In the remote far-western corner of Queensland’s famed Carnarvon National Park, Salvator Rosa Section protects a rugged, sandstone watershed known as ‘the roof of Queensland’.
From this towering tangle of craggy peaks and weathered spires, of flattop mesas and glowing escarpments, springs and streams trickle and gather strength, eventually forming three of Australia’s major river systems. The Fitzroy flows east to the sea near Rockhampton, the Murray-Darling system heads south to the distant sea near Adelaide, while the legendary Barcoo joins the Thomson to become Cooper Creek before emptying into Lake Eyre.
The sources of it all are the unassuming, flower-fringed springs we discover flowing over fractured granite sands in Salvator Rosa, a part of the immensely popular Carnarvon National Park, which demands just a little more determination to reach.
But getting there can be half the fun. From Tambo, 315km south-west of Longreach, we ventured onto the Wilderness Way, a 320km circuit that loops east across a little-travelled landscape to Salvator Rosa and back again. Leading far off the beaten track, this corrugated offroad route is an especially scenic way to reach the park, which now protects an area discovered by explorer Sir Thomas (Major) Mitchell on his 1846 expedition.
REACHING THE PARK
Pushing north from the Maranoa River, Mitchell yearned to unravel the mystery of Australia’s vast interior river systems. Having much admired the landscape’s rocky grottos, eroded outcrops and towering white cliffs, he named Salvator Rosa for scenes reminiscent of the famous Italian artist’s work, calling it ‘a discovery worthy of the toils of a pilgrimage’.
Before long we reach the park, and it’s Major Mitchell who occupies our thoughts as we pause on the bank of Long Waterhole where Mitchell is said to have camped and climbed a nearby ridge to admire Tambo’s rolling black soil downs. The waterhole lies a short distance along Mount Playfair Road – the Wilderness Way – which is signposted off the Landsborough Highway, 8km south of Tambo.
Within minutes, the bitumen becomes gravel, so we slow the pace and stop for a cuppa at Mitchell’s Long Waterhole. Beyond here, the route takes us through a tumbledown section of the defunct dingo fence, and bumps and grinds through lonely scrub to an ominous sign at the 70km mark. Upon entry to the Goodliffe Section of Carnarvon National Park, the sign indicates that unmaintained roads ahead must be used at our own risk.
Despite an incredibly steep, breathtakingly beautiful descent, this gravel road is easily navigable, just as long as you can manage to keep your eyes on the road ahead and off the incredible rock escarpment to the west.
The bewitching scenes made for a very slow journey to the national park boundary. A colourful, mesa-topped range that spanned the horizon stopped us in our tracks, captivating our attention as the setting sun shifted slowly west, painting a white canvas of sheer cliff faces with stunning red, pink and gold hues. On a grassy rise below, slender boab trees were silhouetted against the fading light. By the time the show was over we were happy to tuck into a nearby pull-off for the night.
Up at sunrise to watch the scene unfold anew, we finally reached Salvator Rosa’s spacious, free-range campground just as everyone else was departing.
Our perfect timing meant we had our pick of shady spots, which we enjoyed in complete serenity as the camp’s sole occupants for the length of our stay.
Raring to get exploring, we put the 4WD into gear and slowly edged down the steep bank of the Nogoa River, across its sandy, clear stream and climbed the rugged track up the opposite bank. This 4WD-only river crossing that separates the camp from the park’s natural highlights is what gives the park its strictly-offroad rating, because elsewhere the gravel tracks might suit all kinds of conventional rigs. Those without a 4WD vehicle could easily bushwalk beyond the river crossing and reach Spyglass Peak and Louisa Creek, but for explorations further afield, an offroad vehicle helps diminish the distance.
Spyglass Peak rates as one of the best sights in the park: an arcing bluff that dominates the horizon, named for the weathered, 10m-wide peephole eroded just below the summit. Peak baggers might spend many tortured hours here, tackling steep paths and tricky climbing moves in an attempt to reach the top. Marks on the rock suggest a couple of risky routes to the top, perhaps best reserved for surefooted climbers with safety gear.
We turned back from our exploits with the Spyglass still tantalisingly close, having pushed as far as we could. Other thrill seekers might have better luck, and those who stick to safer ground can rockhop the flanks of the hill and meander around its weathered base where smaller outcrops pepper the woodlands (1km-return/20 minutes).
Beyond Spyglass Peak the road follows alongside the Nogoa River, and at the junction where it meets with Louisa Creek there’s a lovely swimming spot where the water warms up a little as it flows through the sandy shallows. This little oasis with its picnic shelter is irresistible after a hot hike on a sunny day, and you can wade upriver to explore or sit back with a picnic and your feet dangling.
Like Major Mitchell Springs at the end of the track, fern-fringed Belinda Springs nearby contributes to a daily flow of more than 10 million litres through the park, nurturing Salvator Rosa’s wild things and feeding the Louisa and Nogoa rivers and the waterways they become. Major Mitchell Springs is a lush, reed-fringed wetland nestled against sandstone cliffs, named for the historical base camp the explorer and his men established in a ‘snug position’ beneath the rock in mid-1864.
Major Mitchell marks the end of the leisurely 10km driving trail from camp, but you can hop the fence and continue down a short track to view some old stockyards dating back to the 1940s.
On your return journey, perhaps closer to sunset, tackle the short trail up Homoranthus Hill for 360-degree views. Named for the rare shrub (Homoranthus zeteticorum) that flowers with dainty pink blooms each spring, the hill’s vistas put the landscape into perspective, from Spyglass Peak and across the woodlands that stretch to distant spires and craggy peaks.
About 8km south of Tambo, turn off the Landsborough Highway onto Mount Playfair Road and follow the Wilderness Way for 120km to the national park campground.
From Salvator Rosa, you can head north to join the Dawson Developmental Road and continue for 100km to Springsure, or detour off this route 50km west of Springsure to delve back into neighbouring Ka Ka Mundi, another remote section of Carnarvon National Park.
- Camping under the stars.
- Swimming in the various rivers and springs.
When to visit
Ideally, time your visit for the late winter bloom of wattles or the springtime proliferation of wildflowers.
Salvator Rosa’s Nogoa River bush campground provides picnic tables and a wheelchair-accessible toilet. BYO drinking water or properly treat water taken from the river. Pets, open fires and the use of generators are all prohibited.
Camp fees of $5.75/person/night or $23/family (kids aged under five years stay for free) can be paid on site, online, by phone or at national park offices. There is no mobile phone coverage in the area.
In Tambo, travellers with self-contained rigs can spend up to three nights at Stubby Bend free camp on the Barcoo River. Facilities are limited to picnic tables and rubbish bins.
Tambo has a small supermarket, fuel station, two caravan parks and a couple of pubs.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #532, December 2014. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!