GOR­GEOUS GORGE

Deep in the QUEENS­LAND OUT­BACK, DAVID LEVELL dis­cov­ers the stun­ning beauty of Cob­bold Gorge, a CHASM CARVED into the LAND­SCAPE that man­aged to re­main undis­cov­ered for MIL­LEN­NIA .

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GLID­ING EF­FORT­LESSLY through Cob­bold Gorge in Queens­land’s Gulf Sa­van­nah coun­try, the ques­tion soon be­comes, which way to look? Down into the still crys­talline wa­ters? Ahead to the nar­row rocky rift we’re drift­ing to­wards? Side­ways at the crazy curl of ochre-banded cliff ? Or above, where the rock walls ei­ther side of us rise 30 me­tres to frame the sky? Well, no wor­ries; you can do it all. The si­lence is time­less, and there’s time enough to take in the nat­u­ral beauty in ev­ery di­rec­tion, in­ex­haustible as it is. Queens­land is justly cel­e­brated for its coastal trea­sures – beaches, coral reefs, rain­forests – but its enor­mous in­land has much to of­fer. The wide open spa­ces of north­ern Queens­land’s Gulf Sa­van­nah is out­back par ex­cel­lence: red earth, roos ga­lore, wedge-tailed ea­gles, red-tailed black cock­a­toos and tow­er­ing ter­mite mounds dot­ting the bush ev­ery­where. Among its lesser known jew­els are its amaz­ing and unique gorges. Sprawl­ing 1284 square kilo­me­tres, re­mote Robin Hood Sta­tion isn’t the only Gulf cat­tle prop­erty big­ger than some small na­tions (it’s four times the size of Malta). But it’s the only one with Cob­bold Gorge, the very lat­est thing in gorges, un­known to ev­ery­one but its In­dige­nous in­hab­i­tants un­til the 1990s and only 10,000 years old – by far Queens­land’s youngest. “For those on the left, we call that Duck Rock,” our guide, Gra­ham, sings out from the back of the small flat-bot­tomed boat. Drift­ing qui­etly along the half-kilo­me­tre gorge, our boat tour is ap­proach­ing the nar­row­est point – just two me­tres across – and half our boat­load ducks to avoid a loom­ing rocky over­hang. In the heat of the day, sun­light bounc­ing off the water dances on the cliff walls in wavy shim­mers. Sil­very spi­der­webs – the spi­der species is yet to be de­ter­mined, Gra­ham tells us – gar­land al­most ev­ery crevice. But­ter­flies and drag­on­flies flit over the water; an azure king­fisher is poised on a branch. At the ter­mi­nus, where the gorge nar­rows to noth­ing, a large snake lies half-con­cealed in match­ing wa­ter­side shrub­bery. “I’ll just cut the en­gine so you can see how quiet it is,” Gra­ham says. The en­gine was al­most silent any­way, but our chat­ter evap­o­rates and the still, trance­like magic of this hid­den wild place en­velopes us all. Pro­nounced ‘co-bold’ (not ‘cob­bled’), the spring-fed (thus never dry) gorge is named af­ter its trib­u­tary, Cob­bold Creek, which com­mem­o­rates pi­o­neer­ing Gulf pas­toral­ist Frank Cob­bold (1853-1935), who held sev­eral large cat­tle sta­tions in the re­gion. Ex­actly how it came to be is still a mys­tery, but there are two the­o­ries. One is that a split in the sand­stone grad­u­ally weathered its way to meet and di­vert Cob­bold Creek. The other says seis­mic up­lift made the creek’s pre­vi­ous wa­ter­course up­hill, forc­ing the flow into a nearby crack to be­gin the process of gorge for­ma­tion by water-borne ero­sion. Ei­ther way, the nar­row­ness of the gorge sign­posts its ex­treme youth – 10,000 years makes it a tod­dler, ge­o­log­i­cally speak­ing. The water, slowly carv­ing an ever wider chan­nel through the rock, has barely be­gun its work. Even­tu­ally – in the far dis­tant fu­ture, so don’t worry – the cliff sides, un­der­cut at the high water mark, will col­lapse and push the process fur­ther along.

At the wa­ter­hole where the gorge be­gins, graf­fiti on its sand­stone cliff-wall back­drop – ‘J. E. CLARK 1900’ – shows that Robin Hood’s first own­ers, the Clark fam­ily, came here around the time they took up the prop­erty. But the gorge hid­den be­yond the curl of sur­round­ing cliffs kept its se­crets for close to another cen­tury. Cat­tle­men have lit­tle time for muck­ing about with boats and this spot, in the far south-west cor­ner of the vast sta­tion, was never much vis­ited (al­though it was surely known to the lo­cal In­dige­nous Ewamian peo­ple). The Clarks oc­ca­sion­ally re­turned to water cat­tle, but rarely this far up the creek. Cob Terry did much the same af­ter he bought Robin Hood in 1964. Even­tu­ally, in 1992, Cob’s son Si­mon de­cided to find out where the far end of the ob­scure wa­ter­hole led to. Haul­ing a tinny through the bush, he and a cou­ple of mates be­came the first peo­ple – as far as any­one knows – to go boat­ing into the un­sus­pected gorge. Si­mon was en­thralled by their dis­cov­ery. By 1994 he was tak­ing small groups to see the ge­o­log­i­cal marvel in his very big back­yard. The tourism ven­ture bloomed rapidly, from 200 vis­i­tors in the first year to 10,000 an­nu­ally now, stay­ing at Cob­bold Vil­lage, which the Terry fam­ily built to cater for their vis­i­tors, three kilo­me­tres from the gorge across the Robert­son River. In 2009, 47.2 square kilo­me­tres around the gorge was de­clared Cob­bold Gorge Na­ture Refuge, pro­tect­ing a unique land­scape along with its fauna and flora, in­clud­ing the rare Gil­bert River ghost gum. Pad­dle-board­ing is the most re­cent in­no­va­tion. But most vis­i­tors still ex­pe­ri­ence the gorge much like Si­mon did that first time, on a small wa­ter­craft. Many will see fresh­wa­ter croc­o­diles – about 18 ‘freshies’ cur­rently call the gorge home, and are of­ten seen rest­ing on its rocky banks. Tours also in­clude a bush­walk to the top of the es­carp­ment over­look­ing the gorge. En route Gra­ham tells us sto­ries of this land, oc­ca­sion­ally point­ing out plants such as the ‘soap tree’ aca­cia (its green seeds lather up nicely) and the poi­sonous red-berried gidgee gidgee. At the top, an ex­ten­sive rocky plateau bak­ing in the sun, we peer down into the twist­ing chasm below. For an even fuller pic­ture, a he­li­copter ride presents rugged Robin Hood in all its pri­mal out­back glory. Tak­ing off from Cob­bold Vil­lage, we swoop over rolling hills lightly forested with trees of dark bark and bril­liant green fo­liage. Count­less ter­mite mounds cast long shad­ows in the af­ter­noon sun. But this is just the spec­tac­u­lar cur­tain-raiser. The bone-dry Robert­son River chan­nel ap­pears as a broad sandy strip, end­lessly bi­sect­ing scrub. Fly­ing along and then across it sud­denly puts us above what they call Sand­stone Coun­try – 80 square kilo­me­tres of rocky high­land en­com­pass­ing the gorge. From the air, this land­scape re­veals it­self as a bro­ken ta­ble-top. Mas­sive, roughly flat sand­stone slabs look like grey fin­gers, sep­a­rated by thin chasms burst­ing with bright green tree­tops. And fi­nally, Cob­bold Gorge it­self – a thin black cleft snaking through the sand­stone. From this per­spec­tive you can see the fis­sure that swal­lowed us it­self swal­lowed, now just one seam in the Sand­stone Coun­try fab­ric. Hov­er­ing just above where we hiked only this morn­ing, this al­ready feels like a re­u­nion – or per­haps the dis­cov­ery of a new and fas­ci­nat­ing an­gle to a val­ued friend.

Mas­sive sand­stone slabs look like grey fin­gers, sep­a­rated by thin chasms of bright green tree­tops.

MORE GOR­GEOUS GORGES Queens­land has an abun­dance of gorges that are just as com­pelling as Cob­bold. If breath­tak­ing scenery is your thing, gorge your­self on these.

LAWN HILL

Lo­cated in the Bood­ja­mulla (Lawn Hill) Na­tional Park, in the re­mote north-west high­lands of Queens­land, Lawn Hill’s sand­stone cliffs, emer­ald wa­ters and sur­round­ing lush veg­e­ta­tion are stun­ning. Formed by Lawn Hill Creek, the gorge is an oa­sis in the out­back land­scape, at­tract­ing an abun­dance of wildlife, and of­fer­ing vis­i­tors the choice of walks (tracks into the gorge are of vary­ing lengths and grades), ca­noe­ing, cul­tural and his­toric sites, or the sim­ple plea­sure of drink­ing in the spec­tac­u­lar views. There is camp­ing in­side the Na­tional Park and also close by at Adel’s Grove.

CARNAR­VON

The big daddy of Queens­land gorges, Carnar­von is lo­cated in the Carnar­von Na­tional Park, a short drive from the re­gional cen­tres of Roma or Emer­ald. The gorge it­self presents end­less op­tions to stand in won­der at, from the cool still­ness of the Moss Gar­den to the sheer vast­ness (and amaz­ing acous­tics) of the Am­phithe­atre. There are two ab­so­lute must-dos here: walk to the Art Gallery, a sig­nif­i­cant In­dige­nous site; and set out on the 87-kilo­me­tre Carnar­von Great Walk, tak­ing in soar­ing cliffs and sand­stone es­carp­ments. Sea­sonal camp­ing is avail­able in the park, with year-round camp­ing and ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions nearby.

POR­CU­PINE

Set in­side Por­cu­pine Gorge Na­tional Park, the look­out above the gorge is about 60 kilo­me­tres north of the town of Hugh­en­den. One of the big ticket items here is the im­pos­ing Pyra­mid, a mono­lith of sand­stone erupt­ing from the floor of the gorge and shaped like, you guessed it, a pyra­mid. The birdlife is another draw for vis­i­tors, and there is plen­ti­ful camp­ing avail­able, al­low­ing you to pitch a tent and in­dulge in the soli­tude and beauty of it all.

ROBIN­SON

Sit­u­ated within Ex­pe­di­tion Na­tional Park, 90 kilo­me­tres north-west of the town of Ta­room, Robin­son Gorge is bor­dered by cliffs up to 100 me­tres high and lined with bot­tle­brushes, wat­tles and cab­bage palms, which have been around since the time of di­nosaurs. There are walk­ing tracks and camp­sites through­out the park.

COP­PER­FIELD

Cop­per­field Gorge at Ei­nasleigh (329 kilo­me­tres by road south-west of Innisfail) is just a short walk across the road from the shady bal­cony of the iconic Ei­nasleigh Ho­tel. Broader and deeper than Cob­bold, it has vol­canic basalt rock, a wa­ter­fall and a beach, and of­fers sea­sonal fish­ing and swim­ming, as well as great hik­ing tracks.

HELL HOLE

This is where gorges get real: ac­cess­ing Hell Hole Gorge Na­tional Park, 256 kilo­me­tres north-west of Charleville via un­sealed roads, re­quires 4WD ve­hi­cle and there are no for­mal walk­ing tracks or camp­sites with fa­cil­i­ties. Vis­it­ing Hell Hole Gorge is about be­ing re­moved from the world and com­ing face to face with na­ture at its most rugged and un­touched. Camp near the Hell Hole Wa­ter­hole and strike out (with a com­pass) to see wa­ter­holes over­looked by sheer cliffs, and spot wildlife such as the red-tailed black cock­a­too and yel­low-footed rock wal­laby.

THIS PAGE, FROM LEFT: The wide ex­panse of the Queens­land out­back ; The quiet beauty of Cob­bold Gorge; Set­ting out from the town of For­sayth. PRE­VI­OUS PAGE: Weav­ing through the stun­ning rock for­ma­tions by boat.

FROM LEFT: Lush veg­e­ta­tion abounds at Lawn Hill; The ar­rest­ing dark vol­canic rock of Cop­per­field Gorge. OP­PO­SITE (from left): The best way to get a sense of the scale of the re­gion is to take a flight over it all; The ul­ti­mate end to the day: the in­fin­ity pool at Cob­bold Vil­lage.

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