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An Eventful Trek to Chalahn Falls

The best places are the ones that you can return to time and again knowing you’ll have a completely unique experience every time. O’Reilly’s Plateau, located in the heart of Lamington National Park in the Gold Coast hinterland, is one of those places. I’ve visited four times — far too few, given I’ve lived in Brisbane for seven years — and each time I’ve come home with vastly different stories.

On the Rocks

And believe me, I definitely had a story to tell this time around too. Thanks to my friend Michelle for this photo.

My visit in 2014 was all about the Box Forest Circuit. This 11.8km loop leads past a number of popular waterfalls and is a great distance for a day hike. However, it can be demanding, and it certainly was on the day we went. The pouring rain had turned the track into thick glop in some places (generally in the places that seemed to have the highest drop!), and whenever we stopped, we could see leeches squirming in the mud at our feet.

That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time. We still got to see two of the most impressive waterfalls in the area — Box Log Falls and Elabana Falls — and took plenty of photos along the way. We just realised, as we walked tired and muddy through the resort on the way to our car, that we’d done it wrong. The right way to do O’Reilly’s would have been to hike all day and then stay in the resort. That way, we could kick back next to a roaring fireplace instead of dodging the many forms of wildlife that can be found on the road at night (think pythons longer than the road is wide, wallabies, and cows).

O'Reilly's Villa

This is where you want to be after a long hike. But preferably with more water in the spa.

That experience fresh in our minds, when my friend Michelle and I made plans to go hiking at O’Reilly’s this year, we booked ourselves in for a bit of luxury afterwards — a choice that became that much more luxurious when our booking was mixed up and we were upgraded to a two-bedroom villa.

We also made sure to do research on exactly which waterfalls we wanted to photograph, and we both came to the conclusion that we wanted to see Chalahn Falls.

Chalahn Falls from Downstream

Chalahn Falls.

Chalahn is located on the 15.3km Tooloona Creek Circuit, a circuit that winds its way up (you guessed it) Tooloona Creek before looping along the Border Track back to O’Reilly’s. Being slightly further away from the resort, it feels much more remote. We saw two groups — totalling eight people — on the track over the course of the day. Considering we saw significantly more than that on the track that leads to the Tooloona Creek Circuit, it really was not many people at all.

The trip to Chalahn itself does not need to span the entire Tooloona Creek Circuit; a walk there and back from the resort at O’Reilly’s is roughly 10.5km.

Fortunately, we’d done our research, because once we passed Elabana Falls — the furthest many day-trippers venture into the forest — the signage stopped. The next sign we would see stood about 100m from Chalahn Falls (which is around 5km from O’Reilly’s). This would have been fine except for the fact that the track quickly degraded and we began having to scramble around and over fallen trees. In my head, this began to plant a seed of doubt — perhaps we’d missed the turnoff and we weren’t on the right track after all?

Elabana Falls

Elabana Falls (taken in 2009).

(We found out later that the track was in a particularly bad state due to heavy rains two weeks before that wreaked chaos on the forest. Because the Tooloona Creek Circuit is that little bit more remote, it was the one track that National Parks hadn’t cleaned up yet.)

The track involved a number of creek crossings, and I found myself wishing that I’d brought water sandals — even if taking my boots off came with the risk of later finding leeches attached to my feet. My friend could bound from one rock to another, but with my camera bag and tripod strapped to my back, I worried that I’d land on a rock and then my momentum would carry me forward into the stream anyway.

Through the Trees

Climbing through one of many fallen trees blocking the path. Thanks to Michelle for this photo.

To avoid this, I decided to splash through the calf-deep streams. I felt much safer — especially since the streams were so clear that I could always see the bottom — but I also filled my boots up with water. They provided a nice squishy soundtrack to the rest of our walk!

The Track

This was one of the first signs we’d seen in a while. I still walked the wrong way and had to turn around 100m up the stream.

Just as our stomachs started to grumble in anticipation of lunch, the familiar roar of rushing water filled our ears and Chalahn Falls came into sight. It was every bit as spectacular as the photos that had inspired us to go there, with its twin streams of water crashing through the lush rainforest onto the green-carpeted rocks below. It was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch, and I only came across one leech while sitting on the rocks — and surprisingly that was the only leech we saw the whole trip. What a change from the year before.

Since our goal in visiting Chalahn Falls was to photograph it, we made sure we did that right — and took over an hour to do so. We clambered across the rocks and through ankle-deep sections of Tooloona Creek in search of the perfect angle on the falls.

Underneath Chalahn Falls

Up close and personal with Chalahn Falls.

Luckily, my friend is fully capable of staying on her feet. The same can’t be said for me. At one point, she was standing on a pile of rocks further downstream, with me clearly visible in front of her as I set up my tripod. She looked up at the clouds and then looked back down to see me hanging from the rocks, only caught by one of my boots lodged between the rocks above.

She had no idea how I got into that position, and I didn’t really know either. I knew that I had been balanced behind my tripod, standing on the edge of one pile of rocks with about a 1.5m drop behind me. One of my feet slipped and the next thing I knew, I was hanging upside down.

Lump on my Shin

Shins are usually this shape, right?

How I escaped relatively unscathed was even more of a mystery. Despite the fact that my halt had been stopped by my ankle and the boot around it, I didn’t sprain my ankle. Even though I had literally fallen headfirst off the rocks, I didn’t sustain any head injuries. My head came within about a foot of a very sharp-looking rock, but the fact that my boot jerked me to a halt meant I didn’t touch it at all.

Chalahn Falls

My favourite view of Chalahn Falls was also the easiest to get to.

Yes, I had a very impressive-looking egg on my shin and blood running down the other leg, but I was perfectly capable of walking back out of the forest (and even taking a few more photos before I went…at least, once I got over the shock).

The best thing about the whole situation? My favourite shots of the falls were from the spot where I ate lunch, which required no climbing on rocks at all.

Gwongurai Falls

Gwongurai Falls, located on the Tooloona Creek Circuit between Elabana and Chalahn Falls.

Even though turning around once we’d reached Chalahn meant that we would miss other landmarks along the Tooloona Creek Circuit, a big upside was that we knew exactly what to expect on the way back. Therefore, it took much less time and we even had enough time to duck onto the Box Forest Circuit for a 1.2km detour to Box Log Falls.

Box Log Reflections

Box Log Falls as it looked in March 2014.

This waterfall was one of the highlights of our previous visit. It was even more of a highlight now because the water pouring through the falls had easily doubled, creating an entirely different look. And by this point, I’d spent so much time with my feet underwater that I didn’t think twice about the fact that I had to get through nearly knee-deep water to find the right angle on the falls.

The Rush of Box Log Falls

Box Log Falls.

By the time we finally emerged from the rainforest, torches lighting our way, it was well past nightfall. Stars were beginning to appear in droves above our heads and the fires of the main lodge had been lit to ward off the autumn chill. If there was a better way to spend a night like that than lounging in the spa on the patio of our villa, I didn’t know of one. It was the perfect end to a not-so-perfect — but very unique and entertaining — day.

The View from Our Villa

The starry view from the spa at night.

O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat is located in the western side of Lamington National Park and is roughly a 2-hour drive from Brisbane. The luxury two-bedroom villa that we stayed in features two ensuite bathrooms, a full kitchen and living area, and a patio with spa. It sleeps up to 7 people and costs $390/night in low season. Luckily, all of the hiking in Lamington National Park can be done for free!

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