If only Karijini National Park weren’t so remote, it would be one of Australia’s most famous landscapes.
Beyond my windscreen, Western Australia unfolds like a Mobius strip. The more I drive, the more it seems I’m going in circles. The battered landscape surrounding Karijini national park is rocky, flat and orange, stuck with great clumps of spinifex. Sometimes I’m sure I’ve seen the same stretch of road before. Behind me, a cloud of red dust swirls, the only mark of progress. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone anywhere at all, although my falling petrol gauge and tired eyes tell me I have.
While the driving seems endless, this is what I like about an outback road trip. The sheer immensity and monotony are mesmerising. This ancient land is dried up and wizened, its bony rocks brittle and splintered. The massive alpine chains that once reared hereabouts are now just humps under a vast blue sky, across which my 4WD moves with the insignificance of a beetle. I drive on through the Hamersleys, where the rock is 2,000 million years old. The sort of age that puts my trivial worries into perspective. At Tom Price, the ranges crumble into massive gorges twisted by geology into great swirling bands of mineral red and purple.
I fill up on petrol at a road stop where dusty dogs pant, pink tongues twitching. Then I drive onwards. The grass is yellow, the earth orange, an occasional tree white with blue leaves. The Western Australian outback is full off bold colours, like great slashes on a modern painting. By the late afternoon I know why I’ve endured hours of spinifex when I arrive at Oxer Lookout. The barren plain has cracked open, leaving yawning canyons with red walls set on fire by the late-afternoon light. It’s a grand and improbable landscape, and utterly exhilarating.
Karijini local knowledge
This is part of Karijini, one of the largest national parks in Western Australia, 1,400 kilometres north of Perth in the Pilbara region. Next day I stop at the excellent visitors’ centre. It’s housed in a splendid metal building in the shape of a goanna. Excellent interactive displays explain the geology of the gorges and outline Banyjima history: for 40,000 years. This Aboriginal group has been living here and managing the environment. Some Banyjima men now act as park guides and take experienced hikers into the landscapes of Red Gorge and Hancock Gorge.
The gorges that are the chief reason to come to Karijini national park. Rich in marble, iron and silica, they’re splashed with colour and decked in waterfalls. Quiet fern-lined pools and stands of eucalypts are hidden in their shadowy valleys. Next morning, tipped off that Weano is the most accessible of the national park’s gorges, I’m soon meandering along the canyon bottom past pools and paperbarks. As the sun slides above the canyon rim and starts to sizzle on my head, I arrive at Handrail Pool, perfect for a swim.
I’m staying at Dales Gorge, where the campsite offers little more than some bush toilets, gas barbecues and picnic tables presided over by hopeful magpies. But it has spacious sites shaded by mighty trees and a tranquil atmosphere. In the evening, dingos skulk in the surrounding bushes. The only drawback is that there’s no water; I’ve stocked up on that (and had a shower) at the visitor’s centre.
Worth the walk
It’s a stroll from the campsite to Dales Gorge, where a three-hour walk brings me on to Fortescue Falls, the only permanent waterfall in the Karijini national park. Fringed by ferns and shady trees, it looks like a slice of the tropics in the arid Hamersleys. When I wade into the water, however, the coldness makes me gasp. Scrambling out of the gorge by sunset, the eroded cliffs flare orange, the early moon hanging lantern-like in a pale blue sky.
There are plenty of fine hikes, classified into a four-category system. I find the lower categories easy enough. However avoid the top category, which requires ranger consultation and is for serious hikers and rock climbers. But even the indolent can find something to enjoy: there are spectacular lookouts just metres from parking lots. Joffre Gorge Lookout has an amphitheatre of cliffs particularly spectacular after rains, when water cascades down its surface.
By this time, I’ve relocated to the campsite at Joffre Gorge. Venturing into the nearby canyons brings the best perspective on these dizzying red rock faces. Even if the hike up at the end of the day is the penance for such glory. By day three I have the courage to head into Red Gorge, where the sun only penetrates at noon and the atmosphere is eerie. Then I’m clambering down ladders and hundreds of steps and inching my way along cliff ledges to Hancock Gorge, perhaps the most outstanding of any in the park for its polished marble walls.
Karijini attracts a steady convoy of outback adventurers and wandering retirees. The only time I really have the scenery to myself is when I drive to lonely Hamersley Gorge, where an easy walk brings me to a canyon banded with fantastic colour and full of pools and waterfalls. At the almost circular Grotto, sunlight glints and ferns bend towards the water. I float on my back in the middle of a whole lot of splendid nothing, surrounded by rocks millions of years old, and feel utterly content.