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Published January 21st 2016
Mount Warning's challenging cousin
Mount Cougal's West Peak, taken below the east summit.
Those living in Brisbane or the Gold Coast are likely familiar with Mount Warning. It's been named one of Australia's best hikes by National Geographic, and the views from its summit that stretch from the Gold Coast to Cape Byron are something to behold. But while most have heard of Mount Warning, far fewer have heard of Mount Cougal, let alone climbed her.
Growing up in the area, I'd climbed Mount Warning several times, but had never been aware of another peak only 23 kms north. In fact after researching Mount Cougal in Springbook National Park I learned that Mount Warning is just one of the many peaks around the Tweed Valley, a massive caldera that formed when the landscape erupted more than 23 million years ago. It's the same region that forms the Lamington plateau and the Border Ranges National Park.
The landscape is pristine Gondwana rainforest home to lyrebirds, rainforest paddy melon and scores of goanna, and for the enthusiastic mountain climber, Mount Cougals east peak which traverses right along the invisible state border is a hike that's both challenging and rewarding. It's in these parts here where the UK series 'I'm a celebrity get me Out of Here' has been filmed for the last 11 or so years on private land, and it's undoubtedly beautiful scenery, especially as dappled sunlight filters through the trees.
The secret to reaching the summit is following the fence line which also marks the state border of NSW and QLD
To get here, you'll need to take Thrower Drive off the Gold Coast Highway at Palm Beach, crossing the Thrower Bridge and then turning right at the traffic lights onto Currumbin Creek Road. Keep on this road for about 11 kilometres until reaching Tomewin Mountain Road, and continue the winding road until you reach the Garden of Eden Road turnoff. Eventually you'll reach a dead end and it's here there's a small car park. There's nothing much here but a small sign announcing private property on either side of the fence line that marks the border between New South Wales and Queensland.
Right from the beginning of the hike, deep undergrowth begins
Right away the fun and challenging hike begins, ascending steeply through thick undergrowth. Proper footwear is a must, and avoiding the trail after rain is recommended. I slipped over no less than three times on the muddy trails and got more than a few deep scratches from lantana. After the initial climb, the trail levels and you reach a cane grass forest of sorts. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous of snakes, but I remembered the adage of snakes being more scared of you, and remembered to stay still should I spot one slithering through the reeds.
The track turning to cane forest is just one of the vegetation changes along the trail
Fortunately there was a well trampled trail through the thick cane and as it opened out to a grassy ridge, the twin peaks of the Cougals appeared ahead of us. Stumpy but dramatic looking, we'd be conquering the east peak on this journey but it was still a ways ahead of us. Take water and snacks. You'll want some time to unwind and appreciate the views when you finally get to the summit.
But before you get there you'll have to overcome some pretty steep sections of the trail, as well as a rock scramble – it's easy enough, but take it slowly on the way down on follow the pink ribbons that mark out the easiest way to navigate, as well as the footholds.
The rainforest canopy in some sections is dense and dark, almost blocking out much of the light. It's quiet, eerie and undoubtedly peaceful as the faintest sound whether a drop of a leaf or the snap of a twig is set to travel through the forest. But as well as looking up, always look right in front to avoid tripping on vines and raised tree roots. There are also a few fallen logs to grapple with which are easy enough, to climb but big enough to slow you down for a bit.
Steep ascent up the mountain along the state border
The major advice I can offer is stick to following the fence line. You might have to cross over it at different point of the journey and literally hop between New South Wales and Queensland, but if you see what looks like another trail, don't take it, even if it may link up to the main trail later – it's just not worth getting lost. Along our journey we didn't see any one else, and there's no mobile reception so for safety's sake you'll also want to go with a group.
Before assaulting the final 'stairway to heaven' to reach the east peak, majestic views stretching down into the valleys below, appeared on our left, as well as the western peak which we wouldn't be climbing. Dotted farms and the villages of Upper Crystal Creek and Numinbah came into view and in the distance a unique perspective of Mount Warning itself. It's worth taking a decent camera if you can be bothered carrying it.
The rainforest was damp, quiet, eerie, but undeniably peaceful
I took my iPhone 5, but there's no doubt you'll capture plenty of detail and make the most of the forest light with a proper lens. Before the rock scramble there's a small rock face and if you can climb this you'll find the entrance to a small cave. I was bold enough to go inside, luckily with the light of my phone torch. It was narrow, claustrophobic and there was nothing much to see. Still, since there was a cave, I had to go inside.
Above a small rock face before the final climb, I discovered a narrow cave, so naturally, I had to enter it.
Upon reaching the summit we caught our breath on the fairly tiny outcrop, and felt a distinct sense of vertigo. There wasn't much room here to dance around, lest you'd fall off the side of the mountain. Still, there was a spectacular light and the stormy skies of the afternoon opened up into an amazing rainbow, which felt like a congratulations from God for making it to the peak.
View from the summit looking towards the west peak and Springbrook National Park
The journey down, while not as physically gruelling was less enjoyable than the way up. Especially tough on the knees, and with the afternoon already fading away, there was pressure on time to get down to the car park before darkness closed in completely. Still, we took time to snap away at the mist closing in, which felt otherworldly and almost like we could have been in the jungles of Borneo.
As the mist rolled through the rainforest, it felt we could have been in the jungles of the Amazon or Borneo
Eventually we reached the grassy ridge and then the cane forest with a picturesque fading pink light, and exhaustion creeping in. Upon reaching the car, it felt amazingly to be back on level terrain and even better knowing that we'd conquered such imposing looking peak. I can't wait to climb her once more.
• Bring plenty of water and food. You'll need some sustenance to recharge.
• Ideally, attempt the hike before midday. It's about a 4 hour return journey, and longer for those with less fitness or climbing experience.
• Stick to the fence line to navigate your way along the trail, and follow the pink ribbons tied to trees when ascending the final rock scramble
• Consider avoiding the hike after rain when the steep trails become muddy and slippery. Proper footwear is a must.
• Look out for leeches. Check feet regularly, and consider bringing salt to help them dislodge.
I did the walk about 10 years ago. In summer the vegetation is pretty thick and you will have close contact with it. After you have completed the walk, don't forget to check yourself for leeches and ticks.
I just read my father's story of climbing "The Cougals" in 1931. He & AA [Bert] Salmon & Party conquered both peaks on the day. Your excellent Photos have shown me just where they went. I'm now 77 and too old to get there but not too old to enjoy your description. Col Payne 24/10/2016