Sunday, 24 August 2008

Karijini NP

21/8/08 Cape Keraudren– Port Hedland – Karijini NP   455(8325) kms

It took us 90 minutes to leave Port Hedland, where we stopped for supplies, water and fuel, on our way to Karijini NP. Even in two hours, we hated the place ... the Mount Isa of the West. What a dump! Their tourist information writers must be among the most creative in Australia. The air was so full of dust that I had a sand bank at the back of my tongue. The same oppressive feel pervades everything, animate and inanimate.

The Great Northern Highway,
south of Port Headland
With a full load of fuel - including the reserve tanks - and plenty of water, we struck out for the heart of Pilbara country. Immediately we had the flat plains we have seen connecting so many places on this trip rolling out to either side of us, until the various tributaries of the Yule River began to cut our path. Sand flowed from bank to bank in river beds which captured all the dry eyes in the house and were crossed by long bridges ready to provide sanctuary from a wet catastrophe. As we crossed the Yule River - the first of the morning where real water was earning its keep - we knew we were closing in on Karijini. Purple mountains of shale and iron stone filled the horizon and then slowly moved in beside the road. After Mumjina Roadhouse, we climbed up and through a narrow pass between orange monsters who seemed likely to hurl a squared-off flat boulder at us the moment our back was turned. The scenery was dramatic. We could rouse no other description.

Soon after, we turned northwest away from the Great Northern Highway which trundled on to Tom Price and the mountains turned to rounded heads covered with trees and shrubs and grasses but still with those red/purple sashes as if slashes had laid them open and bled them. The final rush - into Karijini NP - came just after four in the afternoon and was made without notice of the landscape. Of more importance was a safe campsite in a park renowned for the volume of its visitors and latecomers often having to sleep in car parks until a camp can be found the next day. We were welcomed and then ushered into our campsite by volunteer camp hosts who manage the campsites in Karijini for the ranger staff. Our camp hosts were from Brisbane which they described as their dormitory suburb.

A few things struck us about the campsite arranged about a roughly circular track. Each of the sites had a sense of privacy, given the reasonable space between them; the sites were unsuitable for pitching a tent because there was little soil into which pegs could be driven because the ground was just about 95% red rock; and torches would be needed at night judging by the metre-long snake which lay still writhing in the road once the Landcruiser behind us ran it over.

It was a clear and windy night and we snuggled into our bed in the Forester with the moon roof cover open and a wide variety of stars taking advantage of having access to us. Why do the stars look so good from your camp bed?


The morning was chilly, with an unpleasant breeze which was the weather's hangover it shared with all of us. Sue rightly hid under the sleeping bag and looked for reassurance there. I put my smelly self into smellier clothes, grabbed my camera and wandered off looking for things to notice. Wildflowers caught my attention. These were new to me and I set up some close-ups of reds and yellows and greens.

Returning around the looped road of our camping area, other early birds nodded or waved and some risked a hello. Feeling warm and happy, I was crying in an instant when an older lady stepped from her van and went on with her cleaning oblivious to me, singing "The Old Rugged Cross". Only days before, I had stood beside my Dad as he belted the words out with a passion in song I had not known from him before, as we farewelled my crazy old Mum. As I stood for a tearful second or too, she noticed me and in a moment she was milking my story and giving me no stranger's hug. Part of the process I'll go through for a while I guess.

Dales Gorge
Our event for the day was Dale's Gorge, the main tourist gathering point at Karijini NP. It starts and ends with waterfalls and surprises you with others in between. The gorge walls are steep and tall, made in purple slate that resembles old rust and topped with an iron oxide conglomerate. Layers of dolomite are squeezed between the slate just for difference, I guess. Because slate cleaves away in straight edged blocks, the gorges drop straight down to their river beds, are generally flat across the bed and then rise straight up again. Most of the variation is in the width of the gorge.

Starting above Fortescue Falls, near the western end of the gorge, we clambered down an extremely steep and severe natural staircase which was supported by a four strand wire fence. Some of the steps were nearly thigh deep and in ten minutes we were climbing all over these tall falls which tumbled down over the stepped rock face. It was an amazing sight but only one of many we accumulated on this day. Photos taken, we continued on to the Fern Pool. Your final arrival at the Fern Pool is by climbing a few steps onto a wooden platform which would accommodate a fair sized moshpit. Hard against the rock face, a huge paperbark's root system has sent out scouts for water and in the years since, these have become long, twisted and tree-trunk thick in some places but not more than over-thick hairs in others, waving in hope of any moisture for the corporate good.

The platform narrowed as the view widened and our eyes automatically followed our ears suggestion and crossed the fifty metres of soft aqua water between us and the twin falls which - the attraction here - and which send constant ripples from them to you. Perhaps the falls are ten metres high - small by comparison to the tall falls we had left only five minutes earlier but they are no less impressive. Fern and rainforest plants fill most of the seats at the water's edge and a grove of paperbarks provide cover for the water to escape downstream. If this is not perfection, it's the next best thing. In a state of harmony with the paradise we had escaped to, we moved to the lower platform, designed for those who would dip and refresh well beyond the threat of crocodiles. It also provided a vantage point for those such as Sue who would become excited by the sight of myriad small fish milling about in water which is about one and a half man height, at the entry point.

The Fern Pool
As always, Sue was excited by this piscatorial encounter and dropped to her knees to speak in her best and most fluent "fish" in order to thank them for being there. Her sunglasses, hot from the walk so far, became the first of us to go swimming, dropping from Sue's top pocket and only a moment later, floating to the bottom amid "oohs" and "ahs" and one or two "oh no’s" from the assembled nature lovers. Much consternation and MacGyvering later, we had our two trousers belts tied in a tape knot, my keys attached for ballast, one end of the belts tied to my wrist with a knotted hanky and me trying through 8 feet of water to hook the open arm of the sunglasses with my belt buckle.

The fact I was unsuccessful does not diminish the attempt.

With more than an hour spent in the attempt to rescue a pair of $20 sunglasses, Sue had had enough. When the last of the spectators had gone and without a telephone booth in sight, she stripped down to her Superwoman suit and had her naked body fully immersed in the cold water in an attempt to duck dive to save face. I was part lookout, part diving assistant and part coach as she dived three or four times but was unable to get deep enough to glasses which taunted her below. A change of technique – bobbing down feet first with me holding her outstretched hand in a human safety line – was her last chance and made as voices approached. Young voices. Young male voices.

Just as she seemed destined to become a tourist attraction herself, the wayward glasses were grasped between her toes. She emerged goose-bumped and hurriedly used my flannelette shirt as a towel, hastily pressed into service. No sooner had the last of her embarrassment been covered when four young male backpackers arrived, unaware of the stories they might have told.

We went back to Fortescue Falls and made the steep, difficult descent beside the water flowing down the stepped face of the falls, to the floor of the gorge and a following hour of delights. We scrambled along peaceful pools of perfect reflection, bands of dolomite which measured time no clock could match and those huge rock walls always towering above us and watching our softly taken visitor’s steps. It was a twisting, turning affair with much demanded of us on this grade 4 walk as we moved along a track only defined by small disc markers and yellow dots of paint. It was an awesome treasure hunt for the most stunning rewards that photos of the event will never match.

Circular pool, Dales Gorge
If the Fern Pool was the opening highlight, we finished Dales Gorge with an equivalent. Climbing slowly at first and then with more urgency up structures which might have been a child's block set built to form a castle, we felt like we were extras on the set of an Indiana Jones movie as Indi moves in on the hidden treasure. Up we clambered until the rock shapes had turned to round boulders. Picking our way over unsure footing, we rounded one last gate keeper and before us, the gorge walls bent to form one, continuous concave wall forty metres high. Ferns and moss eked a living from the small offerings of soil available and the walls oozed a constant spring  of water which fell in polite little trickles. The dominant feature, however, was an oval pool, perhaps twenty five metres by fifteen metres. Apart from the setting and the remarkable and perfect construction, two qualities held our attention: the complete clarity and coldness of the water. Numb within minutes of immersion would be my estimate but I wasn't game to test my theories. Little wonder hypothermia claims more people here than falls or walking mishaps.

It was one of those places you don't want to leave. Why return to the real world when this is the alternative? Despite realising I had a new entry in my "Top Ten Places" list, I came back to reality when leaving this fantasy land Inca ruin to undertake one of the most dangerous climbs I have ever attempted. Steps had been hewn in the flat slate so typical of the area but they were too small and too close together. The grade was almost impossibly steep with no switchbacks, no rails or safety barriers to protect a faller from more serious injuries and very few places where climbers and descenders could pass. I was glad to breast the top but even gladder I was on the up escalator and not the down. The descent would have such strong potential for becoming uncontrollably quick.

A great day. Now we know what the fuss has been about!

23/08/08   80(8205) kms

We headed west to a different section of the park and back across those dreaded red dirt and rock roads but as we were without the trailer for this day trip, there was little to fear for the Forester ate this sort of treatment up, corrugations and all. We are so pleased we went back to a Subaru in January and this little gem has performed brilliantly on this trip whether on the rough stuff or the open road. I digress ...

… as I mentioned, we travelled about 40 km west and started our day at Oxer Lookout, with the intention of walking through Weano Gorge and as many of the other gorges that our skill level would allow. Dad had mentioned that Oxer Lookout was a must see and this was, by a long shot, a very great understatement. I'm not sure I have ever seen such breathtaking scenery. Imagine walking from a carpark and slowly descending along a path where it was obvious that the tops of gorges were appearing to the right, the left and straight ahead. Imagine further that the path narrows and a sign gives you warning of the proximity of cliff tops and the dangers you are in. You press on, content that the those people from the national parks are prone to overstatement to legally protect their corporate backside and lost in that thought, you may or may not notice that the path is as wide as it was at the carpark but suddenly there are no surrounds. You see a platform before you and walk confidently on to it but even half way across the four metres of checkerplate steel, your eyes start to lose perspective as the ground you expected ahead never appears. By the time you reach the rail, your mind is in vertigo freefall, searching for the bottom of the absolutely sheer drop which starts just below your feet and ends nearly 130 metres below in the Junction pool. Nothing lies between you and that pool except the sole of your shoe, 1 cm of steel plate and clear, cool air.

We stood there for twenty minutes and every person who stepped up either swore or called on God, whether they believed in him or not.

From this "high" light, we walked thirty metres to the actual Oxer Lookout - another high platform which is extended out on a pinnacle high above the junction of four gorges. The last few metres before stepping onto the steel security of the lookout platform, the dirt track was tightrope a mere metre wide with death beckoning on either side. You earn your environmental appreciation in Western Australia!. When Dad was here in the 90's, the platform didn't exist and one of my photos shows a stack out beyond the current platform that was the terminus of the track. No platform, no fence, just a combination of adrenalin and stupidity took visitors to this little suicide nest!

But oh the view! On three sides, deep tears scarred the landscape in a way only possible in a kids sandbox when mudpies was the game. These rents in the earth looked like Mad Professor geology but were somehow real.

Back at the first lookout, a memorial stands for Jimmy Regan, an SES volunteer who lost his life below this spot after abseiling in from the afore mentioned platform, to rescue a party of injured tourists trapped in the gorge below. He was part of the second team in and they had been monitoring with great suspicion a storm dumping rain 80 km away in the catchment. He secured two of the party and attached them to lines for their winch hauled lift to safety. After reaching the third trapped tourist and stabilising him, he went “offline” to attached his patient to a hauling line. A flash flood raced through the gorge before he could reach his own safety line. Jimmy's work had been so good in securing his casualty that he was saved. Jimmy wasn't so lucky and was washed away and drowned as a huge volume of water which rushed through the narrow space.

Junction Pool
We left the sad tale of Jimmy Regan and walked the track to the head of Weano Gorge. After stopping for chitchat with fellow travellers halfway down the reasonably easy descent, a short press on had us doing the usual clambering across rocks and placing careful steps on rocking stones across water lines. This was a very different gorge than Dale's, which had strenuously worked us over twenty four hours earlier. In fact, to be honest, it was a massive anticlimax. Still, after an hour, we stopped by a pleasant pool and had a quiet lunch whilst new birds were catalogued for later revelation in Simpson and Day. Resuming after lunch, we moved only forty metres before finding our road was ended as the discs marking our way submerged into a deep pool. Continuance meant submerging and these two surface ships had no intentions of converting to Collins Class vessels! We climbed the nearby steeply raked stairs and emerged feeling a tad ripped off but aware that this was relative to the amazing standards other views and experiences in Karijini had set. The bar had been set very, very high.

After leaving Weano and Oxer Lookout, which are set to the most westerly position in this eastern section of the park, we drove back, intent on picking up other views on the way back to our campsite.
The first and the best of these was Joffre Falls. How can I describe this masterpiece? The photos are a pale reflection of the real thing and I suspect my words will be no better. Joffre Falls are at the starting end of the gorge of the same name and they are made entirely of flat plates of slate I have described previously in other entries. The falls is a shear face cut down through these plates to a plunge pool below and what makes their spectacle so intense are the perfectly parallel lines of the slate and the water flowing perpendicular to them. From there, the gorge just opens up and follows a similar path as others in the park. It’s just that the sight of this big, sudden hole in the ground is so unexpected even though, you know its there.

Whilst standing on the observation platform, we spotted the track down into the gorge which made its way to the foot of the plunge pool. Mountain goats wouldn't get insurance for following that one!
A short distance away, we had that same perspective altering experience at Knox Gorge. Beauty unabashed.

This place - Karijini - might well make atheists doubt their convictions. How can the forces of nature be any easier to accept than the will of God? It’s a "big" place and it pulls "big" emotions from you and we will forever be glad we accepted good advice and came here.


A lay day. I did some washing (by hand). Drying was not a problem. We both did some reading and Sue went swimming in the Fern Pool, this time with the appropriate attire. In the early evening, we attended an open air church service with a small congregation of travelers sitting in a rough semi-circle in their camping chairs. It wasn't hard to feel close to God.

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