‘There are loads of snakes in the grass around here,” says Russell. He isn’t passing comment on the locals, he means real snakes in the real grass that runs in waist-high, honey-coloured swathes either side of us. Straw-stiff strands jab at my trousers as if testing the thickness of the cotton.
“Of course, there’s universal anti-venom now, so the doc won’t need to know which species got you. In the old days, blokes would get bitten again trying to catch the snake that bit them in the first place!”
He chuckles at the recollection, and I feel obliged to chuckle too, an Australian and an Englishman bonding over the dark comedy to be found in life’s little tragedies, the Englishman sticking to the very centre of what suddenly seems an uncomfortably narrow path. Has Russell ever been bitten, the Englishman inquires. “Yep, by a red-bellied snake.” Was that life-threatening? “Well, you’ve got 48 hours if you strap the wound right,” he tells me. No worries, then.
The Gold Coast’s beaches are under two hours’ drive east of here, but I’ve come inland to an arc of mountain ranges known as the Scenic Rim for something altogether different: a taste of Queensland under canvas. This won’t be camping of the earwig-dodging, peg-hammering kind. Spicers Canopy is billed as a luxurious escape comprising 10 safari-style tents with polished floorboards and Bemboka blankets. I have no idea what Bemboka blankets are, but they sound cosy.
However, for all the sundowners and campfire comforts of the Canopy, it’s the rugged landscape beyond that’s key to the safari-style experience. And the call of the wild soon comes. Prohibited from driving into the site’s 5,000-acre reserve, guests must instead park outside, leave their luggage with the staff, and join Russell for the final push – a four-mile tramp through the undergrowth.
Russell is a safari-style experience in himself, the company’s very own dyed-in-the-wool man of the land, with a no-nonsense character and a bristling white moustache beneath a wide-brimmed hat. When he says the bush gets so thick you couldn’t beat a black snake through it, I sense he’s speaking as someone who’s tried.
We leave the grassland and descend to a copper-coloured creek. The track hugs the edge of the water and we follow, walking in the shade of pine trees and eucalypts with peeling bark, picking our way over rocks the size of clenched fists. Russell points out wild rosemary and trails of wild raspberry, and hands me a contrary fruit that tastes of coconut but is called wild banana. If a plant looks like you can eat it then you probably can, he tells me, and I nod sagely while privately pondering what does or doesn’t make a plant look like you can eat it.
Allan Cunningham would have known. Cunningham was a botanist from Wimbledon with a passion for exploring. In 1827 he became the first European to travel in this area, discovering a pass through the mountains (Cunninghams Gap) and reporting back on a region ripe for settlement. The Scottish Leslie brothers took up the call in 1840. The Aboriginal people – who had never seen white men before – concluded the new arrivals were ghosts. Unsurprisingly, there was little appetite for fighting ghosts on horseback and they soon gave up their land.
But the Aboriginal legacy lives on, anchored at the heart of the bushcraft that Russell cherishes. Nature is a flowing, swaying, crawling series of prompts for survival techniques. A bee meanders lazily across our bows. Do I know how Aboriginal people found honey? I confess I don’t. They would grab a handful of harmless native bees, dot their black backs with a colourful dye and release them one at a time – following each one for as long as possible before launching the next – until, eventually, this buzzing relay led them to the hive.
We reach a natural waterhole. Do I know how Aboriginal people might have caught fish here? I think hard, and then venture that they might have used a fishing rod. Wrong. They would toss poisonous vegetation into the water and wait for the yabbies to float dead to the surface. Russell also informs me that if I’m thirsty, I should crouch and splash water into my mouth rather than lying down and leaving myself vulnerable to attack. And I shouldn’t consider lighting a fire beneath that kurrajong tree because when exposed to heat it launches little spikes that will blind me.
We tiptoe across a chain of rocking boulders to the other side of the water, and continue along the trail, ducking under branches and into the sticky embrace of invisible cobwebs. Russell slashes with his stick at a lantana, the noxious shrub that has caused so damaged the ecosystem since being imported by 19th-century settlers. I brace myself for a tirade against invasive species brought by “Poms”, but it doesn’t come. Instead, as we round a bend to face a steep and scrubby hillside, something unexpected happens: Russell stops, holds up a hand and breaks into verse.
“The Man from Snowy River”, written in 1890 by “Banjo” Paterson (of “Waltzing Matilda” fame), tells of a young man’s daring, terrifying pursuit of wild horses down a mountain. It has the head-nodding rhythm of animals on the charge, vowels that roll with the thunder of the chase. Russell recites all 104 lines of the poem from memory, eyes fixed on the slope opposite, clipping the consonants like hooves against flint. “When you stand here, you can imagine it,” he says, simply, at the end, brushing an ant from his hat. And then we’re off once more, this poetical bushman and me, hot on the scent of safari tents and Bemboka blankets.
Adrian Phillips flew with Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888;cathaypacific.co.uk), which flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Brisbane, via Hong Kong, from £1,029 return.
Spicers Canopy (00 61 1300 286 295;spicersretreats.com/spicers-canopy) is a two-hour drive from Brisbane (transfer available), and has 10 safari tents and a communal lodge . Safari packages include a four-day walk along the Scenic Rim Trail. Packages for two, including dinner and breakfast start at A$550 (£290) per night.
The nearby Spicers Peak Lodge (00 61 1300 253 103) offers all-inclusive from A$899 (£469).