I recently visited Girraween National Park, which is, without doubt, my new favourite of Australia's national parks that I've visited to date (though I've only visited around 20 out of over 500!). Indeed, I spoke to quite a few people who had travelled all around Australia over many years and rated Girraween in their top 10 national parks, up there with Karajini NP and those in the Kimberley. To think Girraween is only a few hours from home, well, that's a bit special.
Where Is It?
Girraween NP is in the far south of Queensland. In fact pretty much as far south as you can go as it's only about 17km from the QLD-NSW border. It's just off the New England Highway, pretty much halfway between Stanthorpe, QLD and Tenterfield, NSW. You can find out more on the Queensland Parks website here. Like many Aussie national parks, and something I really appreciate, you can also download a PDF of the park from their website (here).
There are a couple of campsites in the park. Castle Rock campsite is the larger of the two and basically involves pitching your tent on a large grassy area circled by the road (and also campervans). Bald Rock is more secluded with little camping bays in the bush coming off the road. Neither campsite is particularly exciting as campsites go, you do kind of feel surrounded by other campers and it was quite busy which I always find detracts from the wild and remote experience I normally look for.
Note that you have to book (no dropping the money in a box like here in NSW) and whilst you can get reception close to the highway, it's easier to do so in advance. You can book online here. I imagine the areas gets pretty busy in peak season (October is busy for the spring wildflowers too), so booking in advance gives reassurance that at least you that you have somewhere to stay.
What's So Good About it?
The thing that I really liked about Girraween is that it has a good mix of terrain and walks. It has long climbs up to high granite tors, or gentle strolls through bushland. More than this it has what I've come to see as an unusual amount of open space for a national park. Most national parks I've visited are limited to lookouts that have been cut through the dense bush. This often means walking for an hour or two in unchanging bushland to pop out on a lookout platform to take the same photo as everyone else before trudging back. I'm not a lookout photographer so I find this quite frustrating and challenging in equal measure (though I do take a lot more tree photos now!).
By contrast, a lot of Girraween has open spaces that can be freely explored. Particularly on The Junction walk along Bald Rock Creek the area around the creek is very open, with large granite slabs and isolated, almost bonsai-like trees dotted here and there amongst the gentle cascades. Presumably, because the whole area is basically a collection of huge collection of large granite boulders, the soil is quite thin and lacking in nutrients to support dense bush. Alternatively, there are a good number of granite tors - e.g. the Pyramid, Castle Rock, Mt Norman - which provide fantastically open, natural lookouts and wonderful views.
The mix of granite outcrops and boulders, bushland, isolated trees, beautiful creeks, cascades carving through rock, beautiful creeks and open areas makes for a veritable feast of photography. Literally something for everyone, and there's an abundant displays of wildflowers in October if that's your thing.
In the lead up to a weekend away I kept a close eye on the weather forecast. At first it was looking very rainy (20+mm) and I thought of returning to Waterfall Way near Ebor, NSW for swollen rivers. The forecast improved slightly with less rain but overcast skies. Unlike such many photographers, such conditions are very much my preference. For whatever reason (blame my Scottish-ness I suppose!) dark, overcast skies and soft light get my creative juices flowing much more than clear or dramatic skies.
The first night was the best that was forecast, with cloud and rain not due to set in until after dark. With some good cloud formations about I chose to climb the Pyramid for what I hoped would be a dramatic sunset. The Pyramid is a single gigantic granite boulder and is really quite a sight. Nearby Bald Rock within Bald Rock National Park (funnily enough!) in NSW is the largest granite boulder in Australia, but those in Girraween, part of the same geological structure, are very impressive in their own right. The lower part of the Pyramid climb has been tamed by manmade steps. Once you reach the lower granite slopes you are on a steep-ish climb following white paint marks up the granite. The views from this point all the way to the top are very impressive. Note, half way up the paint marks veer sharply left. Don't do as I did and go straight up vertically, hand on rock with a 15kg pack on. Not much fun!
There are great 360 views of the whole park from the top, across to the nearby Second Pyramid (another huge and inaccessible granite boulder), to Bald Rock, Castle Rock, and Mt Norman. On top you will find Balancing Rock, another large boulder sitting on what looks like the tiniest wedge of rock, set to topple at any point. Quite a sight. Balancing Rock and the various rocks and trees on the summit provide great subjects against a background of distant granite outcrops, or against the much closer Second Pyramid which makes for some dramatic compositions.
Sadly the dramatic sunset didn't quite work out, snuffed out as is common by a bank of cloud on the horizon. Nonetheless, there were some moments of great light, and standing atop such natural wonders as twilight sets in is awe-inspiring.
Under grey skies, Underground Creek and surrounding bushland were perfect subjects for an early start the next morning. Underground Creek is so named as a large rockfall from the granite cliff collapsed and buried Bald Rock Creek under rubble. Whilst standing atop a babbling creek underneath the rock you're standing on is cool, I didn't find this particularly photogenic.
However, skirting around to the top of the cliff provides some fabulous photo opportunities. Before dropping down the cliff and 'underground', Bald Knob Creek carves its way through the granite rock ledge creating some wonderful photographic shapes. I spent a good few hours shooting this area under my umbrella and I have to say it's a wee bit special. Bring an ND filter and a polarizer.
Sadly the rain set in pretty heavily for the rest of the day, saturating everything and making photography pretty awkward if not miserable. A schooner in front of the roaring fire in the Jennings Hotel (a quaint little place, run by fellow Scots folk) dried me out and saw off the worst of the rain so I headed back into the field.
The Junction walk from Bald Rock campsite is quite wonderful, following the wide granite banks of Bald Rock creek to its junction with Ramsay Creek. This walk really is a photographer's delight. Beautiful cascades through pink granite with lone, stunted trees along the banks make it difficult to know where to start. If you only did one walk in the park (with or without your camera) this would be it. The heavy skies and odd shower provided the near perfect weather to enjoy this landscape, although I did return the next day with clearer skies and enjoyed it equally.
Mt Norman was my mission for my last morning, driving around to the day use area to make for a shorter walk in. The short bushland walk opens up into a series of climbs across granite ledges, before the final, short climb to the summit. It's worth noting the granite can get very slippery when wet. One of the downsides of 'chasing the light' is that you become so consumed with getting the big dramatic shot from the summit that you ignore countless compositions on the way (or risk missing it altogether). This, to a large degree, is why I prefer shooting in 'dreary' weather as it gives you plenty of time to follow your creative muse without feeling like you're missing out on the 'big shot' (which rarely appears in such conditions!).
As it turned out there wasn't much of a sunrise anyway. I wandered around the rocks of the summit before finding a way through to a north facing slope, looking back towards the Pyramid. This was a very interesting location, rivulets of water still streaming down the granite face as they had seemingly done for millenia, trees grabbing a roothold amongst where they could in cracks in the rock. Again I spent several pleasant hours looking out on what looked like total wilderness, surrounded by the sounds of nature. Bliss.
During a brief weekend interrupted by rain, I discovered a very diverse and yet quite compact national park with seemed to blossom with as much photographic potential as it's many wildflowers. Only three hours from home I think Girraween is somewhere I will spend a lot of time photographing.
I am intending to include Girrawwen NP as a venue on my 2017-2018 workshop schedule. If you are interested in joining me - and you really should! - please contact me to be added to the shortlist.