The secret ravines of Queensland's Carnarvon Gorge

In the sandstone country of Queensland's Central Highlands, the walls are closing in. The tiny gorge - a side gorge of a side gorge - is narrowing, and high cliffs angle over our heads. Even the searing sun can no longer find us down here.

Simon Ling stops and scans the pebbly creek bed.

"There are no footprints," he says. "Nobody else has been through here. We could be the first people in here this year." And yet, just half an hour ago, we'd been walking among a steady stream of people through Carnarvon Gorge.

Four hundred kilometres inland from Rockhampton, Carnarvon is arguably the most striking natural feature in Queensland's outback. White cliffs rising up to 200 metres above Carnarvon Creek enclose the 30-kilometre-long gash in the rugged hills. Two major Aboriginal art sites adorn the rock walls, and endemic fan palms rise from the banks, bursting open like fireworks against the cliffs.

But to think of Carnarvon as a single nick in the land is to underestimate it. The wide central gorge is stitched with side gorges, and it's inside many of these that Carnarvon's prime attractions are found.

Many of the side gorges are marked and accessed by trails, but there are others as anonymous as they are spectacular. Which is why I'm here with Simon.

A former Brisbane chef turned ecologist, Simon has been living around Carnarvon for 15 years, and guiding visitors through it for a decade.

"Carnarvon was always my favourite national park, and this is more up my alley in terms of things I'm passionate about."

The inevitable guiding line through Carnarvon Gorge is the walking trail that leads almost 10 kilometres along its banks to Big Bend, passing each of the gorge's major features along the way. As the day's first light strikes the cliffs around the gorge mouth, Simon and I are already hiking along their base.

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As we walk, dragonflies play over the creek and a water dragon comes down to drink. Small lorikeets, one of around 170 bird species recorded in the gorge, whirr overhead.

"These are the smallest lorikeets in Australia," Simon says. "They're like budgies on speed."

This day, the main gorge is simply our freeway to smaller things. The bulk of the marked side gorges are bunched along the first half of the trail, though we ignore most of them because we're seeking our own hidden gorge. But even Simon can't resist a stop at the Art Gallery.

Lining a 60-metre section of cliffs, this Aboriginal art site contains more than 2000 paintings and ochre stencils depicting the likes of boomerangs, animal tracks, nets and figures of hands. As sunlight creeps along the wall, a series of engravings also comes into relief.

"Central Queensland is prolific in art sites, but somehow it's just not as famous as Kakadu or the Kimberley," Simon says.

Past the Art Gallery, we step off the track and effectively disappear. Sides gorges fork and fork again as the wide main gorge constricts into a narrow shaded tunnel. 

Cool winds funnel through the side gorge, chilled by rock walls that never see the sun. One wall is painted green with moss, and a large log remains wedged between the cliffs overhead from a surging flood months before.

"This is one of the reasons I've been here so long," Simon says. "Every side gorge has a unique character, and after every flood, things change. The walls stay the same, but the creeks are different."

There are other things that are changing around Carnarvon Gorge also. This evening I head to adjoining Bandana Station where, last April, the 17,500-hectare cattle station began sunset tours fronting the gorge cliffs.

On a rise looking over the station homestead to the cliffs, a fire is roaring. Wine and beer is poured, guests are sitting on logs, and grazier Olivia Evans is talking about her six-generation connection to the region.

For Olivia, bringing tourism to Bandana has been a plan 11 years in the making, and finally the idea came from the station's most striking feature: its view. Beyond the station's pastures, the sandstone escarpment unfurls like a ribbon, though late-afternoon cloud has crept over the range, threatening to steal our sunset.

But as Olivia's father, Bruce, recites a Banjo Paterson poem, the sun peeps below the cloud, briefly lighting the cliffs as brightly as the fire. Slowly the light fades and the world disappears. Carnarvon is done for another day.

By dawn the next morning, I'm inside the gorge again, setting out alone to explore the remainder of its natural treasures. The best hiking advice I've been given is to walk to the furthest point - Big Bend - in the early morning, then venture into the side gorges as I return, making the long trek in the cool of the day and breaking the walk back with stops in the cool side gorges.

From the Art Gallery, through sections of riverbank smothered in fan palms, it's about four kilometres to the second of the gorge's major art sites. In an enormous overhang, Cathedral Cave has similar ochre stencilling, with new imagery such as pendants, suggesting trade, and a rifle depicting early contact with Europeans.

By the time I turn at Big Bend, the sun is boring into the gorge, its heat radiating off the white cliffs. The narrow side gorges are now just as appealing for the relief of their shade as their beauty.

In Wards Canyon, I step into the cover of Australia's only inland stand of king ferns, confined to a 40-metre stretch of this side gorge.

At the Amphitheatre I don't just walk up to the cliffs, I walk into them, squeezing through a narrow crack that balloons into a 60-metre-deep sinkhole. Trees lean over the cliff edge far above, casting silhouettes against the bright sky, and I remember Simon's words from the previous day: "You get animals falling in there occasionally. A koala fell in once."

My final detour is into a side gorge named Moss Garden, climbing to a pool encased in cliffs that are a shagpile of moss. A chill breeze blows over the pool like a puff of natural air-conditioning, and the only sound is the dripping of water.

So near to the heat and fierce light of the main gorge, the gentle scene feels almost like an installation, a natural water feature designed to soothe in this gorge that has as many faces as it has bends.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

adventureoutback.com.au; nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/carnarvon-gorge

GETTING THERE

Carnarvon Gorge National Park is around 400 kilometres inland from Rockhampton. Qantas and Virgin Australia fly daily to Rockhampton from Sydney and Melbourne, with connections in Brisbane. See qantas.com.au, virginaustralia.com. You'll need a vehicle to reach the gorge. Car-hire agencies have offices at Rockhampton airport.

STAYING THERE

Takarakka Bush Resort, at the edge of the gorge, has extensive grounds and a range of accommodation from camping to safari tents to newly constructed private studios. Studios start from $230 a night. Phone 07-4984 4535. See takarakka.com.au.

SEE+DO

Full-day walking tours through the gorge with Simon Ling cost $55 a person; see ausnatureguides.com. Bandana Station Sunset tours run three nights a week and cost $35; see bandanastation.com.au.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.

FIVE OTHER QUEENSLAND GORGES

BOODJAMULLA (LAWN HILL) Canoe into a remote gorge in the state's north-west corner. Also the site of a World Heritage-listed fossil bed.

PORCUPINE GORGE A chain of water holes and vine forest through a sandstone gorge north of Hughenden.

CANIA GORGE Aboriginal art and 70-metre-high sandstone cliffs in this gorge inland from Bundaberg.

BARRON GORGE See roaring Barron Falls from the Kuranda Scenic Railway, or wander a network of trails in Barron Gorge National Park.

MOSSMAN GORGE Take a short walk through the Daintree rainforest to a great swimming hole.

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