Carnavon Gorge, Queensland

  • 17/04/2015

Each Easter long weekend I venture off the beaten track to explore and take photographs. Keeping with tradition in 2015, I hiked through Carnavon Gorge in Carnavon National Park with a good friend of mine.

We left Brisbane Thursday night around 7:00PM. Our journey took us through some quaint towns along the way; Toowoomba, Dalby, Chinchilla, Miles, Roma, and Injune to name a few. If you’re making the trip from Brisbane, keep an eye out for Injune as it is the last stop for 24 hour petrol albeit still some 100km from Carnavon Gorge. After turning off Carnavon Highway (A7) onto Wyseby Road and O’Briens Road we were greeted with 18kms of unsealed road with several creek crossings. A 4×4 is the safest mode of travel because whilst possible via car, conditions change and following a heavy downpour into creek crossings the road can become impassable. For up to date information (i.e. road conditions) contact the Park Rangers before setting off (07 4984 4505).

After eight hours driving (over 670 kilometers – one direction) with stops along the way (driver change and refueling) we made our way into Carnavon Gorge National Park pre-dawn Good Friday. In that time we learned the full advantage of the 4×4’s high beams, as we had come across a multitude of wild animals who had claimed the highway their hunting ground, crossing, or rest stop for the night. If you’re just as fortunate and also travelling through the night, you will likely be greeted by; kangaroos, wallabies, possums, wild cats, cows, the brave owl of the A7 who won’t let you pass unless it’s on the other side of the road, an echidna or two, and more birds, frogs and toads than you could ever count. For this reason, please, don’t speed and be aware of the road surroundings – What makes these long road trips special is because we go out of our backyard and into theirs for a change. Animals only get one chance at crossing the road and they don’t get the restart option like we do in the game “Frogger”, so it’s important we take care. Once inside the Visitors Carpark we made ourselves comfortable and had what felt like the shortest one and a half hour nap. Before we knew it the sun was up and shining in our eyes; it was time to get moving.

Skippy, having his breakfast just meters from the start of our hiking trail from the Visitors Carpark.

Skippy, having his breakfast just meters from the start of our hiking trail from the Visitors Carpark.

Our anticipated circuit was approximately 25km with the plan to hike as far as Big Bend (9.7km from the Visitor Carpark). We would then meander back photographing the scenic sites which diverged outwardly from Carnavon Gorge. We felt that this way was safest for if we dawdled (i.e. take too many photographs) and day turned into night, then we would know our way back walking on familiar terrain. With an itinerary planned, rations packed and cameras at the ready, we set off on our hike.

The track along the Main trail up to Big Bend was quite simple in terms of hiking. There were some initial gradual ups and downs over the contours of the landscape but once into the mouth of the gorge, it was predominantly flat and easy going. The real skill came in to play when navigating which stone to stand on when crossing the streams (especially beyond the crossings not maintained by the Rangers). At these crossings I could not help but feel like Indiana Jones stepping precariously on each rock wondering if it would hold steadfast or wobble beneath me only to ensnare me to my doom (i.e. wet boot). I slipped a few times, but thankfully my waterproof boots kept me dry!

Big Bend (9.7km)
By 9:45AM we had reached Big Bend, the furthermost destination on our itinerary. For anyone camping, and doing it over two nights I suggest you camp at the sites here (bookings essential), then make your way up to Battlship Spur for sunrise. Thank me later and show me the photos – I didn’t get that opportunity due to time constraints. Big Bend is one of those places that when you’re there, you just know you have arrived; it is gigantic, gigantic, gigantic, …antic. It’s so big it has an echo. Cooee! Make sure you test out your lung capacity if you visit! Despite the impressive sheer size of Big Bend, there was something, or rather someone, much smaller who caught our attention. Whilst photographing Big Bend we happened to notice bubbles surfacing on the water shortly preceding the emergence of a small turtle head. I called him Michelangelo – if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could survive in the sewers, then Michelangelo of Carnavon Gorge’s Big Bend could survive too. He was a big boy! We discovered Michelangelo had a penchant for strawberry muesli bar and apple, and with a little enticing coaxed him to within a meter of our lenses. With our bellies full, his belly full, and our cameras content, we left Michelangelo, our little Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle friend and re-commenced our hike, back to the Visitor Carpark via the other sites.

Boowinda Gorge (9.2km)
Our third stop was almost within stone’s throw away. According to those indigenous to the region, Boowinda means “thunder” and the gorge is prone to flash flooding. This accounts for the large eroded walls welcoming you inside. Personally, this was my favourite site along the hike and was worth every footstep to get there. In the space of time we were there, I was amazed at how the shifting light from the sun changed the whole appearance of the canyon. The sandstone has been impressively carved from previous downpours and with many an uneven rock, my inner Indiana appeared once more as I navigated my way up the gorge trying not to roll my ankles. To get a true representation of the sheer vastness of this place photographically you must have someone stand in the middle of the canyon. If ever I wanted to do a thousand year long timelapse, it would be in this place! Telling the story of how the weather slowly shaped the canyon into what it is today. In saying that though, and knowing what I do, I wouldn’t wait around to see it fill up in a storm.

Making our way back from Big Bend and Boowinda Gorge, we stopped in at what I called Little Bend. It offered some excitement for me, as I climbed up the bank only to have some of the sandstone wall fall away from under me. There was a 5m drop into the water, and I didn’t fancy a swim, so I had to find a new way down. It got the adrenalin coursing through my body once more at least.

Cathedral Cave and The Art Gallery (9.1km and 5.4km)
Collectively these two sites hold the most significance for the indigenous people of the land. Archaeological evidence suggests Cathedral cave was a campsite whilst The Art Gallery was a ceremonial area. The Art Gallery is reported to contain over 2000 pieces of artwork – approximately 1350 engravings and 650 stencils with freehand art. Artwork thousands of years old whilst impressive to gaze upon, did not warrant me taking photos. I tend to shy away from photographing areas of cultural significance as I always feel it’s always better to look, admire and enjoy the feelings they evoke without documenting. Needless to say whilst we didn’t spend long here and I have no photographs to showcase their beauty, they are still worth a visit along the circuit if you have time.

Wards Canyon (4.6km)
Just after our late lunch and rest around 2:00PM it was time for something short and sweet, or rather short and steep. Off the Main track, Wards Canyon is easy going, besides the 20 odd steps to get up into it. Stepping into Wards Canyon evoked a sense of waking up in a land long forgotten for me; It’s a different place. It’s an isolated and sheltered area in the gorge with the diverse flora having taken full advantage of the conditions to flourish. Definitely worth a look, for it’s tranquil and peaceful setting. I wanted to take more photos but my polarizing filter was being difficult and so I couldn’t take many shots much to my dismay.

Amphitheatre (4.3km)
The second last stop, was truly a hidden gem. The Amphitheatre would largely be a hidden treasure only ever visible if peered down into from above the ridge of the gorge itself. Though it would not be for anyone afraid of heights; the walls are huge! It would be easy to miss within the large sandstone cliffs of the canyon surrounding that’s for sure. Thankfully, there is a precarious metal stairway (I personally think needs a bit of maintenance – Don’t step on the central sheets on the platforms, but stick to the framing joints) which 
guides you up and in via the narrow slot canyon to reveal a piece of tranquillity. The Amphitheatre, akin to Big Bend, has a nifty echo, so catch your breath after scaling the stairway, and test it out! It’s well worth the visit, for being enclosed in a 360° wall of sandstone is just next level impressiveness. I would describe it best by suggesting you imagine yourself walking into a scene from Jurassic Park or Journey To The Centre Of The Earth where your jaw drops and you just marvel in the wonder of a secret oasis thriving with life. It’s a must see when visiting Carnavon Gorge.

Moss Garden (3.5km)
The final site on our hike around Carnavon Gorge was to this oasis tucked away from view. With flora growing rampant around the body of water below the falls it was easy to lose sight that essentially it is in the middle-of-nowhere-Queensland and we aren’t actually in the rainforest of O’Rielly’s or Lamington National Park on the East Coast of Queensland. Yet, despite this, Moss Garden seems to defy logic, and is a wonderfully serene place with a delightful waterfall. When we visited, although the waterfall was not flowing at capacity, after a heavy downpour I can imagine how alive this place would become. The walk leading up to it is also quite nice and you can see the shift in flora as you walk deeper inward toward Moss Garden.

With all locations visited and accounted for on our itinerary, and after a sluggish 3km return hike hampered by chafe, fatigue and blistered feet we eventually made it back to the Visitor Carpark. Water was guzzled to quench our thirst, food was eaten to re-ignite some energy, and blistered feet were exposed not so gracefully to fresh air. It was a welcome reminder that we had just spent a day exploring the great outdoors in the vastness of Central Queensland.

A rewarding experience from the hike and perhaps one of my favourite aspects of being out in the middle of nowhere was the sporadic human interaction we had along the way. In my experience whenever hiking, camping, or other off the beaten track, people are always friendly and full of smiles despite the breathlessness, sweat or fatigue. On this particular hike we had the pleasure of bumping into; a mother-daughter duo camping up at Battleship Spur; a 70 year old couple powering through most of the gorge (i.e. if they can, so can you!); and several other parties who appeared in the later hours of the afternoon only for a quick hike prior to returning back to their campsite at the Visitor Centre area. After a quick review of photos and some much needed recuperation, we were back on the road and making our return journey to Brisbane.

Chasing the time to watch (photograph) the sunset, we decided to drive down an isolated dirt track, climb under a fence and trudge through some long grass. It turned out to be a just reward for the gambled venture down the dirt road. With our cameras beeping signalling a recharge, and our SD cards full of photos, we packed up to continue on with our journey back to Brisbane.

We drove through most the night, but after a midnight snack in Roma, we made a brief pitstop in a little roadside pull in and shut our eyes for an hour or two before hitting the road once more. Another stop, this time Picnic Point, Toowoomba, to await the sunrise. It didn’t offer much though as it was hampered by cloud cover and rain, and so we were down the mountain and finally back into Brisbane by 8:30AM.

It was a big trip with ample driving and hiking, covered in a short space of time, but with enough planning and dedication we were able to have the adventure we planned and to be back in Brisbane to enjoy the rest of Easter. Well worth the blisters, and somewhere I’ll never forget. So next long weekend, no excuses, get out there, get exploring!

For more photographs, past and present, join me over on Instagam: @tonnes