Exploring the majestic Carnarvon Gorge
Expect the unexpected when you are hiking in the Carnarvon Gorge.
Embrace the experience when things change. And learn from that.
Don’t get caught up in the everyday emotions of having to do things.
Get out there and explore … explore the land. And, in the process, find out a bit about yourself.
I am talking with Michelle Whitehead of Australian Nature Guides. We are making our way up the main gorge at Carnarvon.
In Queensland’s Central Highlands, it’s one of those places that time almost forgot.
The low cloud from the rain the previous night hugs the majestic sandstone cliffs. Eucalypt trees and palms stretch skyward. It is like a lost world.
At each bend in the trail you half expect to confront a dinosaur. It is that pristine.
I had met Michelle the evening before, at the Discovery Centre near the entrance to the national park.
She was to head a guided hike up the gorge the next morning – 7.30am start from the Rangers Centre near the creek.
The tour takes you up the lower gorge to the Ampitheatre, Ward’s Canyon, the Art Gallery and the Moss Garden.
It includes morning and afternoon snacks plus a hot drink. It’s BYO lunch, water and camera.
But the water coming down the gorge from the overnight rain meant the stepping stones at the first crossing were covered.
Not a good sign, considering the creeks are likely to be deeper and the flow swifter further up the gorge.
Michelle got the billy boiling for an early cup of tea while we considered our position. She even had some fruit cake cut that she’d cooked the night before.
Trained by Savannah Guides to protect and interpret the tropical savannahs of northern Australia and the Outback, Michelle loves everything about the gorge.
She tells me the roundabout way that brought her to Carnarvon.
Having worked in hospitality in Melbourne, she had always found herself in active roles.
“I got sick of inside work, so studied outdoor education at Bendigo,” she tells me.
“I enjoyed travelling so I fell into tourism, especially nature tourism.
“That included outdoor education, whether canoe based or hiking.
“They sought me out for this role. I was invited to apply.
“I’d worked at Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island for a while.
“Carnarvon was my first guiding role. It’s really different to vehicle tourism.
“You have more time to spend with people.
“Their questions … that’s what makes it so good.
“The interesting questions.’’
It’s the diverse nature of Carnarvon that Michelle loves so much. Not just the main features but all the side gorges as well.
The main gorge is beautiful in its own right, she tells me, yet the weather conditions make it so different.
It’s as if it creates its own climate.
As we finish our cuppa, it seems some hikers have already crossed the creek and headed upstream. Others have decided not to join the party and to wait for the weather to clear.
“Would you go?’’ I ask Michelle.
“Yes,’’ she replies, “some of the way, at least.
“We’ll get a better idea at the next creek crossing.’’
Next question … boots on or boots off on the crossing?
“Your choice,’’ Michelle says.
I leave them on. Like she did.
The mist swirls around the cliff faces, the moisture drips from the trees.
The wildlife is incredible. Wallabies and kangaroos feeding on the new shoots of grass beside the walking track.
They are not disturbed by our approach. They treat us as if it was the dawn of time and there is no need to be worried about our intrusion into their domain.
There had not been any significant rain in the area since April. That was five months ago so no wonder the wildlife was out.
You could see where the echidnas had been digging in the dirt for ants. Apparently, they sense the movement of the ants and listen for them.
The rock formations are stunning. So weathered and pitted. The trees reaching up towards the low cloud.
Early morning is beautiful, despite the dampness. The bird calls, the parrots darting through the trees.
As we walk Michelle tells me a major factor of the national park is the geology.
Three river basins interact here – the Balonne-Condamine, the Fitzroy and the Warrego – and five rivers: Comet, Dawson, Maranoa, Nogoa and Warrego.
Yet it also provides a major intake for the Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world.
Stretching over 1,700,000 square kilometres, the basin provides the only source of fresh water through much of inland Australia.
Remarkably, in such a dry continent as Australia the Carnarvon Creek has not dried up in five million years.
The sandstone cliffs can let the water percolate through, slowly seeping down through porous layers.
With this in mind it is of the utmost importance that mining cannot contaminate the ground water in any way.
This is a resource millions of years old, the minerals adding to the quality of the water much more than rainwater does in a catchment dam or a tank.
It’s as pure a resource as you could find. Knowing this, you realise it must not be compromised.
Here in Carnarvon, once it is forced down by the cliffs, the water will seep out at their base and form springs.
As a result of the water you can see the change in the plant life in just a matter of footsteps. Like drawing a line across the land.
The top of the cliffs is what is left of a basalt cap. Volcanoes that became dormant 27 million years ago.
It took time for the water to find its way through and create the gorges and unique features.
If the cap was not there the sandstone would have been eroded by now.
The gorge extends 20km to the west, and there are huge elevation shifts.
From the Boolimba Bluff that forms such an imposing landmark you gain 200m but at the rim of the range you are 1000m above sea level.
Water is the force that has been shaping it.
There is also a wealth of cultural heritage such as the rock art at Baloon Cave, one of three sites accessible. Yet we are only scratching the surface.
The area is rich in indigenous history, too.
The national park is now 10 times the size of the original in order to protect the headwaters, and to protect flora and fauna.
The Carnarvon fan palm is natural to the area while macrozamia moorei is a cycad that only grows in central Queensland.
While the cycad is popular with wildlife, they do not ingest the stone as it is full of cyanide.
Fauna includes the scarlet-sided pobblebonk and emerald-spotted tree frogs.
As you can imagine, the frog sounds in the park are quite extraordinary when there is rain about.
Then there are reptiles such as the black headed python, while the keelback or freshwater snake can metabolise cane toads.
Along with green tree snakes there are black tailed monitors, lace monitors and skinks.
The fish-eating spider, I am told, can be as big as your hand.
Other exotics include the jumping spider, the assassin bug that waits for ants, and plenty of dragonflies in stunning colours.
Of course there are huge numbers of fish and turtles. Krefft’s river turtle is among them.
There are 180 recorded species of birds. From the white winged chough to the red winged parrot, the king parrot, pale headed rosellas, the tiny red-backed fairy wren, and the wedge tailed eagle that can have a 2.5m wing span. As well as the stoic tawny frogmouth there is the southern boobook, the smallest and most common owl in Australia with its distinctive chocolate brown face and large, yellowish eyes.
While the swamp wallaby is a solitary species, the eastern grey is communal. The pretty face wallaby … well, it speaks for itself with distinctive black and white markings on either side of its face.
Monotremes include the short-beaked echidna and its close relative the enigmatic platypus. Is it a bird or a mammal, people ask, with its duck bill, beaver-shaped tail, webbed feet.
Even more curious, it is semi-aquatic, lays eggs and is the only known venomous mammal.
The yellow bellied glider puts on a show of a night, Michelle says, also the greater glider. There are squirrel and sugar gliders, while feather-tailed gliders are small enough to fit in your hand. They are match-box size.
After about 3km of hiking, talking and countless photo opportunities, the roar of the rushing water in the gorge signals time to turn around.
There is not much use going further, Michelle tells me, and besides, the first creek crossing at the Rangers Centre might be an issue with the amount of water coming down the gorge.
And she is right. By the time we get back there the water has come so the only option is to wade through on the creek bed instead of on the stepping stones. They would be very slippery and the force of the water too great.
So we shuffle across the creekbed, just upstream from the stepping stones as it will be more level there.
Safely across, Michelle says that tens of thousands of visitors come to the gorge each year.
“Most people get it,” she says, “but for some reason some lose it in translation.
“We try to see if we can all be on the same page.”
The first inhabitants were the Pitjara and Yarambal people. Both groups shared the landscape which is in itself intriguing in a world where we tend to squabble over things so often.
A real wake-up call for Michelle has been the uni students visiting from abroad who are studying environmental ethics and the like.
The guides walk them through a values-based discussion so as to see how their current behaviour impacts the environment.
They realise the things that makes their phones work cause so much destruction – the rare earths and minerals. It can be quite overwhelming when you think about such behaviour.
“We remind everyone: ‘Take only memories, leave only footprints’.”
- If you want to see wildlife, get out on the walking trails early.
- Walk as far as you can while fresh then return, going into side gorges as you go.
- Pack a torch if you plan a big walk.
- Take enough water to cover the day. If you run out, drink from the faster flowing streams.
- The best hiking times are in the drier and cooler months of April through til October.
- Outside of those times it can be too hot or too wet.
- Check the weather forecasts beforehand. And if a creek or road is flooded, take extreme care. The costs can be immeasurable.
Find out more on Carnarvon Gorge here.
Find out more on Australian Nature Guides here.