Hidden amidst the sprawling farmlands of Queensland’s central highlands, the sandstone wilderness of Carnarvon Gorge is a rugged and wild playground of towering cliffs, spectacular gorges, lush riverside forest and beautifully preserved Aboriginal Art, not to mention some of the best hiking trails in the state.
Carnarvon Gorge was one of those places I’d been looking forward to visiting for a while, yet I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from it. I guess I was expecting something similar to the Blue Mountains in NSW. That was the impression I’d gathered from the photos I’d seen, but like a lot of places, the photos really don’t do it justice.
It’s a 750 or so kilometre drive from Brisbane, although we came down from the north, making it a 240km drive from Emerald. For most of the trip, the countryside is sparse, brown and clearly suffering from the effects of drought, and it’s not until the final approach to Carnarvon Gorge National Park that the land begins to grow a little greener. As it was, we hardly noticed, as we managed to catch the tail-end of a huge dust-storm sweeping its way across the state, and so we drove in beneath hazy-brown skies and limited visibility.
We headed up to Sandstone Camp, just outside the park entrance, a newly established campground slowly working towards becoming a caravan park. It’s little more than an unpowered campsite at the moment, but perched atop an open ridge, the views are an absolutely beautiful sight to wake up to – especially since the dust-storm had passed and the skies were clear and blue.
From our camp, we could see the towering sandstone cliffs and the wild plateaus beyond. From afar, they certainly did remind me of the western Blue Mountains, just as I had expected.
As we drove in, though, things began to change. The bush here isn’t so dry; it’s actually quite green, and the tall eucalypts and lush forest at the mouth of the great gorge is a welcome sight. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so much like the western Blue Mountains after all. There’s a Visitor Centre here, and a campground that only opens during school holidays, but the large grassy area is still a great place for a picnic.
There’s really only one walk that leads into the gorge, and it’s 9.7km of beautifully meandering trail that follows Carnarvon Creek to Big Bend Campground. While this little trek is pretty beautiful on its own, it’s the numerous side-trips that showcase just how spectacular this area is.
Depending on how much of a walker you are, there’s enough to keep you occupied for a good couple of days, or even a couple of weeks if you feel like turning your attention to the 87km Carnarvon Great Walk. This trek is the only way to experience the remote heart of Carnarvon National Park.
Setting off on the Gorge walk, the track crosses the gently flowing river and heads into the open bush that borders it. It’s a lush blend of towering euclaypts, cycads, grass trees and slender fan palms that certainly don’t seem to belong out here in the bush. Red-backed fairywrens, blue-faced honeyeaters and rainbow lorikeets were particularly plentiful amidst the flowering grass trees. The whole area is renowned for its wildlife, with wallabies, echidnas, platypus, bats and five species of gliders calling the park home.
The trail through the gorge is gentle and easygoing, which can’t be said for the first side trip, a climb up to Boolimba Bluff. It’s a steep and hard track, but not overly challenging, and from the top, there’s fantastic views of the sandstone wilderness.
Next up is the Moss Garden, a short detour into a small enclave of moss-coated rocks and a fern-shrouded waterfall. The Amphitheatre, marking the roughly half-way point of the gorge track, is an erosion-carved chamber within the cliff-line, a labyrinthine cavern surrounded by tapering stone walls. It’s accessed via a stairway into a narrow canyon that emerges from a wall of sandstone painted in a strata of rich colours.
The narrow confines of Wards Canyon protect an isolated population of king ferns, the world’s largest fern, while the furthest reaches of the gorge protect an amazing gallery of Aboriginal stencil art, as well the sculpted sandstone depths of Boowinda Gorge. The Gorge Track ends at Big Bend Campground, but you can climb on, ascending the cliffs via a rough track to Battleship Spur, and onto the Great Walk beyond.
By the time we made it back to the visitor’s centre, Carnarvon Creek was looking awfully nice for a swim. We headed down to Rocky Pool, the only designated swimming area along the river. It’s certainly nice enough, with a beautiful swimming hole on a bend in the river, surrounded by rocks occupied by sun-baking turtles.
There’s also three more sections of the national park to visit beyond the gorge, although getting to them is a little less straightforward. Still, the Mount Moffat, Salvator Rosa and Ka Ka Mundi sections have some great places to check out, as well as some good 4wd tracks and campgrounds.
If you’re heading to the northern sections via Springsure, Minerva Hills National Park is worth checking out, too. A rocky, volcanically-carved landscape of jagged peaks and exposed plateaus, it’s remarkable just how different a place it is to Carnarvon Gorge.