STILL WATERS RUN DEEP
The staggering beauty of Karijini’s canyons.
ONE SOLITARY ROCK IS all that it takes to unleash it. Just a seemingly benign souvenir, from a landscape with billions of such specimens, carelessly plopped in your pocket and forgotten about. Forgotten about, that is, until it comes knocking. What is it? Hard to say, exactly. Cynics say it’s a steaming pile of hocuspocus doo-doo. But then there are the believers; reluctant converts to the idea of the inexplicable, nebulous curse known as ‘Karijini Karma’. What do we know about it? It’s OK simply to pick up a rock in Karijini National Park, let its iron dust tint your palm; run your index finger along its sharp edges. A paper trail of regret and repentance tells us that this primordial can of whoop-arse opens up only when said rock leaves this sacred national park’s bosom. “I receive packages in the post from all over Europe, America and Asia, plus every state in Australia, containing rocks from visitors who removed them during their stay,” says Karijini’s Kennedy-jawed senior ranger Dan Petersen, from under a sweat-stained hat that looks like it’s been snacked on by a dingo. “Usually there’s no name or return address but just a note saying: ‘Dear Ranger, I removed this rock from the park and have had nothing but bad luck ever since. Please put it back’. Some have mud maps of where the rock was taken from, so it can go back to exactly the same spot.” After an impulsive career change five years ago flung him north into the West Australian outback, Dan has come to know Karijini as well as any white man can. “There’s an energy that runs through this place,” he says. “It got into me straight away.” Some say Dan wears a khaki cape with a big D on it under his ranger’s shirt. On his days off, just for kicks, he trawls Google Earth to discover the “less discovered” places in the gargantuan park’s remote south. He grabs his backpack, a compass and strides out into the remote wilderness (solo) for five days at a stretch. Luckily, Dan’s the kind of outback superhuman who can eat grass in the unlikely scenario that he can’t source water. “I sometimes see random lights in the night sky out there, which move really quickly,” Dan says. “In some places, it feels like you’re the first person who’s been there for thousands of years. The wildlife out there don’t have the fear. They come up and sniff you.” Luckily, you don’t need Dan’s superpowers to access Karijini’s superstars: a medley of bewitching gorges that dramatically and
unexpectedly fall from the flat, baked earth into an antediluvian waterhole-strewn realm, daubed with such unlikely contrasting colours that it makes your brain hurt. Despite the impossibility of hues in the gorges, most people in the outside world only see one colour in the Hamersley Range; you see, Karijini sits in the guts of ironore country, the backbone of the Pilbara, where rusty red blankets the landscape like outback snow. Amateur geologist (at the time) Lang Hancock saw an inland sea of dollar signs when he flew over the Pilbara’s escarpments for the first time in the middle of last century. That flight, of course, led to mass mining in the area around Karijini and beyond; the windfall still resonates in his daughter Gina Rinehart’s bank accounts today. Right on Karijini’s boundary is Marandoo mine. And 60 kilometres to the west is Rio Tinto mega-mining town Tom Price (WA’s highest town), which has a tight longterm community of resident miners, and infrastructure enough to host the area’s battalion of FIFO workers, who are more likely to visit Kuta than nearby Karijini. The hills around town look like an angry sore, which underlines just how important national parks like Karijini are for the next generation of Australians and, indeed, this generation of traditional owners: Banyjima, Yinhawangka and Kurrama peoples. After all, the quirks in Karijini’s landscape were used as meeting places and shelter long before humans really even knew what to do with iron. While its physical splendour could easily place the national park on the Natural Wonders of the World list (yes, really), what the exquisite images on these pages can never convey is the intangible energy and personalities of each and every Karijini gorge. As the bumbling lawyer from The Castle says, “it’s all about the vibe” out here. Karijini rewards the lively, adventurous traveller; this certainly ain’t the place for a flop-and-drop long weekend. Several of the gorges are fairly easily accessible. Joffre, for example, acts like a backyard swimming pool to the Karijini Eco Retreat (see page 73), although it still requires a steep walk-in. For the rest, jump in your jalopy and go forth to meet them. While there are a few outstanding lookouts in the park, which offer grand views and perspectives, you truly have to descend to revel in what the fuss is all about. At the low-key car parks, eucalypts and low mulga woodlands camouflage the gorges with military precision. It’s not until you basically stand on a 100-metre cliff edge that you realise this isn’t just normal pancake-flat outback. Up on the surface, you won’t see too many large animals hanging out in the midday heat, save for a sun-baking goanna, who suddenly decides to saunter away, with a Straight Outta Compton gait, when she decides you’ve breached her personal space. (Dusk and dawn are best for
wildlife watching.) Down below, however, birds inundate the sheltered watercourses like hoodie-wearing youths at a shopping mall. As you descend the steep marble-strewn tracks and stairs, and leave the tropical semi-desert boiler room behind, the temperature regulates immediately. Spinifex and tenacious desert flowers, such as the ultra violet (when in season) mulla mulla, share the hard ground with unlikely deep green grasses, ferns and, in some places, even fig trees. From below, Santorini-white snappy gum trunks, which grip doggedly onto canyon ledges, contrast fabulously with the oxidised cliffs and undying cumulus-splashed outback blue sky: a ready-made Benetton ad campaign, if ever there was one. Each gorge has a distinguishing trademark (or two or three), from the Fern Pool and Fortescue Falls around Dales Gorge; to Kermit’s Pool (take a guess) and the Spider Walk (you have to use both hands and feet to navigate, like Spider-Man) of the magnetic Hancock Gorge. For anyone with a passing interest in geology, Karijini feels like 2500 million years’ worth of Christmases have all come at once; the exposed banded rock is some of the oldest in the world. Fascinatingly, no actual animal fossils have been found in the older formations here because the layers apparently predate complex animal life. If you know what to look for, however, you may stumble upon the odd stromatolite in the lower echelons of this former sea floor. The complex dome-shaped algae collection from another aeon is a snapshot of the world’s first recorded life forms. Living examples can still be found at Shark Bay, on WA’s coast. Once in the gorge netherworld, the conundrum for the truly adventurous is just how far to explore; you always want to stick your neck around just one more bend, and the one after, even when signs tell you not to be so stupid. Three words: Don’t. Do. It. Rescue times in Karijini are measured in hours not minutes. And there are precedents of thrill seekers having their last thrill here – the spectacular Regan’s Pool is named after an SES volunteer who drowned attempting to rescue someone back in the noughties. Fret not, adventurers; there is an authorised option to take you deeper. Much deeper. Strap on a helmet, stretch yourself into that wetsuit (lubricant optional), because it’s time to harrumph at the ‘do not enter’ signs with people who know well not only the perils but also the enigmas of these gorges: the crackerjack canyoners of Pete West’s West Oz Active Adventure Tours. Past the signs, a tricky shuffle through Knox Gorge’s deep V underlines why this place is a giant mousetrap for the unprepared
Karijini sits in the heart of iron-ore country, which lends the landscape its rusty red hue.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Eucalypts and low mulga woodlands camouflage the gorges at ground level; Ranger Dan Petersen is an outback superhuman who spends his spare time exploring the most remote parts of the gargantuan park ; Termite mounds are giant in this part of the world. OPPOSITE: Be sure to stop and absorb the energy of the gorges, especially if you are privileged enough to have one all to yourself.
CLOCKWISE FROM THIS IMAGE: Centuries-old paperbarks survive wild torrents every wet season; Ropes are your lifeline when adventuring here; The rich, fecund vegetation in the gorges contrasts with the tropical semi-desert landscape above; Pete West of West Oz Active Adventure Tours; Canyoners make their way through the gorges, truck inner-tubes in tow.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Evenings above ground in Karijini; Don’t get lost – rescue times are measured in hours, not minutes; Your home for the night at the Karijini Eco Retreat; Fern Pool, a special spot for swimming, just up from Fortescue Falls. OPPOSITE: Climbing up out of Red Gorge during a canyoning adventure.