Catherine Marshall discovers the wonders of Carnarvon Gorge
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.
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