This Rain Forest Holds Half of Australia's Plant Species

Australia's Gondwana Rainforests protect more than 200 rare or threatened plant and animal species.

Site: Gondwana Rainforests of Australia
Location: New South Wales and Queensland, Australia
Year Designated: 1986
Category: Natural
Criteria: (viii), (ix), (x)
Reason: The protected areas include the world’s largest subtropical rain forest, a remnant of the rain forest-covered ancient supercontinent of Gondwana.

Australia’s Gondwana Rainforests are a living snapshot of history, an echo of the days when rain forests covered the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. In the remaining rainforest enclaves, where green canopies surround ancient volcanic craters and rushing rivers are punctuated by crashing waterfalls, visitors might well feel themselves transported to another era.

Gondwana was a giant landmass comprising what later became Africa, Antarctica, Australia, South America, and the Indian subcontinent. Forty-five million years ago, Australia separated from Antarctica, which drifted south and froze as Australia drifted north—a northward trajectory that continues gradually today.

As Australia’s climate became more arid after the split, eucalypt forests and grassland replaced rain forests on much of the continent. The remaining rain forest islands, surrounded by farmland and eucalypt forests, form a chain along eastern Australia’s Great Escarpment.

Although only 0.3 percent of Australia is covered in rain forests today, they remain the guardians of the region’s biodiversity, holding half the continent’s plant species and a third of its birds and mammals. The Gondwana Rainforests provide refuge to more than 200 rare or threatened plant and animal species.

In the rain forest enclaves, you can walk among giant ferns and under ancient moss-covered Antarctic beech trees. In Springbrook National Park, one of the reserves making up the World Heritage site, you can find beech trees up to 3,000 years old. The park is also home to impressive natural bridges and caves lit up like a blue-green galaxy by glowworms.

Volcanic eruptions helped create the rich soil that allows the remaining pockets of rain forests to flourish today. The most prominent remnant of the long-ago eruptions is Mount Warning, or Wollumbin in the Aboriginal dialect, which first erupted about 23 million years ago.

Because the mountain remains a sacred site to the people of the Bundjalung Nation, hikers are discouraged from climbing the peak. Instead, visitors are encouraged to take in the site—particularly beautiful in the early morning light—from a lookout on the nearby Lyrebird track or from vista points in the adjacent Border Ranges National Park.

Dozens of separate reserves make up the Gondwana Rainforests UNESCO World Heritage site. The rain forests were first placed on the UNESCO registry in 1986 and later expanded to include sites in Queensland as well as New South Wales. Previously called Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves of Australia, or CERRA, the site was renamed in 2007 to reflect the connection with ancient Gondwana.

Water cascades down a moss-covered waterfall in Gondwana National Park.

Video by Taylor Glenn, National Geographic

How to Get There
The Gondwana Rainforests are best explored by car. Most of the major sites can be accessed from nearby towns via sealed or gravel roads.

When to Visit
Summer (December through February) is the wet season here, and roads may be flooded during the rains. On the other hand, you’ll find reduced crowds and more spectacular waterfall vistas. If you want to avoid the rain and flooding, plan around the wet season. Check the typical weather conditions for the specific reserves you want to visit before booking.

How to Visit
The Gondwana Rainforests site contains multiple reserves in both New South Wales and Queensland. You can visit one or take some time to hop between several. Rent a car and go at your own pace or book an organized tour. Within the parks, there are multiple walking paths, boardwalks, and skywalks for sightseeing. You can camp in one of the park campgrounds or stay at a lodge or bed-and-breakfast in one of the many towns bordering the parks.