Karmen Butler is telling us about a brumby. The young mountain-bike guide has been pedalling hard but her breathing stills as she describes a beautiful, chestnut-brown stallion that seems to appear sometimes like magic. “Out of these woods; almost out of nowhere,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll see him.”
Spicers and Cunningham gaps are brumby country. Or were, at least. Hundreds of the wild horses used to roam these mountain passes 100 kilometres southwest of Brisbane, which in the 19th century acted as a vital connection through what’s now known as the Scenic Rim between the Queensland capital and the fertile agricultural lands of the Darling Downs beyond. Upon this long, vertiginous shelf’s conversion to national parks, the number of brumbies was slowly brought down to protect native wildlife. Now, though, the rangers don’t mind this one nameless chestnut stallion wandering the land like it’s his own.
Karmen and fellow guide Alastair Oakman push off and lead us on a series of single trails that zigzag down the ridges of Cedar Mountain. This is day one of the Hidden Peaks Trail by Spicers Retreat. The four-day ride through the region is exhilarating stuff with berms flowing from one to the other and spectacular views over the Main Range National Park a giddy distraction. The 18-kilometre ride turns out to be more down than up, but we’re still numb with exertion when, that afternoon, we pedal into Spicers Canopy Eco-Lodge, our first night’s accommodation. Bikes are lowered, champagne raised, and we climb into the beguiling property’s hot tub to sooth muscles and swap stories late into the night.
This is also convict country. The next day we set off from Canopy, heading east, out of the plateaus of the Main Range towards the valley beyond. Slowly, the scenery changes from woodland populated by gum and Kurrajong trees to dense rainforest. We push uphill, urged on by cooing bellbirds and buying back gears on the humped ‘whoa-boys’ (prominent rain diversion banks, named by the drovers who once negotiated them), towards Spicers Gap Road. Skirting the pass at an elevation of 750 metres, this park-protected stretch of cobblestone roadway was built by Moreton Bay Penal Colony detainees between 1859 and 1865 (Peter Spicer himself was a convict overseer).
Sunset at Canopy Eco-Lodge
We stop for lunch at the Governor’s Chair Lookout, so named for prominent rock that sits atop the Gap (and the prominent buttocks that once sat on it, surveying the convicts’ work), looking eastward. You’re barely a 90-minute drive away from Brisbane, the Gold Coast and the Pacific Ocean beyond, but you’d hardly know it. Instead, it’s a stunning view across the rich farmland of Fassifern Valley and the stumpy peaks beyond – a dramatic, primordial caldera that curves to the southeast to flirt with the New South Wales border.
After lunch, Alastair leads the way as we fly in a perfect line down Spicers Gap Road into the valley below. It’s six kilometres of sweeping fire-trail turns, an exhilarating bitumen stretch pushing our bikes beyond 70km/h. That night, we gather round the fire pit at our second overnight stop, Hidden Peaks Eco Camp, its cosy, red-gum cabins and lodge cradled by the surrounding ranges. Owls hoot, the Milky Way glistens above; right now, we might just be the only people left in this world.
Day three swaps single tracks and fire trials for a change of pace along a series of valley roads that head north through farmlands and seemingly forgotten hamlets. To our left, the granite mountains of the Main Range stack awkwardly on top of one another, like children’s building blocks. It’s a spectacular view, more Monument Valley than Southeast Queensland. The hard climb into the Hideaway Cabins camp that ends the day warrants embraces and fist pumps, before we swap glory stories and GPS data around the log fire.
A long dinner of char-grill local beef complemented by a South Australian shiraz is fuel for the final morning of our ride: an exploration of Hidden Vale Adventure Park, a sprawling network of mountain-bike trails. With swooping, expertly constructed routes christened with names such as ‘Ripple Effect’ and ‘Almost There’, it’s a daredevil’s paradise. Suddenly, we’re no longer alone, riders of every age, stripe and skill level sharing the trails, high-fiving and urging each other on.
On a misty Monday midday we finally roll into our ultimate destination: Spicers Hidden Vale. Hot showers and a hearty lunch await. We sit and watch the clouds descending off the mountains, light rain a soothing drum on the restaurant roof. What was at the start of the trip a ragtag bunch of strangers are now firm friends. We made it, together – even if no one saw that elusive brumby. Karmen smiles. “Next time,” she says. “You’ll see him next time.”