A 0001 (33)The dust is thick, fine and red in Western Australia’s Pilbara; it gets into everything and covers every surface inside and outside the car. The corrugations are relentless, the accommodation unarguably expensive, the phone coverage patchy to non-existent. But the Karijini National Park, and Millstream a few hours up the road, is worth all that.

Not many people get here, but those who do talk about it in almost awestruck terms.

Australia is the oldest land mass on the planet and the creeks and rivers have taken every moment of it to carve out gorges, ravines and canyons so deep and rugged that one hesitates to venture out onto the steel lookouts. These are not places for sufferers of vertigo. And yet the sheer scale of what you’re beholding, of dizzyingly vertical rock walls plummeting into cold, crystal-clear pools, is not the most arresting point of this place. The true astonishment comes when you notice the number of people of all ages and shapes inching their way down these cliffs to swim in the pools. According to my faithful Fitbit it’s the equivalent of a 30 storey drop.

On all appearances the route they’re following is nothing short of suicidal, and yet the markers are all there guiding the intrepid to the handholds and the rocky ledges they can inch along, backs to the wall. The walks in Karijini are rated from two to five and the terrifying scramble down to Circular Pool at Dales Gorge is, to me anyway, a six. Allow at least an hour down and, horrible realisation, an hour back up retracing the downward route.

DSC_0025And yet old folk, overweight folk, folk who sit behind desks all day and lots of kids, are handling it. No one has been lost. Not yet anyway.

Circular Pool is just that, sheer walls on three sides overlooked by a steel platform at car-park level on which the more cautious gather to watch the less so picking their way down, and then diving into the cold water. Their shouts and squeals echo eerily up the walls with almost no loss of volume.

Rather more user-friendly is Fern Pool just along the road. There’s a long, long steel staircase winding down the cliff face to the generous rock pool caught between two waterfalls. This is Fortescue Falls and the water feeds the deeply etched ravine leading to Circular Pool. The trail down is rated a three and the rock face surrounding the pool is steep but naturally stepped, providing lots of opportunities for sunbaking and picnics. That there are far more swimmers here is hardly surprising, it’s so much easier to reach. Fern Pool is cold and shallow, only going above head level in one spot which becomes the daily target for legions of boys leaping off the rock ledge above it, no matter what the signs say.

DSC_0064From here you either trace along the far side of the creek to Dales Gorge or go back up the steps, but whatever route you choose involves a heavy climb back to the car – 25 floors by my Fitbit.

Joffre Falls, much further from the public camp ground and visitor centre and accessible only by another deeply corrugated road, is just as spectacular but far quieter and Knox Gorge is just up the road. It’s along here where you finally get it; the incredible quiet, the reverent tranquillity, of the bush. It feels like you’re miles from anywhere which, of course, you are.

This is the attraction of the Eco Retreat out here. An eco-tent with ensuite is $349 a night, otherwise there’s dorm accommodation, caravan and camp sites. And a million stars.

But we’ve based ourselves in the red earth mining town of Tom Price an hour away. It started in 1965 with a few huts, now the cheapest accommodation with its own bathroom is a one-room transportable cabin in the camping ground at $195 a night. But the fuel is reasonable, the facilities good and the roads sealed.

DSC_0016There’s a long way and a short way to Millstream from here. The long way is the public road, 259 km of dust and corrugations. The short way is Rio Tinto’s private road along its railway line to Karratha, cutting off at least an hour, often more depending on conditions. It’s a far better road too.

But there’s a catch. You need a permit and taking the Rio Tinto induction course at the visitor centre is the only way to get it. It’s a surprisingly engaging 20-minute video on road craft and it reveals the other catch – while driving along here you’re not insured.

But the permit is free and the road is good. We easily maintain the 80 kmh limit.

Entry to Millstream takes you past a park fees honour box (it’s the same at Karijini) and you inevitably wonder if you’re the only one feeding money in. Millstream station is a haven of solitude, a rambling old homestead with wide verandas and thick stone walls that is now an un-staffed museum. Tame wallabies and euros graze on the lawns and there are picnic tables under the ghost gums. We’re the only people here.

DSC_0116We exit by the Fortescue lookout, a high vantage over the Fortescue River and endless spinifex plains all the way to the horizon, and then drive 45 minutes to Python Pool, a short walk in along a dry riverbed revealing a pool bounded on one side by a sandy beach and on the other by a massive, towering rock wall indented with a serrated V carved out by eons of water. The bonus is the panoramic lookout halfway along the road in, with mountains so distant and country so flat you can sense the curvature of the earth.

We take the road to Karratha; the bitumen starts soon after the turnoff. And it’s then that I discover the one and only benefit of dusty, jarring corrugations; my Fitbit thinks I’ve walked 13,302 steps today.

Published February 2017


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