Remote Karijini NP in the Pilbara region of WA is a place few Australians have heard of, let alone visited, but they don’t know what they’re missing.
“Wow” – that’s what most visitors to Karijini say when they first see the gorges for which the park is famous. With rocks up to two billion years old, this is one of the most ancient landscapes on the planet. Created over eons by the lifting and folding of an ancient sea bed, water has subsequently found its way through the cracked and shattered rock to carve the amazing gorges visible today. The extent of geological forces which shaped this land can best be seen at Hamersley Gorge in the west of the park. Tortured and twisted rock strata are clearly visible on the gorge walls.
The park’s accommodation complex, the Karijini Eco Retreat, is managed by Hospitality Inns but was developed and is owned by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the interests of the traditional owners to provide employment and job training for local indigenous people.
Wherever you look you see spinifex, which is ideally suited to Karijini’s harsh tropical semi-desert climate. After the wet season the ubiquitous spinifex grows green and lush in comparison to its desert brethren and, contrasted against a backdrop of the ever-present red Pilbara rock, paints the hillsides with texture. Completing the beautiful Karijini landscape are the snappy gums with their ghostly white trunks and branches.
Some of the gorges are quite broad, like Kalamina and Dales, while others, like Weano and Hancock, are so narrow in places you can touch both sides at once. Karijini has become something of a Mecca for photographers for the way the early morning and late afternoon sun strikes the red and orange gorge walls and lights up the pools and waterfalls below with brightly coloured reflections.
As a photographer, my favourite gorge is Kalamina, where water delicately falls over dozens of small rock ledges on its journey downstream.
The walks into the gorges are strenuous but can be undertaken by anyone of average fitness who knows their limitations. Walkers need to negotiate both jumbled broken rock as well as rocks polished smooth by the action of water.
In both Weano and Hancock Gorges expect to get wet as wading through chest-high water is on the cards. Non-slip waterproof footwear and, as cameras and water are not a good mix (the same goes for your car keys) take a dry pack to keep them safe.
THE BENEFITS OF MINING
The nearest town to Karijini is Tom Price, a Rio Tinto mining town, and despite being remotely located the locals want for nothing. Wherever we went around town, we saw young mothers with a couple of young children in tow so it wasn’t surprising to discover the population has an average age of only 29.
As well as the highest town in WA, Tom Price has the distinction of being the most affluent non-metropolitan region in Australia. The combination of high wages and low accommodation costs makes having a family here very affordable. One couple we met were employed by Rio Tinto straight out of university and a couple of years on are now earning in excess of $200,000 per annum between them while paying $260 a month rent for a house.
Overlooking Tom Price is Mt Nameless, which at 1120m is the highest mountain summit accessible by vehicle in WA. The track to the top is very rough and steep and suitable for 4WD vehicles only. The 360-degree views from the top are spectacular at sunset and sunrise; however, the evening and morning we were at Mt Nameless it was unexpectedly hazy. With Rio Tinto hard at work 24/7 immediately behind Mt Nameless and several other smaller mines visible in the distance, we decided the haze was probably dust.
Heading north-east from Tom Price towards Karratha on the coast we followed the railway line on a permit-only road that is also used by road trains, which thunder along leaving an impenetrable cloud of dust in their wake. Initially, the road wound through picturesque undulating country before eventually giving way to flatter, dry, uninspiring land.
Along the way we passed several trains, hauling hundreds of wagons of iron ore to the coast. These trains have up to 226 wagons each loaded with 105 tonnes of iron ore and are around 2.2km long. The heaviest train to have used the track weighed in at 99,734 tonnes, was over 7km long, had 682 wagons and was pulled by eight diesel locomotives controlled by just one driver.
MILLSTREAM-CHICHESTER NATIONAL PARK
The road north took us through the 200,000ha Millstream-Chichester NP. The visitor centre is located in the old Millstream homestead, which is situated next to what can only be described as a true oasis in this otherwise dry landscape. Water from an underground aquifer naturally comes to the surface here to create the Millstream wetlands, home to a range of plants, birds and insects, many of which would normally be seen in a more tropical setting. The aquifer, which covers some 2000 sq km, is believed to contain 1700 cubic metres of water and forms the water supply for several towns in the area, including Dampier and Karratha.
The park’s main campsite is near the visitor centre, with a smaller campground situated a few kilometres back towards the park entrance. Facilities at both sites were limited and the toilet at the main campground was seriously in need of some TLC. Without a shower available, one of our number decided to take a dip in Deep Reach Pool in the nearby Fortescue River but came out dirtier than he went in from the silt in the water. On a positive note, Deep Reach Pool has a pleasant picnic area with shaded tables and gas barbecues.
SNAPPY GUM CIRCUIT
Another attraction of the park is the scenic circuit road, Snappy Gum Drive, which starts near the visitor centre. While snappy gums inhabit the entire Pilbara, in parts of the park they seem to grow to the exclusion of just about everything else. I find the snappy gums enchanting for the way their snow-white trunks and branches stand out against the dark red, at times almost black, Pilbara rock.
Python Pool at the northern end of the park and some 50km from the homestead is another location I’m told is well worth dropping in to check out. Unfortunately, as our journey was to take us east from the park we didn’t have time to make the 100km round trip.
The Pilbara is a remote part of Australia where just getting there requires a lot of time behind the wheel, much of it driving through flat, boring country. However, this land has its rewards as well. With hidden gems such as Karijini, it is a place where one visit just isn’t enough.
- Karijini NP is located 1400km north of Perth and 600km inland from the coast. Millstream-Chichester NP is situated 125km south of Karratha in north-west WA.
- Karratha to Tom Price is best travelled by way of the private rail access road. A permit is required and can be obtained from either the Tom Price or Karratha visitor centres.
- While the main highways are bitumen most other roads are gravel. Often rough and corrugated, they are more suited to a 4WD than the family Commodore. The sharp, flinty Pilbara rock is tough on tyres and reducing both speed and tyre pressures will minimise the chance of damage.
- Gorge walks/bushwalking
- The Pilbara has a tropical climate, making March to September the best times to travel. The country is perhaps at its visual best during March and April when water is still running in the gorges. However, this is also the end of the wet season and it can be hot and humid.
- Campers staying at Karijini need to be self-reliant with regard to food and fuel because neither is available at the Eco Retreat (other than restaurant meals). The nearest place for supplies and fuel is Tom Price – a 160km round trip. No supplies are available at Millstream-Chichester NP.