The history of the area is indeed colourful, yet it is not the history so much as the Genius Loci of the Carnarvon landscape that attracts me to this spectacular country. I think of how the aesthetics, the pervading spiritual ambience, and all the experiences of discovery and wonder combine to make this country so special for the visitors just as much as those who call it home.
My own journey of discovery began in 1966, the first of three trips I made to Carnarvon Gorge with students from Mt. Gravatt High School. My prior knowledge of the area came through my membership of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland, whose drive in the 1930s and 1940s to publicise the newly declared Carnarvon National Park (1932) had received much recognition in the news media of the time. Danny O’Brien, later a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia, was the leader of a campaign for opening the park as a tourist attraction. He led no fewer than fifteen expeditions into the area, the first in 1937. In the 1940s a rough road was opened from Early Storms, the closest cattle station, and the Trenthead (Roma) Branch of the Country Women’s Association erected a hut near the entrance to the Gorge to be used by their members seeking a quiet retreat in a beautiful setting. The road crossed the cuesta ridges at the eastern front of the gorge and led right into the excellent camping area on Kooroomindanjie Plain, the place of the kangaroos.
This road became known as O’Brien’s Causeway. Back in 1966 it was a difficult journey for our charter coach after leaving Injune with some 170 kilometres of gravel, bulldust, and difficult creek crossings to be negotiated. Even today it is a gravel surface for the last 15 kilometres and the major crossing on Carnarvon Creek has still not been bridged.
On those early trips our exploring was chiefly confined to the main Carnarvon Gorge and the narrow winding slot canyons that finger down on either side from the high ranges. Some of these tributary ravines are only a metre or so wide and 100 metres deep with vibrant moss covered walls and sculptured curving overhangs where spring water drips continuously from above.
The students loved exploring these narrow ravines to see how far they could go, often hoping to find a way to climb out and up to lookout points above the cliffs.
Aljon Falls and the Angiopteris Ravine below the falls, demonstrate clearly how the process of vertical erosion has created these chasms. The dissolved minerals and suspended sand grains and pebbles are flushed out by the small but persistent stream, while in the periodic times of flash flooding, there is rapid erosion and collapse. In the main gorge and elsewhere in the ranges there are weathering fronts at the base of the clifflines where the rock is crumbling away creating caves and caverns, the most spectacular being Cathedral Cave. It is believed that water filtering through the permeable sandstone reaches the underlying impervious strata and seeps out. The dampness in the rock helps in the chemical decomposition of the matrix binding the sand grains together so the weakened rock flakes off and accumulates as powdery sand on the cave floor. Tafoni is the term the geomorphologists use to refer to these caverns. The undermining of the cliffs by the tafoni process helps contribute to the occurrence of landslides which is the main way that the clifflines retreat.
The most intriguing of the side gorges for my students and the many other visitors is the feature known as the Amphitheatre. A ladder leads up to the narrow fissure and one must then scramble though a narrow slot for 25 metres to reach the open pit of the Amphitheatre itself. The pit is some 50 metres deep with near vertical sandstone walls resembling a limestone sinkhole or doline. Any attempt at photography does not do it justice. To get a real sense of the effect the Amphitheatre has on visitors’ sense of wonder, one only has to listen to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahars’ emitted from the mouths of those about you as you gaze at the sky above.