Australia Travel Journals

Carnarvon Gorge – Australia


October 2006
We are off for a bit of a driving tour we head up the coast to Rockhampton then inland to Emerald to fossick for some gemstones then down to Carnarvon Gorge for some bushwalking then onto to Roma and along the Warrego Highway to Chinchilla and then back home to Tugun for a swim.

From Tugun on the Gold Coast we head to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast for a couple of days Mooloolaba is a pretty coastal town on the Sunshine Coast. From here we push on about an hour to Gympie and continue north along ‘The Bruce’ a couple more hours to Hervey Bay.

Hervey Bay: Once a series of quiet and sleepy villages and is now getting a makeover with lots of modern project homes and Caravan Parks mostly for Victorians eager to retire to the sun. It is touted as the ‘Caravan Capital of Australia’ the foreshore is covered with Caravan Parks followed by shops on the Esplanade followed by project homes estates. It is also the base for whale-watching cruises.

We motor up ‘The Bruce’ early bypassing all but a few towns as we head north. At Childers we pull out the thermos and watch a cane train, drink morning coffee and run into Sandy Bennett an ex CITEC staffer. We cruise along playing car cricket, ‘white car 1 run, white truck 4 runs, red car ‘Howz That!’ you’re out!’

Rockhampton: A quiet little town on the banks of the Fitzroy River with wide streets, historic architecture and fast internet and we find a motel near the river and take a walk. The town boasts 60,000 people and has over 2 million cattle within 250kms. It’s Friday night and the locals have put on their best denim, cleaned their boots, washed the ute and hit town. We anticipate the best and cheapest steaks in Australia we check the local paper and head to a pub around the corner. Acton Beef promises ‘Tablelands to table top’, they own the ranch and the restaurant. We imagine an Argentinean delight, but are disappointed by both the promise and the price.

We take a side trip to Yeppoon, a seaside town that reminds us of Yamba. We drop into the Capricorn Resort, big gardens with Brolgas promenading. We wind our way around to Emu Park the winds are on shore and the sun is dull so we look out over muddy beaches and a bumpy ocean.

Emerald: We have the morning sun behind us as we head west and follow the Tropic of Capricorn and the railway to Emerald. It is hot, dry and straight, the horizon is dotted by gumtrees and the occasional train ferrying coal to feed the furnaces to power the state at Stanwell.

We wind our way up onto the central highlands; a sign boasts the region’s coal, cattle and grain. We meander along through Dingo – where we stop for lunch, then Comet – where Ludwig Leichhardt stopped for lunch and left a Dig tree marker in 1844 then onto Bluff – an interchange where coal train drivers stop for lunch. There is no traffic but plenty of road kill. Then it’s onto Emerald – where the big Van Gogh Sunflower painting helps celebrate another feature of the region.

The Gem Fields: Half an hour further west to the Sapphire Gem Fields and the home of the Big 4 Icons: the Big Spanner, the Big Miner at Rubyvale, the Big Pick & Sieve at Sapphire and the Big Sapphire at Anakie.

Sapphire itself is nothing more than a playing field, a caravan park, a few scattered homesteads, a general store and a few shops selling gems. It has a temporary and transient feel suggesting that it may only exist for our visit and may not be there tomorrow.

Onto sophisticated Rubyvale with Post Office, pub, general store and Caravan Park. We settle into the Rubyvale holiday cabins and take a cool evening walk into town. We have a pub dinner sitting under the night sky drinking red wine with a few locals and a couple of grey nomads, then wander back through the ‘Miners Common’, the black sky littered with gems perhaps an omen.

Miners Common: The Rubyvale Sapphire Gem Fields is the only remaining ‘Miners Common’. The 11,000 acres was gazetted at the turn of the 20th Century so miners could graze their stock.

An early morning visit to the ‘Sapphire market’, but the tourist season is over and only a couple of stall holders bother turning up. We buy a jar of homemade pickles and a little bag of gems and head off for a ‘real working’ mine tour.

Wandering around underground reminds us of Coober Pedy in South Australia. Back on the surface we buy a bucket of ‘wash’ and pan for gems with little luck. Freelance mining towns tend to be a bit Wild West with lots of characters, mostly shady, lots of dead equipment, mostly rusty.

We pass the Bobby Dazzler and Miner’s Heritage mines and head to the Virgin Scrub Mine operated by Bob and his son Tony. For $7.00 we get another bucket of wash and some good instructions, an hour later we have our second little plastic bag of gems.

Bob chats to John about the mining business, perhaps sensing a sale, he offers to sell John the business leases, equipment, office, show room, and stock, he will even leave his son Tony to stay on and train us up. We thank him for the offer and decide it’s time to move on.

Mining for Gems: Sapphires are crystals that come in a range of colours and are formed by the heat and pressure of the earth. Volcanoes are responsible for spewing them out, fracturing and distributing them as they are washed down into ancient creek beds and buried under silt. Sapphires have been mined in the area since 1875 when a railway surveyor found red zircons at Retreat Creek and thought they were rubies and that is how Rubyvale got its name.
The gem field leases are divided into machinery and hand mining areas. The lunar type landscape between Rubyvale and Sapphire is the result of the open cut machinery mining over the past 35 years. In underground hand mining areas the ‘wash’ is dug from the old underground creek beds using hand tools and jack hammers. It is sent to the surface and screened separating out sand and oversized rocks. The screened gravel is then washed and separated in a Willoughby. The sapphires are then hand sorted from the iron stone and other heavy gravels. Surface fossicking areas where the old creek beds are close to the surface are mined using a pick and shovel.

Carnarvon: Stocking up in Emerald we head south to Springsure, stopping for morning tea and a call to Brisbane to Cathy’s friend Robyn, who hails from here. Onto Rolleston, ‘the gateway to Carnarvon’ which is a dusty little hamlet, half of which is for sale.

Carnarvon: Stocking up in Emerald we head south to Springsure, stopping for morning tea and a call to Brisbane to Cathy’s friend Robyn, who hails from here. Onto Rolleston, ‘the gateway to Carnarvon’ which is a dusty little hamlet, half of which is for sale.

We turn off the highway and along 20kms of unfenced corrugated track we pass cattle and emus it’s dry, dusty and hot. At Carnarvon Gorge NP, our home for the next few days is a canvas cabin at Takarakka Bush Resort. We set up camp on the banks of Carnarvon Creek and are immediately visited by the Apostle birds that hang around more or less in groups of 12 and nearby kangaroos stop and stare. We dine on BBQ sausages, salad and red wine while chatting to the new owners who are putting together destination parks including the Grampians for International backpackers.

The Gorge: The centerpiece of the National Park is the Carnarvon Gorge. It runs for over 30kms and varies in width from 40-400 meters with vast stands of spotted gum, cabbage palm and cycads as well as ferns, elk horns, and lichens near the waterfalls.
The caves and cliff walls are adorned with Aboriginal art and contain some of the finest examples of painted hands, axes, emu tracks and boomerangs to be seen anywhere in Australia. Using the technique of blowing pigment over a stencil, the Aborigines painted on the walls in red, white, black and yellow pigments. In the overcast morning we take a walk to the Art Gallery – relief and stencil art, the cool and calm Moss Garden and Ward’s Canyon with the huge King Ferns. That night another BBQ with a ranger talk and slide show.

Overcast morning again we walk to Boolimba Bluff lookout its steep – 963 steps up through a gorge and 963 steps down again. Great views down into the Gorge. After lunch we laze in the shade of the trees and read in the hot sultry afternoon and then go platypus spotting in the cool of the evening.

Window Disaster: It’s early morning as we head out along the dusty corrugated track when we reach the asphalt and put down the windows. Hundreds of kilometres from a decent town and even further from Mercedes service centre the driver’s window stays stubbornly in the down position thus begins the ‘great electric window debacle of 2006’.

It’s still cool but the sky is clear and it promises to be a hot one. The thought of driving eight hours in 35 degrees heat at 100 kph with the window down is daunting. Windblown, we reach Roma and source a clear plastic table cloth and a roll of duct tape and head to the main park for morning tea and temporary window glazing. It works a treat.

Chinchilla: we stop at Chinchilla for a photo opportunity of the famous but almost forgotten Cactoblastis Memorial Hall.

Prickly Pear: Chinchilla wrote itself into the history books as the town at the heart of the eradication of the dreaded prickly pear during the 1920s. It is hard to imagine today but by the 1920s there were over 24 million hectares of Australia covered with prickly pear. The cactus had been introduced into Australia in 1839 and by 1862 it had reached the Chinchilla area. By 1900 it was increasing at a rate of 400,000 hectares a year.
In 1925 the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board realising the scale of the problem, introduced the Cactoblastis moth and larva from South America. Initially 3000 eggs arrived from Argentina and from a population of 527 females a total of 100,605 eggs were hatched. Half these eggs were sent to the Chinchilla Prickly Pear Experimental Station and half were kept in Brisbane.
The moth was spectacularly productive. No wonder the locals decided to dedicate a hall to this small insect. Located 10 kms east of Chinchilla on the Warrego Highway is the Boonargo Cactoblastis Hall built by local farmers and dedicated to the insect which had eaten its way through the jungles of prickly pear.

Then it’s onto Dalby, Toowoomba, Ipswich, down the bypass onto the M1 at Logan and a late run home for dinner at Tugun.

We started off with a trip to Carnarvon and some bushwalking but as usual got more than we anticipated. The Gorge was spectacular and the gem fields an eye opener, like Coober Pedy a magnet for people who want to disappear for a while. We found the little-known history of Prickly Pear and the Cactoblastis Moth fascinating, no doubt one of many intriguing stories from Australia’s history.