Drive north out of Perth (the capital of Western Australia) for about 1400km past the rolling hills that surround the city, through the dry, sandy mallee and mulga shrub lands of the wheatbelt and the Murchison punctuated only by a few mining towns and you reach the Pilbara where the earth has turned a deep red and contrasts against the green spinifex grass and white trunks of snappy gums. In the heart of the Pilbara is one of the world’s great national parks – Karijini. At over 627,000 hectares, or 1,550,390 acres, it is Western Australia’s second largest national park and is larger than some European countries (about the same size as Luxembourg and Kosovo combined). Set between the mining centres of Mt Newman and Tom Price it is right in the heart of iron ore country, surrounded by the mountains and escarpments of the Hamersley Ranges.
The rocks in the park were laid down 2.5 billion years ago, when the blue green algae (cyanobacteria) produced enough oxygen to precipitate the dissolved iron in the early ocean. Once there was no more dissolved iron in the ocean to buffer the oxygen level the algae eventually poisoned itself to near extinction and a silica rich layer formed until enough iron dissolved in the water again to allow the algae to thrive and lay down more iron rich sediments. This process was repeated for approximately 800 million years giving us spectacular rusty red and blue-grey coloured banded iron formations (BIF). Although the hills are scenic it is the gorges that provide the highlights package. Over the last 100 million years or so water has cut through weak parts of the rocks giving stunning cross sections through the BIF often over 100m deep and a gorge system that makes the place seem like a giant water theme park in the middle of a red desert.
The area abounds in wildlife – frogs, snakes, geckos, dragons, kangaroos and wallabies. Termite mounds dot the landscape.
Most important, however, are the numerous options available to the hiker. Walks range from class 2 to class 6 – class 2 being easy and anything above class 4 meaning you will be clambering down steep cliffs or over other obstacles and boulders and through streams. None of the class 5 and below walks are more than a few kilometres long but time needs to be spent carefully negotiating any cliff descents and slippery rocks and generally enjoying the scenery. Parks and Wildlife time estimates for the walks are consequently on the generous side. It should be noted that walking in Karijini is not without its dangers – there have been numerous injuries and even some deaths. Causes have included falls, flash floods, drowning and heart attacks.
Following some accidents and deaths in 2004, areas which were class 6 were restricted to hikers who had registered and obtained permission from park rangers. This is not an easy process and requires proof of relevant accreditation and, of course, the relevant equipment for climbing and canyoning. Anyone entering these area also has to check in and check out with park rangers by radio. The alternative is to contact the company now run by our good friends and partners in many Four Feet Walking adventures, Geoff and Hwee, West Oz Active, the only company accredited to operate canyoning tours through the class 6 areas in Karijini. They run three tours of varying difficulty – Luncheon at the Junction, Red Gorge and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The last tour requires some experience and is only available to people who have been on one of their other tours and who they have assessed or who can demonstrate they will be able to manage it. On our recent trip to Karijini, Rob joined the guides on a training trip for the Journey to the Centre of the Earth. His description of that experience follows.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
The Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is the more adventurous of West Oz Active”s tours. Reserved for people with established roping skills it includes a 40m abseil down through Weano waterfall. Geoff and his guides, Sim, Josh and Glen hadn’t run the tour this season so I was made an honorary guide for the day and was invited on a training / scouting day to make sure all of the permanent anchors were still good and the route could still be run safely.
This day started with gearing up. Ropes, hardware, helmets, emergency radios, first aid kits, food and water were all packed just like a normal trip. Because it was still very early in the season the water was still warm we elected to swim the pools and wetsuits and tubes were not required. We also checked in with DPAW to let them know we were going to be in the gorges.
We started at the Weano recreation area and followed the usual route through Weano Gorge variously walking and paddling through small pools and narrow rock passages to Handrail pool. This first part of the walk starts at about class 3 and finishes at officially class 5. However the water was still quite high early in the season and the final section into Handrail pool was very wet and slippery and the long established old iron handrail was required to safely get down to the pool. This is the end of the line for most hikers, we waded through the pool and passed the sign prohibiting further exploration for most and continued through to a brilliant natural amphitheatre where we geared up properly. Harnesses and helmets on.
We roped up for a traverse, carefully checking all of the fixed anchors and also looking for loose rocks and fallen debris that may have blocked the path. Normal clients would also get a chance to practice or prove their abseiling technique on a short descent just before the main traverse to the end of the gorge and the 40-metre abseil down Weano Falls.
The initial jump off point for the abseil was fairly dry but still early in the season and with plenty of rainfall only a few weeks beforehand there was a fair flow down the falls so once the descent started you received a drenching while the normal algae made the rocks in some places fairly slippery so the usual jumping – bouncing technique had to be reined in a bit. The end of the abseil finishes in Junction Pool where Joffre, Hancock and Weano Gorges and Red Gorge all converge. I cleared my self from the rope and swam across the pool to enjoy the sun and watch the rest of the team scamper down.
We then started our exit through Hancock gorge through through some spectacular but slippery terrain ascending the Chute, followed by a short vertical climb then traversing and climbing our way above Regan’s Pool* and Kermit’s Pool across the Spider walk to the end of the restricted area and into the class five section of Hancock Gorge. At the end of the restricted area we bundled up our ropes and gear, enjoyed a short break and Mars bar and then made our way out of the gorge back to the bus at the Weano Recreation area.
This was a brilliant day out for me joining a very cool bunch of guys enjoying their jobs of making some of the spectacular but tricky areas of Karijini National Park both accessible and safe. If you are in Karijini one of their tours is a highlight not to be missed.
*Special Note. Regan’s Pool has been named in honour of State Emergency Services Volunteer James Regan who drowned in a flash flood in April 2004 while rescuing a tourist from this pool. It was actually the second rescue of the day for the SES and involved SES volunteers, police and park rangers.
There are two campgrounds in the national park. At the Eastern end of Karijini is the Dept of Parks and Wildlife campsite at Dales Gorge. This campsite sits within waking distance of Dales Gorge, the gorge which is most easily accessed and is close to the visitor centre. Facilities are limited to bbqs and long drop toilets. Showers are available for a fee at the visitor centre. The other campsite, part of Karijini Eco Retreat, is at the Western end of Karijini and is owned by a local aboriginal corporation. There are a range of accommodation options from camping sites to safari tents with ensuites. There is a cafe/bar/restaurant within the complex and the Eco Retreat is where West Oz Active collect people participating in their tours.
Best time of the year to visit
Canyoning tours run from 1 April to the end of October (they are popular and numbers are limited to a maximum of 12 per day, so if you are keen check availability and book in advance). Outside of this time the Pilbara is unbearably hot and is not recommended. The Winter months of June and July are cold at night and swimming in the pools at the bottom of the gorges will be a very bracing experience. Wildflowers are usually at their best in late July/August.
Drive 1400kms (2 days) from Perth (in which case you will want to combine with visits to any or all of the coastal areas of Kalbarri, Shark Bay and Exmouth). Alternatively the closest airport is 140km away at Paraburdoo from where a car can be hired for the 2 hour drive to Karijini. As some of the roads within Karijini are not sealed, a four wheel drive is the best car option.
In summer temperatures are often over 40°C while in winter 25°C is more common during the day with low single figure temperatures at night. In mid winter the water in the gorges which only catch the sunlight at midday can be very cold. The nearest rescue and paramedic teams are at Mt Newman, 254km and Tom Price 75km away. The nearest hospital is at Tom Price.
The water level in the gorges can rise quite quickly as flash flooding from rainfall rushes through the confined gorges, so check the weather as well.