DES­TI­NA­TION AUS­TRALIA

Cather­ine Mar­shall dis­cov­ers the won­ders of Carnar­von Gorge

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HAT colour is Queens­land? Sat­u­rated gold and blue, say the trav­ellers drawn to its shores like heat-seek­ing mis­siles. But let me tell you a se­cret: th­ese par­a­disi­a­cal vis­tas are just but­ter ic­ing on the de­li­cious mud cake that lies be­neath.

Far be­yond the sea breezes, up into the cen­tral high­lands, Carnar­von Gorge has been slashed into the earth like a jagged wound. It fes­ters in a steamy broth, prop­a­gat­ing an im­pres­sive di­ver­sity of ex­otic life forms: rem­nant rain­for­est, cab­bage trees, an­cient cy­cads, elu­sive platy­puses and 173 species of birds.

Our jour­ney from Syd­ney to the Carnar­von Gorge Na­tional Park by­passes Queens­land’s fa­mous beaches, tak­ing us in­stead through towns with names fa­mil­iar in a cur­rent af­fairs kind of way: Narrabri, Moree, Goondi­windi, Roma. In places along the Carnar­von High­way, cat­tle loll about on the bi­tu­men as though they own it and young Akubra-and-plaid-shirt-wear­ing drovers (stock­boys, we called them face­tiously) lan­guorously drive them on.

The road dis­sects a mois­ture-sapped land­scape where farms lie fal­low and trees stand ram­rod straight on faroff plains, like cush­ioned pins. The mu­ral is bathed in an an­gelic, late-af­ter­noon glow as the great big lid of grey that has hemmed us in since Tam­worth cracks open. On­ward we press to­wards the cen­tral high­lands, into a place that has be­come hilly, ridged and dark green. Road­side signs alert us to steep de­scents, un­fenced roads and wan­der­ing stock: no fences for 13km. Be­ware of the stock, warns one.

An­other, in an ur­gent, pan­icked tone, ex­tols the dan­ger of the nox­ious parthe­nium weed. In our mother­land, South Africa, we fre­quented a route that car­ried blunt warn­ings of crim­i­nals known to roam the high­way. ( Do not stop your car here, they im­plored.) What to do but laugh with re­lief at Aus­tralia’s com­par­a­tive dan­gers?

True, though, a wild­ness of sorts lurks about the cen­tral high­lands, an an­cient res­o­nance that em­braces us as we de­scend into a vast basin ringed with dis­tant grey hills: Carnar­von Gorge. Freshly starched clouds hang them­selves out to dry and the sun pours down like liq­uid honey, strik­ing eu­ca­lyp­tus trunks so that they blaze sil­ver in the sud­den light.

We don’t pass a sin­gle ve­hi­cle on the 40km dirt road to the mouth of the gorge, yet find that the canyon is not want­ing for vis­i­tors. Like late­com­ers to a party, we en­ter a camp bristling with hol­i­day­mak­ers, their cars bear­ing num­ber­plates from ev­ery state.

Carnar­von Gorge de­mands a mea­sure of phys­i­cal ef­fort from the se­ri­ous vis­i­tor and so we em­bark on a 15km trek, branch­ing off pe­ri­od­i­cally to ex­plore di­ver­gent secondary routes. Hewn from sand­stone and basalt, the gorge is a se­cre­tive vault set into the flat grey plains of the cen­tral high­lands, brim­ming with anachro­nis­tic plants that be­long to an al­to­gether wet­ter, more sub­trop­i­cal re­gion.

The Gar­ing­bul peo­ple, drawn to this mys­te­ri­ous land­scape by the prom­ise of per­ma­nent spring wa­ter, are not far from my thoughts as their gorge un­furls its trea­sures.

At first, palm trees and spot­ted gums gather around us like groupies. One par­tic­u­lar spec­i­men has im­mense bul­bous protru­sions at its base: can­cer­ous tu­mours, na­ture’s freak show. The in­clines be­side us, dot­ted in­tensely with cy­cads, ferns and gum trees, fan gen­tly out­wards. Then they nar­row and be­come sud­denly ver­tig­i­nous, their walls coated in chalky white-and­caramel sand­stone. At a lo­ca­tion named Moss Gar­den, the cliffs eye­ball each other as we squeeze re­spect­fully be­tween them.

Wa­ter seeps from the por­ous, moss-dap­pled sand­stone and ferns shoot out of the rock face like El­iz­a­bethan col­lars. It is dark, wet and hu­mid; I feel as though some­one might zip up the nar­row open­ing above our heads and trap us here for­ever.

Though there are many walk­ers out this morn­ing, a re­spect­ful quiet pre­vails, and the track al­lows each small group a soli­tude that is sel­dom in­ter­rupted. While the cliff face draws the eye up­wards, the gorge floor is car­peted with in­ter­est­ing spec­i­mens: a mush­room not much big­ger than a pin­head; or­ange-and-black ants dart­ing this way and that, mat­ted palm bark lin­ing the path like ready­made car­pet.

Off to the left, a steep climb is re­warded with free en­try to the Art Gallery, a rock face cov­ered in 4000-year-old Abo­rig­i­nal sten­cils, paint­ings and sculp- tures. The works de­pict boomerangs, hands, arms, strange hatch­ings and, most in­trigu­ingly, count­less etch­ings of hu­man vul­vas. The world’s old­est form of pornog­ra­phy, per­chance?

Let me ac­knowl­edge that stand­ing be­fore an­cient Abo­rig­i­nal art­work is a priv­i­lege in­deed. But the gorge’s piece de re­sis­tance lies at the end of a steep climb, which takes us past the Lower Aljon Falls to Wards Canyon, where the wa­ter flows along a nar­row creek over tomato-and-spinach coloured rocks. Al­though Aus­tralia is the dri­est in­hab­ited con­ti­nent on earth, it is home to al­most one-quar­ter of the world’s lichens, many of which grow in Wards Canyon.

They are art­works in them­selves, pat­tern­ing and tex­tur­ing the abun­dant rocks and cav­ern walls. In­side the canyon stands the gorge’s only re­main­ing king ferns, 13 in all, each vast stem held aloft by wa­ter pres­sure alone. Mak­ing our way back down the canyon, we pass a cy­cad with a burst of macroza­mia fruit on it. Its en­tic­ing wa­ter­melon pink shade hides the car­cino­gens that lurk within, poi­sons that the Gar­ing­bul peo­ple are some­how able to re­move.

We re­trace our steps to the camp­site, where night soon swal­lows the day’s in­can­des­cent colour. In the early hours of the morn­ing, my older daugh­ter and I make our way across a black­ened camp­site to the toi­lets. The si­lence is rup­tured by the bub­bling creek and a man snor­ing three tents down. Stop­ping in a clear­ing, we jerk our heads up to­wards the blaz­ing sky.

There are more stars here in Queens­land,’’ says my daugh­ter. Above us, stars fill ev­ery bit of inky dark­ness un­til it seems they are rain­ing down on us like shat­tered glass.

Check­list

Carnar­von Gorge is mid­way be­tween Roma and Emer­ald in cen­tral Queens­land; Qan­taslink flies to Emer­ald and Roma from Bris­bane, with con­nec­tions from other cities. Road ac­cess is suit­able for con­ven­tional ve­hi­cles ex­cept af­ter rain, when routes can be im­pass­able; check con­di­tions be­fore trav­el­ling. Carnar­von Gorge has 21km of trails; some of the more re­mote walks are suit­able only for ex­pe­ri­enced walk­ers. www.epa.qld.gov.au www.qan­taslink.com.au www.carnar­von-gorge.com

Liv­ing car­pet: The floor of Carnar­von Gorge is a won­der­land of ex­otic and pre­his­toric plants

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