At last... Carnarvon Gorge
I'm not sure why it's taken so long to write about Carnarvon Gorge. It's partly because our visit was tacked on to the end of an Outback trip, and I didn't consider it outbacky enough to be included. And there were many issues to do with the Outback – cows eating it; where it begins, and so on – that I wanted to write about first. I can't plan another big trip, however, without finishing off the previous one.
Carnarvon Gorge is in Central Queensland's Sandstone Belt, roughly between Blackwater (east of Emerald) and Roma, north to south, and the Leichhardt and Landsborough highways, east to west. You access the Gorge section of Carnarvon National Park from the Carnarvon Developmental Road halfway between Rolleston and Injune. It's a fairly remote area, but well worth the effort to get there; it's a day's drive from Brisbane. Crossing the Clematis Ridge across the mouth of the Gorge is to enter another world, majestic and mystical; a lost valley.
My favourite explorer Ludwig Leichhardt passed close by, to the east, in 1844. Two years later, Major Thomas Mitchell passed to the west, and named the range after the Welsh hills. Pastoralists were settling in the area by the early 1860s.
Between 230 and 180 million years ago rivers deposited sediment into a huge inland basin in this part of the world. The sediments were eventually compressed into rock layers. Then, 80 to 65 million years ago, the land was pushed up, forming the Great Dividing Range. (In the same era, Australia broke free from Gondwana.) Much more recently (35-27 million years ago), following volcanic activity, basalt covered the sedimentary rocks, since when water has been eroding the rock layers into dramatic clefts.
As we approached the region from Longreach, along the Dawson Developmental Road, the western extremities of the Carnarvon National Park formed a dramatic backcloth to the semi-arid cattle country. Even as we got much closer to our destination, sandstone cliffs seemed to present an impenetrable barrier.
We were staying three nights at Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge: there is also accommodation at Takarakka Bush Resort, where you can camp or caravan. The meals at the Lodge's licensed restaurant were good and welcome after a hard day's walking. The cabins are cute, but between the wooden panels and the tin roof you can see below are canvas 'walls'. We were there in the middle of winter* and night-time temps fell to 3 degrees. There was an efficient heater in the cabin but we didn't want to keep it on all night: by night two I was sleeping in a hoodie beneath blankets and duvet.
We had two days in which to explore. I wanted to walk up the Gorge in the best weather, but we made the wrong decision. It's tricky, however, because the weather forecast posted is for Rolleston, 110 km away, and I'm sure the Gorge has its own microclimate. (Incidentally, the side canyons are at least a couple of degrees cooler.) We'd expected the first day to brighten up, but it didn't, and the magnificent rock walls remained stubbornly dull. The sun appeared the second day, when my legs didn't fancy the Bluff-climbing I'd envisaged.
Decide how far you want to walk into the Gorge and which side diversions to explore. Ask locals and other guests for recommendations. You're unlikely to be able to walk to the end and back – and see everything properly along the way – in a day, unless you make an early start. The track is easy and mainly flat, but the creek crossings are not clearly marked beyond the first few (there are more than 20 in all) so you have to choose your stones and feel your way. The advice is to walk as far as you want to go into the Gorge and visit side features on the way back, but I really wonder about this. We thought we had time to reach Cathedral Cave almost at the end (see well-used map below: click to make larger) based on early progress, but the creek crossings and track become more demanding beyond crossing 16, where the Gorge narrows. After a late picnic lunch and a look at the art, we had to virtually power-walk back in order to call in at our chosen side attractions. And we had to give the Moss Garden a miss, especially as the light was fading, which was disappointing.
Allow time before you start to visit the National Park Headquarters where there's plenty of info plus helpful people to answer questions about weather, fauna and flora, walks and camping if you're doing the 86-km Carnarvon Great Walk**.
The main track starts just beyond the Park's HQ. You cross Carnarvon Creek almost immediately, via easy stepping stones. You climb up away from the water and through tall open eucalypt forest. It's like walking through an aviary, the birdsong is so striking. The birds in the Gorge seemed to inhabit their own zones: first the lorikeets, then the friarbirds, sulphur-cresteds and currawongs: swallows and wagtails are everywhere. We soon disturbed a roo taking morning tea.
The other-worldliness was augmented by Carnavon's Macrozamia cycads, which have no common name. They surround the cabins and gather in huge clumps in the early stages of the walk. I found the flowers disturbing as well as spectacular. Carnarvon Gorge is also known for its rare and fabulous fan palms, which can reach 30 metres.
The Creek narrowed and widened and narrowed again, with no shortage of photo ops along the way. I constantly bemoaned the lack of sunlighting, however.
And so we reached the massive wind-eroded overhang known as Cathedral Cave, 9.3 km from the Park Headquarters and an extensive Aboriginal art site. It is believed that the net patterns were produced by overlapping stencilled narrow Vs blown between fingers held apart, a painstaking process. The Bidjara and Karingbal peoples gathered here to perform ceremonies and rituals, having walked long distances and collected Macrozamia nuts along the way. The images tell their stories. If you don't walk as far as Cathedral Cave, then check out the Aboriginal Art Gallery, 5.5 km from the Park Headquarters, which has many more stencils, engravings and free-hand paintings, which unfortunately we didn't have time for.
Ward's Canyon – named after a couple of fur trappers at the turn of the 20th century – was about halfway back, near crossing 9. There's a steep but short climb up steps into this side gorge which is another world again, and noticeably cooler. A permanent source of water enables King Ferns to flourish in a rainforest remnant that survived as Australia's climate became drier and hotter. The ferns have grown like this for about 300 million years. They add to Ward's rarified atmosphere and sense of isolation. This is the only location in inland Queensland where these ferns are found, and it's a must-see.
The next phenomenon is the Amphitheatre, half-a-kilometre down the track. This almost defies description. Walking quickly and climbing up to Ward's Canyon meant my legs were baulking at the prospect of a 1.6 km detour, but to have missed this would have been a huge mistake. Behind a soaring cliff is a 60-metre-deep chamber – with great acoustics if you're inclined to sing a few notes – formed by water eroding major joints in the sandstone. On the floor are yet more ferns. If you don't like heights, you may not fancy the 10-metre ladder to reach the extremely narrow crevice that is the Amphitheatre's entrance. But it's OK, I promise.
The last four kilometres home were quite hard, and seemed endless. We had walked at least 20 kilometres, and although Boolimba Bluff was tempting for its views, the legs were not willing. Back at the Lodge, I felt a beer hadn't been so well-deserved since our Cradle Mountain marathon on Tassie.
So, what to do on day 2?
* The peak season for visiting Carnarvon Gorge is March to October. There is a risk of flash flooding during the Wet. Wilderness Lodge is closed from 31 October until 1 March
** For highly experienced, self-sufficient and fit bushwalkers, used to navigating in remote and rugged country with the appropriate equipment
This post was updated on 12 November 2016