There’s more to outback Queensland than dust swirlies, cattle stations, and Pauline Hanson billboards. While the coal mining corporations and hobbyist fossickers discover the region’s wealth below the surface, the modern-day traveller finds its bounty on ground level while exploring the glorious sandstone belt of the Central Highlands.
Protected in the remote national parks inland from Rockhampton and Bundaberg are bright orange bluffs, diverse woodlands, and impressive gorges carved by clear running water — all good reasons for ditching your loyalty to the paradisical coast. It’s not just the wilderness beckoning — it’s the vibrant wildlife that calls this vast isolated landscape home, the rich history that has formed the land, and the abundance of activities that can be enjoyed in this unspoilt environment. So load up, strap on your boots, let down the tyres, and enjoy the highlights of the highlands.
They say that good things take time, and it’s certainly the case for Cania Gorge where water has been carving, forming and evolving the sandstone valley for some 200 million years — even Grandpa can’t claim that was back in ‘his day’.
Heading inland from the coast, this prehistoric landscape is likely to be one of the first parks you scope. Most of the attractions within Cania Gorge are accessible via short walks, including the Dragon Cave, Bloodwood Cave, and Two Storey Cave. Kids can crawl into the eroded hollows of these caverns while adults retreat from the heat in the cool shade under lofty overhangs.
The fascinating wavelike patterns and formations of colour on the sandstone walls of Cania allow you to feel as though you’re peeking into Mother Nature’s art gallery, and you can also keep your eyes peeled for Indigenous art as you navigate the trails.
Perhaps two of the most impressive and serene sights within Cania are the Dripping Rock and the Fern Tree Pool. The first, found on a 3km hike from Three Moon Creek, gives you an opportunity to sit at the base of a boulder that features a year-round tranquil trickle down the rock, sustaining ferns and moss. The latter, on a 5km circuit hike, leads to a ferny pond where you might spot a spotted velvet gecko or great brown broodfrog. Morning and late afternoon are the best times to take a stroll, as the low sunlight transforms the sandstone mountains into a rainbow of oranges and reds.
How do you deal with outback dust? You embrace it. At least, that’s the only way in a place like Kroombit Tops, where roadside foliage and tree trunks are coated so thickly in bull dust that it looks like there’s been a downpour of snow.
Of all the parks in the Central Highlands, we deem Kroombit to be the most unhinged — in both rugged magnificence and insanity. Even Tableland Road which leads into the park is mesmerising in its beauty, as it wanders through hilly farmland and grassy cattle stations, but the gravel road is subject to flooding and potholes (and totally oblivious cows), plus there is a steep and windy incline to reach the park entrance, so it can be impassable in wet weather.
There are three gnarly 4WD tracks that can be tackled once you do reach the plateau: The Bomber Crash Site (20km one way), The Loop Road (35km circuit, the last part one-way), and The Razorback Track (27km one way). Allow at least two hours to complete each track — the completion of all could make for one action-packed day on the road, or multiple days of adrenaline, broken up by camping at the national park site without facilities.
We tried our hand at the Bomber Crash Site track, in hope of uncovering the ruins of a WWII Liberator bomber that crashed on the western face of the park in 1945, tragically killing all men aboard. The road leading to the site is a relentless one-hour drive with rugged inclines, blinding bull dust and even a wooden slat-ramp, but it is manageable with a high-clearance vehicle in dry weather.
The track terminates in a carpark from which it’s 700m on foot to where the remains of Beautiful Betsy is scattered. Sheared fuselage, rusty engines and bent fragments of the wings are strewn erratically through the eerie forest, with some parts having been thrust hundreds of metres beyond the place of initial impact. With hawks flying above, it’s a spine-chilling and sobering site to witness.
Every landscape has a tale or two in its history and, to really appreciate a park in its entirety, it’s worthwhile understanding its previous inhabitants and showing respect to the spiritual significance of the land. On the easy 2.5km Goon Goon Dhina circuit in Blackdown Tableland, following the Mimosa Creek upstream on foot, you can learn about how the Ghungala people traditionally lived and view cattleyard ruins established during white colonisation. At the turning point of the circuit, you’ll also see the Ghungalu art site, containing sacred Indigenous rock art.
There are plenty more short walks to enjoy, including the 3.6km Goodela trail to a ferny creek, the 200m walk to Yaddamen Dhina Lookout, and the 2.4km Mook Mook walk to the edge of the tableland ridge. Most popular is the 4km return hike to Gudda Gumoo Gorge where you can see a waterfall tumble over sandstone cliffs and clear rockpools nestled between green fronds after rain. Even in the drier months, the falls proffer a peaceful trickle, and the pools are plentiful enough to get the knees wet.
To meet your prescription for a daily dose of adventure, try your hand at the epic (or unnerving, depending on your perspective) 24km 4WD Loop Road, which passes by sandstone outcrops and dense bushland, and provides exclusive access to the Mitha Boongulla Lookout over the rolling ranges and distant flats. It’s a one-way road, so only attempt if you’re willing to commit, and don’t be fooled by the unassuming first half of the track. As you close in on the lookout, the track wears away and you’ll be faced with exposed rock steps and bulging tree roots that require mechanical grunt and technical thinking. We had a tyre in the air at one point, spinning like a whirling dervish until we engaged the centre diff lock.
The volcanic sandstone structures and wonderfully messy rubble of Minerva Hills are the closest thing you’ll get to Mars without being selected for NASA’s next mission. The scenic and corrugated Dendle Drive wends its way into the small park, offering vistas from Fred’s Gorge, Eclipse Gap, Springsure Lookout and Skyline Lookout, all with long-distance views across nearby plains and Springsure township. The most striking feature is the giant thumb of pigmented rock towering to the town’s right, best seen from Springsure Lookout.
The unsealed road is relatively easy with most of the steep inclines bituminised and only a few dips and rocks to navigate, making it an excellent track for offroading beginners. You will, however, need to unhitch and leave the camper or caravan on lower ground.
If you stumble into the Minerva Hills/Springsure area in the afternoon, be sure to pull up at the Virgin Rock Viewing Area, just 1km north of Springsure off the Gregory Highway, and watch as the sun sets behind the jagged sandstone cliffs and the floodlights turn on, illuminating the rock faces and turning them bright orange against the night sky.
Without a doubt, Carnarvon Gorge within Carnarvon National Park is the big fish of attractions in the Central Highlands. While similar to the aforementioned sandstone parks in this region, it is bigger, lusher, and more established for travellers than its counterparts. Being furthest from the coast, it is also most impressive, given it hosts a perennial creek and rainforest vegetation despite its dry inland location. It is also home to well-preserved and culturally significant rock art and ochre stencils, as created by the Indigenous traditional owners on the white sandstone. In our opinion, this vibrant and verdant outback haven is one of the country’s most underappreciated icons.
The bulk of attractions are accessed off the main gorge walking track. Starting early in the morning and packing a backpack of supplies will allow you to enjoy a full day out. You can choose to go to the furthest point along the one-way track (Big Bend, 9.7km) and return, or as far as any of the sights on the way, depending on how far your calves will take you: Moss Garden (3.5km), Amphitheatre (4.3km), Wards Canyon (4.6km), Art Gallery (5.4km), Cathedral Cave (9.1km), Boowinda Gorge (9.2km).
Steppingstones bridge more than a dozen creek crossings over Carnarvon Creek along the walk, allowing passage over the clear, glinting water, which is replenished year-round by underground springs and supplemented by rainfall. If you only have the time or stamina for one attraction on the trail, make it the Amphitheatre. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to climb a winding staircase, enter a high, narrow crevice, and shimmy through to an ancient open-topped cavern, where you can gaze in awe at the sheer size of the surrounding stone walls. Inside the towering chasm, you’ll encounter remarkable silence and be made to feel as small as an ant. It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling experience.
While walking, look out for yellow-bellied gliders and rock wallabies camouflaging with the brown and white sandstone, and listen for the ringing calls of the currawong. As twilight hits, you could be lucky to spot an echidna or an owl, and you’ll almost certainly hear the distinct cries of bush stone curlews into the night.
To get the most out of your cross-country escapade to Carnarvon, stay nearby the Gorge for a few nights at minimum. The National Parks campground within the Gorge is only open during school holidays, so we camped at nearby Takarakka Bush Resort and used it as our base.
In addition to the Gorge section, Carnarvon National Park has three other sections: Mount Moffatt, Ka Ka Mundi, and Salvator Rosa. If time allows, these other areas are the ideal place to ‘get away from it all’ and enjoy the uninterrupted freedom and blissful simplicity of remote outback camping.
NOT WITHIN COOEE
Of all the roads we travel, those that are dirty and dusty — and sometimes downright difficult — often provide the best memories and most exhilarating adventures. Those winding through the sandstone wilderness of the Central Highlands foster endless discovery, exploration, and enjoyment.
If you’re willing or yearning to get out bush, then there’s no better place to explore than the rugged heart of our Sunshine State. Due the large distances between attractions (our complete travels through the Central Highlands parks accrued more than 1200km on the odometer), allow one to two weeks on your big lap or annual leave form to really embrace this region.
Don’t worry — there’ll be plenty of phone reception, automatic car washes and air conditioning when you return home.
WHEN TO TRAVEL: Outback Queensland is sunny for most of the year, but the cooler winter months are often favoured by travellers avoiding extreme heat. This is also the best time to see waterfalls and flowing creeks.
HOW TO TRAVEL: Your exact itinerary will depend on where you’re travelling from and when you can secure campsite bookings (we had to alter our itinerary due to the campgrounds at Carnarvon Gorge being booked out weeks in advance). The most logical loop route beginning in Rockhampton and ending up near Brisbane would assume this order: Blackdown Tableland, Minerva Hills, Carnarvon Gorge, Kroombit Tops, Cania Gorge. Whichever itinerary you take, be sure to do it in a 4WD to maximise your capacity for sightseeing.
WHERE TO STAY: Soaking up the National Parks is best done by staying within them. Kroombit Tops and Blackdown Tableland both offer basic campsites for $6.60 per person and must be booked online at parks.des.qld.gov.au. Commercial caravan parks are located at most major towns and at some attractions, such as the BIG4 at Cania Gorge. There are also free camps with limited spaces such as at Virgin Rock near Springsure, Emerald Botanic Gardens and Duaringa (donations accepted).
WHERE TO STOCK UP: Fuel is available in most major towns, including Emerald, Duaringa and Biloela. This is also where you will find big name supermarkets. When travelling to Carnarvon Gorge, be sure to fill up with diesel at Springsure or Rolleston as there is no fuel at the Gorge itself. With much of the Central Highlands being drought declared, the local communities could do with some support from travellers, so do drop in at local grocery stores and shopping villages where possible.