It’s a long drive to Carnarvon Gorge, and a few hours in you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s worth the trip. The route crosses flat scrubland, a featureless outback interrupted by tiny towns and the occasional gravel pull off to a strip mine. But suddenly the landscape begins to change. Soon you’re dropping into a wide ravine, and the scenery grows lush. Just ahead lies a park with towering palm trees, waterfalls and ancient Aboriginal art. It’s like driving across Nebraska, and suddenly finding yourself in Hawaii.
Carnarvon Gorge National Park offers one of Australia’s best hikes and some of its most memorable sights. If it were easier to reach, it would be clogged with souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels, but, due to its remote location in Central Queensland, few Australians, let alone international visitors, ever make it here. Don’t make that mistake.
The park offers a beguiling combination of scenery and history, a Garden of Eden with rare plants, hidden canyons and traces of an ancient civilization. It’s about an eight-hour drive from the coastal city of Brisbane. Visitors can also fly into tiny regional airports in Emerald or Roma, and then rent a car for a three-hour trip that leads to a lonely road crossing a cattle ranch on the way to the park gate.
Where to Stay in Carnarvon Gorge
Carnarvon has just a handful of lodging options, including a primitive campground, and an RV park equipped with several glamping tiny homes. There’s also Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge, a collection of safari-style canvas cabins, where my hiking group of four stayed, though, because of the remote location, the lodge hadn’t been able to hire restaurant staff this year. We had packed in groceries, stopping hours earlier at a Woolies — a sprawling Woolworth’s selling everything from ice cream to salmon to fresh kangaroo meat conveniently cut for stir-frying.
Arriving shortly before dusk gave us just enough time to stow our supplies in a communal refrigerator in an outdoor kitchen equipped with grills, pans and a sink. As a flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos squawked in the trees, we sipped on Shiraz, Australia’s signature red wine, and readied steaks for the grill. It all felt quite civilized. But hours later in bed, I woke to the howls of dingoes somewhere just beyond my canvas tent walls, and the next morning laughing kookaburras served as my alarm. Australia was calling and it was time to go.
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Hiring a Guide for Carnarvon Gorge
Although the park’s easy to navigate, our group had hired a guide — Simon Ling of Carnarvon Gorge Eco Tours — to show us around. The 57-year-old researcher works with Aboriginal elders and has led visitors through the canyon for almost a quarter century.
Standing under the shade of eucalyptus trees, he introduced us to the park. “This is one of the country’s great ecological reserves,” he said. Ask a geologist to describe the area and they’d note its location on a vast regional sandstone belt. Over millions of years, creeks carved the main gorge and the narrow side canyons that now reach nearly 2,000 feet above the park floor. But the original occupants of the land have another explanation. For thousands of years, the area has held spiritual significance for the native Bidjara and Karingbal people, who gathered and prayed here. They credit the Rainbow Serpent, who created the world during a mystical period called Dreamtime.
Our daylong hike would lead nine miles out and back to some of Australia’s best Aboriginal rock art, allowing time for detours into side canyons. More ambitious visitors take days to backpack a 55-mile gorge circuit. On the way to the trailhead, we passed a mob of four-foot eastern grey kangaroos grazing in the grass. Well-placed boulders led across a creek, and soon the path entered a rainforest of gum trees, towering palms and exotic cycads.
Since the dirt trail kept to the gorge floor, the walking was easy — and fascinating. At one point, Ling paused by a wide creek. “Look over there,” he whispered, pointing to a sleek furry creature. From a distance, we could see a platypus dive into the water to grab a fish.
As we walked through Carnarvon Gorge, our guide noted plants and insects used as food or medicine, stopping to show us a small berry that he said Aboriginal women once used to abort pregnancies. A few hours later we reached the Art Gallery, and Ling gestured to a few wooden benches. “Pull up a pew and have a seat.” I looked up to a rock wall stretching longer than two football fields and covered with thousands of paintings.
There were boomerangs, emu and scores of hands outlined in red, created by artists who had blown ochre paint out of their mouth to create a silhouette on the yellow sandstone wall. The display is considered one of the world’s greatest collections of prehistoric stencil art, with images dating back 4,000 years. Although the art’s meaning isn’t always clear, Ling offered interpretations shared by Aboriginal elders. One hand with a missing finger signified the loss of a family’s third child, he said. A repeated image of lattice represented nets used to carry bodies to tombs in crevices high above us.
And then there were the naughty bits. One wall, used for teaching and fertility rituals, was plastered with carvings of female genitals. “This shows full copulation,” Ling said, pointing to an explicit example, which he described as the equivalent of a classroom sex education poster.
Every image on the wall has meaning, he said. Thousands of years ago, people came to this site to honor life and to mourn death. “These are themes you run into in the world’s major religions, and they’re all here.” I took a few more minutes to absorb the images. But we would soon dive even deeper into the past.
A twisty side path led to a waterfall and towering palm trees climbing out of the gorge toward the sun. This was Ward’s Canyon, but it could have been called Jurassic Park. The canyon, named for a pair of fur-trading brothers who once hunted possums in the gorge, holds a rare grove of prehistoric king ferns. The plant’s fronds spread up to 15 feet long, and this tiny stand was isolated in inland Australia when the climate grew arid. You’d have to travel hundreds of miles to the coast to find its nearest relative. The fern’s ancestry dates back 400 million years, Ling said. “For two-thirds of the entire existence of multicellular life on this planet, this has been one of the species.”
Next came the Amphitheatre, a hidden chamber reached by climbing a steel staircase to a crack in the canyon wall. A 200-yard path then led through a narrow passageway, which suddenly opened to a hidden outdoor room with towering sandstone walls and stratified rock layers tilting at crazy angles. Our voices echoed off the walls, and I had to crane my neck to see the sky.
Our last detour was Moss Garden, a lush, fern-filled hideaway, where wooden bridges led across small streams. It felt like the setting for a fairy tale, almost too perfect to be natural. Ling pointed to the water seeping out of the sandstone. It had fallen from the sky eons ago, and was only now emerging from the porous rock after 25,000 years. “This is very old rainwater.”
But it was getting late, and time to go. We still had an hour’s hike ahead of us, offering plenty of time to review the day’s sites, and to contemplate the dizzying reach of geologic time. It hadn’t been easy to reach Carnarvon Gorge. But no question, it had been worth the trip.
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