Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Walking The Roof Of Queensland: Carnarvon Gorge Great! Walk

In 2009, the Queensland Government unveiled a series of long distance bushwalks they called “Great! Walks”. These walks are scattered up and down the coast and as far inland as Carnarvon Gorge and travel through some of Queensland's best protected natural areas. We had done sections of several Great! Walks earlier on our trip (Lamington, Fraser, Sunshine Coast), but Carnarvon Great! Walk was our first complete Great! Walk.

One of the nice things about the Carnarvon Great! Walk is that it is a circle route that starts and ends at the spectacular Carnarvon Gorge. The driving isn't too onerous, only 16 km of dirt in the 45 km that you travel from the main Carnarvon Developmental Road, and, a circle route obviates the need for any tedious car shuttles.

The walk is designed to take six days, although experienced walkers will find most of the days a little too short, and one day much too short. Combining days, however, would make most of the days a little too long. We toyed with combining the last two days, but, in the end decided to take the full six days as it worked out better for our overall schedule.

For some reason, I'm not sure why (maybe because the big descent is at the end of the trip instead of a big climb at the beginning), the standard recommendation is to walk in a clockwise direction. This means your first day is along the “tourist trail” to Big Bend camp site in Carnarvon Gorge. On your second day, you climb out of the Gorge via the stunning Boowinda Gorge up onto the basalt table lands. The next four days are spent walking on the basalt tablelands (the roof of Queensland) in a roughly circular route around the Carnarvon River, before descending on the last day back to Carnarvon Gorge via Wagooroo Creek.

The route is impeccably signed (we calculated that there could be as many as 900 trail markers along the route), all the camp sites have water (most from buried water tanks) and most have toilets. Carnarvon Gorge is, of course, stunning, featuring white sandstone cliffs, sparkling clear water, amazing bird-life, aboriginal art sites, and unusual vegetation, while the forests of the upper tablelands are also quite beautiful with open forests of cycads, spotted gums and iron barks amid flowering grasses.

Carnarvon Gorge to Big Bend Camp Site

By the time we drove from Nuga Nuga National Park to Carnarvon National Park, bought our camping permits and map, talked with the ranger and cooked up a last breakfast of bacon and eggs, it was noon before we started walking. The trail to Big Bend camp site gains only 100 metres over 10 km so it is very easy walking, even the dozen or so river crossings are easily negotiated on rocks. The forest, river and gorge are all extraordinarily beautiful and walking up the river under cabbage palms and cycads with dozens of birds warbling and chattering overhead is delightful. There are five short side trips off the main trail along the way to the camp site, all well worth the five or so extra kilometres these entail.

The first side trip travels up Violet Gorge to a small waterfall that drops into a clear pool ringed with ferns and tree ferns. The really interesting feature here, however, is the water that drips out of the rock. Rainfall seeps down through the soil then down through the sandstone before eventually hitting an impermeable layer of shale where it seeps right out of the cliff face.

Next up is the Amphitheatre which should really be called the Atrium. The trail climbs up another side creek to an elevated slot canyon. A metal staircase/ladder takes you up to the floor of the slot canyon (perhaps a metre wide and 40 metres high) where you walk through the canyon for twenty metres to emerge into a natural atrium of smooth steep sandstone. A little grassy meadow lies in the atrium where the sun penetrates and 40 metre high overhanging sandstone walls circle the entire enclosure.

Wards Canyon is the next side trip to a cave, canyon and stream where the Ward brothers stored kangaroo and possum skins in the early part of the century. I thought these guys would be real “Deliverance” type characters but there is a picture of them in the Information Centre and they actually look as straight laced as an early Methodist preacher. King Ferns – giant sized ferns with ultra-green fronds – live in this canyon, a relic of some earlier age.

The next two side trips are to Aboriginal art sites, the first called “The Art Gallery” and the second “Cathedral Cave.” The walls are covered with stencilled hands, arms, boomerangs, tomahawks, and also line drawings of nets, vulvas (yes vulvas) and emu eggs. I always find these sites strangely evocative with all the hands stencilled on the walls as if the hunters have only just left a moment ago and will return at any time to tell stories of the dreaming.

Soon after Cathedral Cave, the trail crosses the mouth of Boowinda Gorge, crosses the river to the north, then back to the south again, and, the Big Bend camp site is reached. The camp site is relatively small, at least to anti-social types like ourselves hoping to camp a long way away from anyone else, but in a beautiful location under big curving white cliffs over a clear pool on the Carnarvon River

It was close to 5.00 pm when we arrived so we wasted no time in setting up camp and brewing up some tea, quickly followed by dinner. Darkness falls quickly at this time of year and the nights are long (5.30 pm to 6.30 am). It was damp and cold sitting outside so we retired to the tent at about 7.00 pm for the long night ahead. I had brought only an overbag while Doug had brought his full sleeping bag, but, at only 500 metres I was – mostly – warm enough.

Big Bend Camp Site to Gadds Camp Site

There seemed no point waiting for the sun to arrive at our campsite before getting out of the tent. Not only was it cloudy, but given the depth of the gorge, the sun would be a long time coming. In any case, after 12 hours lying on hard ground on a too thin thermarest in a too thin overbag, I didn't really feel like lying in.

We had a paleo-breakfast of flaxseed (paleo porridge) and cheese with a huge mug of coffee and then packed our gear up and left camp around 8.30 am. We had to walk back down the trail for 500 metres to Boowinda Gorge. The trail travels up Boowinda Gorge for about a kilometre before climbing out via a steep side drainage. The gorge is quite amazing – a true slot canyon with steep walls on either side and snaking sinuously southwest. It was disappointing to see graffiti on the canyon walls – something I confess to not expecting so far from the trail-head. Distance usually weans out the butt-heads, but in this case had not.

Where the cliff walls of the gorge begin to recede in height, a rough trail climbs up a side drainage to gain Battleship Ridge. Battleship Ridge leads to Battleship Spur atop the basalt plateau. At one point, a ladder provides access to the basalt cap. Big cycads and eucalpyts grow in an open forest. At about 1050 metres (ASL) a side trail leads out to a look-out on the northeast end of Battleship Spur. We had light misty rain on the way up and were thinking that our view would be obscured, but the cloud lifted by the time we reached the look-out and we had a great view to the east over Carnarvon Gorge. The white cliffs of the gorge can be clearly seen winding out to the east. The look-out was a good spot for an early lunch and we even got some splashes of sunshine.

The rest of the days walk was downhill following a tributary drainage of the Maranoa River. There must be a spring as here and there clear pools of water appeared. Mount Percy is visible easily from the trail, and the open forest and green grassland provides pleasant walking. At Gadds Camp we found a deluxe outhouse with high quality toilet paper, a big shelter with a sloping roof that collects rainwater for the underground tanks, but, sadly, a side trip to the Maranoa River for a swim was a dead loss as the river was as dry as an AA meeting.

We lounged around camp for the afternoon, drank tea, and, crawled into the tent at around 7.00 pm for the long dark night. I managed again to stay, relatively warm overnight, although we had a heavy dew.

Gadds Camp Site to West Branch Camp Site

From Gadds Camp, the trail heads north and crosses the Maranoa River then climbs gradually back up to the Great Divide following Angelina Creek. I found a leech infested pool of clear water where the trail crosses Angelina Creek and cautiously dunked myself in for a wash. Doug found the leeches repellent enough that, despite feeling grimy and sweaty, he forwent the dip.

On the Divide, you get a distant view down Carnarvon Gorge to the east, the white sinuous cliffs still visible below the timbered Divide, and Battleship Spur is visible on the horizon. It is pleasant walking west along the Divide through open eucalpyt forest until a descent down a north facing spur ridge leads to Boot Creek (dry) and into the West Branch camp site.

The walkers camp is immediately across the large swinging suspension bridge over the west branch of the Maranoa River. I wondered how often the large and high bridge was needed as the river was, once again, completely dry. Beyond the walkers camp is the drive in camp as you are now in the Mount Moffat section of Carnarvon Gorge National Park. There were four groups of campers, all engaged in the usual Australian pass-time of sitting around a smoky fire. Occasionally, one or two of them would break from the herd and walk up to the suspension bridge, staring curiously at the “walkers” on the way by as if we were some unusual species. Come to think of it, walkers in Australia are an unusual species. We were running a little low on food at this point and hoped that they might think we were cute like wallabies and offer us some goodies, but we must have been too smelly and dirty.

Wandering around camp, I found a small muddy puddle upstream from the suspension bridge, but even I had no desire to dunk myself in to wash off the days dirt and sweat. It was a bit of a chilly night. We retired to the tent at about 7.00 pm as usual as sitting about on the damp ground in the increasingly cold air does nothing for my 50 year old body. I was huddled in my overbag in all my clothes by morning and wondering how I would fare at the next two camps which are at over 1,000 metres (ASL).

West Branch Camp Site to Conseulo Camp Site

It was down right cold when I crawled out of the tent at 6.30 am, and, after feeling slightly chilled all night, I had no desire to shiver through breakfast so I crawled back into the tent and we read our Kobos until the sun to eased it's way up over the horizon and into camp. Almost immediately the air began to warm, although it was pretty gradual at first.

This fourth day on the trail is the longest, but the distance is still easily covered in a half a day (I've already forgotten how long we walked each day). There is another gradual climb, this one feels even more gradual than the day before, and then you are up on the Conseulo Tablelands. The forest up here (called the Mahogany Forest) is beautiful. Yellow and green grasses under a canopy of cycads and silver leaved iron barks. The soil is apparently much richer, and the area must get a bit more rainfall as it is very green. There are even trailing vines growing all over the trees and delicate purple flowers trace over the bushes.

About six kilometres from the camp site, a 4WD road leads out to the edge of Peawaddy Gorge. This side trip adds four kilometres, but they are easy kilometres. We both walked out, but, the view was actually a little disappointing as the gorge is not very steep or deep and hard to see through the trees. The last six kilometres through the Mahogany Forest to Conseulo Camp is easy and we arrived in the early afternoon. There is no outhouse at Conseulo camp site but there is the standard water collection system with underground tanks and hand pumps.

Conseulo Camp Site to Cabbage Tree Camp Site

The night was not as cold as I thought it would be although I was pretty well head down in my bag by morning. We waited for the sun again. I'm not sure which is more painful, staying in the tent even longer, or getting out and feeling cold all through breakfast. In any case, we opted for option B, which also gave us time to dry the dew and condensation off the tent.

The walk to Cabbage Tree camp site is very easy and actually way too short. We arrived about 1.00 pm, even though I dawdled most of the way. We considered combining the last two days into one day and continuing on to Carnarvon Gorge, but decided that would get us out to the Gorge too late and we'd be struggling to find somewhere to camp and something to eat that night.

Someone had left two very low, but relatively comfortable (compared to sitting on the ground) chairs at camp - I do wonder who carries such things in - so we had seats for the afternoon. I also did my usual quasi-WOD to try and maintain some core and upper body strength. Sadly, we had found no suitable trees for pull-ups on the whole walk. We stayed out of the tent until 8.00 pm as it was relatively warm and the chairs kept us off the ground. I found the night even longer than normal as I was not tired enough to sleep and lay awake until 2.30 am.

Cabbage Tree Camp Site to Carnarvon Gorge

We got up as soon as we woke up, which was a little bleary for me at 6.45 am, and had breakfast and packed up. It was comfortably warm and had been a warm night – I didn't even need to put all my spare clothes on in my overbag.

The last day has some interesting walking as you follow a ridge east down to Jimmy's shelf. There are views north to Black Alley Peak and south to the white cliffs that span north and south Archer Creek. You also pass a basalt rock formation on the ridge called the Ogre's Thumb and further along a free-standing sandstone tooth called the Devil's Signpost. The forest is full of big widely spaced spotted gums. Descending into North Archer Creek I found Doug stripped off after he had bathed in the clear cold waters of the creek. I soon joined him lowering myself gingerly into the cool water. Although we had another couple of climbs ahead and would soon be sweaty again, the dunking felt good.

Near the end of the walk, a 750 metre side trip leads out to Boolimba Bluff where there is a good look-out over Carnarvon Gorge, the Arcadia Valley and the Expedition Range. The sound of chattering birds floats up from the Gorge and you realise how silent it has been for the last few days. A woman was sitting on a bench eating an apple and Doug and I both had visions of cuffing her about the head and stealing the apple as we had been going just a little hungry the last few days. Instead, we split the last of our cheese and Doug made the ultimate sacrifice by sharing his last four squares of chocolate with me.

It seemed fitting that the last section of the trail down to the Gorge is down Wagooroo Creek, a small cliff lined and verdant gorge. Soon enough, we were walking back across the big stepping stones over the Carnarvon River and the walk was over.

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