Saturday, 24 October 2015

The North East

 The Beginning

Last vacation, I went to Tasmania, the southeasternmost state of Australia. Now, almost 6 months later, I travel in Australia's northeasternmost state; Queensland.

In the Tasmania vacation, my prime objective was to climb Cradle Mountain. Traveling in the southeast corner of Queensland, we would spend the longest time in one place: Carnarvon Gorge on the Great Dividing Range, part of Carnarvon National Park, one of Queensland's largest.

We began the trip by driving through the northernmost Brisbane suburbs, which extend up to 50 kilometres from the city itself.

Half an hour later, we were in the Sunshine Coast. The Sunshine Coast is known for its beaches and natural beauty, but we completely surpassed the beaches, driving off of the main highway and driving inland on a narrow, hilly road known as the D'Aguilar Highway. We had filtered views of the Glass House Mountains, isolated volcanic plugs that to me looked very much like grassy teeth, pointed upward toward the sky. And that was it for the Sunshine Coast.

After the road climbed a bank of low hills, we entered the D'Aguilar region. This was an area of wooded hills and dry, hilly country, small towns and no rivers. To the south, the D'Aguilar Range was visible. The range runs for over 90 kilometres from where we were all the way to Mount Coot-tha, which is just 5 kilometres from the Brisbane CBD.

Suddenly, the highway curved north and joined several much smaller roads also bound for the Whitsunday Coast and the coal port of Rockhampton, which sits in an otherwise desolate sweep of coastline nobody would have lived in if it wasn't for the coal mines. Dozens of destructive, open-cut coal mines in the hot, dry plains between the Great Dividing Range and the sea. Our route led away from the coast, but we would still find evidence of the black rock deep under the soil.

Now we were in the main part of the trip. It looked like some giant had pounded the ground hard with a mallet. A really dusty one. There were no landmarks, no mountains or even hills, and the land would look and feel like the Sahara if grass had not evolved to live there. Suddenly, as the sun approached the horizon, I saw a line of hills slowly rise out of the dust. Even the dust disappeared. What replaced it was real earth. A few minutes later and I was there: Cania Gorge.

Cania Gorge

Cania National Park looked like nothing when I first arrived; just two hills with a gap in the middle. However, the gap between the hills is very narrow and lined with cliffs, and there are equally narrow side gorges. The walks lead to lookouts, caves, and waterholes.

The campground at Cania Gorge, which I stayed at for two nights, was next to an empty streambed. Most of the walks began at the campsite itself. I had a good night's sleep in the tent, and the first thing I saw that morning was Big Foot.

Big Foot was almost visible from the campsite, and was only 100 metres from it. It was a massive stain in the rock shaped like a foot. Not very interesting, but it was worth the short stroll.

Under towering cliffs, we continued walking on the valley floor. In a few minutes, the path bent a little and led into a side gorge.

The gorge was narrow and dark, and parts of it were like a slot canyon. The streambed was dry. After an hour of walking, I reached a waterhole, and almost jumped with joy. After walking through some hot, dry landscape, I had reached a deep waterhole, complete with a waterfall and lined with ferns and moss.

The next part of the walk climbed steeply up a slope, passing some large walls of rock. At the top of the slope, scrubby plants dominated. While walking, I decided the entire landscape seemed eerily familiar to me. Then, it hit me. The rocks, the dry ravines, the steep slopes and cliffs, and the scrub reminded me of Brisbane Water National Park, a place almost exactly like this, except much larger. Brisbane Water National Park was a place I hiked in a lot before I moved.

The path, gradually sloping upward, arrived at Giants Chair, a lookout with "giant" views over the surrounding hills. We did not stop for long, and just after reaching Giants Chair, the path descended an almost sheer cliff. Just below the cliff was the campsite. Since it was still barely noon, we embarked upon another hike.

This hike was much shorter than the previous one, and it visited no less than three sandstone caves. The first and best one was called Two Storey Cave. At first it looked like a normal overhang, until I crawled into the deepest recesses of the cave and found the second storey. The entrance to this deeper part of the cave was just wide for me to squeeze through, but it opened up into a massive space I would never have known existed. I mean, it was the size of a small church.

The second cave, Dragon Cave, was only an overhang, but the third cave, Bloodwood Cave was more interesting because it had this strange pillar in the middle.

Blackdown Tablelands

The second day was more boring than the first. For one, it was longer, and two, it was hotter. Instead of visiting the coast, we followed the Capricorn Highway through desert like country inland.

The first big landmark we saw was Blackwater. Aptly named, Blackwater is the coal capital of Australia. Not like we could not have noticed the presence of coal with those hundreds of coal trains coming from Blackwater and going to the coast.

Shortly after Blackwater, I spotted a high, tabletop mountain on the horizon. As we drew closer, I noticed high cliffs present on all sides of the mountain. This was the Blackdown Tablelands. We exited the highway once again, and the car bumped down a gravelly road. The land slowly became more lush.

Suddenly, we were climbing the side of the mountain. We gained altitude so fast, my ears popped three times. Just beyond the top, there was a lookout. We all got out of the car to have a look.

As soon as I stepped out, I felt like I was in a lost world. The vegetation was very different from what I had ever seen. The lookout was great, and I could see for about 100 kilometres, but there were no other hills in sight. This mountain was alone. I learned later that it had been protected because most of the plants were poisonous.

We had lunch, and set camp. Camp was among strange looking boulders that I could not resist climbing. I had little sleep that night, but it was substantial.

We did four short hikes on the next day. One led to a lookout, and it followed a riverbed that looked like an art museum with the colours and weird shapes of rock. The next one simply took me around the unusual, otherworldly landscape, and so did the next one.

I liked the last hike the best. It descended into a gully, to a waterfall so long it vanished before hitting the massive circular pool below. The entire thing was surrounded by 300 degrees of cliffs that dripped with moss. It was overwhelming to see so much water in such a dry area.


On the next day, we left the tablelands, and submitted to another day of driving to a canyon known as Carnarvon Gorge. This day was longer than the previous two driving days, but was somehow made bearable by the hills and interesting towns on the way.

Several hours out, we arrived at Emerald, a town famous for its crystal mines. The town was interesting because everything looked like it was plucked out of the 1930's; the houses, local stores and cafes, and even the public buildings such as the library and the school. Even the McDonald's looked old fashioned.

We had lunch in Emerald (We bought it from the only modern looking building in town, the supermarket) and hit the road again. Soon, the horizon was broken by a line of hills. As we drew closer, I noticed colorful sandstone cliffs everywhere in the mountains. We rested in the last town worthy of its name -- Blinman -- before the emptiness that was the Carnarvon Range,  and set off again. Cattle stations now flanked both sides of the road, like usual since we departed from the Sunshine Coast, but just beyond those cattle stations were massive sandstone cliffs, and just beyond those cliffs were national parks, which preserved massive tracts of unbroken wilderness.

Two hundred kilometres out from Blinman was an intersection, the left branch continuing down a wide valley, and the right branch aiming for the mountains. We took the right branch.

Storms could be seen in the valley. The land changed from cleared land to dry bushland. All views of the white cliffs up ahead disappeared with the open land. Not much longer, we drove past what looked like as massive ribbon of steel, twisted, burnt, bent, and broken. It was sitting in a clearing. I learned I was looking at the Rewan Memorial, an airplane crash site.

The sky looked like it was going to fall on top of us at any moment while we arrived at the campsite. The white cliffs of the Carnarvon Gorge were hidden from us by a line of ridges, but the entrance was just 5 kilometres from the campsite, and it was waiting for me.

Carnarvon - The Lower Gorge

On my first day at Carnarvon, I got up early to begin hiking.

It was a short drive to the entrance of the gorge. People never attempted to make a road that leads into the gorge, which surprised me; it usually seems to me that, if people find a chance to shorten their hike by 10 kilometres, they would take it, but I was later very glad this development did not take place. The gorge itself is a place that must be preserved.

Anyway, I could see the cliffs from the trailhead. They were white and 200 metres tall, the gorge roughly two kilometres wide at this point. Out of it flowed a river, which apparently flows all year; something to see in the harsh landscape of central Queensland.

We crossed the river by rockhopping on stepping stones, and after that the path climbed very quickly. We were very close to reaching the cliffs themselves.

The top of the climb was the site of an intersection. Carnarvon Gorge has a very simple walk system. The main path more or less follows the river, and there are side tracks which climb straight up to the cliffs and the park's various attractions. The first side trail, which was here, scaled the cliffs to a lookout at the top called Boolimba Bluff. It was the only trail that climbed out of the gorge.

The trail, staying out of sight of the river, climbed through a hilly area near the cliffs. There were no views, but there were giant cycads everywhere.

After crossing a few dry gullies, I came in sight of the river again, only for a moment. The cliffs came easily into view, and a large side canyon materialized on the left.  Then the river curved away from me, and trail, six kilometres from its starting point, arrived at the second intersection.

The second side trail led a kilometre into the aforementioned side canyon. I did not take this side trip or any other one on the way up because we were planning to climb into the gorge as far as we wanted to go and do the side canyons on the way back. As "far as we wanted to go" happened to be a very long distance, but not close to the top of the gorge.

We walked for two hours into the gorge. The vegetation kept changing, and we experienced six river crossings. The gorge also kept getting narrower, and the gorge walls only got taller. The fifth turnoff was for an Aboriginal art site, but we did not walk any farther. By this time, the gorge was only 500 metres across.

The aboriginal art site, called the Art Gallery, was possibly the largest I have ever seen. It was painted on a massive smooth wall of rock. We soon moved on, down the gorge.

Then there was a turnoff for Wards Canyon. Three hundred steps up the turnoff there was a beautiful waterfall. It was just below the place where there should have been a bigger waterfall, pouring from the cliffs above.

But there was not another waterfall.

The trail climbed to the top of the waterfall, and at the top was a slot canyon; a canyon a hundred times deeper than it was wide. It was so deep, sunlight must never reach the bottom. At the end, there were a cluster of king ferns, the largest fern in the world; ferns six times taller than me.

The next turnoff was the Ampitheatre. The trail was flat until it climbed a ladder to reach a slot canyon even narrower than Wards Canyon. However, this was not the highlight. The canyon led into a massive rock chamber with a hole in the roof. It really was something to see.

The last turnoff was Moss Garden, the side trail I mentioned earlier. Steps climbed among stranger figs to a spring, where water trickled from the rock into a bed of colorful mosses. It was a nice place to have a sandwich in.

That was the end of the first day of Carnarvon. On the second day, I climbed all the way into the neck of the gorge.

Carnarvon - the upper gorge

That evening, we went to a free talk about the gorge and what there is to see there, by a tour guide.

The person giving the talk began by talking about the geology of the area. Apparently there are three layers of stone in the gorge. The first one is mudstone, and it is all of the rock below the white cliffs of the gorge. It does not form cliffs and erodes easily, explaining the flat nature of the bottom of the gorge.

The second layer of white sandstone is what makes the cliffs. The top of the layer rises 200 metres above the river.

There is a third rock layer, too. It apparently rises 800 metres above the river, even though I never even saw it! It is a basalt cap and it preserves the Carnarvon Range from erosion.

The guide also talked about other things, such as the various attractions in the park. He spoke of three parts of the gorge. There is the lower gorge, which contained everything I had seen on that day, and the upper gorge, which was separated from the lower gorge by 5 kilometres of windy canyons. The last area was the gorge mouth, which included Boolimba Bluff, the riverside walks which were centered around a waterhole, and Mickeys Creek, which seemed to be the guide's favorite place in the gorge. It was some kind of slot canyon.

Anyway, I and Dad planned to take the 22 kilometre hike into the inner gorge.

The hike as far as the Art Gallery felt very different the second time I did it. The first area of rolling hills was burnt and dominated  by giant cycads. After the Moss Garden turnoff, everything changed, and we stayed within sight of the river, walking in the grassy woodland. Further than the Ampitheatre, the walk traveled among sheoaks by the riverbed. And past Wards Canyon, we wandered among giant trees in a rainforest.

Then, past the Art Gallery, everything changed. The walk wandered the riverbed, which was very broad. We were about to walk back into the forest, when we lost the trail. I just could not find it. Afterward, we wandered the broad riverbed, knowing the trail would cross it.

I was very glad to lose the trail. At this point, the gorge became higher than it was wide, and the riverbed almost dominated it. Wandering among the massive cliffs in the middle of nowhere, this was nicer than walking on the trail would be.

After a few sketchy creek crossings, I found the trail again. I followed the track through the trees for four kilometres between colorful cliffs, and came to the Cathedral Cave, an Aboriginal art site. It was relaxing to be away from the sun, under an overhang. After a long rest, I came upon Boowinda Gorge. The gorge was narrow, dark, cool, and filled with butterflies. I wandered down it, walking 600 metres along the boulder-filled canyon. This became my favorite place in the gorge.

The end of the track was arrived at very quickly. It was a place where the river bent, and the cliffs bent too, creating a gorge with a 70 degree cliff on one side and a 120 degree cliff on the other. I felt very far from civilization, as the nearest road seemed very, very far away.

It took 3 hours to walk back, but everything I did to get to this isolated place was worth it.

Carnarvon - The Gorge Mouth

We woke up before the sun rose, and packed up for a 3 hour hike to the top of Boolimba Bluff.

The walk involved climbing 2000 steps. It was very hard. However, from the top, I could see everything. I spotted the three layers of the gorge: A limestone ridge below the gorge, the sandstone cliffs we were perched on top of, and the mysterious third layer, a massive step of igneous rock. I thought the gorge was big, but this third layer gave it an entirely new Grand Canyon dimension.

At the end of the hike, we took another walk, to Mickeys Creek. It took a long, boring walk to get to Mickeys Creek, and after that the trail ended.

There are two gorges in Mickeys Creek: Warumbah Creek, and Mickeys Creek. Warrumbah Creek was the most spectacular, but I also wanted to visit Mickeys Creek. I ran ahead while my brothers were resting, and after running on the creekbed for long enough, I got to the gorge entrance. It was dark and inviting, but I knew my brothers were waiting for me, so I rushed back.

Warrumbah Creek was great. It was a slot canyon so narrow I could touch both sides at the same time, and so deep it was half as deep as the gorge. However, it was crowded, and there were deep pools in the bottom, making it harder and harder to go farther. I got rather far before I gave up.


That was my last day at Carnarvon. Next day, we drove to the Bunya Mountains. I did not stay long, but the Bunya Mountains is a rainforest with a few grasslands. On the next day I went home.

I had seen a lot of stuff in central Queensland and Carnarvon Gorge. I will be back!

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