Before Sundown became a National Park, it was a collection of leaseholds for sheep grazing. On their days off, the locals used to take 10 hours on a tractor towing a trailer to travel the 20km in to Burrows Waterhole. These days, I’m happy to be able to take about an hour and a half in an air-conditioned 4X4, rather than bumping around on a dusty trailer for most of the day. So much for the good ol’ days.
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Much like the Flinders Ranges in SA, this area is often dry and always rocky. Grazing and fine wool production were started in the late 1800s but were not economically viable. From the 1870s, rich pockets of the minerals tin, copper and arsenic were sporadically mined … but like the grazing, it never proved successful. It may be not a great place for producing minerals or wool; but as a place to visit, it’s a fabulous spot.
The old mine sites are cordoned off and the land cleared for grazing is slowly being reclaimed by the local vegetation. As well as the 150 bird species and numerous native animals including plenty of roos and wallabies, you are likely to spot deer in the open grasslands or hiding amongst the forests of cypress pines.
The Severn River that dissects Sundown National Park has yellowbelly and Murray cod hiding in the deeper waterholes. You are able to try your luck catching these with line fishing but they’re notoriously elusive species – so don’t count on success! There are also reportedly red claw crayfish … although these also proved too smart for the fisherman when I was last there.
As for the four wheel driving and camping – it’s plentiful. There are some top spots to break out the swag or put up the tent. The most popular camping spots are along the edge of Burrows Waterhole. Flat, grassy camping areas and the water to cool down in during the warmer months means that you should book online before you go (as only 60 people are permitted to camp at any one time).
On the long weekend when we were up there, the campground was full. But because it stretches for a few hundred metres alongside the waterhole, it never felt like there were too many people. On a normal weekend you may well have the place to yourselves. The rough access tracks are likely the reason that many more campers head for the easily-accessible Girraween NP of the nearby granite country, rather than going to Sundown.
The access track from the Ballandean side of Sundown is rocky and rough. In 2011, much of the track was graded after severe rainfall caused track erosion. Soon after grading, it only took an hour to drive the 20km. These days the track is getting rough again – so leave the soft roader at home. There are some red clay sections, so if it gets too wet, be warned that the track will become very slippery.
At Burrows Waterhole, there is plenty for the kids to do with swimming, kayaking, setting the traps for red claw or just skipping rocks across the water. There are heaps of animals to spot with the roos hanging around on the edges of the camping areas. If you want a quiet place to put up the feet, Burrows is perfect.
If you get itchy feet for some more challenging off-road driving, it’s not far away. The track from Burrows to Rats Castle hasn’t seen a grader for many years. It has more than a few obstacles to test you and your vehicle. The first challenge is a steep downhill full of moguls – pick your line well, or descend at your peril. It’s good to remember that you need to climb back up this incline to get back to Burrows.
After the descent, there are a few rocky creek crossings which are normally OK – but it’s best to check that there are no diff-destroying rocks waiting just under the surface.
When the Severn River floods, as it does occasionally, all the rocks move about … ready to test the first 4X4 to attempt the crossings after the flood.
Around 1km before Rats Castle you can turn left across the river again or head right and climb the steep, rocky and rutted track that heads up the hill. Best to walk this one first. We chose to go left because I like the FJ’s panels just the way they are.
Rats Castle got its name from the early graziers who saw the rock wallabies moving around on the distinctive orange rock pile on top of the ridge. The wallabies looked like rats and the rock pile looked like a castle. Although the climb by foot to the top is steep and pretty hard going, the view is spectacular.
Below Rats Castle, the track crosses the Severn River before heading west towards the Hell Hole. There are plenty of scrapes and paint marks left by vehicles as they have attempted the slippery, rocky ledges that make up the crossing.
Our group had stopped here to enjoy the scenery while the kids played in the rock pools. Soon after we arrived, another group of three vehicles driven by some Warwick locals turned up to continue across the difficult rocky crossing. They took it easy as they guided each other between and over the rocks and holes.
One of the crossing vehicle’s rear wheels dropped into a rock hole deep enough for it to become hung up on its suspension. Many young blokes would have gone like a bull at a gate to free the stuck 4X4, so it was good to watch these guys take a considered approach trying a number of different options. In the end, a light snatch from the vehicle in front was all that was needed to get the wheel out of the hole and back on solid ground. No damage done, and they kept going on to Hell Hole.
Watching this was a good lesson for some of our group who were new to off-road driving. We retraced our route before climbing the difficult track on the way back to Burrows. Although the FJ lifted its front wheels a few times, the diff lock in the rear made sure that the potentially difficult climb was made that much easier – the FJ climbed like a local mountain goat.
Back at camp, it was time to start the fire and get those coals ready for some good camp oven cooking. The skies out this way are so clear that stars seem to go on forever… and probably do. As the sun dipped below the horizon, it was time to test out the new LED spotties and lightbar. The power of these things blows me away – when only a few years ago LEDs were the domain of only cheap torches. Now they light up the bush better than the old aircraft landing lights that used to be bolted on the ancient Landie.
There are other tracks to explore, including the one down to Reedy Creek. It’s pretty rough and there are a small number of camping spots down there as well. The turnoff to Red Rock Falls is passed on the way into Burrows and is worth a look. The waterfall is often just a trickle, but the rocks glow red as the sun sets. There are a few camping spots around the top of the gorge … but Burrows is the pick of the spots with the waterhole at your tent’s doorstep.
There are plenty of creeks, gorges and ridges to explore by foot and Sundown is a magnet for bushwalkers. Why not bring the mountain bikes as well? The tracks are perfect for a bit of mountain biking (although the hills are pretty steep, so bring your fitness).
In winter it gets pretty cold. It even snowed on the higher peaks in 2015. Don’t bother with your skis though; the snow melts pretty quickly here. In summer, there can be some big storms as the heat builds after 40-plus degrees days. Autumn and spring are the best times to visit Sundown; and make it a few days rather than just an overnighter. Once you arrive, you’ll want to stay longer.
Words by Gary Tischer, images by Gary and Elodie Tischer.