THE PILBARA, WA

It’s large, dry and thinly pop­u­lated. That’s why WA’S Pilbara re­gion is never lack­ing when it comes to ad­ven­ture.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOS RON MOON

Flow­ing wa­ter in the Pilbara is al­ways nice, but quick­sand is prob­a­bly the last thing you ex­pect here

How does the say­ing go: ‘Up shit creek with­out a pad­dle?’ I was, in fact, in shit creek, up to my crutch in quick­sand, and the slop was get­ting deeper as I tried to drag my feet from the suc­tion of the sand. That wasn’t work­ing real well, so I threw my­self down as flat as I could onto the slurry and wig­gled like a de­mented snake, try­ing to keep my cam­era gear out of the muck around me. A minute or so later (it seemed longer!) I was on dry land again, think­ing, jeez, that was fun, or thoughts to that ef­fect.

We were on our way to Cop­pin Gap, north of Mar­ble Bar and south of the de­serted town­ship of Shay Gap, and had stopped to take a photo of the Nis­san Pa­trol and Trak­mas­ter camper go­ing through a shal­low creek. It wasn’t deep, but flow­ing wa­ter in the Pilbara is al­ways nice, so I’d wan­dered up­stream to find a spot I could step across with­out get­ting my feet wet. How­ever, I soon found my­self in strife. Quick­sand is prob­a­bly

the last thing to ex­pect in the Pilbara.

A few min­utes later, I was stand­ing in the creek at the cross­ing, stripped off, wash­ing sand from clothes, boots and other places, when the only ve­hi­cle we had seen for two days came along. The women laughed as they drove by... why? I didn’t think it was that funny!

We had been wan­der­ing around the Pilbara for a few weeks by then, with our jour­ney this time be­gin­ning as we headed in­land from North West Cape and the coastal de­lights of Nin­ga­loo to find qui­eter, more re­mote places to en­joy.

At the rel­a­tively small min­ing com­mu­nity of Parabur­doo, we stocked up with sup­plies and then tried to get to Ratty Pool, which is, from what we were told, west of the town, through a nar­row gap in the rocky range. We didn’t find it, but we did dis­cover a nat­u­ral spring that was gush­ing wa­ter. After spend­ing a few hours floun­der­ing around on the track, which was re­ally a fast­flow­ing creek, we gave up and camped nearby on higher, drier land.

Not to be per­turbed, we went look­ing for another gem a friend had told us about. This one was east of town, tucked into the hills in a rarely vis­ited far-south-west sec­tion of the

Kar­i­jini Na­tional Park. Most peo­ple know Kar­i­jini from the mag­nif­i­cent gorges that can be found in its far-north­ern sec­tion (more on them later) but only a few lo­cals know of the hid­den de­lights else­where in the park, one of those be­ing Bob­swim Water­hole.

The main road be­tween Parabur­doo and Tom Price ba­si­cally fol­lows the iron ore rail­road. About 30km north of Parabur­doo, you take a dirt road south-east past Mallee Sta­tion, a sid­ing on the rail line. About 8km along this dirt road from the sid­ing, you turn on to a well-used track that strikes east across rolling hills cov­ered in spinifex and dot­ted with scrub, with small ephemeral creeks lined with green, spindly trees. It’s not a par­tic­u­larly hard or dif­fi­cult track. If you have a camper trailer on the back, as you get close to Bob­swim, about 25km from the black­top, it gets a bit tight and steep in one or two places – don’t get caught out!

Bob­swim is a pic­turesque stretch of wa­ter in Turee Creek, the im­pres­sive creek and trib­u­tary of the mighty Ash­bur­ton River. Bor­dered by low, red cliffs on one side and lined by shady gums on the other, the water­hole is a per­ma­nent oa­sis in a rocky and of­ten heat-blasted, dry land­scape. It’s a top spot to camp and, while away a cou­ple of days or more, there are more tracks to ex­plore and wa­ter­holes to dis­cover.

Once we tore our­selves away, our next stop was Tom Price, a town we hadn’t vis­ited since the mid-1970s. A 4WD track up nearby Mt Name­less at­tracted my at­ten­tion. That evening, we sat on the moun­tain’s lofty crest as the sun made tracks to the hori­zon. The town has be­come a lit­tle big­ger than it was in the ’70s, but the moun­tain that feeds the mine has shrunk quite a lot. One day in the

not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, Mount Tom Price will be a hole in the ground.

Re­sup­plied and with a dose of civil­i­sa­tion be­hind us, we headed north into Kar­i­jini NP, check­ing out a few of the gorges, but it was get­ting to the end of the school hol­i­days and the park was crowded with vis­i­tors. The dif­fer­ence from Bob­swim was stark – we had only seen one other camp at Bob­swim and that was a group of lo­cal mo­tor­bike rid­ers ex­plor­ing the area. We thought of go­ing back but, with the hol­i­days end­ing in a day or two, we opted in­stead to head for the Mill­stream Chich­ester Na­tional Park and Gre­gory’s Gorge, which is just out­side the park. But I was stymied again! Ac­cess now to the gorge – an im­por­tant cul­tural place for the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple – is only granted from the north, via the Ngur­rawaana Com­mu­nity, where you pay $15 to the ranger and get direc­tions into the gorge camp­ing area. So close yet so far. It is a top spot – just don’t try to get there from the Mill­stream end.

As it was, we stopped a cou­ple of nights in the na­tional park, but I wasn’t im­pressed with ei­ther of the camp­ing ar­eas that have been es­tab­lished since camp­ing was stopped at Deep Reach Pool and Cross­ing Pool. After a bit of walk­ing among the palms and be­side the flow­ing chan­nels of the Fortes­cue River, we moved on, head­ing back to the coast for a change of scenery. We hoped, with the school hol­i­days now over, the coast would be a bit qui­eter.

We first checked out the mouth of the Fortes­cue River, the turn-off be­ing about 30km north of the road­house of the same name. The ac­cess road passes the mas­sive Sino Iron pro­ject, one of the big­gest de­vel­op­ments on the WA coast and, although it’s ugly, it’s pretty easy to ig­nore once

Around here, it’s easy to stay a cou­ple of nights, en­joy­ing the tran­quil­ity and do­ing a bit of ex­plor­ing

While trav­el­ling to Cop­pin Gap I had an in­glo­ri­ous and naked meet­ing with a cou­ple of other trav­ellers

you’re at the mouth of the Fortes­cue. There’s a rough boat ramp here and it’s pop­u­lar with long-term campers, with most of them camp­ing 1km or so in­land, away from the man­groves, mozzies and sand flies. Those who visit come mainly for the fish­ing, as there are no long-term at­trac­tions for any­one else. Still, it’s not a bad spot to spend a day or so, even if you don’t throw in a line or launch a boat to go fish­ing and snag some dinner.

Next was a stop at 40 Mile, or Gnoorea Point, another pop­u­lar long-term camp­ing spot about 55km south of Kar­ratha. Again, there is an in­dus­trial com­plex – a gas plant – you pass just as you turn off the high­way, but you can get fresh wa­ter here from a tap, which hap­pens to be the clos­est good wa­ter to 40 Mile. Camps are gen­er­ally spread out along the coast south of a boat ramp and, like at many places on the west coast, you need a chem­i­cal toi­let (a por­ta­ble toi­let is fine) to camp here.

Our stay at 40 Mile wasn’t long and we headed north, stop­ping a few days in Kar­ratha to stock up and ex­pe­ri­ence the his­toric Cos­sack port and the Bur­rup Penin­sula.

Now the Bur­rup is home to one of the great­est in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ments in Aus­tralia, but it also has Aus­tralia’s (some say the world’s) largest col­lec­tion of pet­ro­glyphs, or Abo­rig­i­nal rock en­grav­ings, dat­ing back prob­a­bly 20,000 years or more. It also has a cou­ple of su­perb beaches, all of which are ac­ces­si­ble with a four­wheel drive ve­hi­cle.

Deep Gorge, with its an­cient art sites, is eas­ily reached and, with a bit of walk­ing, many pet­ro­glyphs can be found here. A lit­tle far­ther on is Hear­son’s Cove, a sweep of beach that is best ap­pre­ci­ated at high tide. A rougher 4x4 track heads far­ther out past the gi­gan­tic gas pro­cess­ing plant and flar­ing tow­ers and skirts along the short beach of With­nell Cove. It then gets to a thin line of man­groves, a nor­mally shal­low wa­ter cross­ing and a chal­leng­ing climb up a rocky jump-up. It con­tin­ues to the shores of Searip­ple Pas­sage at the

end of the Penin­sula, but you have to be keen and have a well set-up truck to tackle the afore­men­tioned rock­strewn climb. Much of the area is now pro­tected in the 50km² of Mu­ru­juga Na­tional Park, which was de­clared in early 2013 and leased back from the tra­di­tional own­ers of the land.

Next stop on our whis­tle-stop tour of the coast was Cleaverville, a beach­side camp­ing spot about 25km north of Kar­ratha. This is our favourite spot along this sec­tion of coast and it is pop­u­lar with many long-term campers. Like at 40 Mile, there’s a care­taker and a fee payable, but here it is eas­ier to get a site to your­self. You can launch a small tin­nie off the beach at a cou­ple of spots here as well, but the rocky coast­line along the north­ern point, jut­ting into Port Robin­son (with Dixon Is­land off­shore), can pro­duce fish for the shore-based an­gler as well. With itchy feet, we pushed north, stop­ping at the fa­mous Whim Creek Ho­tel, built in 1897 and re­tain­ing much of its his­toric char­ac­ter. This had been closed to the gen­eral public for a few years be­cause of nearby min­ing op­er­a­tions but, as of mid-2015, it has been re­opened to the public. Don’t miss it!

From here a track heads west past the old his­toric Whim Creek Ceme­tery, which has graves dat­ing back to 1894, to Balla Balla, a cop­per mine port back in the 1880s. The old port site seems set to be­come one of the new­est ironore ex­port fa­cil­i­ties on the WA coast – but only if the price of ore im­proves, I’m guess­ing.

Still, at the time of our visit you could camp right on the coast, close to the man­groves and the rough boat ramp, or a few kilo­me­tres in­land along Balla Balla Creek, in the vicin­ity of Coor­in­jinna Pool. The pools along the creek weren’t ex­ten­sive when we were there. They dry up un­der the un­re­lent­ing sun, so don’t ex­pect to get potable wa­ter from them, un­less you are re­ally bloody thirsty!

Cruis­ing north on the high­way, we wanted to head for the mouth of the De Grey River and the old Condon Land­ing site. Once again, though, we were stymied, this time by heavy

rain. On the phone with the sur­round­ing prop­erty owner, we were asked not to use the tracks as the route cuts across some low-ly­ing coun­try bor­der­ing the coast for quite some dis­tance.

We turned in­land, hop­ing for bet­ter luck, pass­ing the 50 or so vans camped at the high­way cross­ing of the De Grey River (free camps are not our scene at all). We fol­lowed the De Grey up­stream, find­ing a cou­ple of spots to camp along its ver­dant banks.

We checked out Doolena Gap, an un­crowded spot where the Coon­gan River cuts through the rocky Gorge Range, but it was early in the day, so we pushed on, cross­ing the Coon­gan on the Bam­boo Creek Road.

It was while trav­el­ling from here to Cop­pin Gap that I had an in­glo­ri­ous and naked meet­ing with a cou­ple of other trav­ellers. But I soon for­got my dis­com­fort when we got to Cop­pin Gap. A rel­a­tively small creek has cut its way north through the rocky range here, leav­ing an idyl­lic per­ma­nent pool that en­tices wildlife and peo­ple to its clif­flined

shore. We stayed for a cou­ple of nights, en­joy­ing the tran­quil­lity and do­ing a bit of ex­plor­ing. But the re­cent rain had knocked the 4x4 tracks around; all were badly eroded.

From here we headed north along the Shay Gap Road, pass­ing more small min­ing op­er­a­tions be­fore again com­ing to the De Grey River. The wide, shal­low cross­ing was busy with trucks and ex­ca­va­tors as Tel­stra en­gi­neers were work­ing on re-es­tab­lish­ing the op­ti­cal ca­ble con­nec­tion across the river. A re­cent flood had washed away the pre­vi­ous ca­ble. So much for be­ing in wild, re­mote coun­try!

North of the river, on a small but ob­vi­ous out­crop of rock, we found an older form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion – an­cient Abo­rig­i­nal rock en­grav­ings, or pet­ro­glyphs. Th­ese have with­stood the on­slaught of time and weather, their ex­act mean­ings, though, lost in time.

Our time in the Pilbara was draw­ing to a close, but we’ll be back to see the spots we missed be­cause of weather and changed en­try con­di­tions!

The easy cross­ing of Fortes­cue River.

The al­lur­ing water­hole at Cop­pin Gap. Rinse the dust off in Cop­pin Gap’s wa­ters.

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