Full of red rolling hills and winning scenic highlights, Sundown National Park is a breath of fresh air in South East Queensland’s iconic off-road scene.
Brisbane and its surrounding regions are far from one-note, but there’s an air of similarity about a few of its well-known haunts; the world’s three largest sand islands hang off the coast, beach driving can be found from Bribie Island all the way to Rainbow Beach, and the green forests of the Sunshine Coast, Scenic Rim and D’Aguilar National Park all have a familiar feel about them. Drift southwest for a few hours though – past Stanthorpe and towards the border with New South Wales – and you will find something quite different in Sundown National Park.
Sundown is only a touch over three hours from Brisbane’s city centre, which is all the more surprising when you see how untouched the park is and how remote it feels. From the small town of Ballandean, you head off the main drag of the New England Highway and follow the prominent signs that direct you to the national park by way of Sundown Road. At the entry to the park, drop your tyre pressures and prepare for a bumpy ride.
Sundown’s national park neighbour is Girraween National Park, a place that’s remarkable because of its giant granite boulders that litter the landscape. Sundown is just as memorable for its rocks, but it’s a different kind of memory altogether. Instead of mossy granite giants, Sundown is filled with an endless supply of small to medium-sized boulders that cover its dense trap rock ranges – including the tracks through the park.
This means that the drive is slow-going along its climbs and descents, and you’ll generally find yourself travelling comfortably at around the 10km/h mark. The lower sections of the park have plenty of cypress pine and eucalyptus as your only view, but once you get closer to its peaks – some reaching over 1,000m – you get sight of some sweeping vistas that will make you want to pull the handbrake and let your jaw drop. One of the best views can be found at Red Rock Gorge, which gives you a down-the-barrel sight of the gorge’s exposed red cliffs – the result of millions of years of erosion slowly carving out the landscape. This is a short detour from the main track, but it’s well worth the side trip.
Back on the main track, there’s another showstopping scene. As you pass by an old mine site, the trees thin as you reach a plateau, and the view almost becomes panoramic. You get an uninterrupted look out at all the rolling hills in the park, and there’s even a picnic table and shady tree to sit under and take it all in.
From here, the drive descends towards Burrows Waterhole and Reedy Waterhole, as well as to the park’s best side trip: Rat’s Castle. Rat’s Castle is maybe the toughest drive in the whole park, with plenty of sharp descents (and ascents), places to get flexed and some river crossings for good measure.
There are other side trips you can do as well, including the left-hand shortcut after Beecroft Mine, plus the track to The Broadwater camping area if you’re entering the park from the southwest.
Even after the highs of the drive and its inspirational views, the camping at Sundown may just trump it as the park’s biggest highlight. From the eastern entrance, you have the choice of camping at Red Rock Gorge, Reedy Waterhole and Burrows Waterhole. Red Rock Gorge and Burrows Waterhole have pit toilets, but apart from these there are no facilities accessible from the park’s eastern entry, which makes camping at Sundown feel slightly more removed from civilisation.
Red Rock Gorge is the smallest of the three, while Burrows Waterhole and Reedy Waterhole both offer riverside camping in shady and spacious surrounds. From the comfort of your campsite, you’re likely to spy plenty of eastern greys, birdlife galore and deer from time to time.
Nundubbermere Falls Camping Area, which is accessible by 2WD from the park’s northern entry point, also gives campers plenty of space, plus the added benefit of being close by to the waterfall after which it’s named.
Meanwhile, from the southwest entry to the park, travellers can access Broadwater Camping Area. It’s well-appointed compared to the other campgrounds, with pit toilets, BBQs and bush showers, however there are no rubbish bins, the same as the rest of Sundown. This means that it’s important that you have the capacity to take out any rubbish you bring in, no matter which campsite you stay at.
Thanks to its rugged feel, unique landscapes and top-notch campsites, Sundown National Park should command the same level of respect as some of its shinier coastal hotspots. However, since it oddly goes under the radar, it means there’s a better chance you can enjoy the place in peace when you next head down that way.