My last post was about a recent walk in the rain through lush subtropical rainforests in mountainous country. This week I’m dragging you back 15 years in time to Porcupine Gorge, a walk my young family did in hot, dry open country, 1500 km north-west of Brisbane.
First, a little background. In 1999, we left a 70 000 acre property in north west New South Wales to live in a tiny community between Mt Isa and Townsville. This was one of several moves we would make to rural areas of Queensland.
Three main things stood out about the location:
(1) It was hot.
(2) It was hot and
(3) It was hot.
The average summer maximum temperature was 36 degrees Celsius but sometimes we’d have weeks of daily maximums well above 40C. The average winter maximum was 25C and on the June day we ventured to Porcupine Gorge about 150km from our home it made it to 32C.
This is how flat the countryside looked in all directions.
Luckily we lived in a high set house with steps otherwise the kids would have forgotten how to walk on hills. Riding a bike on the deserted flat roads was a breeze and for thrills we’d head out over the railway tracks to the old cemetery. It must have been a very rare cold day in this shot for them to be wearing warm clothes, although after living there, 20C felt cold.
A couple of poddy (orphaned) lambs were given to us by local landowners which helped make up for the horses, sheep, cattle, goats and poultry we’d left behind.
It was here that our family increased with the addition of Rosie, a tiny scruffy puppy, the runt of a litter of 12. Yesterday we said goodbye to her for the last time. Sixteen years is a good innings for a canine. She shared in our adventures and gave us many giggles. She was a constant companion for my youngest child and also helped to make up for the loss of leaving our other animals behind in New South Wales. You can read about the life we left behind in The Five Year Adventure.
Unlike Mt Tamborine rainforest from my last post, in this region most of the yearly rainfall occurred in the space of just a few weeks. When it did rain, it was from monsoonal activity north which flooded the usually dry Flinders River. This seemed to be the highlight of the year and locals would drive down to the river several times a day to check on its progress. I often thought I’d make a fortune with a suitably placed pie van.
Here my children learned of the dangers of camping in dry river beds. Seeing bare ground turn into a raging torrent within hours is a memory they won’t forget easily. Don’t do it folks! For the rest of the year the skies were clear. Here’s my son doing a rare spot of fishing when the Flinders River was full.
One year we travelled east to Townsville on the coast for a specialist medical appointment and while there our car broke down. Thanks to our RACQ roadside insurance we were given free accommodation in a motel room while the car was being fixed.
Usually this would have been a fantastic treat, however a cyclone hovering close to the coast changed direction and crossed near us, cutting power and causing widespread flooding. My partner’s job involved extensive travel, meaning the three children rarely saw him so at least they got some “quality” time with their father shut away for a few days inside a dark motel room without electricity…
Our car survived the onslaught but mechanics had left the windows rolled down and the carpet and seats were saturated. After experiencing the torrential rain of a cyclone, arriving back home to a 40C parched landscape and shrivelled pot plants was odd.
Why have I rambled so much about our life there instead of talking about the walk? Well, back then I had a cheap instamatic film camera and I was more concerned with stopping my kids flying off cliffs than taking photos of tree bark. There are few photos to share and what I do have are heat damaged. How times change!
Due to having “parent brain” at that time my memories of Porcupine Gorge are unclear. I recall the snacks I packed, wishing I had the stamina of kids and how sore I felt. For more details I had to ask my daughter, Tough Cookie. She was only 5 years old back then so her impression was very kid-focused. She remembers being annoyed by how slow her parents were as she wanted to get back home in time for the next episode of an exciting TV series, and her older brother scaring her with tales of huge crocodiles that might live in deep waterholes at the base of the gorge. (They don’t.)
For more information I needed to consult Dr Google. You may wonder why I don’t publish blog posts often. One of the main reasons is my tendency to get distracted by researching a walk. In the case of Porcupine Gorge I spent hours reading stories about the area.
One report talked about the response of authorities and white settlers to the killing of a mailman and the spearing of a horse by Aboriginal people. Police and local settlers surprised and trapped an Aboriginal group on a spur overlooking the precipitous east side of Prairie Gorge. The Indigenous people had the choice of jumping to their deaths or being shot. All were shot. Indigenous custodians of the land in this region actively fought against the activities of settlers who were taking away their only means of survival in a harsh climate.
Eventually, displacement, introduced disease and violence led to a rapid decline in the Aboriginal population of this region and the survivors were forcibly removed to reserves. Today, it is a testimony to the strength and resilience of the Indigenous population that they still survive. I did not have this local knowledge when I took my family to Porcupine Gorge and I would like to belatedly thank the traditional custodians, the Yirendali Aboriginal people for allowing me to enjoy the stark beauty of the land.
Porcupine Gorge lookout is about 60km north of the tiny township of Hughenden. A further 11km along is a basic camping area and the beginning of the Pyramid Track. The distance of the track is only 2.4km return but this is deceptive as it is only the distance to the bottom of the gorge and back to the carpark. It doesn’t include explorations of the base of the gorge and you should add another few kilometres to this distance.
The descent is fairly steep making the walk back, hot and tiring. I read on one site that there are over 900 steps cut into the side of the gorge so if you have dodgy knees you may find it a challenge. We did the walk in winter and still managed to arrive at our car red-faced and sweat-soaked. It was worth the effort though to see what has been dubbed by some as a mini Grand Canyon. Despite the heat, the waterholes were freezing cold.
This is what we did when we reached the bottom. There wasn’t much talking going on.
Porcupine Gorge National Park covers 5410ha and includes the flat grasslands and woodlands surrounding 25km of Porcupine Creek. If you are a geology fan, you’ll love this place. In ancient times, a major river system flowed in the area. This is evidenced by a grey coloured rock called Blantyre Sandstone found on the bottom of the gorge. It is being eroded away into interesting shapes by the action of water, sand particles and wind.
On top of the Blantyre Sandstone lies other kinds of sandstone containing layers of siltstone, claystone and shale formed from sedimentary deposits of an inland sea and enormous underground forces.
At the top of the gorge lies a thin basalt cap, the result of lava flow from surrounding volcanoes. Porcupine Gorge is the result of this layer being worn through by Porcupine Creek, part of the Flinders River system. Once the basalt was eroded, the softer sandstone below was more rapidly eroded than the surrounding hard basalt. This is why the gorge is deep rather than wide.
A unique feature of Porcupine Gorge, and probably the most photographed, is The Pyramid. It’s a formation jutting out from the gorge base and made of flat-bedded brown Blantyre sandstone with equally inclined sides. It may not be as impressive as the Egyptian pyramids but at least it wasn’t made by the hardship of others.
Near the pyramid lie waterholes, some crystal clear, others bright red.
Despite the heat, my energetic children enjoyed exploring the base of the gorge. I look back at their smiling faces with fondness and also surprise at how quickly time has passed. These children are now all at university and in their 20s. Sometimes it can seem like parenting young children is a marathon event but when it’s over, it feels like it’s passed far too quickly.
Geological processes are happening all the time. They can be slow or rapid and mirror what happens in our own lives. Relationships can slowly erode or build up. Sudden events such as death, illness or natural disasters can turn our world upside-down. People can be like rock layers; hard on the surface like a basalt layer but underneath softer like sandstone. Rough rocks can contain hidden gems. Forces in life can slowly wear us down until we crack or they can polish us so that we shine. Technology can change dramatically in one generation, but attitudes such as racism and sexism can take generations.
All this pondering about time reminded me of the beautiful song, Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers, a favourite of someone close to me who has passed away. As he sings, sometimes “Time can go by so slowly, and time can do so much.”
I told you that researching these blog posts distracts me! There are so many aspects of the natural world that can bring out the philosopher in us if we have enough time to ponder them. Perhaps it’s a good thing we don’t do this too often though, as nothing practical would be achieved!
Thank you for reading what has been an indulgence of waffling this time. The next post will be describing a walk at Wivanhoe Hill where I discovered how to bring on heatstroke. It’s a lesson for anyone as stubborn as me. I somehow managed to take 800 photographs so it may take my indecisive mind a while to compile and then there are always the other distractions…
For more information about Porcupine Gorge, please check the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Site here.