I was delighted to win a Schools Commission Educational Innovations Grant offered by the Whitlam Government in the 1970s. It paid for me to recruit three different parties of senior secondary students and take each group for ten days trekking and exploring in the Carnarvon Ranges. The program, called Project Arcadia, was immensely successful, the results documented in three separate reports and a paper published in Geographical Education, the Australian Geography Teachers’ Association Journal. Certainly the students gained a great deal from the experience. I quote from two of the students writing about Robinson Gorge visited on the first of the Project Arcadia expeditions:
“I found the cliff lines beautiful to behold. Certainly the cool shadowy pools enshrouded by canopies of green luxuriant vegetation were picturesque and aesthetically pleasing, but the sight of sheer, bold precipitous was awe-inspiring. The dappled, patchy colour scheme of the weathered sandstone formed a pleasant background to the vegetation and the creek bed.”
“Robinson Gorge is certainly a beautiful area, freshwater, luxuriant vegetation and abundant wildlife. We have all noticed the real serenity of just being here and experiencing its splendour. “
As the students noted, as well as the geological features, much of the beauty of Carnarvon Range country can be attributed to the attractive vegetation communities of the area. There are many tall eucalypts, including the stately forest red gums, spotted gums and tallowwoods in the gorges and valleys, and the silver topped stringybarks and Sydney blue gums of the Mahogany Forest on Consuelo Tableland. Nearly all these tall trees are truncated at the top, evidence of the ferocity of the storms that can swirl down the valleys and break off the crowns and top branches. The lorikeets and parrots enjoy a frenzy of feeding in these tall trees when the flower buds shed their operculums and open out their nectar rich blossoms.
In the intermediate vegetation storey I personally love the Carnarvon Fan Palms, a species of Livistona, that grace the banks of Carnarvon Creek and other streams throughout the ranges. The golden flower racemes at the top of the fan palms put on a brilliant spring display, equally matched by the golden brown of dying fronds hanging around the trunk below.
A greater curiosity are the ancient cycads, Macrozamia moorei, that are so well adapted to the climate and soils that they are prolific not only in parts of the Gorge but also in the ranges and on the basalt plateaus above. In places on Consuelo Tableland they are so dense and regimented that when we passed through on the Great Walk trail they reminded me of a company of heavily-kitted foot-soldiers lined up and ready to advance. The nuts of this ancient plant are poisonous and I vividly recall the night one of my students, on that first trip in 1966, became violently ill as a result of ingesting one or two to show off to his mates. Luckily he was the state gymnastics champion and had a very strong constitution.
Early spring is the best time for wildflowers. During my recent visits to the ranges with bushwalking friends I have been privileged to see many fantastic flowering displays. On the sloping benches above the Precipice Sandstone cliffs we pushed through extensive groves of red and gold bush peas, both Daviesia and Pultenaea species; up on the high basalt plateau there were acres of understory plants clothed up to three metres high by the rambling purple Hardenbergia creeper in full flower, and nearby were glorious fields of golden Gompholobium. In other locations the purple hoveas were bigger and better than any I’ve seen anywhere else in Australia, while in the Salvator Rosa and Ka Ka Mundi sectors we passed through wildflower meadows with an abundance of white daisies, mauve coloured native violets, red grevilleas and blue flax lilies. A ruby red Calytrix species with bright yellow stamen became the focus for many photographs. It is truly special, being limited in distribution to the Carnarvon area.
In addition to all this display of wildflower colour, the walker is always delighted to see the blossoming of the golden wattles that are part of the understory throughout the ranges. There are least six of the different Acacia species, each with its own style of inflorescence. They flower at their best in late July and August, the pendulous racemes of the zig-zag wattle being, in my opinion, the most glorious of all of them.