Tracks and Trails
The Lower Gorge
The Lower Gorge
By Michelle Whitehouse
For me, the core of the Carnarvon Gorge experience lies in the Lower Gorge. Visiting all the sites in this zone delivers the greatest diversity of sites possible and covers 14 km. If you really want to get to know Carnarvon Gorge, then join Simon and/or myself on our Lower Gorge Explorer and take advantage of the twenty years of experience we bring with us. I promise you'll never look at the Australian bush in the same way again.
The lower half of the Main Track contains the turnoffs to;
The Main Track
Distance (one way): 9.6 km to Big Bend.
Track Class: 3-4. Easy to moderate walking along a mainly flat track. Numerous creek crossings and some staired sections. Rangers currently maintain formal stepping stone crossings below the Art Gallery, but above the Art Gallery, creek crossings are choose your own adventure.
Access: From Ranger Station.
Average Walking Time: Allow 2-3 hours one way at a moderate pace.
You won't find this listed as a site on any Park maps, but Australian Nature Guides reckon that's a crime against the Gorge and a great comment on our society's propensity to be destination oriented. The majority of visitors to Carnarvon Gorge plan their itineraries around visiting the major sites, using the Main Track merely to access them. Naturally enough, the Park brochure is designed to assist them in doing so. However Head Guide, Simon Ling, has come to think of the Main Track as a site in and of itself, and he has a few reasons why...
The Main Track follows Carnarvon Creek, crossing it many times in its 10km length up to Big Bend. Some of Carnarvon's best scenery is to be had along the Main Track and from the creek crossings, and of course much of the landscape owes its current form to the creek's powers of erosion.
As the largest permanent body of water for many kilometres, Carnarvon Creek's spring fed watertable supports some productive ecosystems with high concentrations of wildlife.
This means the majority of Simon's (and his clients) wildlife encounters occur along the Main Track. For him it is the guts of the Gorge, and to see it merely as the means of getting from A to B is to deprive oneself of a large part of the Carnarvon Gorge experience.
Some creek crossings are marked on either side by numbered posts. These are relics from an earlier incarnation of the Main Track, but can be useful to some degree. Numbers increase heading away from the Ranger Station, and thus should always be decreasing if you are trying to return to your vehicle. The tracks to all sites are clearly signed and easy to follow.
The Main Track; a large part of the Carnarvon Gorge experience.
The Art Gallery
Access: Turn off the Main Track at around 5 km.
Distance (one way): 340 m from turn off (5.4 km from Info Centre).
Track Class: 3. Mild to moderate staired incline.
Average Walking Time: 15 minutes from the turn off (1.5 hours from the Ranger Station).
The site contains over 2000 individual motifs, made up of around 1350 engravings, 650 stencils and a smattering of freehand art. Some of the stencilling techniques are considered to be the most sophisticated in the world, demonstrating adaptations that have only been found in Central Queensland, giving Carnarvon Gorge's rock art sites international significance.
Of all the sites in Carnarvon Gorge, the Art Gallery really comes alive with a guided tour. Simon, and the Australian Nature Guides team have spent twenty years exploring the meaning of the symbols left on these walls. Simon has been delivering University lectures on the Art Gallery for over a decade. Vistors have the opportunity to benefit from his work on our Lower Gorge Explorer Tour, which spends much more time here than other tour operators, who simply don't have the same depth of knowledge.
Over the last twenty years, Simon has come to the belief that the Art Gallery is inappropriately named as the majority of the motifs at the site are religious in nature, whereas its current name steers visitors in an aesthetic rather than spiritual direction.
Australian Nature Guides' Lower Gorge Explorer Tour spends one to one and a half hours at the site unravelling its mysteries. Many of the motifs and some of the archaeological evidence from the site can provide great insights into the complexity of traditional indigenous cultures in the Gorge and across Australia. There is evidence of trade across large distances, sophisticated Indigenous research and development programs, complex burial customs, and written language right before your eyes on the walls of the Art Gallery.
Distance (one way): 400m (4.6km from Ranger Station).
Track Class: 3. Moderate to steep staired slopes to reach the canyon entrance. Flat walking from there on. Two tiny creek crossings.
Access: Between the Amphitheatre and the Art Gallery.
Average Walking Time: Fifteen to twenty minutes at a stroll (1.25 hours from Ranger Station).
The track into Wards Canyon is short, but quite steep. Take it at a steady pace, with a few breaks on the way up.
Wards Canyon is the most sheltered location in Carnarvon Gorge and the vegetation gives this fact away. It holds a diversity of ferns rivalled only by the Moss Garden track, and is the best location to see orchids during the Winter and Spring. Of course, if you're on tour with Australian Nature Guides we'll be pointing them out. The walk into Wards Canyon has both the smallest and the tallest of the area's orchids.
At the end of the trail, you will be confronted by the massive fronds of the thirteen King Ferns that call Wards Canyon home. Nowhere else in the surrounding 250 000 square kilometres of sandstone country are these plants found; a fact that hammers home the narrow canyon's unique ability to protect and preserve. This is where the Lower Gorge Explorer stops for lunch and pops the billy on. Over a hot cuppa, we will lay out the series of events that have transpired to create this ecological refuge.
Wards Canyon is also one of the focal points of the Gorge's European history. It was named after fur trappers who used it in the early 1900s. Some of the tales regarding their use of the area are a little tall, and have likely been embellished. 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn' seems to have been the motto in the early day's of visitation to the Gorge.
Wards Canyon is home to the only known King Fern colony in Central Queensland.
Distance (one way): 400m, (4.3km from Ranger Station).
Track Class: 3. Moderate staired slopes, two creek crossings and some laddered steps into the site.
Access: Between the Moss Gardens and Wards Canyon.
Average Walking Time: Fifteen to twenty minutes at a stroll (1 hour from Ranger Station).
The track into the Amphitheatre can be quite exposed in the afternoon. Take it at a comfortable pace. As you approach the cliffline it is worthwhile stopping for a look around as there are wonderful colours in the sedimentary rock layers here.
The Amphitheatre is one of those places that have to be experienced; words and photographs simply cannot do the place justice. It is accessed by a narrow, elevated slot canyon and then opens out into a substantial vertical hole in the sandstone. Here, more than anywhere else in the Gorge, the geology and how it has eroded to create the surrounding features is on display for all to see.
The acoustics at the site are impressive, so if you have someone in your group that can belt out a tune give them some encouragement. Conversely, it's also a great place to have to yourself so you can appreciate the serenity.
The Moss Garden
Distance (one way): 700m (3.5km from Ranger Station).
Track Class: 3. Moderate staired slopes once into Hellhole Gorge. Two creek crossings.
Access: Turn off the Main Track at around 2.5 km.
Average Walking Time: Fifteen to twenty minutes (50-60 minutes from Ranger Station).
The track drops down off the creek flat onto a broad area of creek cobbles. Take care not to turn an ankle in this stretch. After crossing Carnarvon Creek the track follows Koolaroo Creek into Hellhole Gorge and climbs sharply in places before crossing the creek to enter Violet Gorge. There are quite a few staired sections on this track. Take them at your own pace and enjoy the best patch of remnant rainforest the gorge has to offer along the track system.
The Moss Garden is arguably the most scenic of all the Gorge's sites. It is certainly the site that has appeared in most of the advertising material associated with the Park. On reaching the boardwalk visitors are treated to a cliff line whose base is covered by a lush carpet of mosses, pepperomia and ferns, supported by the largest spring in the Gorge. The diversity of ferns in the Moss Garden rivalls that of Ward's Canyon, and Simon will be sure to point out the more weird and wonderful of them along the track on the walk in.
As the last stop on Simon's Lower Gorge Explorer tour, guests can pause here for some snacks - taking in the ambience and wondering at the contrast between the vegetation here and what they drove past to get to the Gorge. Standing next to a working spring, Simon will help you understand how the Gorge's hydrology works, and why this water takes as long as 5 000 to 10 000 years to emerge from the sandstone walls.
The name of this exquisite side gorge also hints at some of the Gorge's European history as it was named after a local CWA identity who was a pioneer of the tourism industry in the mid-1900s. Violet Gorge and Wards Canyon are the only side gorges in Carnarvon to carry western names. All others bear indigenous monikers.