Friday, April 5, 2013

Carnarvon Gorge


By Justin Eubanks

After a wonderful spring break spent at the beach town of Byron, our now well-tanned group reconnected in Brisbane to complete the last leg of our travels. The first stop was several hours northwest of Brisbane at the Jondaryan sheep station. We spent the afternoon learning about the history of sheep shearing in the region, and learned that in its heyday Jondaryan had been one of the largest sheep stations and wool producers in Australia, but it now consists of about 300 acres with camping and guest accommodations and hosts many visitors each year. Our guide walked us through the process of shearing a sheep, from the original hand shearing method to more modern mechanical shearers. The highlight of the afternoon may have been when our guide was demonstrating his sheep shearing prowess onstage for us. The sheep in the pen behind him responded to the distressed calls of his sheep friend being sheared and made a desperate leap of freedom over the retaining wall, promptly panicked and froze as he realized the room was full of people as our guide herded him back into the pen. After our sheep shearing experience we learned how to make damper, a simple type of Australian bread made of flower and water and cooked in the hot coals of a fire. The pure beauty and simplicity of this delicacy inspired me to invest more time in simple and delicious culinary creations, and I plan on putting it to use during future camping endeavors. We ended the evening with a yarn by a local historian who talked about the history of sheep farming in the region as well as the story behind the unofficial Australian national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. The song itself was written by Banjo Patterson, one of the famous Australian songwriters and bush poets of the late 19th century, and is heard all around Australia, at events such as rugby and cricket matches and was even sung at the 2000 Olympics by the iconic country singer Slim Dusty. Although the song itself is quintessentially Australian, the lyrics were actually added to an old Scottish song. Our historian went over the song line by line and deciphered what some of the words meant-each line contained at least one word that is particular to Australia, mostly centered around sheep farming and shearing. The story is about a traveling swag man (basically an Australian hobo) who discovers a sheep at a water hole and kills and eats the sheep. When he is confronted by the ranchers he jumps into the water hole to escape and drowns. It is funny when this song is mentioned around Australians because most people take some kind of humorous pride from their unofficial anthem being about a stolen sheep. No yarn by an old Australian man would be complete without a good tangent, so in the middle of deciphering the song John told us all about how he was one of the first people to cross one of the great deserts of Australia to the west, as part of a team of explorers on an expedition for the Jeep factory in Brisbane to see what the vehicle could handle. After hearing about his epic exploits in the desert he returned to the subject of Waltzing Matilda and finished deciphering the song for us. After his yarn we spent the rest of the evening playing poker and battling against insects of every kind (but primarily mosquitoes and flying earwigs by the thousands).

The next morning we loaded up and continued our journey on to Carnarvon Gorge. Located in the middle of dry, flat cattle ranch property, Carnarvon proved to be a beautiful and vibrant oasis of eucalyptus forests, swimming holes, and more kangaroos than you could shake a stick at. 
A whiptail or pretty face wallaby
Photos courtesy of Julie Peterson
We arrived in the early afternoon and spent the afternoon setting up our camp, reading by the river and exploring the area of Takarakka. We met our guide for the week, a biologist and conservationist who contains a wealth of knowledge about the biological makeup of Carnarvon Gorge and the surrounding areas. The next morning we woke up just after sunrise and prepared for a 14 kilometer hike throughout some of the scenic trails that Takarakka has to offer. The hike was a full-on 8 hours of river crossings and weaving trails, with occasional stops to point out particular plants, animal, or geologic features.
The moss gardens
One of the more incredible stops of the hike is called the Art Gallery, a section of the gorge wall that is covered in Aboriginal art. All of the art is made of red ochre paint which was produced in Western Australia, and was either traded for or acquired through great expeditions through different Aboriginal nations across Australia thousands of years ago. Most of the art consisted of hand stencils, as well as stencils of boomerangs, emu claw (made with the tips of boomerangs) and net patterns. Our guide gave us a detailed history of the region’s Aboriginal mobs and explained the significance of some of the symbols on the wall. 
The art gallery
Our next stop was at the bottom of a canyon called the Amphitheatre. The Amphitheatre consists of a beautiful moss covered slot in between two massive canyon walls with a bit of sunlight filtering through. We took several minutes of absolute silence to get a feel of the Amphitheatre and it was one of the most quiet and most still places I’ve ever been. After the Amphitheatre we started making the trek back towards base camp and made a stop at the rock pool swimming hole which was to become one of our favorite spots over the next couple days.  

Our second day at Carnarvon started with breakfast and a lecture on the surrounding flora of the region, which consists primarily of eucalypt forest and fire tolerant trees. Naturally, the region would burn every couple years, clearing ground cover and dead trees and helping eucalypts and other fire-tolerant trees to spread but since the park has been built up they rely more and more on controlled burns with fewer time in between, which has changed the make up of the forest to some extent, as well as the risk of ground cover building up and fueling future fires. After learning about some of the species that benefit from fires in the area and some of the plant species that thrive more in the absence of fire we split into groups and designed experiments to test hypotheses based on two sections of forest, one that is subject to control burns every two to three years and another section across the road that hadn’t burned in a decade. The different hypotheses dealt mainly with the abundance and diversity of certain species based on the fire rate, as well as other factors such as ground cover and leaf litter. After several hours of data collection we combined our information into presentations and headed to the swimming hole for an afternoon cool off before spotlighting. At dusk we went on a hike to look for nocturnal marsupials, primarily different types of gliders, which can usually be spotted in the trees at night with a strong spotlight. We didn’t have much luck with the gliders but found a few possums before returning to camp for dinner and an evening of poker and playing music with a guitar and a ukelele.

Our third day at Carnarvon started with an early breakfast followed by a lecture on animal behavior and some of the local animals in the area, which consist largely of marsupials, and birds (particularly birds that liked to swoop in and steal food, a growing problem in the park). Once again we split into groups and designed different observational experiments to test different aspects of animal behavior, including socialization patterns, defense mechanisms and feeding patterns. My group decided to test hypotheses about fish, and whether or not fish respond differently to a repeated threat or if they eventually get used to disturbances and stop viewing them as a threat. We discovered that fish are constantly wary creatures and tend to view every disturbance as a possible predator and don’t tend to habituate to disturbances. We also discovered that it is especially nice to have an experiment that involves being in the water all day when it is at least a hundred degrees in the shade. Once again we spent the afternoon testing our hypotheses in various areas before coming back together and making sense of all the data we collected before enjoying a great camp dinner by our resident cook and coach driver (known as the Combat Wombat by his employees, but none of us were sure about his personal feelings on the name so we kept quiet rather than risk losing dinner for the week).

Our last day at Carnarvon consisted of waking up right before five in the morning (for those of us who were up to it) and going on a fairly intense hour-long hike to the top of the bluff to see the sunrise. Although those of us who made it were pretty tired and bleary eyed as we stumbled our way up to the top of the gorge, the magnificent sunrise was enough to wake us up and make us glad that we hadn’t stayed in our tents with the other half of the group. The morning was fairly cloudy but as the sky got lighter it painted the clouds a myriad of colors before the sun began to peak over the opposite side of the gorge and drove the clouds away to reveal one of the most awe-inspiring views I’ve ever seen.
Sunrise on the bluff

After watching the sun crawl farther and farther above the bluffs we returned to camp for breakfast and copious amounts of coffee before beginning our presentations. After presentations we had the afternoon free and Ken led a group of us on what was one of the more extreme outings of the whole program. We hiked up to a slot canyon about a meter or two across in most places and about ten of us followed this narrow canyon for about two hours. Navigating this canyon consisted of wading and swimming through neck deep water, climbing over boulders and fallen tree trunks, and dodging spiders bigger than our hands (which lined the walls on both sides, most of us had at least one encounter with our hands and the enormous spiders). A few of the rock crossings were particularly tricky and we relied on each other to boost each other up and help get everyone through, and it ended up being an incredible experience for all of us.

Photos courtesy of Justin Gallen


After about two hours we turned back, most of us eager to see the sun after wading through freezing water for the past two hours. We ended the day with a swim before building a bonfire at the campsite to dry our wet shoes and reflect on the incredible experiences the past few days had to offer. One by one we all drifted off to bed, ready to hit the road and see what the next leg of the journey had to offer but I’m sure other folks felt the same sadness as I did about leaving such a beautiful and majestic place. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot about life, but more importantly I learned a lot about myself. 

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