Kayaks in the Desert

Pilbara News - - Life Style -


It’s hot and dusty in camp and we de­cide to get in the kayaks, pad­dle over into the full shade of the big, red rock face op­po­site, and drift.

The tem­per­a­ture is in­stantly many de­grees lower.

Les­ley lies back, pho­tograph­ing rain­bow bee-eaters, Grady ma­noeu­vring the kayak into place.

Vir­ginia sits in the front of our kayak wa­ter­colour paint­ing, as I try to keep it straight.

We are in our kayaks in the desert, all gen­tly dis­tracted, all think­ing about yes­ter­day.

For it was an idyl­lic ex­pe­di­tion day — one of my life’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary days.

The east­ern third of the Pil­bara is al­most en­tirely desert, and we are right on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. There are red dunes nearly 20m tall over the hori­zon.

And yet we are in kayaks, pad­dling on clear, deep, cool wa­ter . . .

We’d had a leisurely break­fast, packed the boats with lunch and cam­eras and pad­dled off.

There are sur­pris­ing river sys­tems in the desert land­scapes of the Pil­bara. The ecosys­tem of the De Grey is a glitch; an anom­aly — species whose range is re­stricted to the mon­soonal north of Aus­tralia also ap­pear in this stretch of coun­try. In a sense, it is part of the Kim­ber­ley in the Pil­bara.

But we are fur­ther in­land still, on the Oakover River, which is way up its catch­ment.

In some places we have to get out and wade, pulling the kayaks. In oth­ers, we pad­dle on wide wa­ter.

We see jabirus — the mag­nif­i­cent black-necked stork — and pad­dle the kayaks qui­etly along­side one. As the sun­light pen­e­trates the wa­ter, we pad­dle along watch­ing shoals of fish be­neath.

The key for the four of us is a pair of Sevy­lor Colorado in­flat­able dou­ble kayaks. They are taken from their bags (about the size of a big back­pack), in­flated with a hand pump in a few min­utes, and open up the desert wa­ter­ways.

There’s me and wife Vir­ginia, and Kings Park and Botanic Gar­den se­nior cu­ra­tor Grady Brand, and Kings Park di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture and con­ser­va­tion Les­ley Ham­mer­s­ley. In pre­vi­ous years, we’ve driven to Uluru, and trav­elled the Con­nie Sue and Anne Bead­ell high­ways in the Great Vic­to­ria Desert (the sto­ries are at thewest.com.au/travel).

But this year, ge­o­log­i­cally, we have gone deeper still, for the Pil­bara cra­ton is one of only two stand-out re­gions of Ar­chaean crustal rock, dat­ing back 2.7 to 3.6 bil­lion years. This is the ear­li­est vis­i­ble ge­o­log­i­cal chap­ter in the Earth’s his­tory. The other is the Kaap­vaal cra­ton in South Africa.

On this leg of the trip, we base our­selves at Carawine Gorge, about 100km east of Mar­ble Bar, first up the good bi­tu­men Ripon Hills Road, and then about 21km on a sand and stone track. Al­though it’s on War­rawagine Sta­tion, tourism ac­cess is man­aged by Parks and Wildlife, and camp­ing is free.

There’s a grassed area along the river­bank where car­a­vans and camper trail­ers pull up. Peo­ple in four-wheel-drives ven­ture fur­ther down, over a scree of river stones.

The gorge and rock face it­self cre­ate a mi­cro­cli­mate — and by late af­ter­noon, it casts full shade over the whole camp­ing area.

In the morn­ing, the red of early sun creeps down the rock face as I watch the toast crisp­ing over coals.

There are painted finches, a cou­ple of star finches and the meep­meep-meep of ze­bra finches. A grey-crowned bab­bler and whitewinged triller add to the morn­ing.

Over on the rock face, fairy martins fly to their mud nests, stuck to the un­der­side of ledges.

Out on the wa­ter, we watch a flock of 20 black swans, and 13 big, healthy Aus­tralian pel­i­cans.

But Les­ley will later say that see­ing the fish and hav­ing the chance to watch them in their en­vi­ron­ment is a high­light for her. Grady adds: “To us, see­ing the fish like this means it is a good ecosys­tem.”

But the con­stant stars of the bird show are surely the rain­bow beeeaters. They fly in arcs from branches, their wings del­i­cately kalei­do­scopic.

I watch one jug­gle a big moth to get it into the right po­si­tion to swal­low. An­other wipes the sting off a bee be­fore call­ing it morn­ing tea. And with that, we boil the billy and in­dulge in Les­ley’s date slice, cooked on the camp fire.


The Oakover River rises north in Wadara Range, south-east of Mar­ble Bar, and flows north. Mid­way along its length, it twists north­west and joins the Nul­lagine River, to be­come the De Grey. The Shaw and Coon­gan rivers feed the De Grey, too.

Pic­tures: Stephen Scour­field

Ready to kayak at Carawine Gorge.

Just af­ter dawn at Carawine Gorge, East Pil­bara.

Grady Brand, Vir­ginia Ward and Les­ley Ham­mer­s­ley wade in the shal­lows.

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