In keeping with the cavalier manner in which the fates had of late been effing with our holiday plans, the week we were due to leave for Carnarvon Gorge Brisbane was put into a three-day lockdown once again. The last time this happened, back in January, we’d had to cancel an overnighter we’d booked in Stanthorpe for our wedding anniversary. And there had been, of course, the closing of Sydney over Christmas, which put the kibosh on our plans to drive down south for the holidays. This time, however, the lockdown was due to end the morning we were to leave town.
I didn’t believe it would, though. I’ve had the optimism beaten out of me over the past year. Haven’t we all? I thought they’d let us pack, get all excited, then say, sorry, but we’re extending the lockdown, get back indoors. In the event they did the exact opposite and ended it prematurely, at noon the day before. So when we left town on Good Friday morning at 7am we hightailed it out of Dodge before they changed their minds again and didn’t breathe out (with a mask on, of course) until morning coffee in Dalby.
Because I never really expected to be allowed to go to Carnarvon Gorge, and because I’m lazy, I hadn’t found out anything about it. The whole thing was Tina’s idea, who, as someone who grew up in Queensland presumably had a fair idea what Queensland’s Central Highlands was like. About all I knew about it was that you drive west for five hours, take a right at Roma, and go on for another three hours to get there.
We finally arrived at our campsite at dusk on Easter Friday. It’ll give you an idea of how remote it is that you are well advised to top up on petrol at Injune, the last servo in the last town before Carnarvon for one hundred and fifty kilometres, and we did.
Takarakka Bush Resort sounds fancy, but it’s just a large campsite. Mind you, the Taka Safari Tent we’d inherited from Tina’s brother (who’d had to cancel at the last minute) did have a bar fridge and a private dunny and shower, which meant we’d be glamping, not camping.
First thing on Saturday morning we drove the couple of kilometres from Takarakka to the Visitors’ Centre from where nearly all Gorge business commences. Tina had planned a moderate walk for our first day, sensibly aiming to keep the best walks for later so we didn’t run out of things to do, but 1) the weather was good that first day and 2) it wouldn’t be for the next few days, so I proposed an amendment to the plan which she was pleased to take into consideration, and shortly thereafter, having consulted one of the park rangers on the matter of the gorge’s short-term meteorological tendencies, to ratify.
Off we set. Almost the first thing you do is cross the creek itself, Carnarvon Creek, which always flows, even when it hasn’t rained for months. Unlike most seriously inland bush paths, this one was quite sandy. It took us a while to realise that the sand came from the (‘Precipice Sandstone’) cliffs, and hadn’t been imported from some Townsville beach for our delectation, as we initially (and foolishly) half-thought.
Now pay attention: this is the only scientifically valid part of this blog post, and probably the only interesting one. This whole area was once a floodplain, over which coarse sediments were deposited for millennia, gradually hardening into sandstone. One hundred million years ago – to the day – something you didn’t want to be standing there for, like an earthquake, created vertical cracks in the sandstone. And sandstone is porous, so between the cracks and the water percolating through it, there’s never been a shortage of water (having fallen as rain in the high country) making its way to the impermeable shale layer at the base of the gorge. Shortly after, as far as I’m concerned (but actually some 20-30 million years ago), the earth-shattering event lava oozed over the sandstone plan, cooling in time to form an erosion-resistant cap.
Over the past year I’ve been trying to identify every plant and tree (within reason) I don’t recognize. Ever since our hosts on Lorikeet Lane showed me Picture This, the app that uses machine learning to identify plants, I’ve been pointing my phone at everything from individual plants (e.g. a handsome cultivated tobacco fellow that Tina cruelly insists is a ‘weed’) in my garden to the drifts of bat-eared weirdness (broadleaf woodsorrel) spawning all over our vegetable patch. You know you’re past it when the app you get the most pleasure from on your phone is the one that tells you that the clump of tough, toxic, and pink-tipped bromeliads at the bottom of your garden are called urn plants, or livingvases, because of the water-trapping rosette formed by their overlapping leaves, and even has a poem by Friedrich von Schiller about them.
Walking the gorge path, it helps if you like cycad trees (which happily I do) because these ancient fire-lovin’ zamia palms are everywhere. There were fan palms (Livistona nitida) everywhere too, and of course, loadsa good ol’ gums. But it’s the presence of cycads that really makes a place feel like Jurassic Park. We actually have one in our garden, which thanks to Picture This I knew to be of the sago palm persuasion. Long before Europeans arrived the Bidjara and Karingbal people would pack their dilly bags full of cycad nuts, careful to roast them before each feast to expunge the toxins. Some of the trees we walked past probably date from those times, they grow that slowly and live that long.
So, the thing you do, the thing everyone does at Carnarvon Gorge, is walk along the main track. There’s really only one way to go. Hemmed in by sandstone cliffs, in parts only around one hundred metres apart, you’re continually having to cross the creek, which is easy enough since it’s obvious that the stepping stones in there are far from randomly arranged. Branching off to either side, like fronds on the stem of a king fern up in Ward’s Canyon, are poetic-sounding places like the Amphitheatre, the Moss Garden, and the Art Gallery. Ward’s is another of those places, and gets its name from the Ward boys, old-time possum-trappers who lived up in that damp, mossy place like the critters they hunted.
Because its so linear, if anyone you know is in Carnarvon when you are you’re going to bump into them. I met professional Frenchman and sometime poker buddy Fred Délage at the Art Gallery. What were the chances? A couple of days later who did we run into but Benny Chen and family at Big Bend. How weird was that! And as we were scrubbing our pots and pans at the camp kitchen one morning I’ll be buggered if we didn’t meet the guy who took the family portraits of our big fat Greek family years ago! It seems that when you can’t go to Bali, New Zealand, or Europe, everyone just goes bush.
Because of its linear nature, there is a repetitious quality to the days. But that forces you to slow down to the pace of the gorge, which is very slow indeed. I was slowed even more by the twinge in my knee I sometimes get at the end of my bike ride home. Tina and the kids were a good bit ahead one day, so I took it easy, stopping to appreciate just where I was, a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland. I picked up a vivid red dragonfly as a traveling companion who, fancying his chances with a weakened straggler, shadowed me. But he was good enough to perch (that’s his thing, being a Scarlet Percher) long enough on a rock for me to get off a photo at one stage.
Much as it was great to stumble upon wildlife out in the gorge, especially big stuff like wallabies, most of the time it was just us. We didn’t even see many birds along the path. Back at the campsite however there were always plenty of things scratching and bouncing around. I presumed the tame wallaby-like creatures we petted poking around right outside our tent were wallabies, but then there were definitely some kangaroos in the camp, well over the telltale one metre in height. The gangs of kids roughhousing with the ‘roos occasionally got a box for their sins, and when there was food cooking those feisty macropods sometimes had to be chased away from the kitchen area with banging of pans. Late in the evening, when most people had cleared up and gone back to their tents, possums and rat-kangaroos (better known as rufous bettongs) would mooch around the benches cleaning up the potato and onion scraps.
One evening, we came across a group of people all gathered around one of the cabins near us. An echidna had boxed itself in under the cabin’s wooden steps and was being respectfully scrutinised by child and adult alike. These are elusive creatures. Speaking of which, in the late afternoons we partook of the secular Aussie ritual by staring, beer in hand, into an empty river, waiting for a platypus, or Godot – whichever came first. Alas, neither was ever forthcoming, and despite Tina’s averral of having seen a plattie once, I’m more and more convinced as I get older that this fine cryptozoological furphy is nothing more than some Australian Tourist Board wheeze to get people to pay good money to stay in barren, monotreme-free zones.
Each of our four days in Carnarvon (named, by the way, after the Caernarfon Ranges of Wales) broadly followed a similar trajectory to the first. Drive out of the campsite over the creek (mindful of the fact our Kia was not a 4WD and would be swept away by the waves caused by a flatulent platypus, if they even existed) the 3 or 4 kilometres to the Visitors Area, and set out along the only path, varying previous days’ itineraries only by the side-paths we took. A couple of hours later, back home in time for campsite happy hour, from 4 – 5, where we’d have a drink with some of the people we’d seen out and about. Cook up dinner in the open kitchen area in the evening time. Get enthusiastically pissed, talking to a couple from New South Wales while the lads roasted marshmallows with their kid.
After 5 nights, only the first of which had been starry, we left the campsite area as usual, but instead of taking a right into the park, we took a left out to the Carnarvon Highway and onto the road home.
We’d been lucky and had had a good Easter break. We’d ridden the Darling Downs badlands to the bottle trees of Roma and beyond, and back. We’d seen well-preserved and culturally significant rock art and ochre stencils created by the traditional people of the region. We’d seen dingos, fleetingly, as they scattered from the roadkill they’d been going over as our car approached, and even a wedge-tailed eagle who lazily took off from its fence post as we went by. We’d seen Carnarvon Gorge, one of the country’s most underappreciated icons.