).

The rocks at Girraween are collectively called the Stanthorpe Granite, which is part of a large complex of granitic rocks of varying ages that extend south on the New England Tableland to Armidale. An extensive amalgamation of granitic rocks is called a batholith and this one, extending from Stanthorpe to Armidale, is the New England batholith.

In the Stanthorpe area, molten magma was intruded deep below the existing rocks about 240 million years ago. The magma cooled slowly allowing the minerals to crystallize. The crystals can be seen in fresh rock faces (clear quartz, pink potassium feldspar or white plagioclase feldspar, and black crystals of hornblende and mica). This contrasts with magma that erupts to the surface through volcanic vents and cools relatively faster. Here the resulting rock is fine grained with few visible crystals.

“Granite” is a generic term with a number of sub types that vary with the chemical content of the magma and the speed of cooling. The colour varies from pink to white depending on the relative amounts of pink or white feldspar. The crystals range from large to small depending on the rate of cooling of the magma – the slower the cooling the larger the crystals. Willmott 2004: page 47 has a detailed description of the four types of “granite” in the area (see the Reference Page of this Blog).


With time the rock overburden weathers and erodes exposing the solidified “granite”. The “granite” rises as the pressure of the overburden is relieved and cracks or fissures appear vertically and horizontally diving the solid granitic mass into blocks.

Weathering of the “granite” occurs along the fissures and is concentrated at the sharp corners tending to round the rocks. This rounding is accelerated by onion peel weathering or exfoliation where the rock sheds onion peel like slabs due to the action of alternating heat and cold on water seeping into cracks in the “granite”. Onion peel weathering is readily visible so keep an eye out for examples of as you walk in the national park.

The chemical content of some “granites” render them more susceptible to weathering than others leading to the formation of valleys and gullies. The more resistant rocks persist as large round boulders (tors) often jumbled as they tumble against each other, balancing rocks, exposed slabs and large, conical, bare hills. This makes for a very attractive landscape. Willmott (2004) classes these landscapes as “some of the best in Australia” and from page 47 he has an excellent, detailed discussion of the area’s geology. If you haven’t got a copy of this book I urge you to get one as a research tool before getting out and about in Southern Queensland.

Granite Applications

“Granite” has many applications as a durable and decorative stone for monuments, kitchen benches, floors and buildings. In Brisbane the foundation layer of the City Hall is of a grey fine-grained “granite” with parts of other rocks included (xenolyths). The paving tiles of the Brisbane City mall are of coarser grained grey “granite” and the footpath tiles in front of the AMP building in Eagle Street are of a coarse grained brown “granite”. The large, shiny patches in these tiles are where the large crystals gave been cut along a facet plane. When out and about in cities keep an eye out for other examples taking note the composition and structure of the “granite”.

OUT AND ABOUT

We visited the Stanthorpe area for a few days in June this year with the aim of catching up with some eucalypt species we had not seen in the wild, to photograph E. approximans condocarpa, a species of limited distribution, and to do the 4×4 drive through Girraween. Weather-wise it was a bit of a disaster. It rained all the way to Wyberba but cleared up a little in the afternoon.

Day 2 was intermittent cloudy and clear and we spent the time on Eukey Road from Ballandean to King Storm Dam looking for new eucalypts. We found some outstanding stringy bark specimens but none new to us. It as a pleasant drive none the less and we had lunch at the Dam, which has picnic tables and toilets.

Mt Norman Walk

Day 3 we planned to visit the stand of the Mallee Ash  E. approximans condocarpa on Girraween Walk 14 (Mallee Ridge) from the Mt Norman parking area. As luck would have it the morning proved overcast and very dismal making photography a waste of time.

Getting There

The Mt Norman parking area is accessed from Wallangarra on the Qld/NSW border.

  • Exit left from the New England Highway to Wallangarra just before it makes a strong right bend at the Qld NSW border.
  • Turn left at the first intersection (General store with fuel bowsers face the road at the intersection).
  • Right at the second intersection.
  • Left at the T-junction and right over the railway line.
  • Left at the T-junction.
  • Right at the second intersection into Mt Norman Road.

Mt Norman Road is initially single-lane bitumen but becomes dirt soon after with a gate. Open the gate (remembering to close it again) and proceed several kilometres through lovely open woodland to the parking area, which has picnic tables and a pit toilet. The unsealed section was in good condition and suitable for standard vehicles.

The Walk

The walking tack to the Mallee Ridge is 2k (first summit) and 0.5k to the second summit (both one way). It begins as the Mt Norman Track through open woodland with a wildflower (heath) understory – note to self must revisit in September/October. Banksia spinulosa bushes were in full bloom at this time attended by Eastern Spinebill Honeyeaters.

After about 10 minutes walking the track narrows and the woodland becomes denser at a lovely moist valley of rough-barked eucalypts with a green bracken fern understory. The rocks in this area are covered in a great variety of lichens, and one with a flat top had a coating of basket ferns and orchids. Just past this valley the walk goes up over a slab (follow markings on slab) then there is a large boulder on the left after which the forest opens allowing a clear view of Mt Norman; an excellent example of how the “granite” weathers.

Leave the track just past this boulder and follow the slope upwards to the first summit (track not marked). We found what we thought was the Bell Fruited Mallee almost at the top of the slope. It turned out to be a related sub species E. approximans approximans (Barren Mountain Mallee), which is not listed as being in Girraween. Current records show its distribution as restricted to Barren Mountain in NSW.

The view south from this elevated area was across the moist valley to Bald Rock. The moist valley is clearly defined by the green foliage of its trees contrasting with the more somber olive-green of the surrounding forest. It would have been a very attractive view in full sun.

The weather was grim and having found and photographed what we thought was E. approximans condocarpa we headed back to the car park without venturing higher. Wouldn’t you know it? The weather lifted to a clear blue sky just before we reached the car park.

We didn’t discover our error about the identity of the mallee until we got back to our cottage and compared our notes on the fruit and leaves with the descriptions of the Bell Fruited Mallee and the Barren Mountain Mallee. On the fruits alone they are quite distinctive. I guess we will have to force ourselves to return.


The 4×4 Drive

After lunch and a toilet stop at the Mt Norman car park we set out on the 4×4 track and what a wonderful journey awaited us! It is definitely only for higher clearance vehicles and our standard suspension Pajero managed it without difficulty. The track was easy 4×4 driving with some tricky rock areas, and soft patches that would be boggy in the wet. As a general rule always check road conditions with the Rangers before setting out.

The drive passed in and out of open and dense eucalypt woodland with clear views of the rocky landscape in some areas. Parts of the road pass through dominant stands of Eucalyptus brunnea (Brown gum) – a beautiful species with shiny, broad leaves and smooth grey bark, which on shedding shows cream, yellow and red-brown patches of new bark. Shiny leaves are not common in eucalypts. This species is a standout with its lovely coloured bark, and dense canopy of broad leaves that shine and shimmer in the sunlight.

At one stage the road crosses a lovely granite-lined creek fringed with understory shrubs and Apple Box (Eucalyptus bridgesiana). We couldn’t find a name for the creek but it appears to be a tributary of Pyramid creek. The bridge crossing the creek was on the border of the Park and cleared, private grazing land.

The road eventually joins Pyramid Road and returns to the Rangers’ Station over a well maintained, unsealed road through more wonderful forest and in places good views of the Pyramids. We had to return to Brisbane the next day otherwise we would have repeated the day’s walk in better weather and the drive.


This walk and the 4×4 drive are ones we can recommend as well as the accommodation at Wisteria Cottages. Timing the trip in September through to October would catch the wildflower season. Put it in your calendar and if you are going through Warwick for any reason don’t forget a pit stop at Café Jacqui’s for coffee and cake.

Lichen Gallery

On our first day we spent time in the forest backing onto Wisteria Cottages and found lovely lichens the rocks. A sample of shots is included below.

 

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