North of Roma and Mitchell, Queensland’s Central Highlands consist of a broad band of weathered sandstone plateaus, thickly wooded and spectacularly sculpted into sheer cliffs and pinnacles. It’s an extraordinarily primeval landscape, and one still visibly central to Aboriginal culture, as poor pasture left the highlands relatively unscathed by European colonization. Covering a huge slice of the region, the fragmented sections of Carnarvon National Park include Carnarvon Gorge and Mount Moffatt: Carnarvon Gorge has the highest concentration of Aboriginal art and arguably the best scenery, while Mount Moffatt is harder to reach but wilder – you can’t drive directly between the two sections, though it’s possible to hike with the rangers’ consent.
Carnarvon Creek’s journey between the vertical faces of the gorge has created some magical scenery, where low cloud often blends with the cliffs, making them appear infinitely tall. Before setting off between them, scale Boolimba Bluff from the Takarakka campsite for a rare chance to see the gorge system from above; the views from the “Roof of Queensland” make the tiring 3km track worth the effort.
The superb day-walk (19km return from the ranger station) into the gorge features several intriguing side-gorges. The best of these contain the Moss Garden (3.5km), a vibrant green carpet of liverworts and ferns lapping up a spring as it seeps through the rockface, and Alijon Falls (5km), which conceal the enchanting Wards Canyon, where a remnant group of angiopteris ferns hangs close to extinction in front of a second waterfall and gorge, complete with bats and blood-red river stones.
Carnarvon’s two major Aboriginal art sites are the Art Gallery (5.4km) and Cathedral Cave (at the end of the trail, 9.3km from the Takarakka campsite), both on the gorge track, though if you keep your eyes open you’ll spot plenty more. These are Queensland’s most documented Aboriginal art sites, though the paintings themselves remain enigmatic. A rockface covered with engravings of vulvas lends a pornographic air to the Art Gallery, and other symbols include kangaroo, emu and human tracks. A long, wavy line here might represent the rainbow serpent, shaper of many Aboriginal landscapes. Overlaying the engravings are hundreds of coloured stencils, made by placing an object against the wall and spraying it with a mixture of ochre and water held in the mouth.
In addition to adults’ and children’s hands there are also artefacts, boomerangs and complex crosses formed by four arms, while goannas and mysterious net patterns at the near end of the wall have been painted with a stick. Cathedral Cave is larger, with an even greater range of designs, including seashell pendant stencils – proof that trade networks reached from here to the sea – and engravings of animal tracks and emu eggs.
Mount Moffatt is part of an open landscape of ridges and lightly wooded grassland, at the top of a plateau to the west of Carnarvon Gorge. It was here that the Kenniff Brothers murdered a policeman and station manager in 1902, events that were to lead to their being run to ground by a group of vigilantes. Years later in 1960, archeological excavations at their hideout, Kenniff Cave (closed due to instability), were the first to establish that Aboriginal occupation of Australia predated the last Ice Age.
Mount Moffatt’s attractions spread out over an extensive area. At the park’s southern entrance, the Chimneys area has some interesting sandstone pinnacles and alcoves that once housed bark burial-cylinders. Around 6km on, the road forks and the right track continues 10km to the ranger station. The left track runs 6km past Dargonelly campsite to Marlong Arch, a sandstone formation decorated with handprints and engravings. Five kilometres northeast from here, a trail leads to Kookaburra Cave, named after a weathered, bird-shaped hand stencil. A further 5km beyond the cave is Marlong Plain, a pretty expanse of blue grass surrounded by peaks, and another sandstone tower known as Lot’s Wife. Ten kilometres north of Marlong Plain, a lesser track leads to several sites associated with the Kenniff legend, including the murder scene, and the rock where they are believed to have burned the evidence. Finally, for pure scenery, head 15km due east of Marlong Plain to the Mahogany Forest, a stand of giant stringy-bark trees.