Karijini National Park is one of Western Australia’s better kept secrets.
If you want good travel advice, they say you should ask a local. So in the lead-up to a recent trip to WA, we took to asking anybody who might be qualified to have a reliable opinion where we should head for a great outdoor experience. Amazingly, the advice almost achieved consensus. Karijini National Park, was the chorus.
Kari What? I like to think that after almost four decades of constant travel across this wide brown land, I am pretty much across all the top wilderness destinations. But Karijini was completely new to me. Having just returned from a 10-day trip through some of Australia’s most amazing landscapes I am suitably chastened. To add insult to ignorance, it’s not as though Karijini is a dot on the map. At 627,442 hectares, this is WA’s second largest national park. Set in the Hamersley Range in the heart of the Pilbara, the park is located just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, 1400 kilometres north of Perth and about 80km east of the iron-ore mining town of Tom Price and 600km from Exmouth on the coast. Let those figures settle in. For no matter where you come from, there will be considerable travel involved.
In our case that meant driving from Perth up the Great Northern Highway via Mt Magnet, Meekatharra and Newman, then heading back via Exmouth, Carnarvon and Geraldton on the North West Coastal and Brand Highways. Because we wanted to camp along the way we made the decision to hire a campervan. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, this was possibly not the best decision as it meant almost 5000km of travelling three abreast in the front of a Toyota Hi-Ace, taking turns to be “piggy in the middle” straddling the gear stick. It also added the complication of having to pack up camp each day and take it with us, even when we were only travelling short distances to the next gorge.
Like most mobile homes, considerable origami was necessary to convert the van into sleeping mode, and for the person who drew the short straw and took the top bunk, getting into and out of bed, or even making it, required the flexibility of an advanced yogi. During our mid-winter visit, the corrugations in the road suggested it had been a while since a grader had visited, and in the words of one fellow camper, driving across them would “shake the shite out of a cast iron Jesus”. A 4WD and a tent might possibly have been a better option. Small details, but worth considering when planning your trip.
And certainly not enough to put a dampener on the experience. Make no mistake, this is an ancient landscape. Huge mountains, including Mt Bruce (Punurrunha), at 1234 metres, WA’s second-highest peak, rise out of the Spinifex-studded plains. The banded iron formations exposed in many of the rocks originated more than 2500 million years ago as iron and silica-rich sediments were deposited on an ancient sea bed. Across millennia, the pressure of further deposits turned the sediments into tough, well-bedded rock. Horizontal compression caused those rocks to buckle and develop vertical cracks that rose above sea level. As rivers coursed through those cracks, sheer-sided gorges developed. Further erosion sculpted the rocks into to the present craggy landscape, with more than 100-metre drops culminating in rock pools and waterholes.
It’s as though some massive mythological creature let loose and dragged its talons through the earth, leaving gaping fissures in the Spinifex-studded plains and it’s hardly surprising that this is a place of great significance to the local Banjima, Innawonga and Guruma Aboriginal people. Fern and Circular Pools are of particular spiritual importance to the traditional owners, and visitors are requested to treat these sites with the respect one would accord a European cathedral or Asian temple.
Most of the accessible sites are located in the northern park of the park and visitors can choose between two camping grounds, a parks-maintained facility at Dales Gorge, or one attached to Karijini Eco Retreat about 40km to the west. Neither has powered sites, so our decision was settled by the prospect of hot solar-powered showers, camp kitchens and the option of meals at the Eco Retreat HQ. The campsites are sufficiently secluded to give visitors a sense of wilderness and in the end we only ended up visiting resort reception to top up a few supplies and for much-appreciated advice on the walks. Non-campers at the Eco Retreat are accommodated in permanently erected canvas “tents” with wooden floors, some with ensuite bathrooms and some with shared facilities. These are dotted between the gums and the termite mounds at similarly discrete intervals.