The cliffs and chasms of Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland contains plenty of secrets. Daniel Scott explores its many stories – travelling into, around and even above it…

Through the gorge

I’m huddled, peering up through the forest canopy at a crescent moon, when guide Simon Ling breaks the silence.

“Think we’ve got one.” Ling throws his spotlight onto a tree branch. “It’s a young yellow-bellied,” he adds, “and it’s about to…”

Suddenly the rabbit-sized creature launches itself from the tree, riding a magic carpet stretched between its front and back feet. As it arrows and dips through the forest, Ling expertly traces its flight with his torch until the little glider lands, with a soft thud, on a tree trunk 30 metres away.

This is but the first surprise of my visit to this elevated area, known as ‘the roof of Queensland’. Two greater gliders as well as pretty-face and swamp wallabies, and even a splashing platypus all appear over the course of tonight’s tour with Ling, although the ecologist himself is at least as fascinating as the wildlife, setting up home far from his native Malaysia in a nearby converted shipping container on Bandana Station in the midst of this arid, central Queensland plateau.

After landing at the mining town of Emerald, I’d driven south for two and a half hours to reach the gorge, which forms a 16,000 hectare section of the Carnarvon National Park, and taken up residence in a creekside cabin at Takarakka Bush Resort before joining Ling on his night safari tour. It’s a bit of a journey to get here, but Ling’s attraction to Carnarvon Gorge, a place beloved of Queenslanders but little known outside the state, is now not so hard to understand.

“The gorge has been an extraordinary ecological shelter for millions of years,” Ling explains as we amble along the inside of the gorge the following morning. As the forest warms in the first rays of sun, we stop to examine everything from native daisies to tree-climbing orchids and giant cycads, and I have a sense of coming upon a sudden eruption of life.

It’s all here because of the permanent water in Carnarvon Creek and its artesian springs, which also made Carnarvon Gorge an important gathering place for local Aboriginal people. In fact, their presence over at least 3,500 years is evidenced at the ‘Art Gallery’, five kilometres into the gorge.

It’s the most prolific display of indigenous art I’ve seen in one location, with more than 2,000 images spread across a broad rock overhang including intricate net stencils indicating a burial site, sexual imagery suggesting it was an initiation area and emu and kangaroo tracks that are representations of the totem animals of the local Karingbal and Bidjara cultures.

As Ling’s tour draws to an end, I’m beginning to make comparisons between Carnarvon and other gorge systems such as those in the Kimberley and Karijini National Park in WA. Within each place is an explosion of life in an otherwise barren landscape and a deeply significant Aboriginal heritage.

On the land

It is late afternoon and a small group is gathered around the campfire with Olivia Evans, a sixth-generation descendant of European settlers at Bandana Station, at the edge of the gorge. She has recently returned, with her husband and young children, to this cattle station where she grew up. Leaving behind hectic city life to transform Bandana into an organic beef farm, she already looks happily at home in jeans, cowboy boots and broad-rimmed Akubra hat.

Those of European origin have capitalised on the landscape in and around Carnarvon Gorge by running sheep and cattle since very early days. First ‘discovered’ by Thomas Mitchell in the mid 1840s, the gorge was named after Caernarfon in Wales and identified as potential grazing land thanks to its permanent water supply.

“Initially there was open hostility between indigenous groups and the newcomers,” says Evans, “but later, Aboriginals made the best stockmen and were paid in blankets, tobacco and other basic provisions.”

In the early 1900s, possum hunters involved in the profitable fur trade used the area to keep their pelts in the natural cold store of Ward’s Canyon, a deep, shaded gully named after the hunting brothers, but now more rightly known for the five-metre King Ferns secreted in the canyon and found nowhere else in inland Australia.

Three evenings a week, Evans hosts sunset drinks on the property, sharing these stories, insights into station life and evocative tales of bushrangers like the Kenneth brothers, renowned for their cattle ‘duffing’ (stealing) during the 1920s.

As a mob of station horses frolics in nearby paddocks and we gaze at the bluffs of the Carnarvon Range reddening in the dipping sun, it’s pretty easy to see why Evans has come back.

From the air

On my final morning here I join another local, Shane Swanson, on a helicopter flight above the nearby tablelands. Swanson spends most of the year away from his home in Melbourne, working instead at heli-mustering cattle and, during the April-October tourist season, offering scenic flights over the ranges.

“I love it,” confides Swanson through my headphones, as we fly over the 11-kilometre long Moolayember Gorge. “It’s undiscovered down there – it takes seven days to walk in and out.”

Below us deep, spindly gullies reach out in all directions and, rising steeply from the gorge floor, the Three Sisters rock formation gleams in the morning sun like a lighthouse in a sea of vegetation. Elsewhere, erosion over many millenia has created striking features like the Amphitheatre, a huge bowl-like hollow with 60-metre walls and Violet Gorge, its moss-encrusted walls fed by ceaseless springs releasing water that’s up to 10,000 years old.

“What few people know,” says Swanson, flying close to the 1,000-metre-high Consuelo Bluff, “is that some of eastern Australia’s most important rivers, like the Murray and the Fitzroy, start here.”

Over 27 million years, the creek system has sliced down through the surrounding sandstone for up to 600 metres, to create a labyrinth of high-sided chasms so transfixing that, on my earlier flight northward from Brisbane, I’d been stuck to the plane window, staring at the sight of the cliff-tops that beam from the landscape like smiles in a toothpaste ad.

Now, sweeping across this awe-inspiring part of the Great Dividing Range by helicopter this time, I once again can’t help thinking how underrated this area is.

The details: Carnarvon Gorge

Getting there
Both Qantas and Virgin fly from Brisbane to Emerald, almost three hours’ drive north of Carnarvon Gorge.

Staying there
Takarakka Bush Resort, on Carnarvon Creek (near Carnarvon National Park) has cottages ($230), ensuite cabins ($195) and camping.

Playing there
Australian Nature Guide tours with Simon Ling are $55 per person (day); night safaris are $25 per person.
Bandana Station sunset tours with Olivia Evans cost $30 per person.
A 20-minute scenic helicopter flight with Shane costs $390 for two people with Heli Central

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