CARNARVON NATIONAL PARK
Carnarvon National Park is in forbidding terrain.
Carnarvon Gorge is one of the best known National Parks in Queensland, but not so well known is the fact that it’s only one of four major sites in what is the greater Carnarvon National Park.
If you look at Hema’s Outback Queensland map it’s obvious that Carnarvon National Park is much bigger in area than the famous Gorge section that is the most frequented part of the Park. We explored all four major sites: Mt Moffat, The Gorge, Ka Ka Mundi and the oddly named Salvator Rosa region.
Although Carnarvon National Park is a one-piece land allocation it’s in forbidding terrain and the four major sites are at its extremities, forcing long drives between them.
For example, Mt Moffat and The Gorge sections are only 20 kilometres apart as the eagle flies, but the drive between the two sites is over 300 kilometres – much of it on rough dirt surfaces. Similarly, to get to Ka Ka Mundi from The Gorge means a drive north to Rolleston and Springsure, followed by a 150-kilometre dirt road trip. Since these distances are one-way only, it means that petrol vehicles need long-range tank capacity or jerry can backup.
The initial appeal of the Mt Moffat section of Carnarvon National Park was the fact that you need a 4WD to get there and to see the sites on the tableland. Once we were there it became obvious that Mt Moffat offered much more than just a chance to exercise our 4WD skills.
The trek to Mt Moffat begins in the little town of Injune, 90 kilometres north of Roma. Injune boasts an excellent tourist information centre, fuel stations, a general store and a pub that makes the best counter lunches in the region.
The road to Mt Moffat has been realigned in recent years and now runs almost due west from Injune to a T-intersection at Womblebank Station, before swinging north to the Park. The old access road that runs through Westgrove, Merivale and Sunrise Stations is closed to through traffic.
The best time to visit Mt Moffat is during the cooler months, but don’t even think about going when there’s a sniff of heavy rain.
The Top Shelter Shed at Mt Moffat sits on a mountain top at 1200 metres above sea level and gives a magnificent vista of the surrounding range country that feeds water into the Comet and Maranoa Rivers, and Carnarvon Creek that flows through Carnarvon Gorge. From this point it’s easy to understand why there’s no short connecting track over the mountains between Mt Moffat and Carnarvon Gorge.
The mountain views from the tableland at Mt Moffat contrast with the many eroded sandstone features at the lower levels of the Park. Another interesting feature of Mt Moffat is its chequered, bloodstained recent history.
The roads into Mt Moffat are a mixed bag, starting off with lumpy, narrow bitumen that crosses undulating country to the west of Injune, followed by new bitumen as far as the Merivale River crossing, after which it degenerates into poorly maintained dirt with some very rough patches.
The tracks inside the Park vary, depending on the ground conditions, but are negotiable in fine weather by most 4WDs. We’d caution about bringing ‘softroaders’ that lack ground clearance and tough tyres into Mt Moffat.
It’s possible to enjoy Mt Moffat on two levels, because all the historical sites and the weather-sculptured sandstone and basalt features are found on the lower slopes of the ranges. Steep, rocky climbs take the visitor to the mountain tops, to witness spectacular views and drive through mountain forests.
We’d booked a campsite at the rotary Shelter Shed site, which sits below the summit, at 1000 metres above sea level. This spot offers some of the best campsite views in Australia and has a bonus of a ‘drop’ dunny with open-door scenery that distracts you from the original purpose of your visit!
The other high-altitude campsite is Top Moffat.
Those who don’t want to scale the rocky heights can camp at Dargonelly Rock Hole or West Branch.
You get an early introduction to the tortured sandstone features of the Park as soon as you cross the southern boundary, because the aptly named bulk of Cathedral Rock is close to the access track.
The fantastically shaped Duchess and Chimneys outcrops are only a short walk into the bush from the road.
The aboriginal burial and art site known as The Tombs is worth the 2.5-kilometre round trip walk from The Chimneys, but the official distance (750 metres) painted on the signpost is incorrect.
The eroded cavities at The Tombs site were once filled with aboriginal burial remains – painted bark cylinders wrapped around skeletons – but the small caves were stripped bare in the early 1900s, leaving only the rock art that is still visible today.
Our visit to Mt Moffat continued with a day tour of the sites along Marlong Creek, starting with the sandstone features and finishing up with the sinister locations in Lethbridge’s Pocket.
The tracks linking these sites were very soft and sandy when we visited and hand-written notes warned visitors of likely boggings in two-wheel-drive vehicles. We needed high-range 4WD mode to get along this stretch.
Marlong Arch defies gravity, spanning a gap between two sandstone ridges that are pock-marked with small caves.
The Kookaburra Cave takes its name from an aboriginal art site that includes a distorted hand stencil painting that is said to represent a bird’s head, complete with raised crown feathers.
Lot’s Wife is a solitary stone pillar, named after the Biblical woman who couldn’t resist a last look back at the imploding city of Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt.
The Marlong Plain is a natural native grassland area, surrounded by sandstone slopes and cliffs. Its beauty was marred to some extent when visited, because the plain had been blackened by a grass fire.
“Murder, bloody murder…”
The northern end of Mt Moffat was home to Kenniff Clan in the 1890s – Old Jim, Pat and Jim, and youngsters Tom and Jack. Although there are some stories about the Kenniffs that suggest a Robin Hood or Ned Kelly romantic twist to the gang’s activities the facts indicate otherwise.
Pat and Jim had already ‘done time’ in NSW for horse and cattle stealing and there was ample evidence that they’d taken up their former trade, based in the Lethbridge’s Pocket area of what is now the Mt Moffat Park.
The Kenniffs were doing it tough in drought-stricken 1901and decided to steal a mob of horses, alter the brands and move them to Roma, for sale. The plan was foiled by the police, but the best they could do was fine Pat Kenniff for moving stock without a permit. In the following year a warrant was issued for the arrest of Pat and Jim.
On Good Friday, March 28th 1902 Constable Doyle, neighbouring station manager Johannes Dahlke and black tracker Sam Johnson set out from the Upper Warrego Police Station to execute the warrant.
Only Sam survived the ambush set by the Kenniffs and a subsequent search party found the partly burned remains of Doyle and Dahlke. Pat and Jim Kenniff were caught south of Mitchell in June 1902 and paid the price – Pat with hanging and Jim with a life sentence. The incineration site, on a rock slab in the creek bed beneath the basalt-capped Kenniff Lookout, is clearly signposted.
From the sombre atmosphere of Lethbridge’s Pocket it was a relief to climb the rocky track that leads to The Rotary Shelter Shed campsite and the other attractions of the Consuelo Tableland, some 600 vertical metres above the plain.
South west of the Top Shelter Shed the track winds through an unexpectedly tall stand of trees known as the Mahogany Forest. These Stringybarks are sheltered from strong winds by the escarpment and contrast with the stunted tree growth in the more exposed areas of the Park. The track ends at a rise, overlooking the shallow valley that eventually widens into Carnarvon Gorge – our next destination.
Carnarvon Gorge National Park
The much-publicised Carnarvon Gorge is a 4WD adventurer’s anti-climax after Mt Moffat. It’s not that Carnarvon Gorge isn’t spectacular – it’s grand on a massive scale. Nor is it lacking in natural appeal, with beautiful trees, plants and ferns, and a host of wildlife, including relatively tame kangaroos.
The trouble is that Carnarvon Gorge isn’t a 4WD destination – and it’s crowded. After our solitary campsite on the Consuelo Tableland in Mt Moffat Park the Gorge section campgrounds came as a shock.
Mountain vistas were replaced by neighbours’ tents and vehicles – nice people, to be sure, but closer by than our neighbours at home. And we were lucky, we were told, because the privately run campsites are even more crowded and twice as expensive.
It was the same on the walking tracks – people everywhere. The final gripe is the location of the Park headquarters, at the lower end of the Gorge. It’s a 10-kilometre hike to the top end – more if you want to scale the heights. The only way you can physically see all the Gorge’s sites is to carry in lightweight camping gear and stay overnight at Big Bend.
To see the bare minimum of sites in the Gorge you’re up for a 14-16-kilometre return walk in the one day. That’s too much for many people and splitting the sites over a two-day walk doesn’t reduce the distance, because there’s only one track in and out.
A better location for the headquarters in terms of tourist access would be halfway along the Gorge – on the plateau – with walking tracks to the valley floor. (We expect a flood of protest emails from dedicated bush walkers.)
We strapped on the back packs and enjoyed our first day’s hiking in Carnarvon Gorge. We opted for the ‘minimum’ package, which goes as far as the Art Gallery and Ward’s Canyon, before returning via the Moss garden side walk. QPWS claims that’s a 14-kilometre return hike, but our calibrated pedometer reckoned it was more than 16 klicks. Sure felt like it.
The plan for the next day was to skip up to the top of Boolimba Bluff for some sunrise shots, but most of the early birds only made it halfway, before quitting. It’s a hard slog, up 200 vertical metres.
Next on the agenda was a walk along Mickey Creek and that did for the rest of us. Our summary of Carnarvon Gorge: as beautiful as the pictures indicate, but bloody hard work.
Carnarvon National Park – Western Sections
The western half of Carnarvon National Park is quite different from the better known eastern end. You’ll need to bush walk a little to appreciate the best sites, but the Ka Ka Mundi and Salvator Rosa sections will also exercise your 4WD.
The Ka Ka Mundi and Salvator Rosa Sections of Carnarvon National Park are located midway between the small towns of Tambo and Springsure and there are separate turnoffs to each Park Section on the Dawson Developmental Road.
For the more adventurous there’s a 4WD track leading to Salvator Rosa from the Landsborough Highway, about 10 kilometres south of Tambo. This latter track is sometimes closed by rain that turns it to glue, or by excessively dry weather that turns the surface to bulldust, so it’s wise to check with Tambo Police before relying on it.
The roads into the National Park Sections are mostly well-graded gravel, but near the ranges the country turns to black soil plains that are impassable even to 4WDs in wet weather.
When you arrive at the small campsite in Ka Ka Mundi you can be excused for feeling somewhat hemmed in and apprehensive.
The overhanging, cave-pocked sandstone hills around the campsite keep the morning sun at bay and evening comes early to the deep valley.
Aboriginal legends reinforce the feeling of gloom. Eunjie spirit forms were thought to inhabit the caves and contact with them was believed to bring on illness. Their headquarters was the craggy finger of Mt Mooloolong.
Fear of the evil sprits is the major reason there are no decorations in the caves that overlook the campsite at Ka Ka Mundi, yet the waters of nearby Bunbuncundoo Spring were believed to have great healing powers and Aboriginal children were immersed in the crystal ponds to cure bone problems. We can’t vouch for its healing powers but the Spring gave us wonderful drinking water.
If you can overcome your feelings of foreboding a climb to the top of the hill at the campsite is worth the effort, for a splendid view of the surrounding sandstone outcrops. The sandstone layers were laid down in freshwater lakes and streams180 million years ago and were later covered with basaltic lava that has largely eroded away.
Ka Ka Mundi was grazing land for more than a century, before being gazetted as a National Park in 1974.
There are visible remnants of the old stock yards at the southern end of the Park and of the cattle watering station at Den Spring, to the east.
Unfortunately, the 4WD tracks at Ka Ka Mundi push through dense undergrowth, so there only limited views of the surrounding sandstone ridges and cliffs.
There’s a well-worn track to Den Spring and a less worn one just north of the turnoff to the campsite at Bunbuncundoo Spring that ends at a dead end beside a sandy creek – probably another stock watering station from the days when the property was home to hundreds of cattle.
The Park lacks the spectacle of Mt Moffat and Carnarvon Gorge, but is a worthwhile overnight stop en route to Salvator Rosa.
The Pear Tree
On the track to Den Spring there are several prominent examples of the Tree Pear, often confused with Prickly Pear, Opuntia inermis. The Tree Pear differs from its invasive cousin in being much taller – around four metres – and has red flowers, not yellow. Also unlike its cousin the Tree Pear doesn’t spread irresponsibly.
There are no native Australian cactus species – all were introduced in the early days of white settlement – and without any natural predators some species ran, literally, wild. Prickly Pear overran much of the Darling Downs region in the early 20th century and many properties had to be abandoned. In 1920 the situation had reached crisis point, with around a quarter million square kilometres – about three quarters the size of Japan – infested.
The Australian Government set up a commission to investigate possible natural predators and the winner was the South American Cactoblastis moth. By 1933 the great stands of Prickly Pear were gone. Some cactus remains, as do some predatory insects, but the Pear is not considered a serious environmental threat any more.
“The overhanging hills surpassed any I have ever seen in picturesque outline.
“Some resembled Gothic cathedrals in ruins, others forts.
“Other masses were perforated and being mixed and contrasted with the flowing outlines of evergreen woods and, having a fine stream in the foreground, gave a charming appearance to the whole country.
“It was a discovery worthy of the toils of a pilgrimage.”
This is how Major Thomas Mitchell described his arrival at what is now Salvator Rosa National Park. He named it Salvator Rosa after a Neapolitan 17th century artist, who used the same dramatic colours that Major Mitchell saw in the landscape.
Mitchell came across this spring-fed, green oasis after a long march across the dry country around the upper reaches of the Warrego and Maranoa Rivers. He was sufficiently impressed with the region to establish a base camp on the green plain known today as Major Mitchell Springs.
Like Ka Ka Mundi the sandstone layers of Salvator Rosa were formed by sediments in lakes and streams. The coarse-grained sandstone is very soft and has been eroded into fantastic shapes. Unlike the thick scrub at Ka Ka Mundi Salvator Rosa’s open woodland makes bushwalking easy and there are brilliant views of the many large stone formations.
There’s a large campsite at Nogoa River from which a 4WD track leads to the major walking and viewing sites. Our driving tour of Salvator Rosa began at the southern extremity of the Park, at a locked gate and then returned to the Nogoa River campsite.
A short walk beyond the locked gate takes visitors to the site of some 1940s stock yard remains. To the west of the track is the spring-fed grassy plain that so impressed Major Mitchell. Springs are the lifeblood of Salvator Rosa and vary in size from small soaks like Belinda Spring to upstream jets that feed Louisa Creek with around nine million litres of crystal clear water every day.
The junction of Louisa Creek and the Nogoa River is one of the most beautiful spots in the Park, as two clear streams join their white sandy river beds, surrounded by stately trees and eroded sandstone hills.
The walk to Spyglass Peak leads past a long stone outcrop that looks like a huge, man-made rampart, complete with spy holes and arrow slits. The track then meanders to the base of the Peak, where the 10-metre-diameter hole at its summit can be seen close-up, skylight blue against the surrounding rock.
Give yourself plenty of time - around three weeks - to do justice to the greater Carnarvon National Park.
- Time required
Minimum two weeks
- Best time to go
Autumn, Winter, Spring
- What to do
4WD touring, camping, bushwalking (March to October) Aboriginal rock art, swimming, photography
HEMA Australian Road Atlas, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service mud maps
Mount Moffat, Carnarvon gorge, Ka Ka Mundi and Salvatore Rosa. QPWS - fees apply.
Camping permits are required by QPWS and advance site bookings are essential - QPWS Camping Permits and Bookings
- Track closures
Closed during fires and adverse weather conditions, for safety reasons or fro essential track maintenance. Current track conditions visit http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks/carnarvon-gorge/index.html
** Alert - current September 2012 for Mount Moffatt, Carnarvon National Park (Rangers at Mount Moffatt on Tel: 07 4626 3581)
QPWS - Carnarvon National Park
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