The Demaered’aertrijcke family was “a little bit scared of going west” but after a taste of the bush, they’ve joined the hordes of Australians opting for road trips instead of international travel.
- Visitor numbers during peak periods have doubled at Carnarvon National Park since 2019
- Tourism operators say providing quality customer service is impossible due to staff shortage
- A traditional owner says visitors should learn more about the Garingbal and Ghungalu peoples’ story and culture
Business is booming at Carnarvon Gorge, about 400 kilometres south-west of Rockhampton, but staff shortages have left tourism operators struggling to meet demand.
Beyond the pressure on commercial services, a traditional custodian fears the gorge and its culturally significant sites are being loved to death.
The Demaered’aertrijckes travelled three hours one-way from Roma to Carnarvon National Park to hike 14 kilometres of breathtaking trails and visit four significant sites recently.
“It was just a place that we haven’t been to, so we thought, why not,” Antoine said.
“Basically, instead of visiting family during the holidays, we’ve been exploring Queensland.”
A Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) spokesman said June-July school holiday visitor numbers had more than doubled from an average of 407 main track walkers per day in 2019, to 911 in 2021.
He said camper numbers at the south-west region’s national parks had “increased dramatically”.
Heli-Central senior pilot Patrick Graham said after a COVID-induced lull in 2020, this year was “probably the busiest” he had experienced in his three years at the gorge.
Despite booking more than five months in advance, Emma Jackson-Hill and her family only managed to secure accommodation 90 kilometres away from the gorge.
“I reckon we saw 100-plus caravans between Brisbane and Roma — [an] amazing amount of people on the road,” she said.
“My brother ordered a caravan and waited 18 months to get it, so people are obviously travelling.”
‘Severe staff shortages’
Hanna Vig, who manages Carnarvon Wilderness Lodge and Takarakka Bush Resort, said they were booked out up to six months in advance for the school holidays.
“Both places, they have been running at between 80 to 100 per cent occupancy,” she said.
“The biggest challenge is finding qualified staff and staff in general, because of international border closures and backpackers not being around [we have] severe staff shortages.”
The lodge, home to the only restaurant at the gorge, reopened in March more than two years after a bushfire destroyed parts of the property.
“[It has] forced us to close the restaurant because of no kitchen staff.
“[We’re] trying to manage and give the best service, but it’s definitely affecting the quality of the service, unfortunately.”
Concerns about impact on cultural sites
Milton Lawton visits Kooramandangie, known as the Carnarvon Ranges, for two reasons.
“One is to nourish my spirit in that wonderful gorge and surrounding areas,” he said.
“The other one is to obtain further education about my people’s story on that country.
“It’s my cathedral, it’s my university, has been for the last 35 years.”
As the son of a Bidjara man and a Ghungalu woman, looking after the country is a responsibility entwined with his identity.
“Tourism has had a big impact on that place … there’s potential for these places to really deteriorate given the high level of traffic into those sites.
“I have concerns about how those places in that wonderful gorge are cared for and looked after.”
Preserving Carnarvon Gorge
Mr Lawton believes more traditional custodians, Bidjara and Garingbal people, should be involved in managing the gorge.
“I encourage visitors to the place to have a deep sense of reverence and contribute to looking after that place the way it should be looked after,” he said.
“It’s a place for all people … and non-Indigenous people have a huge role to play in preserving our story and our culture.
“It’s through places like Carnarvon that they can assist us in that journey, by having an understanding of what that place is all about.”
Australian Nature Guides co-owner Simon Ling has worked at the gorge for about 22 years.
“[COVID-19] has just exacerbated a pre-existing curve of increasing visitation,” he said.
Mr Ling said graffiti and people jumping safety barriers were persistent problems.
“Staying on the track really helps the rangers look after the place,” he said.
“The simplest thing to remember is if you’re in a national park, then you should be leaving nothing but your footprints and taking nothing but photographs.”
Endless opportunities in the bush
Australian Nature Guides co-owner Michelle Whitehouse urged Australians to take a punt on rural and regional areas.
“There are plenty of jobs available out here whether it be Roma, Emerald or the little towns in between and there are still plenty of people who are unemployed looking for work,” she said.
“There is potential out here, there is plenty of opportunities out here.
“It’d be nice to see people take a change and be willing to move, just even for one season to see what it’s like to live in a little community like this.”