Karijini National Park, The Pilbara Region, WA

Spending the majority of our time scouring the Australian coastline for marine debris and trash means that we rarely give ourselves the opportunity to head inland. Sticking to the coast like glue, we avoid detouring in fear of missing that perfect beach, that perfect wave … or in our case particularly, that one beach covered with plastic trash from distant lands.

But there was one detour we could not miss while travelling down the WA coast – Karijini National Park in the Pilbara region.

Travelling south from Broome the landscape is as harsh as you can imagine – long stretches of red dusty plains, only disturbed by the odd road train pummelling along the road towards you. You pull into Port Hedland and the heat is stifling, the coffee is overpriced, and your lack of hi-vis attire makes you immediately stick out as an outsider. This is definitely mining land and it isn’t much to write home about.

Heading east from Port Hedland we drove for hours through dusty plains, the cruising speed of 90km/hr in our 1990 Troopy disgruntling the many road trains and mining vehicles. For hours it felt like we were headed nowhere – just dust and dirt for as far as the eye could see.

Finally the flat plains gave way to rolling hills and the highway began to curve through a rolling gorge – the dramatic change in landscape was so swift that it took our breath away. Close to hitting nightfall, we pulled up in a rest stop that overlooked the surrounding valley and settled in for the night.

There wasn’t a soul to be seen. The only reminder of society being the distant hum of road trains passing in the valley below.

We clambered up on to our roof rack and sat amongst the jerry cans with a couple of cold brews to watch the sun set. It was the best rooftop bar in Australia.

Waking at dawn the next day we headed off into Karijini, eager to clamber through the gorges we had heard so much about.

Karijini is spectacular. Out of the long red desert plains, huge cracks in the earth’s surface open up creating long intersecting gorges where the land falls away. On top, the harsh desert climate is barren and stifling hot, but deep in the gorges, shadowed by the cliffs above, the environment becomes wet, lush and green. Creeks run along each gorge, creating a little oasis in the middle of this iron ore country.

We spent the day exploring the gorges, climbing down at one end and wandering along until we reached the other end a few kilometres away. The waterholes in most of the gorges provided pleasant respite from the scorching sun.

Our final walk was one of the highest graded walks and took us into one of the deepest gorges. The walk started with a steep descent down metal ladders – each rung hot enough from the sun to make holding on quickly uncomfortable. Reaching the bottom, we were surrounded by green bushland – the whirr of cicadas and grasshoppers in the air, along with the constant buzzing of flies, filled the gorge with life. As we started along the trail, creeks emerged and our entrance disturbed the many lizards heating themselves at the water’s edge.

Soon the gorge narrowed and the cliff sides towered above us – we began to recall the warning signs about flash floods and wondered whether the rains might come at any minute.

The trail makers led us criss-crossing across the creek, until there was no longer a ledge to keep dry on and we had to remove our shoes and wade through the icy waters. It felt like a true outback adventure.

Once back on a bit of dry earth further down, the gorge opened into a huge amphitheatre, with naturally carved seating sloping up one side of the cliffs. Sitting there, surrounded by walls of earth and with only the blue sky above, you get a real sense of this being ancient land. There is an awe that hangs over this place and you feel like you are breathing in millions of years of evolution and life.

The trail continued, past a long brown snake sunning itself on the rock, into the “spider walk” – a narrow crack in the earth. There is only one way along this part of the walk and that is to awkwardly shimmy along with one foot on each wall. The rocks, smoothed by years of rushing water, fall away beneath you into inky black water – sure, you wouldn’t die if you slipped in, but it would be a very rude shock to the system!

At the end of the spider walk, the gorge opens into a cavern – the end of the trail. This is Kermit’s Pool – a deep plunge pool of black freshwater which then plunges over a waterfall into the next gorge along which visitors are restricted from accessing. Here in the cool of the carven, next to the deep water, the chill in the air seemed a million miles away from the harsh heat which hovered just 50 metres above us.

As we climbed out of the gorge, arriving again at the desert’s surface – we felt like we had come back to the real world - the cool tranquillity of the bottom of the gorge felt like a distant memory.

We’ve done hundreds of walks and hikes around Australia and Karijini stands our as one of the most memorable – the land of the Pilbara feels so ancient and calm. It is a feeling we will never forget. 

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