So it was time for my first walk as a solo Grey Wolf. I booked my camps on-line for a 5 night, 6 day walk looping through and around Carnarvon Gorge, a 1300 km drive to the south that Alison and I had often thought about but never got around to planning. We’d visited the gorge back in 2011 on our way down to Melbourne to take her Mum and Dad off to Norfolk Island, but as that was only 2 months after my knee replacement, walking had to be kept easy and gentle. We hadn’t visited more than the visitor centre and one of the rock shelters.
My plan was to drive straight down over two days, dropping my dog Clare off at her resort on the way. I was then able to camp at Takarakka Caravan Park just outside the National Park and start the walk from the visitor centre 4 km away. I was assured that the troopy could be left in the public carpark for the 6 days with no dramas.
I was up and moving with the sunrise every morning as the nights were much colder than at home, so I found myself ready to start walking at 7:30am from the visitor centre on the Friday as planned. I was very glad I had brought the hot sleeping bag and hoped that the new one-man tent would be ok for it. I was even walking with a jacket on until about 10:30 before the day had warmed up and I started to sweat.
The walk headed straight up the valley between soaring white cliffs, crossing and re-crossing the stream many times for that first day. This is the main day-tripper path for the first 7 km, and so it was wide and graded with concrete steps to make it as safe as possible. The stepping stones on the creek crossings were large and level so that even Tripper would have had no difficulties. My casual stroll was about twice the speed of the tourists, already thick on the ground, and I chatted with everybody as I went by, as they all did a double take on my pack. My new sleeping mat was a square block at the bottom of my pack and it looked quite odd in yellow and silver with an egg carton surface. I was asked, “What is that thing?”, several times during the day.
The main path had several branches off to spectacular sites, so I was able to drop my pack and wander in to check them out before going on. The day-trippers were advised to go to the end and do the visits on the way back, but I will not be returning this way.
The first of these was called “The Moss Garden”, and after a 200 m climb up and into a small gorge, there was a cool and wet grotto, complete with a little waterfall and a plunge pool. There was a waterproof layer in the surrounding sandstone that forced water out on to the cliff face, creating ideal conditions for the mosses on the walls. It is cool and shaded inside the walls, but we were restricted to a timber boardwalk as the area is very vulnerable to the numbers passing through, so this is a ‘look but don’t touch’ experience as are all the sites along this route. I felt a little deflated here as although it’s a pretty spot, I have seen many equivalent grottoes without the needed tourist protection infrastructure keeping me away.
I headed back down to the main trail, donned my pack and carried on another km or so to the next trail fork. This is the Ampitheatre which on approach appears to be a white cliff wall blocking all access.
With the right viewing angle, a slot in the cliff first became visible, then a series of ladders came into sight which gave easy access to the bottom of the slot.
A footpath entered the slot from the top of the ladders, but this was no more than a metre wide and about 30 metres in length, opening out into a circular space about 50 metres across and completely closed off in all directions by a wall of 100 metre cliffs. It was quite overpowering to sit and stare around at the cliffs, although again we were not permitted to walk around inside, a boardwalk kept us to one edge. The ranger told me that this entire space turns into a washing machine in the wet season, water rushing in and churning around ripping out any plants, before squirting out the entry slot. That’d be quite a sight, from above preferably.
The last group of people I chatted to told me to make sure I visit the next canyon, despite the climb of 300 steps. I had been tempted to skip it but with that recommendation I had to check it out. Again I dumped the pack and strolled up the stone steps without any dramas.
Wards Canyon is a side-branch, with a stream flowing despite the dry conditions, and many King and Tree Ferns were happily growing inside despite being hundreds of kilometres away from their normal range in the wet tropics.
Orchids were flowering on the walls, but were a bit far away for my camera, and all the attempts at photos turn out blurred.
The Art Gallery was next with a stunning display of stencils and engravings. Many weapons, boomerangs and clubs, as well as hands and entire forearms have been stencilled with red ochre. Stencilled crossed arms are meant to represent the peaceful meeting of two tribes.
There are also many woven nets painted on the walls, and the interpretive materials identify these as drawings of the bags used to hold the dead during their first interment. Once fully decayed, the remains would be taken away to another sacred site for their permanent home.
This seemed to be the end of the main tourist path, as to go on up to the Cathedral means another 2 km up the track making for a much harder day for the unfit. My camp for the night is only 500 m beyond that, and it was still not time for lunch. The cliff at the Cathedral loomed out above me in a classic Myer Music Bowl shape, with more rock art all the way along the base. This time however it is identified as a women’s business site and the dominant art form is of hundreds of vulvas chipped into the rock. Mostly 60-100 mm long but one near the middle is around 300 mm long! No penises or balls from what I can see, but again there are several painted woven nets.
The ranger had told me to look out for the musket on the top left, and sure enough there is a stencilled outline of a gun, but it is only 40-50 cm in total length. I can’t help but feel that it is either a carved wooden model they made themselves, or a child’s toy stolen from a nearby homestead. The barrel shape and stock are distinct, and there could be a magazine in the breech area, but no trigger guard visible. To me it looks just like the old Lee Enfield I used to train with, but in half size.
I can skip the next gorge as I will be going up there tomorrow, so I wander on to Big Bend campsite in time for lunch at a lovely spot overlooking a big pool in the stream. A swim is in order to get rid of some sweat after a feed, but I can only manage to get to knee deep before the pain of the cold water takes over. I did manage a wipe down with a wet cloth and rinsed out my T shirt, but I was most impressed by two older guys going for a complete dip a little later. They would have to be Victorians.
A cold wind blew ceaselessly all night, (and for the next 5 days), so the tent was a bit cool with the blast coming under the fly and through the gauze inner, but I managed a good night’s sleep on the new mat. This is a solid foam egg-box surface and it is at least as comfortable as the previous inflatable that exploded on me on my last walk.
I’m up and out and breakfasted by 7:30 again and a bit worried about the climb this morning. It is a 600m ascent climbing very steeply over 3 kilometres out of the main gorge, then up Battleship Spur to a lookout . The profile looks the same as the climb up Mt Sorrow at Cape Tribulation, which I had barely completed in 5 hours, suffering cramps and dehydration along the way. I’m not looking forward to a repeat of this, so I had been doing some training with steps to get my legs used to the idea.
I retraced my steps back to Boowinda Gorge and turned in following the markers. The gorge was very narrow again and the walking surface is all on loose rock. Very ankle twisty stuff and I kept focussed on the ground and where my feet were going for about a kilometre before a couple of cairns marked the start of the climb out. Just looking up from the bottom made me wonder who on earth would have looked at that and decided that it was a viable route without a rope. Hands and feet were required to pull up on ledges and trees, and some-one has carved boot sized steps into steeper slabs, which made it look like an ice climb. The route zig zagged around the impossible bits and eventually popped out at the top of a gully, where more normal walking could resume. The path kept climbing steeply after a traverse to the bottom of Battleship spur, but the same some-ones have put a lot of work into moving boulders and importing concrete steps, so nearly all of this section was on a staircase, and for one 6 metre wall, a steel ladder with handrails had been bolted in place.
After 2 hours of steady climbing I emerged onto the plateau and headed over to the lookout to see where I had been, only to be confronted by a whiteout of smoke filling the gorges. So there is a fire somewhere. I wondered which way it was going and if there was any immediate threat. The wind continued from the west and all the smoke I could see was to my east, so at least it was not headed my way. The open woodland around me had also been burnt recently and was just starting to green up again, so there was absolutely no fuel left on the ground for a major threat. On that basis I decided that it was ok to continue, just to stay alert to the possibility and be ready to start and get behind a back-burn if I needed to.
It took another two hours of easy walking in open woodland across the plateau and down a small gorge to reach Gadd’s walkers camp where there was a management track to let rangers keep an eye on the water supply and toilet block. A composting toilet sat off to one side of a shelter shed with underground water tanks fed from the roof and two hand pumps with warning signs about having to treat the water. It’s basic, but all that was needed with shady spots under the sparse trees, so I had my lunch and snoozed away the afternoon until time for dinner. With the cold wind it was difficult to stay warm in the shade, while sitting out in the sun was too hot with no wind, so there was lots of shuffling around to find good spots.
By 5:30 I found myself fed and watered and ready for bed as the temperature nosedived once the sun dropped behind the ridge. My fingers were numb and white while trying to write up the diary.
The forest I was walking through was wide open, with visibility in all directions to about 300 metres, so I was constantly scanning to see what might be seen. The day was brightened as a mob of 14 grey kangaroos charged across my path as I came over a small rise, but apart from them, there was only one pile of emu poo, pig damage and cow pats and tracks. This was recovering grazing land, and it looked like good country for cattle, but the damage showed in eroded gullies and polluted pools of foul water.
The wind overnight at least kept the tent and water from freezing over, but it took a while for my fingers to start working properly, and a cup of coffee to warm them first up in the morning was most welcome. Again the walk for the day had me wandering through open forest over undulating ground, following the maintenance track for about 4 kilometres as it climbed 300 metres back up to the high ridge. I was keeping an eye on the map, so was expecting the footpath to depart from the road or I would have missed it in the zen of walking.
From this junction another 3 hours of downhill stroll on rocky uneven ground had me at the West Branch walker’s camp in time for lunch. This one is about 300m from a car accessible camp, which is where the toilet block was located. I was grumbling about being so far from the water supply when I found the tap in the middle of the walker’s camp, sitting all by itself in the clearing pretending to be a tree stump. A well-made suspension bridge to get to the camp over a dry and sandy creek bed (the Maranoa) seemed a bit over the top, but there was evidence of strong water flow. Just not then. Bulldog ants made my afternoon in the peace and sun a bit of a trial, but there was only the one nest and once I moved my tent a bit further away, they calmed down and left me alone. And I them.
I didn’t see any wildlife on the walk today, just tracks and damage from pigs, cattle and horses. The horse sign, including shod hooves, became much more common as I approached the camp, so it looked to me as if they were coming in from the road, as if to round up cattle.
It was another cold night, but I had prepared for it this time, going to bed fully dressed in woollen long johns as well as using a silk inner sheet, so I was warm and snug for the whole night. Numb fingers again in the morning attest to my carelessness in leaving my mitts in the car. I won’t do that again. It was easy walking again this morning, although the track climbed steadily, gaining about 400 metres and entering tall forest with a dense bracken and cycad understory, which looked as if it hadn’t been burnt for some time.
Piles of communal wild horse poo decorated the track all the way once I reached the tall forest, and a couple of emu watched me closely without moving as I went by. I called out to them to say hello, but they still just watched me. A wild pig was also right next to the track, rooting around happily in the soil, again ignoring me as I approached clapping as loudly as I could. I finally yelled at it from 3 metres away whereupon it decided to take off, grunting in objection as it went. Kangaroos and wallabies were also very active in this forest, possibly because of the lower visibility, maybe not as aware of my approach. A blue doe in full flight above the bracken was a wonderful sight.
I arrived at Consuelo camp by about midday, so I had some cheese and biscuits, and restocked my water, but I decided to carry on to the next camp rather than waste the afternoon in the cold wind again. I figured that I could probably camp just about anywhere as I had the water to cope if I didn’t make the full distance, but there was no issue. So I managed a 32 kilometre day in about 8 hours walking time across the high table-land to arrive at Cabbage Tree camp by about 4pm. A bit stiff and sore in the legs, but I was happy to crash in the tent after 5:30. Twelve hours sleep for the night did wonders to restore a few aches and pains.
So I must have been a bit over-excited for the last day, hyped up by the 20 miler and the thought of getting back to my car. I missed a major track bend and found myself dropping steeply down a ridge without track markers. Rather than retrace my steps back up the ridge, I booted up the gps and followed the arrow down across a deep gully and a traverse of a steep side slope before popping out again on the proper track 30 minutes later. Whew.
The path was still generally heading down hill with a few small climbs, but it was still in viewless forest, as it had been for the last 4 days, when I suddenly saw a rock summit peeking through the trees. I think that the path has been deliberately located to avoid risk, and in doing so has also avoided all viewing spots. There was an obvious edge 100 m away through the trees, so I wandered over to see if I could get a photo of the peak. I could, but the drop off I approached was a vertical 400 metre cliff with loose gravel sloping down to it. I took my photo very carefully, hanging onto a tree as I do so.
I kept going on down to Boolimba Bluff and met tourists enjoying the lookout, but they were more concerned about how they were going to cope with the 600 stone steps back down, and tottered off as soon as I arrived, possibly because of my aroma. The view was jaw dropping, straight down to the visitor centre in the middle of the gorge, but it really reinforced my sense of having been duped into a boring 70 kilometres of walking on the basis of 10 spectacular kilometres. The Great Walk is the gorge and lookouts, the rest is just a walk in the forest, and nothing to write home about.