You’ve seen them, you’ve been there: The Great Barrier Reef and the cliffs over the Great Australian Bight, Franklin River and Cradle Mountain, the Bungle Bungles and Lake Mungo, Uluru and the SydOpHo – but have you heard of Carnarvon Gorge?

map2Last week we took Joni Mitchell‘s advice, and got ourselves back to the garden. We walked around for a few days in the blessed beauty of Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland, certainly one of the most underpublicised beauty spots in the country. “Nine comfortable hours by car from Brisbane” as one brochure advises, or, as the official govt. site has it, “about 720km by road north-west of Brisbane”. Or, as we did it, a five hour drive from Rockhampton, which included about 100km of unsealed dirt roads.

Arriving at Carnarvon Gorge doesn’t have the impact that comes from encountering in the real what already exists as an iconic-almost-memory in your imagination, like, say, the Olgas. For one thing it doesn’t have a grand entrance or an easily accessible aerial viewing point. But it’s very special, even if its icon (below, from the EPA) is literally of a recessive image.

carnarvon_gorge_2The Gorge* goes for 30km shaped by cliffs leaping 600m into the air. You can walk the main track for about 10km, during which you have to make 20 crossings across the water – yes, a river runs through it – by stepping across river stones. Goodness knows what you do during the wet – we saw high water markings that were 6 or 7m above current water level. It has a list of attractions, byways 500 or 700 m off to the sides that will take you to Ward’s Canyon with its tremendous King Ferns; the darkly exquisite Moss Garden with its dripping walls; the nacreous, submarine light of the Amphitheatre – a staggering skyscraper-high hollow of stone, and so on.

That people are so unfamiliar with it is very odd. Our lovely Rockhampton B&B hosts (Athelstane House: it’s got our approval; the hostess Marion does a swell breakfast, the best food we had in town) could roughly direct us there, but hadn’t ever thought of going themselves. Other folk we met at a conference (from all over the country) had either never heard of it or had, but didn’t have a clear idea of what or where it was. Apart from that, when we asked for an information flyer (very useful) at the Park headquarters at the gateway of the track, the Ranger begged us to return it at the end of the day so she could keep passing it out. When I did so just before she closed the office, she thanked me profusely saying, ‘Someone will be happy you did this, next year.’ Which was mysterious, but also rather sad that they didn’t have a budget for one of their essential informational items. (She added I could download it from the site – well, it’s not there.)

I’ll post later some other thoughts it disgorged in me, but just a hint: Go.

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As usual with these things, words can only ba-lah blah blah, and pictures tell but only a cramped 1000-word portion of the story – maybe we need a NatGeo doco. Still, I’m going to make some time to set up a flickr page of photos in case anyone should care to consider a holiday up there. (It’s very restful, but you’re gonna puff if you’re a city-sedentary.)

Back to the notion of story-telling images – I use only a compact digital, which is nice and wonderfully convenient and I love it and have had several ever newer versions over the years, but while it’s fine for details, it’s quite inadequate to the task of dealing with a larger space. And I think that remains so with even a much better camera (or photographer than myself). Which makes me wonder yet again about the qualities of photographic imagery and whether the handmade – let’s say, painted – image has a continued relevance.

For instance, I am not a fan of David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon, which made a big splash when Canberra’s NGA bought it for $4.6m back in ’99 (probably a good investment now). But having seen the actual, Hockney’s is a far more vivid account of the experience of the Canon than any photo I have seen (including Hockney’s own “joiner picture” of the same – here’s an example of that method).

The snap above is a nice glimpse, but would be quite misleading if captioned as “Picture of Carnarvon Gorge”. To continue this line of thought, I shall add a couple of finishing touches to a watercolour of the Gorge I started up there, and will post it soon so you can decide if an imaginative handmade picture can go where no photo can.

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*Here is a deeply “eccentric” view of the Gorge, from Tas Walker‘s Biblical Geology site: ‘The oldest rocks in the Carnarvon Gorge area occur at considerable depth and are only known from drilling and geophysical investigations. However, it is likely that the deepest rocks are related to the exposed fold belts of eastern Australia. These were deposited rapidly early during the global Flood (Genesis 6–8), most of them deep under the ocean…’

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