Words & Photography: Dan Avila
Born and bred in Western Australia, I’ve always dreamt of visiting Karijini National Park. Set within the Hamersley Ranges, the park is located roughly between the towns of Paraburdoo and Tom Price, just north of the tropic of Capricorn. This is the Pilbara region of Western Australia, an ancient and harsh environment known as the ‘engine-room’ of the nation, due its vast mineral deposits.
The Pilbara covers about 500,000 square kilometres, and with a population of about 70,000 people, is one of the least densely populated regions on Earth. It is this fact that many travellers find appealing. The opportunity for relative solitude, to unplug from the big city lights and to connect intimately with an ancient landscape has Karijini high on the list of places to visit among travellers from around the world.
Earlier this year, the Pilbara region experienced significant rains due to cyclonic weather, which resulted in its gorges and waterfalls filling and flowing back to ideal levels. With cameras packed, I headed out for a few days off the beaten track on a personal journey of discovery.
JOURNEY TO PILBARA
Driving in from Paraburdoo, I was struck by how different the landscape was from other more populated regions of Western Australia. The land, which was almost iridescent iron-rich red, contrasted beautifully against deep blue skies. Enormous wedge tail eagles circled overhead as I drove off the desert flats into the Hamersley ranges, heading for Mount Bruce, the second highest peak in Western Australia, which appears to welcome visitors to the majestic Karijini National Park – the state’s second largest park at over 600,000 hectares.
Following the signboard and directions to the National Park, I noticed a small sign indicating a site of interest. Driving about 100 metres from the main road, I found a series of carefully placed large stones – some with names on them – in small mounds. A sign invited passers-by to place their own stone on this monument in remembrance of love ones long passed. I did so, and savoured a moment of silence as I took in the beautiful backdrop of the plains below from this elevated area of quiet reflection, before continuing on my journey. This would be one of many tranquil spots I’d discover over the next few days.
AN ANCIENT HISTORY
Karijini National Park is a land steeped in significance with evidence of Aboriginal occupation and stewardship going back millennia. It is the traditional home of the Banyjima, Kurrama and Innawonga Aboriginal people. The Banyjima name for the Hamersley Range is Karijini, and any visit to this spectacular region is enhanced by an understanding of the people that have inhabited this place since time began. Evidence of their early presence here can be seen in ancient rock art. It is a moving experience to witness these depictions of life etched by the ancestral hands of today’s custodians, thousands of years ago. Knowing that this area has held great significance for countless generations certainly makes a visit here take far more impactful.
My journey of exploration began at the Karijini Visitor Centre. The design of the building represents a goanna (large lizard) moving through the country, and is symbolic to local Banyjima Aboriginal people. The tail represents their history; the head, the future direction of the traditional owners; and the centre or stomach, Aboriginal law. The high, weathered steel walls of the visitor centre mimic the sheet-sided gorges that are a feature of the park.
The climate of the Pilbara region is tropical semi-desert, with most summer rains associated with cyclone systems and thunderstorms often accompanied by a rise in temperature, exceeding 40 degrees Celsius. In summer, when there are extremely heavy rains, the roads within the park can be temporarily closed, as traversing them while inundated with flood water does damage to road surfaces. Some of the accommodation options are also closed during this off season, as is the Karijini Visitors Centre, which closes from mid-December till mid-February.
The gorges of Karijini are best explored from mid-autumn to early spring (April to September), and especially after good rains. During this time, the weather is typically dry and the park roads are in the best condition. The Pilbara region of Western Australia is one of the hottest and driest in the world, which makes the waterfalls and deep flowing gorges all the more spectacular. But, even at its busiest, there is such a large area to explore that many times, I had spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes all to myself.
A GORGE TO REMEMBER
Most gorges and waterfalls cannot be seen without a walk through well-marked paths. I consider myself quite fit, but even so, I was certainly challenged on a number of the trails, which required more climbing than walking! Thankfully, all trails were marked with a rating system indicating if they offered a gentle stroll or a more vigorous climb. Some even involved hiking through flowing water!
A good example of this is Joffre Gorge – a great place to start your voyage of discovery, and my first gorge experience! Joffre is close to a cluster of gorges, which are within a 30-minute drive of each other, and is about 35 kilometres on dirt roads from the Karijini Visitor Centre. From a nearby car park, the trail to Joffre Gorge was well-marked, and I was amazed to see enormous termite mounds standing on either side of the bright Pilbara-red track. The trail sloped into a gentle downward climb and terminated at a spectacular pool at the bottom of the gorge.
At the edge of the gorge was a narrow pass between sheer cliffs, through which the sound of pouring water could be heard. To see what the narrow pass revealed required a walk through ankle-deep water, but the rewards were well worth it. Meandering through the pass, I came upon a huge rock amphitheatre with an island of washed stones surrounded by a pool of cool water, which was fed by a cascading multilevel waterfall at the far end. It was achingly beautiful. As soon as I came upon these falls, I dropped my bags and jumped into the cool, fresh water. A swim over to the waterfall was delightful with the warm desert-heated stream almost bath-like before it flowed into the cool pool. Although it was the peak tourist season, I had this spectacular paradise all to myself – such is the joy of the Pilbara.
COLOURS OF PILBARA
An early start – pre-dawn – rewarded me with colours, great light and a landscape that would inspire any painter or photographer. Burning light beams cut through the gorges as the sun rose and set, bringing to life magentas, purples and ochre coloured rocks, hewn by the movement of water over the ages. Remember your camera. Whatever you do, remember your camera!
Each of the gorges has its own unique personality, and changes according to rainfall and the seasons. Although I enjoyed the more challenging walks and climbs of other gorges, my favourite was Kalamina Gorge, about half-way between the visitor centre and Joffre Gorge. A short walk after arriving by vehicle brought me to the gorge. Its genesis was marked by a huge fallen tree that was still alive and shaded a pool that was sustained by a constant water cascade. The pool was full of fish and there were vivid colours everywhere I looked. I just had to sit and absorb this tranquil setting for a while. The three-kilometre walk inside Kalamina Gorge is relatively easy for all ages, and probably, the least challenging in the park. Water in this desert environment is utterly transformational. Long pools, multilevel cascades, plateaus, amphitheatres and gentle trails are all there to be experienced in one place. Kalamina Gorge is absolutely stunning.
FALLS FOR ALL TIME
In dry seasons, not all waterfalls flow, but one that won’t disappoint is Fortescue Falls – one of the only permanent falls in the national park. A 30-minute drive east of the Visitors Centre and located in a cluster of gorges, close to the facilities of Dales Camping area, reaching it was easy. From the carpark, it was just an 800-metre walk – suitable for all fitness levels. Fed by a spring that filled a safe swimming hole at its base, Fortescue Falls was enormous.
Upstream I found a small bush trail that became increasingly tropical and green. In stark contrast to the arid desert surrounds, the trail opened up to reveal a scene reminiscent of a terrarium, with tropical foliage cradling an enchanting water body called Fern Pool. In a setting that no landscape architect could replicate, a wide and gently cascading waterfall gushed into the teal green waters of Fern Pool. Just behind the falls, I discovered a shallow cave that offered respite from the sun – and the perfect spot to enjoy a cool drink.
While it may be one of the harshest environments on Earth, Karijini is a sanctuary for many species of amazing wildlife and exotic flora. Of the over 500 species of small trees and shrubs in the park, 481 of them flower spectacularly after rains, painting Karijini with a profusion of colours. Darting about this brilliant canopy are 140 species of birds including rare species such as the grey falcon, grey honeyeater and the peregrine falcon. You can also find many species of native rodents and marsupial carnivores such as the Pilbara ninguai, and the shy and rare pebblemound mouse here. Karijini is also home to red kangaroos, euros, echidnas, rock wallabies, bats and dingoes. So rich is the diversity of life in the park that there are 86 recorded species of reptiles and amphibians here – from frogs, geckoes and goannas to dragons, legless lizards and pythons. And many of these are masters of camouflage, so spotting them is both a challenge and a reward.
After a swim under a waterfall, I stood on a small island of ochre and red pebbles that had over time been washed clean by rushing water. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something scurrying along. But, looking over, all I saw was stones. Then again, a quick movement. Yet again, I saw nothing but the Pilbara stones. Intrigued, I got down on my hands and knees, convinced that there was something in the water. Not until I was about a metre away did I perceive a dragon lizard about 20 centimetres in length. I’d never seen anything blend into its environment so perfectly. I took my eyes off the lizard for a second as I reached for my camera, and it took a minute or so to locate it again. When I did, it remained perfectly still, allowing me to capture some wonderful photos – ever confident in its perfect ‘hide in plain sight’ strategy. Camouflage is one of nature’s hunting and survival tools, and like this lizard, many of Karijini’s residents have perfected this art.
THE REAL OUTBACK
Spending time at Karijini National Park certainly left me with a renewed appreciation for this ancient country. This is not a predictable, packaged holiday destination. The weather can be extreme, raining so much that roads can be cut off for days. The nights are typically very cold due to the high altitude desert location, and there are all kinds of interesting creepy crawlies here and there. But, it’s these raw and real attributes that make Karijini such an authentic and emotionally stirring adventure.
I felt that I’d really started to understand the connection that traditional owners have to this land. For me, this amazing place has inspired a reconnection to and renewed love for this unique part of outback Australia.
DID YOU KNOW?
The very dry air, free from salt haze near the coast and away from city lights, makes Karijini National Park a stargazer’s paradise. Nights with little moonlight offer unobstructed views of the Milky Way!
PREP FOR KARIJINI
- Pack good hiking shoes to move around gorges, as well as water shoes, as many of the trails involve hiking through flowing water.
- Pack cold weather clothes as nights can be extremely chilly.
- Bring along bathers and sun protection.
- Hire a 4WD to navigate dirt roads.
- Don’t forget your camera!
CAMPING & GLAMPING
Within the National Park, there are a range of accommodation options. Tenting sites are available for visitors looking for the closest connection to nature, and the Karijini Visitor Centre provides details on all camping options. Camping facilities are available for camper vans and buses too. If you require a more comfortable alternative, there’s the option of ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping). This allows travellers who are accustomed to five-star luxury to experience nature without compromising on comfort. The Karijini Eco Retreat, which is owned by an Aboriginal corporation that represents the interests of the Traditional Owners, offers luxury accommodation designed to blend in to the natural environment. Spacious African safari-style eco-tents set on timber floors boast private en-suites equipped with solar heated water. These eco-tents are set around a main facility area with a huge outdoor grill, where guests can watch the chef grill kangaroo steaks for dinner while enjoying a glass of wine.
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