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Natural History: Introduction to Carnarvon Gorge

Formation of Carnarvon Gorge

Flora of Carnarvon Gorge

Fauna of Carnavon Gorge

Human History: Pre-history of Carnarvon Gorge

Colonial History of Carnarvon Gorge

Recent History of Carnarvon Gorge

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Introduction to Carnarvon Gorge.

Carved into the elevated sandstone of Central Carnarvon Gorge aerialQueensland, Carnarvon Gorge is a natural monument to the power of water, wind and time. Its dramatic landscapes, its ecological diversity, the significant cultural locations, and the permanent water supply, combine to give Carnarvon Gorge a singular character. Around 65,000 visitors a year make the trek to this outback oasis, which is well known to the caravanning and camping crowd.

Fed by rain and artesian springs, Carnarvon Creek has shaped not only the Gorge’s physical landscapes, but its spiritual and cultural landscape as well. Over the last 27 million years the creek has eroded through 600 metres of basalt and sandstone - the lower 200 metres of which is dominated by spectacular sandstone cliffs. All of the cultures known to have used Carnarvon Gorge have treated it as significant - the current mob thought it worthy of becoming a National Park, and the mob before this lot created some of the world's best stencil art galleries on its sandstone walls.

To the visitor, Carnarvon Gorge offers many things. There is easy walking to be had along maintained tracks leading to sites of natural and cultural significance, and solitude beside the long, quiet stretches separating the creek’s riffles. For the more adventurous there are side gorges that beg exploration and several tagged trails and remote walks leading to the shelves and tablelands on either side of the Gorge.Pacific heron, Carnarvon Gorge.

There is an abundance of flora and fauna to become acquainted with. Carnarvon National Park as a whole has recorded over 210 bird species, around 60 different mammals, 22 types of frogs, and 90 kinds of reptiles. Of the numerous plant species, 23 are listed as rare or vulnerable in Queensland legislation. Due to the Park’s location on the Great Dividing Range, and its wide range of habitats, a number of species are at their distributional limits within the Park, or form disjunct populations isolated from others of their kind.

Carnarvon Gorge is unique amongst the many features of the Central Queensland Sandstone Belt as it houses significant aspects of the region’s geological, ecological, Aboriginal and European history within a relatively compact area. The variety of experiences on offer in the Gorge is one of its many surprises, and keeps visitor's interest levels high.

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Formation of the Gorge.

Carnarvon Gorge's landscape contains significant elements of Queensland's geological history dating back several hundred million years. The oldest rocks exposed within the Carnarvon Gorge section belong to the Bowen Basin, an expansive sedimentary formation that holds most of Queensland's coal. The cliff lines belong to a younger sedimentary formation, the Surat Basin, which holds oil and gas, as well as significant quantities of our most precious resource - water.

The upper layer of the Bowen Basin, the Moolayember Formation, is water-tight and forms the base of the gorge and the bedrock beneath Carnarvon Creek. Sitting directly above is the Precipice Sandstone, which outcrops as Carnarvon Gorge's sheer cliffs. The Precipice Sandstone is one of the primary intake beds for the Great Artesian Basin. It is extremely porous and absorbs moisture readily. Water moving down through this layer eventually reaches the water-tight Moolayember Formation and is forced to move sideways. Where conditions allow, this system generates the springs which keep Carnarvon Creek running all year round.

The Precipice Sandstone also features prominently in Carnarvon Gorge's sheltered areas. It's pattern of erosion is completely different to all other sedimentary layers as it is jointed both vertically and horizontally, which allows it erode as a cliff rather than a slope. In combination with its role in spring formation, the Precipice Sandstone creates some incredibly well protected gorges such as Ward's Canyon, which houses plants found nowhere else in inland Australia.


Above the two sedimentary basins lies a layer of basalt up to 300m thick. This layer was formed from 35 to 27 million years ago as Central Queensland moved over an upwelling of lava below the continental plate. This 'hot spot' forced basalt lava to the surface from a depth of up to 26 km in successive events spanning millions of years.

Carnarvon Gorge's basalts are more resistant to water erosion than the sandstones they overlie, which has prevented water erosion from completely flattening the landscape as has occurred elsewhere. Without the basalt cap, the Gorge may well have disappeared long before humans had the chance to appreciate it.

Once the lava ceased flowing, around 27 million years ago, all the elements required to form Carnarvon Gorge were in place. It was then simply a matter of time, as water and wind began the inevitable process of erosion. Each layer of stone has eroded and weathered according to its own characteristics producing a diverse range of landforms including creek flats, sandstone cliffs and scarps, slot canyons and basalt scarps and tablelands. In such a broad range of habitats it is no surprise that the biodiversity is correspondingly high.

The geology of Carnarvon Gorge underpins all of the life that thrives upon it. It dictates what shapes the land will erode into, and what soils it will weather to produce. The geology also governs much of the hydrology - where the springs will form and where the artesian water will flow above ground in the creeks. There are many locations within the Gorge where these geological influences can be readily seen, providing you know where to look and what you are looking at; another good reason to take a guided walk with Carnarvon Gorge's resident rock nerd, Simon Ling.

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Pocketranger to Carnarvon Gorge
Excerpt from Australian Nature Guides 'PocketRanger for Carnarvon Gorge' available for sale soon in the site's shop.

Carnarvon Fan Palm, Carnarvon GorgeFlora of Carnarvon Gorge.

Carnarvon National Park lies within the southern Brigalow Belt Bioregion and Carnarvon Gorge's walking tracks allow access to a great range of the Park's ecosystems. The Main Track follows Carnarvon Creek, meandering through creek flats swathed in Blady Grass and studded with Carnarvon Fan Palms (Livistona nitida, pictured right).

One of the countries tallest palms they are iconic Carnarvon plants, lining the creek flats and waterways and lending an oasis-like atmosphere to the floor of the Gorge. The Carnarvon Fan Palm is listed as rare under Queensland legislation.

Trails into sites such as the Moss Gardens pass through tall open eucalypt forest before entering patches of remnant rainforest sheltering beneath towering cliffs. Rainforest once covered the entire region in our distant past, and Carnarvon Gorge's rainforest species owe their existence to the sheltered habitats it provides. This is illustrated by species which occur within the Park in a disjunct population, such as the Sydney Blue Gum, Eucalyptus saligna, and the King Fern, Angiopteris evecta. 13 of these giant ferns survive in Ward's Canyon, in the only known occurrence of the species in the Brigalow Belt. Their nearest relatives grow next to Wangoolba Creek at Central Station on Fraser Island.

Macrozamia moorei, Carnarvon GorgeNo mention of Carnarvon Gorge's vegetation is complete without a reference to the ancient cycads that lend a 'Jurassic Park' feel to the sandstone ridges and basalt tablelands. These slow growing plants produce toxic seeds that were an important food resource (once detoxified) to local Aboriginal groups.

Untreated, they contain dangerous quantities of cyanide - the last known fatality to cycad poisoning in the region was a ten year old boy. The cycads, strangely, have no common name and are simply known by their genus name, Macrozamia. They are endemic to Central Queensland in areas on, or close to, the ancient lava flows of the Buckland Volcanic Province.

Wildflowers can be seen at any time of the year. During winter, Nodding greenhood, Carnarvon Gorge.Native Hibiscus, Hibiscus heterophylla, put out their showy blooms above inconspicuous ground orchids such as the Nodding Greenhood, Pterostylis nutans, pictured here. Some of Carnarvon Gorge's orchids are small and cryptic, but they seldom escape Simon's keen eyes and if you are walking with him you'll get to see them all.

Many of the Gorge's plants provided food and/or medicines for local indigenous groups and this knowledge is also incorporated into Australian Nature Guides' tours. The pharmacopeia provided by Carnarvon Gorge's plants helped people cope with everything from infant teething, through diarrhoea, up to contraception.

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Fauna of Carnarvon Gorge

Due to the permanent artesian water, the comparatively good Chough: Carnarvon Gorge.rainfall, and the wide range of habitats present, the Gorge has high biodiversity and strong populations of wildlife. Over 210 bird species have been recorded in Carnarvon National Park, 173 of which have been recorded within Carnarvon Gorge. Mud nest building Apostlebirds and White-winged Choughs (pictured right) are common around the accommodation centres, whereas less common birds such as Squatter Pigeons and Peregrine Falcons require a little more effort to locate.

A number of species reach their western distributional limit in the area, including some of the more frequently seen birds such as Australian King Parrots, White-browed scrubwrens, Lewin's Honeyeater, and Golden Whistlers.

Greater Glider: Carnarvon Gorge.Carnarvon National Park has at least 54 native mammal species, around twenty of which are bats. As with birds, some of the Parks' mammals are found no further west including four of the five species of glider that frequent Carnarvon Gorge. The Gorge's gliders are the focus of Australian Nature Guides' Nightlife Tours. Five of the country's six species occur here, and Australian Nature Guides' Nightlife Tours usually encounter the largest two - the Greater Glider (pictured left) and the Yellow-bellied Glider.

Greater Gliders are folivores and occur in some Yellow-bellied glider, Carnarvon Gorge.density along Carnarvon's creek flats. They are the largest of Australia's gliders and are impressive to observe, reaching nose to tail lengths of over a metre. Yellow-bellied Gliders are smaller than Greater Gliders, but they make up for lack of size with charisma. Their varied diet, rich in carbohydrate, gives them the energy to get up to lots of mischief and they are the species most regularly seen gliding (pictured right) on Simon's Nightlife Tours.

Other species encountered on the Nightlife Tour include all the Gorge's macropods (Eastern Grey Kangaroos, Swamp Wallabies, Pretty-faced Wallabies and Rufous Bettongs), as well as possums, bats, owls, Bush Thick-knees, and the occasional Koala. It must be said, however, that Koalas are indeed a rare sighting. In the Southern Brigalow Belt they achieve the lowest population density within their range in Queensland at around one per 150 square kilometres.

Platypus, Carnarvon Gorge.Carnarvon Creek holds healthy populations of Platypus and its adjacent flats suit Echidna. The lower reaches of the creek are the best places to try and see Platypus - from the Nature Trail to Takarakka. Platypus will tolerate moderate levels of noise from their environment, but will disappear in response to sudden movement. If you stay relatively still whilst watching them you can hold a normal conversation without frightening them.

One thing you do need to know about Echidna, Carnarvon GorgeCarnarvon Gorge's Platypus is that they burrow far under the banks. This means we should think twice about approaching close to the creek to look for them as we are heavy enough to collapse the burrow of the animal we are trying to admire.

A good place to be aware of Echidna is Mickey Creek, whose cool, open environment allows them to forage more often. They are quite noisy creatures, and will give away their presence as they rustle through the leaf litter - providing you are moving quietly enough to hear them before they hear you.

The Park's reptile list is as long as your arm, but the nasty ones with no legs (snakes) are generally inactive during the peak winter visitation period. In Spring and Summer, sunny patches of forest beside the tracks will be alive with a wide variety of skinks, and at night the Gorge's magnificent geckoes will emerge.

Carnarvon Creek is teeming with life, but most of it will remain hidden during the day for fear of being eaten. Much of the creeklife is invertebrate as it plays host to the early stages of a broad range of insects. Turn over a rock in the creek and you are likely to see its underside literally crawling with life.

Gudgeon, Carnarvon Gorge.Several turtle species live in the creek, and they can grow to a considerable size. Look for them sunning themselves on boulders in the latter part of the day around the Rockpool. Fish life is also strong, including tiny hardyheads, rainbow fish and pugnacious Purple-spotted Gudgeons (pictured left) and the larger Spangled Perch, Golden Perch, Bony Bream and Long-finned Eels.

Despite the frequency of visitation to the Gorge, Carnarvon National Park as a whole remains little researched from a biological perspective. Local researchers believe that much awaits the gaze of science in the remote tablelands and gorges, and if we look after the Park properly then it should hopefully be there when we get around to searching the place properly. Having said that, it is pertinent to note that there appear to have been several species with major population reductions in the Park, including Brush Turkeys and Northern Quolls.

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Carnarvon Gorge Visitor Information Centre. 4043 O'Briens Rd, Carnarvon Gorge, Via Rolleston. QLD, 4702.
Phone: +61 (0)408 741 292
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