Carnarvon Gorge

Day 1 - Carnarvon Visitor Centre to Big Bend Campsite (15km - 210m ascent - 160m descent)

Carnarvon Gorge cuts its winding path through a sandstone plateau in the heart of the semi-arid brigalow country of central Queensland. Within its steep-sided walls lies a rich natural and cultural heritage. It is a land of remnant rainforest and a refuge for ancient ferns, where palms and eucalypts grow side by side, and a place where water has carved magical side-gorges. It is also a place that has long been sacred to the Bidjara and Karingbal people and contains several rock art sites that date back more than 3000 years. This was a place definitely worthy of a visit on our way south from the Whitsundays.

It was 11am by the time we drove from Emerald to Carnarvon Gorge, got our packs sorted out and headed off for the short walk from the carpark to the visitor centre at the mouth of the gorge. Nobody was there, so we took one of the free walking maps and headed off (we had booked the overnight campsite on-line). In reality, to walk Carnarvon Gorge is fairly simple - there is one main track that follows Carnarvon Creek up into the lush and thickly forested gorge and a number of well-signed side tracks that lead to some of the more spectacular and beautiful side gorges.

Looking across the plain to the plateau of Carnarvon Gorge

The first of 22 creek crossings

Thus we headed off - inspired by the reflections of the white sandstone cliffs as we crossed the Carnarvon Creek for the first time on a set of large flat stepping stones. It was the first of many such crossings. The track on the first part of the gorge was almost manicured - wide, even and dusty smooth - as it led us over the low rise beneath Boolimba Bluff, beneath a pleasant and open eucalypt forest, to enter the gorge.

Reflections in Carnarvon Creek

Open eucalypt forest at the mouth of the gorge

Path through fan palms and eucalypts

Sandstone buttresses in the lower gorge

Winding back down towards the creek, we passed large and ancient cycads and fan palms amongst the tall eucalypts that thrive in this wider lower section of the gorge to reach our first junction - to the east lay The Moss Garden, and we hurried off across the creek eager to find out what secrets Carnarvon had to offer.

The sculpted face of gorge walls

Crossing the Carnarvon to reach The Moss Garden

The Moss Garden lies in a side-gorge where water, percolating through the sandstone is blocked by impervious shale, forcing it to flow down the outside of the rock which creates an environment were mosses, liverworts and ferns carpet the surface of the shale. It was but a short climb up to the face of the gorge and into the cleft of the Moss Garden. Cool air flowing down gave a hint of what was ahead, as did the tall tree-ferns on the gorge floor.

Lush forest in a Carnarvon side gorge

Tree ferns at the entry to The Moss Garden

Not green fungi

Parasol in luminous green

The rock pool in the garden

A tapestry of moss on the shale layer

When we reached its cool and shaded setting, where mosses clung like a bright green velvet tapestry above a rock pool fed by a trickling waterfall, we realised that Carnarvon was going to live up to its hype. This was a tranquil and lovely place.

The creek in lower Carnarvon Gorge

In the forest of the gorge floor

A sandy section of the creek

Returning to the main trail, we picked our packs up and followed the path along as it criss-crossed the creek, to the next junction - The Amphitheatre. Again we dropped our packs, recrossed the creek and made the short climb up to the sheer white sandstone of the gorge wall. Ahead, there first appeared to be a blank rock face, then a slight crack appeared in the wall. It was the entry to The Amphitheatre - when we climbed up the final set of steel steps up to enter the cleft, we were greeted by a flurry of tiny insectivorous bats and a flow of cold air pouring out of gap.

Overhanging rock wall near The Amphitheatre

The entry to The Amphitheatre

...that's where the light gets in

Interior of The Amphitheatre

A short wander through this narrow cleft brought us into a cold and shaded basin, with sheer 80m walls of grey rock towering above us. The sky was a small circle above and the acoustics of this place were superb - if I were Placido Domingo I would have sung, but alas I am not, so sparing the world a terrible cacophony, the fair Nello and I just sat there to absorb the silence.

Looking up at the opening of The Amphitheatre

Stony bed of Carnarvon Creek

After lunch beneath the pink,blue and yellow tinted sandstone wall outside The Amphitheatre, we headed on, eager for the next side trip. This did not disappoint - ahead, after yet more creek crossings and a walk beneath the dark shade of rain forest trees lay Wards Canyon. It was a smaller side-gorge than the others and a short sharp climb led us up to its opening.

The entry to Wards Canyon

Once again different, once again magnificent - a small creek trickled out from the opening over red-stained rocks. We followed it up its narrow and lushly vegetated course wedged between rock walls to the end of the accessible area. The rest of the canyon is a preserve, for here, amongst tall and delicate tree ferns, grows the King fern, a relic of Gondwana and the largest living fern in the world. It was incredible to see the massive fronds spreading out on the shady floor of the canyon - fronds that once were the food of dinosaurs.

Tree ferns in the heart of the canyon

Dark green fronds of the King fern

Cliffs closing in on the creek

The white sandstone wall of The Art Gallery

We descended to pick up our packs and continue, following the creek in the dark shade of a sheer-sided spur, crossing the creek (what else?) and reaching the junction of the Art Gallery. A gentle and short climb took us into a wide side-gorge and more importantly, the sheer white-walled sandstone overhang at its mouth.

Here we traded the history of flora and fauna for the history of the people who lived in this region. For thousands of years the Bidjara and Karingbal people have been visiting Carnarvon and have left over 2000 etchings and stencil artworks that reflect their spirituality. More temple than art gallery, it was again a place that obliges one to stop and contemplate a world about which we know so little.

Sunlight on the forest

Aboriginal engravings

A lovely stretch of the creek

The white sandstone walls close in

Time was pressing on and we were yet halfway to Big Bend Campsite, our destination for the night. It was time to put down the pedal as we headed further into the gorge from The Art Gallery junction. This seems to be the limit for many day-walkers and the trail reflected it, changing from a broad smooth path to a narrow single-file track more familiar to the bushwalker.

The creek crossings were no longer broad evenly placed paving stones, and a little more care was required in choosing where to put your feet. That said, we still moved quickly, sometimes along the open creek bank or along its stony bed, a section of sandy beach or grassy flat, or beneath the shade of fan palm, eucalypt or casuarina - all beneath the grey-streaked white walls of Carnarvon Gorge, as it gradually became narrower and narrower.

In this half of the trail, the main gorge itself was the star, and not just a road to the beauty spots in the side gorges.

Sun shining on a sandstone buttress

Crossing beneath the cliff-face

The beauty of Carnarvon

The gallery wall at Cathedral Cave

Just before the camp, however, we stopped to visit one other site as it was virtually on the track. Cathedral Cave is an enormous rock overhang of white sandstone and is another art site of the Bidjara and Karingbal people. Carbon dating shows that it has been visited for over 3000 years and the art work features, hunting gear and weapons as well as works of spiritual significance, complement those of the Art Gallery.

Sandy beach of Big Bend campsite

Leaving the cavernous overhang, we passed the dark shaded entrance to Boowinda side-gorge (that we would leave for tomorrow) to continue our peripatetic pathway up the ever-narrowing main gorge. Finally we reached crossing 22 on Carnarvon Creek, which led us into the camp site at Big Bend.

Beneath the curving rock wall

Evening reflections at Big Bend

It was a lovely spot, as here the creek has undercut an enormous curving wall of white sandstone - creating a habitat for swallows and waterholes for fish and tortoise. After setting up our tent, we got to know Hugh and Judy, the two other people camping here tonight, before retiring to listen to the babbling of the creek below - a babbling rich in the resonant reverberations from the curved and arching white wall of Big Bend.


2 Big Bend Campsite to Carnarvon Visitor Centre (13.5km - 40m ascent - 90m descent)

Deep within the gorge, the night had not been as cold as we anticipated and we had a snug sleep. That said, Big Bend campsite is a place that sees little sun light and it was a chilly start to the morning. We ate our breakfast under the watchful surveillance of a currawong, which helped itself to a beakful of our porridge the moment our backs were turned (beware the birds of Big Bend).

There was no hurry to head off, as essentially our plan for the day was to retrace our steps directly back to the trail head. We did have one side-trip planned, an exploration of the nearby Boowinda Gorge. On the way through last night, its narrow cleft of a mouth was completely in the shade, giving it an ominous air. This morning it was lit by the sun and much more inviting. We dropped our packs and hurried in.

Morning reflections at Big Bend

View towards the entry of Boowinda from within

Back into the main gorge

The entry to Boowinda Gorge, a world of ...

... water-smoothed walls and flat stony bed

Looking from the shade into the light

Fern covered rock walls

The beauty of shape and shadow

I had thought that after the previous visits to Carnarvon's side-gorges, I would be immune to my jaw dropping. This wasn't the case and, as soon as we entered its bouldery bed and rounded the curving vestibule of the gorge into the narrow water-carved chasm, my jaw dropped. Here the power of water is truly demonstrated in the smooth and curving beauty of the different strata that formed these narrow and overhanging walls.

In the narrows of Boowinda

Sheer rock walls and green slopes

In other places, the gorge opened a little to let the sun shine in and provide a luminous green back-lighting to the overhanging vegetation. It was simply a superb place to be in.

A curved sweep in Boowinda Gorge

That was it - we left Boowinda and headed steadily back towards the mouth of the main gorge. It was still fascinating as the scenes unravelled in reverse, the walls widening and the vegetation constantly changing. In many cases, the morning light gave new perspectives to vistas we had walked by yesterday afternoon.

Admiration for the upper gorge

Track through the fan palm woodland

In the middle gorge

A grassy creek bank

Recrossing Carnarvon Creek

On the Nature Trail along Carnarvon Creek


All too soon we reached the last crossing of Carnarvon Creek, so instead of taking it, we followed the east bank on the so called Nature Trail, hoping to see traces of platypus, as the information brochure suggested. The scenery was worth the detour, but alas, no platypi. We crossed a bit further downstream to reach the carpark and our car.

We both felt elated - Carnarvon Gorge had exceeded our expectations and the trip into Big Bend must surely rank as one of the best overnighters we have done.

3 Takarakka Platypus Watching

Our visit to Carnarvon Gorge was not quite over - the gorge is an isolated place and it was too late to be heading off anywhere else. Instead we drove 4km down the track and checked into Takarakka, a well-appointed camping ground favoured by grey nomads, set in pleasant surrounds on a bend of the Carnarvon Creek. We had reserved a safari tent, which gave us shelter and a comfortable bed for the evening, as well as a chance to feast on the Thursday night camp roast.

However, that wasn't the highlight. As well as the usual kangaroos and wallabies, Carnarvon Creek is home to that most elusive and wondrous of marsupials, the platypus. In all our years, the fair Nello and I had never seen one in the wild and tonight that was about to change - a long clear waterhole in the creek at Takarakka was home to a breeding pair of platypi.

Sunset over the platypus waterhole

We wandered down to the tree-lined bank and sat quietly on the water's edge as the last rays of sun light reflected in its still surface. On the far bank, across from us, the vegetation hung low over the edge hiding the entrance to the platypus burrow ... we waited in the stillness of the evening.

Suddenly, a streak of silvery ripples moved quickly and smoothly from the bank, to disappear in a thick patch of waterweed nearby. We waited again ... the weedy water rippled, the faint shape of a duckbilled head appeared on the surface, eyes watching. With a splash it was gone, to emerge again beneath the near bank, its presence betrayed by concentric silver ripple rings as it dabbled for food. Gone again, to reappear near a half-submerged log and then, foraging completed, streaking back like a silvery arrow to its burrow.

Silvery ripples as the platypus heads to its burrow

The platypus gets closer .....

... and closer ....

...and close-up!

It was so good to watch, as first one then the other, and sometimes both, repeated these foraging trips time after time - occasionally visible as they swam nearby in the clear clear water, but mostly silvery streaks across its surface in the fading light of this magical setting. Watching the platypi was a wonderful end to a wonderful day.

In fact, it was so good that I got up at dawn the next morning and watched them all over again.