A lot of water, wind and 27 million years has carved out the dramatic monument of Carnarvon Gorge. Hundreds of metres below the tableland of its protective basalt cap, I’m in my element getting survival tips from local elder, Fred Conway.
I could feel the previous day’s 23 kilometre hike pull in my thighs as I bent down to pick one of the bright purple berries “Uncle Fred” pointed out. “That’s edible,” he said. Or was it horrible? It would’ve been an easy mistake to make with the gorge’s orchestra of early morning birdsong in full drown-out mode.
Thankfully it was sweet, tasty and a privilege to try it. Had I been on my own I would be following the National Parks’ “take nothing, leave nothing” rule. Only Traditional Owners can offer me the gifts that grow in these protected areas.
Further up the trail, Fred introduced me to leaves I could use in a salad, a flower that secretes a honey tasting juice when tapped on my palm and a grass strong enough to use as twine if I needed to build an emergency shelter.
No bugs, no grubs no Bear Grylls eyeball-eating. Just practical advice from a humble sprit and an enchanting soul.
Yarning, Yearning and Learning
I met Fred the previous day outside the ranger station. The popular larger-than-life character, known for his casual off-the-cuff talks and endearing wit, was in high demand particularly by the little explorers.
I felt privileged Fred took some time out to yarn with me about his life and work at the gorge. His persona shifted between bright, sparky, serious and a quiet contemplation as he shared stories from his mission years.
In the mission, Fred and his people were forced to give up their traditional beliefs and they were punished for trying to keep their culture alive or for practising skills that had been invaluable to early Europeans.
“It’s important people understand what happened to our Indigenous people,” he said, “those who are capable of understanding and those who want to know.”
Although Fred’s struggles make his return to the gorge “to country” even more poignant, he isn’t the type of character who likes to dwell on sad times for too long. He loves to joke. He loves his work. This 71-year-old is looking forward and a serenity took over him as he explained that he came back to the gorge to share his knowledge about this special place of cultural significance with rangers and visitors like me.
“I’ll do this as much as I can, for as long as I can, and as long as I’m capable of walking,” he insisted.
An Impromptu Tour
We were chatting about my general travels in Australia and the time I had to carry two days of water while cycling through the Flinders ranges, when Fred’s expression turned to surprise.
“There’s water all around us,” Fred explained.
“From the Creek and springs?” I asked.
Fred firmly shook his head from side to side. “My friend, you meet me on the trail tomorrow, I’ll show you where to get water.”
We met early the next morning so we could walk the trail and chat before my eight-hour drive back to Brisbane. The Ranger Station was still in sight when the first few curious walkers tagged on to our casual arrangement. More soon followed on and he was happy to oblige. Fred makes time for everyone in his ticktock-free world.
Unfortunately, time caught up with me before I could get my water tip. I apologised for leaving and thanked him for sharing his knowledge. Fred knelt down and dug the soil away from a clump of grass right beside the trail to reveal a plump white root.
“Before you go try this,” he said handing me a piece. I crunched on the small fibrous tuber and a surprising amount of slightly sweet watery juice ran down my throat.
“See. Water,” said Fred. “I told you, it’s everywhere.”
A wealth of cultural and natural heritage lies within this special place of enchanting beauty which is home to an abundance of significant plant and animal species. Many are relics of bygone eras. You’ll see towering sandstone cliffs, vibrant side gorges, hidden mini-oasis carved by nature and some of the best preserved and oldest Aboriginal rock art in Queensland.
There’s roughly five kilometers of easy well-maintained trails suitable for families on the main walking track with clearly marked side treks. Beyond, the track becomes less-trodden and more overgrown. It forms the first part of The Carnarvon Great Walk*, an 87 kilometre circuit, which has been mapped out with camp spots for the more intrepid.
Special Note: The Carnarvon Great Walk is closed at the hottest time of the year – from the start of November to the end of February – and the track may be closed at other times during fires or adverse weather conditions.
Why it’s Special
Traditional Owners have a long and on-going relationship with the gorge which is part of Carnarvon National Park. The scale of this bio-diverse area only becomes evident when you climb up the 900 or so steps to Boolimba Bluff and take in the view over the tablelands known as “the roof of Queensland”.
The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) acknowledges the connection Aboriginal people have with this cultural heritage place, and asks that you treat the country through which you walk with respect and care. More info here
How to Get There
Carnarvon Gorge is 720 kilometres north-west of Brisbane in the Central Queensland Highlands – roughly an eight hour drive – passing through the country towns of Dalby, Chinchilla, Miles and Roma.
Where to Stay
A hike up to Boolimba Bluff
Hike the main track through the Gorge to Big Bend.
A Swim in the natural rock pool
Spot a Platypus or Rock Wallaby early morning
A yarn with Uncle Fred