How did I accidentally end up on a canyoning tour, trekking through class-six terrain wearing multiple layers of wetsuits? It was a lack of due diligence. I’m no daredevil – ordering a doubleshot latte is my kind of adventure. Yet here I am, huffing and puffing my way through a part of the Pilbara only accessible to the fit and fearless. Karijini National Park is extraordinary but take this tip: know what you’re getting into.
I’m with two guides from West Oz Active who are trained in roping, hiking and wilderness first aid and are licensed to take visitors to parts of the park that are off limits to other travellers. If you enjoy tearing down 12-metre rock faces and navigating waterholes atop the inner tube of a truck tyre, West Oz is the go. It’s owned by Hwee and Geoff Carter – a former medical physicist and a geometallurgist – who left it all behind for the not-so-quiet life.
I’ve signed up for the Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a walk from Hancock Gorge to Weano Falls. I’m joined by five other travellers: active types who do this kind of thing for fun. I’m relieved to hear, however, that most are, like me, canyoning newbies. I’m also glad to hear that West Oz’s oldest guest was 78.
As we rattle through the Hamersley Range, Queen’s We Will Rock You blasting from the minibus’s cassette deck, the passing landscape looks to me a lot like the rest of the central Pilbara: all vast dusty plains flecked with hummock grass and termite mounds. But seen from the air, there are deep cracks in the burnt-red surface – these are Karijini’s famed gorges, where gums and fig trees grow and icy-cold water laps at the ancient rock.
To get here, most fly into Paraburdoo, 1500 kilometres north of Perth, then hire a fourwheel drive for the 90-minute trip to Karijini Eco Retreat. You can sign up for group tours to make the most of your time in the park; there are four companies to choose from and most operate from about April to October, departing from the retreat and its nearest town, Tom Price, 80 kilometres away.
The first half of the walk is easy enough, though the descent is steep and the mossy rocks are like black ice underfoot. But then one of the guides, Josh, invites us under the rope that keeps mere mortals out of the classsix area. It’s time to put our carabiner tutorial to the test: secured by the clips on my harness, I inch across a ragged rock face, using the sedimentary layers as tiny footholds. Next to me, a waterfall flows into a turquoise pool. It’s beautiful – until I slip.
My scream bounces off the walls of the gorge as I hang, the carabiners doing their job. With some kind words from Josh, I push on – mostly because when you’re tethered to a rock in an isolated national park in a remote part of Western Australia, there is no plan B.
There’s a quick camaraderie, with cheers going up as each person makes it down the 12-metre abseil to Regans Pool. From there, we scamper down a trickling waterfall, topple backwards, pack first, into our truck tyres and paddle through the last of the frigid pools.
Later, I ask Josh about fire trails. There must be a sneaky exit for those who realise they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, yes? No. He points to a lookout tower about 120 metres above and says that, on occasion, the injured are affixed to a stretcher and hoisted up on a long rope. No feigning a sprained ankle then.
Nor can I sidestep the water temperatures – around 5°C. Yet when I float down that last waterhole, I’m not thinking about the cold. I just enjoy the metallic cast of the iron-rich rock as it parts to reveal a sunny amphitheatre. I’ve made it to the Centre of the Earth, a place few will see.
And you know what was there? A death adder. “It looks like he named himself,” someone jokes. Fair point: about 50 centimetres long and dusty pink, he’s about as scary as a pork sausage. Sitting with the group, drinking honey-laced tea from a thermos, I revel in the adrenaline, forgetting, for a bit, the return journey.
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Day two: I deserve to take it slow. Slower, at least. With the promise of a “meditative” pace, I’ve joined The Flying Sandgroper’s West Karijini tour.
“We have a rule: never rush out of beauty,” says company owner Pete West. “If we find beauty, we dig in.” The WA native has done his time with a backpack, having spent 12 years travelling before starting the business. He reckons the secret to a good holiday is taking it easy. A man after my own heart.
Digging in is a fitting philosophy, given that Karijini means “meeting place” in the local Banjima language. Its shady gorges have been a place for people to kick back and chill out for about 30,000 years. Some of the pools here are sacred and visitors are urged to enter the water quietly. Aboriginal culture is ever-present in these parts.
The first stop for our party of six is Hancock Gorge, same as yesterday, but this time – to my delight – we won’t be going under the rope. Our guide, Brent, a country boy from the wheat belt in the state’s south, has been leading tours here for three years. When we reach the “sheep dip”, the first point where the gorge narrows, Brent tells us the easiest way through is in the drink. Today there are no wetsuits and no tyre tube. Chilled by the frosty desert nights, the water is as cold as any I’ve swum in.
But still, I float on my back, gazing at the cloudless sky against those mighty red cliffs, the surface of the rock worn smooth by the passage of water over millions of years. I think about something one of the women, a French backpacker, said on spotting a gnarled acacia growing from the vibrant rock: Karijini’s colours seem almost “oversaturated”.
Next up, we head to Brent’s favourite gorge, the less-explored Knox. “You’ve got to earn it, though,” he tells us. It’s a sheer drop and the loose rocks require concentration but when we reach the base 20 minutes later, I’m stunned. We’ve seen so many waterholes that it’s easy to be blasé but the way the sun filters into this particular wrinkle of the earth, making the rock appear almost purple against the jade-green pool, is an experience all its own.
We dig in, marvelling at our insignificance. Brent explains that the layers in the rock take thousands of years to form. Seeing the layers repeated over and over, some of them only centimetres high, I begin to understand what it means when the guidebooks say this landscape is more than 2500 million years old. Standing in the shade of this ancient relic, I realise that two days in Karijini is really no time at all.
The best accommodation
Karijini Eco Retreat, located inside the national park, has 35 Deluxe Eco Tents. And while it isn’t glamping (case in point: the welcome book offers advice on dealing with frogs in the toilet), the beds are comfy and the open-air shower is perfect for outback stargazing. The property also has 64 unpowered sites for tents, caravans and campervans, as well as dorm-style tents. The laid-back licensed restaurant offers a choice of hearty dishes studded with native ingredients – order the barra, served with mango salad and a lemon myrtle, rainforest lime and quandong beurre blanc. For breakfast, there’s a modest à la carte menu and a continental buffet with the usual suspects, plus espresso coffee for those who won’t walk without their caffeine kick.