‘Now we gotta be careful here,” Kerry Neill whispers, brushing aside a low-hanging branch. “We don’t want to run into the Junjudee.”
The forests of Queensland are home to plenty of weird and wonderful creatures. Walking among the pristine, ancient world of Bunya Pines and Sandpaper Figs, we encounter the lairs of highly venomous funnel web and trapdoor spiders and find goannas straight from the cast of Jurassic Park sunning themselves in pockets of light where the sun has permeated through the foliage.
But in this land of mythology where the trees talk to the natural surroundings and the forest itself demands proof we are friend rather than foe to enter, the Junjudee is king.
Loosely translating as “short hairy man”, the Aboriginal Sasquatch is a known trickster with a flair for luring in less intrepid travellers with promises of an escape from the forest, only to abandon them deep in the bush.
The overwhelming vastness of Queensland means there are plenty of places to get lost, but that might not be a bad thing. At around 715,000 square miles, it could fit Scotland inside 23 times over, yet the state has such a wealth of natural beauty that it is nearly impossible to go any distance without stopping to take in the spectacular vistas.
In one day, we loop up from Brisbane’s bustling city centre to the dramatic volcanic peaks of the Glass House mountains where craggy faces watch over the landscape and emerge at white sand beaches to find the shimmering jade waters of the Pacific Ocean breaking against the shore.
We meet Kerry at Triballink activity centre near the town of Mapleton in the Blackall Ranges, around an hour and a half from Brisbane by car.
In the thousands of years before colonisation, this was Jinibara country but it also became a meeting point for First Nation communities from across the state – a place to trade, sort differences and celebrate the mass fruiting of the Bunya Tree.
Today, Kerry and the team provide Queensland’s youth with a link to that past through a programme of bush walks, indigenous survival skills and storytelling designed to keep the legends of the local communities alive.
Before we are granted permission to enter the forest, Kerry insists we are painted with traditional Aboriginal symbols as an olive branch to the surrounding trees, an assurance that, as visitors to the land, we come in peace.
“A carpet snake for you bro,” he says with a laugh, thrusting a clay-covered paintbrush towards my face before inscribing the totem on my cheek.
Our crash course in bushcraft covers traditional remedies, including using the abundantly growing Bracken Fern to treat green ant stings and the best ways to prepare kangaroo and emu, before trying our hand at boomerang throwing – a pastime, Kerry assures me with a grin, that is making a comeback.
Every landscape has its own story to tell and after passing through the Noosa Everglades – where sap from the Melaleuca tea trees has turned the water into the world’s largest cuppa – we escape the bitumen for a spot of off-roading, Queensland style.
In a country famous for its beach-centric lifestyle, the 50-mile stretch of sand connecting Noosa Township with Rainbow Beach is unlike any other. Not only is Teewah Beach a legal road, only accessible to those with four-wheel drive vehicles, but one with speed cameras and a police patrol. Named after a generous local hunter, the iron-rich, reddish dunes were a popular haunt of the Gubbi-Gubbi community – a place where loyalty was tested through song, but thankfully for the people of Queensland there is no need for me to be dusting off the vocal cords and we continue hurtling along the “road” until we reach the breathtaking panoramic views of Double Island Point Lighthouse.
Returning to Brisbane, I’m in need of a drink, and a two-night stay in the eclectic and opulent surroundings of Ovolo Inchcolm, located in a 1920s medical practice in the cosmopolitan Spring Hill district, is the perfect base to explore the city’s nightlife.
An evening on the tiles under the bright lights of the Valley – where the bottles of XXXX Gold keep coming and every bar is buzzing with a friendly mix of locals and fellow travellers – seems like a great idea at the time, but a few hours later I start to wonder whether the overindulgence in Queensland’s finest was the best plan.
The morning wake-up call for our day on Tangalooma – an island haven just an hour across Moreton Bay on the ferry – comes a little bit too early, but admittedly there are worse ways to spend a slightly hungover Sunday than snorkelling around the famous wrecks.
Scuttled by the Queensland government in the 20th century, the Tangalooma Wrecks were designed to provide safe anchorage for boats, but are now home to a thriving ecosystem of coral and inhabited by a hue of colourful marine life.
Within moments of entering the temperate waters – described as “cool” by the locals or “like a bath” for those of us from beyond the wall – we are swimming among shoals of ornate tropical fish and told to keep an eye out for dugongs and sea turtles.
All is serene before our snorkelling guide spots something below the gently lapping waves.
“Down there,” she announces proudly, “there’s a shark”.
Suddenly I’ve never felt more sober. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, I’m gripped by fear and I start to wonder if watching The Meg on the plane over was the best idea – there is no Jason Statham to save me now.
Our guide seems completely unmoved by my peril. Diving down, she extends an arm to point out the brown speckled skin of the Wobbegong, a lethargic carpet shark growing to no more than a few feet in length – we’re safe.
Navigating my way through Brisbane as we kill time before heading to the airport to begin the long journey home, I flip my slightly worn map over to be confronted with the slogan “Queensland: the best address on Earth”.
After a few days here, I’m inclined to agree. Just remember; never trust a Junjudee.