627,444 hectares - the second-largest park in Western Australia.
The destination that had eluded us in our travels thus far. But the destination that we continued to dream about visiting.
Our first night was a stopover at Peace Gorge, Meekatharra. Recommended to us by a friend who was once stationed there as a Police Officer.
We caught the magic evening light after climbing the rocks to view the surrounds.
But then, Karijini almost eluded us ... again!
As we rounded the highway bend near the West Angelas Iron Ore mine, traffic unexpectedly stopped. The cause? Clearly, a great big plume of black moving smoke in the distance, a fire that had jumped the road. A 280km stretch of road between Newman and Auski Roadhouse was subsequently closed to all traffic for almost 24 hours. Not insignificant considering this is the main highway between Newman (and south) and Port Hedland.
So we spent THAT night camped in some random bush on the side of the highway, taking note of wind and fire direction before we settled in for the evening. The fire raged on the yonder ridges all night.
Fires still burned the next day and we spoke to the local fire crew on Channel 40 radio as we passed. They were escorting a Loader through the still-burning section, and confirmed it had been a tough night for the crews managing the fire.
We KNEW Karijini was going to be amazing!
Too early to check-in to the campsite, we went right to Dales Gorge lookout. Immediately blown away by the depth of the gorge and the colours in the rock, we raced down the 286 metal stairs that descended through changing vegetation and rich red layers of rock sediment. We were eager to see the magnificent waterholes up close.
Still early, the air temperature had reached 36°C. The red dust and lime green spinifex shimmered in the heat. We found relief in the gorge, surrounded by white trunked ghost gums and a light breeze cooled by the water and shadows. We kicked ourselves that we hadn’t grabbed our swimmers out of the car.
Heading back to the campsite via an ascent of those 286 stairs (!), we sorted our belongings... tent erected, mattress blown up, and tables, chairs and clothes all zipped up. Away from the evil clutches of the red Pilbara dust.
Or so we thought...
Hot and sweaty, it was now time to indulge in that swim. Descending all those stairs again, our biggest decision was which pool to visit first. Fern Pool or Fortescue Falls? It had become a little crowded by now, so we decided against both, and found another pool downstream, with nobody in it! Clothes had never been removed so fast!
Being October, the water was just that perfect balance ... not too cold, but a refreshing escape from the heat. Many travelers visit Karijini during Australia's winter months. Whilst the heat and flies are more bearable at that time, the water can be way too cold for swimming.
Having cooled off in the gorge, we summonsed the energy to head back up those stairs again, and decided to spent the last daylight hours relaxing in our shaded fly tent, with a glass of wine and a ham and salad wrap.
However, that plan was thwarted somewhat.
Because our campsite was completely up-ended!
A willy-willy had hit the campground, vicious according to our frazzled neighbour who recounted the scene through dusty eyelashes. A column of dust and air caused by rising ground-heat, willy-willies are common in outback Australia and can be seen for miles, even more spectacular when they’re stirring up rich red iron dust. Unfortunately, our tiny little tent was right in the path of this nasty whirlwind.
The next hour was spent rearranging, dusting, and moping about our snapped tent and our white pillows ... now a shade of dusty pink.
Who brings white to the outback anyway?
Up early next day, we decided to leave the campground and not stay a second night, nervous about the possibility of further wind havoc. So, we packed up our campsite and by 7am were back at the picturesque, spring-fed Fern Pool, first in the water, and finally able to frolic under the waterfall that we’d gazed at the previous day.
We said very little actually, simply enjoying the peace and the dulcet tones of falling water, and observing the corellas, birds, ducks and fruit bats - their morning happiness in tune with ours.
Karijini is an ancient seabed, made up of iron rich sediment layers, pressurized to eventually form rock layers. Sea levels dropped quickly, explaining the deep, narrow gorges through which water once rushed. The layering is evident through the entire gorge walk. These are some of the oldest rock formations exposed on our vast Australian continent.
Our fourth swim of the morning was in the beautiful Circular Pool. I think we finally got the dust off our skin, and the natural water left my hair feeling soft and silky smooth. Who needs shampoo?!
Even underwater, the view was special. Unique.
On the way back out of the gorge, Fortescue Falls looked irresistible and so we decided on one last swim before heading up those stairs again.
After a stop at the visitor’s centre, we drove to Hancock Gorge. Accessed via a metal ladder, the gorge is narrow, and the rocks are slippery. There are sections where you cannot avoid getting wet unless you’re confident scaling a rock wall sideway, crab-style!
My recommendation for this gorge is to descend with just your clothes AND shoes (and hat and sunnies), and maybe a waterproof camera that you can strap to your body. And, wear them all the way to the end. Other walkers left backpacks and shoes lying at strategic points, but given we were endowed with expensive camera gear, we ended up walking this gorge twice, just so we could make it right to the very end.
And, with wet shirts, shorts and sneakers, our second climb out of this gorge was much cooler than the first!
Our last swim for the day was at the beautiful Handrail Pool, accessed via yet another steep descent, and a short walk through another section of Gorge.
At the end, a tall, narrow slit in the rock opened suddenly and dramatically to reveal a waterhole beneath, bounded by high rock walls, and about 25m in diameter. Access to the pool was via a length of handrail, rock ledges and a natural rock ladder. You can see the handrail on the right of the picture below.
There was plenty of space along the edge to place belongings as we indulged in yet another fresh water swim.
The other guests were quiet and respectful, talking in low tones, enhancing the experience for all. Given the steepness of the walls, the sun only reached a small section of the water, and it was lovely to feel the sun’s warmth as we soaked our bodies in what was probably the coolest water of the day.
Pleasantly tired from so much walking and climbing, we exited the National Park altogether and camped in Tom Price. In hindsight, we’d probably do this again rather than camp in the park, as the campsites were hot, dusty, and in our opinion offered little value for money.
Our Final Morning
Woken early by the light around 5am, we drove to Hammersley Gorge, for our last morning in Karijini. If I must choose one place to re-visit, it would be this one. It embodied a little of everything – multiple pools of varying depths, cascades, waterfalls, colourful red and brown striped sediment walls, and enough shade to rest in between swims.
The Champagne Pool was just a tiny bit special with contrasting blue water and a slippery entrance and exit.
The ancient geological thrust was evident in the contorted patterns and layers of the gorge walls. Not only a fascinating geological lesson but also an inspirational mood board of colours and patterns. We spent several hours here, alone for around the first hour (always a bonus!)
One of my biggest recommendations is to get to the waterholes early each day. Whilst the scenery is for everyone to enjoy and share, having just ten minutes of silence at a natural waterhole is an experience not to be missed. At some places, we encountered larger tour groups who assumed that all visitors were happy to listen to their loud music, which does detract a little from the experience.
Despite just scraping the surface of a much larger system of gorges and waterfalls, we had a marvelous three days in the ancient and magnificent Karijini National Park and were definitely sad to leave.