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The most underrated aspect of the Carnarvon Gorge experience is the indigenous cultural heritage, obvious at sites such as the Art Gallery and Cathedral Cave. Archaeologically and anthropologically, these sites are of international significance, containing examples of stencilling techniques considered to be the most sophisticated of their kind in the world. Yet without specific knowledge of Bidjara and Karingbal culture, knowledge and technology, the rock art galleries can remain enigmatic and are sometimes seen as simplistic.
Carnarvon Gorge's rock art sites are thought to have been in use for at least 3,650 years. In the Mt Moffatt section of the Park, excavations of Kenniff's Cave revealed occupational evidence dating back 19,500 years, indicating a long period of human habitation for the Central Queensland Highlands. Population density is thought to have been around one person per 25 square kilometres.
It is thought that the Bidjara and the Karingbal had strong social ties during the period prior to colonisation and that both were using the Gorge, although not on a permanent basis. Some early researchers believed that the Gorge was not permanently occupied due to defensive concerns and a lack of resources, however Australian Nature Guides have developed other theories that also fit the facts given the Gorge's local spiritual significance. Prior to colonisation, law was administered through a religious framework so it is worthwhile taking spiritual beliefs into account when examining social patterns.
Local material culture was quite sophisticated, and much knowledge of it can be gleaned simply by observing what has been stencilled at the art sites. Bush medicines were readily available, as is mentioned in the section on Carnarvon Gorge's flora.
Much of the Western knowledge of the Gorge's pre-history comes from archaeological excavations of the Art Gallery and Cathedral Cave. Large quantities of Macrozamia seed husks were retrieved from the floor sediments of Cathedral Cave, giving rise to the theory that they formed the resource base supporting Carnarvon Gorge's large ceremonial gatherings.
European explorer Ludwig Leichhardt passed to Carnarvon Gorge's east in 1844, naming the Expedition Ranges visible in the distance from Boolimba Bluff. Two years later, Thomas Mitchell passed to its west, camping for some time on the Nogoa River in what is now the Salvator Rosa section of Carnarvon National Park. It was Mitchell who named the Carnarvon Range, apparently after Caernarfon in his welsh homeland.
The reports of both explorers made the public aware of the area's permanent water, leading settlers to take up blocks in Central Queensland and sparking off two decades of open aggression between local indigenous groups and the newcomers. Aboriginal groups waged a successful defense campaign using geurilla-style hit and run tactics. They closed stations down simply by killing large numbers of livestock and their attendant shepherds. Two stations suffered extreme attacks during which almost all settlers were killed - Hornetbank near Taroom and Cullin-la ringo near Springsure.
As with many conflicts, the undeclared war between Aboriginals and settlers in Central Queensland can be viewed from afar as a battle for resources. The artesian water and comparatively high rainfall generated by the geology and geomorphology of the area was worth fighting for, and perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why this area saw one of the bloodiest conflicts in Australia during the colonisation process.
The arrival of Native Police in Central Queensland saw the balance of power gradually tip the way of the newcomers and by the late 1870's there was no longer any significant resistance to colonial presence. The settlers were then free to pursue their agricultural aspirations and the bushland began to recede before their saws and axes.
In the long term, the sheep industry was not destined to fare well in Central Queensland and it eventually gave way to the cattle and mining industries. A glance at property prices in Emerald and Springsure will let you know how the mining industry is going and the health of the cattle on the drive into the Gorge will tell you how the farmers are doing.
Colonial history specific to Carnarvon Gorge can be glimpsed in the place names of certain locations. Wards Canyon is named after two fur-trappers who are considered to be the first full-time occupants of the Gorge (the Karingbal and Bidjara people are not thought to have permanently occupied it, but to visit intermittently for religious and social gatherings).
The western heritage centred around Carnarvon Gorge is quite rich and, like the indigenous heritage, is a major theme during Australian Nature Guides' Day Tours. In fact if you walk with Simon, you'll be able to sort out which of the early yarns has a chance of ringing true and which are likely to have been 'enhanced' for the entertainment of visitors.
In 1932, a pastoral lease over Carnarvon Gorge was allowed to lapse by its owners, Tableland Holdings. The State Government subsequently gazetted 65,000 hectares as Carnarvon Gorge National Park. The reasons for the gazettal are relatively simple; Carnarvon Gorge was an area recognised by Queenslanders (mainly through the promotional activities of the Royal Queensland Geographical Society) to be of high natural and scenic value. It was also recognised that Carnarvon Gorge contains outcropping examples of three significant elements of the State's geological history - the Bowen Basin, the Surat Basin and the Buckland Volcanic Province.
Since the original gazettal, much land has been added to the reserve and it is now known as Carnarvon National Park, of which Carnarvon Gorge is but a section. It encompasses 298,000 hectares spread over seven sections which are managed from three different Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service units. The entire park lies within the Southern Brigalow Belt Bio-region. A mere 2.2% of the Southern Brigalow Belt is covered by reserves, more than half of which lies within Carnarvon National Park.
The more recent additions to Carnarvon National Park reflect the changing concerns of governmental conservation agencies. Modern aims include catchment preservation - the headwaters of five major catchments lie within Park boundaries - and biodiversity protection. Carnarvon National Park has been expanded to protect as diverse a range of regional landforms and ecosystem as possible and encompasses 40 regional ecosystems, of which nine are listed as endangered.
Tourism is now a major industry in the Park as Carnarvon Gorge alone sees 65,000 visitors per annum. Three commercial operators maintain a presence at Carnarvon Gorge...
Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge, with a history going back to the 1970s and now owned by a Melbourne company...
Takarakka Bush Resort, established in 2000 and also owned by a Melbourne based company...
and Australian Nature Guides, whose proprietor, Simon Ling, began researching Carnarvon Gorge's natural and human histories in 1997. Australian Nature Guides are now the only locally owned and operated business in the Gorge apart from the neighbouring cattle stations.
The cattle industry has thrived in the country adjacent to Carnarvon Gorge, aided by the artesian water systems within the Park and by orographic rainfall generated by local ranges. On the drive into Carnarvon Gorge, many visitors' interest is piqued by an odd crop grown in paddocks on the creek flats. Looking like ill-tended orchards, these are leucaena plantations.
Leucaena is a cattle fodder plant of Mexican origin. It produces high protein forage in its leaves and, generally, cattle are put into the paddocks to graze directly on the bush. Some amazing growth rates are claimed by touters of leucaena - as much as one kilo of weight per beast per day. Local farmers give wry smiles in response to such estimates and are a little more conservative in their expectations, however it is a significant part of their agricultural tool-box.