Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Cobbold Gorge: a Gulf Country secret

I only recently discovered the concept of 'infinity pools' - I don't doubt that they're old hat to you, but just in case, they're an above-ground swimming pool from which you can look out across the landscape. One place where you might not expect one is on a working cattle station in the semi-arid tropical savannah country of north Queensland. Nonetheless, Robin Hood Station (!) boasts such a pool and it attracts not just hot outback travellers.
Pale-headed Rosellas Platycercus adscitus, having an early morning drink from the pool at Robin Hood Station.
The station has set up accommodation - motel-type rooms and camping, plus a restaurant and of course the pool - to encourage people to visit their chief attraction, which is Cobbold Gorge, still not well-known. It seems to have only been discovered by Europeans in the 1990s, when the current owner and a couple of mates paddled up Cobbold Creek from the Robertson River. Robin Hood Station (allegedly named because it adjoined Sherwood Lease!) was only taken up in 1901 - this is still relatively wild and remote country - and now covers 330,000 hectares (3,000 square kilometres). In 2009 the family signed a Nature Refuge Agreement with the Queensland government to create a 4700ha Nature Refuge around the gorge – a commitment to manage it sustainably in perpetuity, binding on future owners too. The station is generally known now as Cobbold Gorge Station, which is how I'll refer to it here.

Georgetown, the largest town in the inland Gulf Savannah, is 400km west of Cairns on the sealed Gulf Develpment Road. From there the station is another 85km on back roads, 55km of them unsealed (but 'good dirt', as my dad would have said). 
The approximate location of Cobbold Gorge is indicated by the end of the red arrow.
I stayed there last year for the first time with a group I was escorting in tropical Queensland and am happy to recommend it to you. (I feel I must emphasise that when I do feature a private establishment like this one in a blog posting it is only ever because I really believe it deserves it - I will never accept any form of concession or other 'freebie' in return for writing about it, as is standard practice in newspaper travel pages.)

I will of course get to the gorge shortly, but this country is worth visiting for its own sake, though when we were there it was heavily droughted. I understand that things are much better now after heavy rains - more than 300mm - in March of this year. 

For people staying at the accommodation the focus is the 'Home Dam', a large dam immediately below the restaurant and administration buildings.
Home Dam, Cobbold Gorge Station, in late afternoon light.
Even in drought it was pretty full.
Away from that the woodlands are rich and varied, even in drought.
The canopy stays green even in harsh times - this country lives with drought
as part of its life.

The ground cover however dies back, leaving seeds and underground structures to flourish
when the rains do come.

Termite mounds are a key part of the landscape; unimaginable millions of termites recycle the nutrients
in grass and ground litter, reducing the fire fuel load and providing food for the greatest dryland lizard
diversity in the world

Darwin Stringybark Eucalyptus tetrodonta is widespread across northern Australia.
A diversity of other trees and shrubs is also present.
Soapbush Wattle Acacia holosericea. This is a large wattle with big leathery phyllodes ('leaves')
which contain saponins used to create a soapy lather, which can also be used to stun fish by depleting oxygen levels in water.

Quinine Bush Petalostigma pubescens Family Picrodendraceae. While in the same family as the
South American quinine tree, it is not clear that this plant also contains the chemical. The bark is certainly bitter,
and is used by northern indigenous people as an antiseptic and a contraceptive.
Cooktown Ironwood Erythrophleum chlorostachys family Fabaceae.
Found across northern Australia, the timber is valued for its hardness and density;
the foliage is highly toxic to stock and indeed all parts of the tree are potentially fatal to mammals.

Leichardt's Breadfruit Tree Gardenia vilhelmii, family Rubiaceae.
We certainly know that Ludwig Leichardt sustained himself on some Gardenia fruits on his ultimately
doomed journeys across northern Australia; this may well have been one of them.
(The better-known breadfruits belong to the fig family, Moraceae.)

Hibiscus sp.; sorry I can't do better than this.
Batwing Coral Tree Erythrina vespertilio, family Fabaceae.
The first common name and the species name come from the shape of the leaves; 'coral' from the red flowers.
Even in drought there are many birds, though the property dams are of course important attractors.
A few of the vast numbers of White-browed Woodswallows Artamus superciliosus and Masked Woodswallows A. personatus coming in to drink in the late afternoon.
And at the water's edge (along with a few green Buderigars).
White-browed (female, above) and Masked Woodswallows.
Theirs is a fascinating story; they are usually found together, their calls are apparently indistinguishable,
as is their DNA. But they are very different physically and while they commonly breed in mixed colonies,
they never seem to interbreed!

Red-winged Parrot pair Aprosmictus erythropterus (male on the right).
Squatter Pigeon Geophaps scripta foraging quietly on a station track.
Black-necked Stork Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus flying over the dam.
And one can hardly overlook the Pied Butcherbirds Cracticus nigrogularis which come to scrounge (or demand) scraps from the tables.

Insects were perhaps less evident than one might expect, due to the drought, but were not entirely absent.
Moth in our room.

Longicorn Beetle family Cerambycidae.

And this one actually was absent... It is an ex-caterpillar, consumed by a fungus.
And so to the sandstone gorge itself, accessed by small electrically-powered boats (it is very narrow in parts). One of its features is a population of Freshwater Crocodiles Crocodylus johnstonii, but it was too cold for them to be basking when we visited.
Cobbold Creek, lined with River Red Gums Eucalyptus camaldulensis just below the gorge.
Part of the gorge from above.
The next four pictures are a selection from inside the gorge.

Reflections of water ripples on the wall of the gorge.

Golden Orbweb Spider web inside the gorge.
And I hope that is enough to encourage you, next time you visit the gulf country, to detour and spend a couple of nights at the station. I truly don't think you'll be disappointed.

I am now back from Borneo but still working on my pictures; I certainly hope to be ready to offer you something from that fascinating part of the world by next week. 



Kath H said...

Thanks Ian. I'd never heard of Cobbold Gorge either until we visited it in June 2011 on a Train tour (T/ville-Mt Isa; plane to Normanton; Gulflander, old rail motor, and then Safarilander to Cairns with side trips to Cobbold Gorge and Undara tubes (been to the latter on a John Sinclair trip around the Cairns hinterland). I wondered how the Gorge had remained almost unknown for so long. It was a real experience and we did see a couple of freshwater crocs. The electric push/pull boats were a very quiet way to enjoy the gorge. Very attractive area, good accommodation and the country looked fantastic from a helicopter flight. I loved the scenery around the creek and climbing up to see the gorge from above gave a better view of some of the flora.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Kath, I'm so glad you found it too, and enjoyed it. Nice to hear from you.

Lia B said...

Thank you Ian, reading your blog brought back many happy memories of our wonderful trip.

Ian Fraser said...

Well I can't ask better than that thanks Lia!

Karen Doyle said...

You've suitably whetted my travel appetite as we're heading there early September.

Ian Fraser said...

Karen, I'm so pleased! Thank you so much for taking the trouble to let me know - have a wonderful time, though it would be hard not to.

Karen Doyle said...

Thanks Ian, that's what I think too :)