From Inferno to Paradiso, join us on the search for a cool oasis in the scorching Great Sandy Desert.
In the Pilbara, ‘Inferno’ is on the surface, on the parched desert sands, while ‘Paradiso’ lives underground, in the cracks of the desert, in the form of shaded gorges and cool oases.
At its most inhospitable, the terrain of the Great Sandy Desert is not of this world. It’s a landmass governed by Ergs – which are the wave-like patterns of sand and sandstone geologists refer to as a ‘sand sea’.
Out on the tracks, the path in front is a Hades of heat haze, with the periphery vision only interrupted by dystopian mining machinery, melting rubber and road trains. The rear-view mirror is nothing but an explosion of pink mist.
So what’s the point of driving the place? Well, there’s a reward, see – the gates to Paradiso! There are chasms of nuclear blue water, as cool and balming as the red desert ergs are scalding and brutal.
PART 1: “I DREAM OF KARAJINI”
By Nigel Routledge
While Karijini National Park might not be as well known as the more fancied parks in the NW tourism hive of the Kimberley, it’s easily just as impressive.
Lying smack bang in the middle of the Pilbara region, among the Hamersley Ranges, Karijini throws up more than half a dozen desert gorges to explore, each with their own spectacular array of pools, falls and other highlights.
On the eastern edge of the national park, the natural stone staircase and rock hopping required at the base of Dale’s Gorge makes the entry to Circular Pool more than inviting. The big-ticket item that awaits here is a lagoon of crystal water fed by overflowing waterfalls.
Allow time to walk along the base of the gorge leading to the natural steps of Fortescue Falls. Once ascended, the trail leads to the more secluded Fern Pool, the most picturesque swimming hole in a region full-to-bursting with picturesque waterholes.
After a couple of days driving, that first cool plunge into Fern Pool provides an instant jolting balm to a fatigued brain and banishes away the body mud created by corrugations, dirt and sweat.
Central to the park – and based largely around the Eco Retreat – is Karijini’s most challenging walk through Hancock Gorge. More than a few tourists and locals have come unstuck in this harsh, entirely Class 5 gorge.
For those prepared to get wet, the clash of outer-space colours and the cooling waters of Kermit’s Pool await. If you’re game you can even tackle the treacherous ‘spider walk’ to avoid the slippery stream below. We arrived on a quiet day, and had this hidden oasis to ourself for hours!
You can also reach Weano Gorge from the same parking area as Hancock, and it provides similar sweet leg-stretching relief from the rigormortis of ‘driving legs’. Weano offers a tranquil half-hour hit-out through the base of the canyon, before reaching a challenging path to the Handrail Pool, another intended for the more adventurous.
A little further afield, and isolated from the camping areas is the grand outdoor cathedral of Hamersley Gorge. Approximately 70kms from the Eco Retreat, the sharp descent down to the base of the gorge leads to a gaping waterhole at the bottom.
A range of other gorges are available to explore, Kalamina and Joffrey to name a couple. A minimum of two days would give enough time to see the main attractions but to truly explore this secluded wilderness, three days at least.
There are only two camping areas within the national park, being Dales Camping area near Dale Gorge, and the Karijini Eco Retreat which provides a range of options from unpowered camping to exclusive Safari tents.
Karijini might seem a long way from from anywhere, but no matter how long it takes to reach, the result will be worth it.
KARIJINI NATIONAL PARK is located just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, among the Hamersley Ranges. The park protects 630,000 hectares of land and is approximately 1000km north of Perth.
CAMPING FACILITIES are available at Dales Gorge Campground, contact the Karijini Visitors Centre for more information on (08) 9189 8121.
FORTESCUE FALLS are located at Dales Gorge and are a fantastic spot for a refreshing swim on a hot day.
FERN POOL is nearby to the Dales Gorge Campground and provides one of the prettiest backdrops in the state for a lunch break.
CIRCULAR POOL is found within Karijini National Park and is reached via a three-hour return trail from the main campground.
HANCOCK GORGE is a highlight of any visit to Karijini National Park, and should not be missed. You can visit the gorge by yourself or a part of an organised tour. A ladder leads deep into the gorge, where you can explore the narrow chambers and hidden rock pools.
OXER LOOKOUT is stunningly positioned at the junction of Karijini’s four mighty gorges..
HAMERSLEY GORGE is home to a natural spa which is a prime spot to wash away the day’s sweat and dust.
PART 2: THE DUST DEVILS OF MILLSTREAM
By Carlisle Rogers
The Pilbara sprawls across the northwest of Western Australia – an expanse of primary colours, rolling hills and wide plains dotted by plateaus.
Within this vast mining utopia there are a few places that stand out for the traveller, oases in a desert of capitalism where time moves on a scale ambivalent to human affairs.
Millstream Chichester National Park is located between Tom Price and Karratha, effectively two parks in one, housing two completely different kinds of waterholes.
The southern half of the park, the Millstream end, is dominated by gum trees and steep hills, bisected by the mighty Fortescue River. There are several campgrounds here affording bucolic, quiet camping amid the green thickets watered by the river.
At Deep Reach Pool there are wide, shaded picnic grounds and the river here is broad, about 200m across. A set of stairs leads through reeds into the permanent waterhole.
Further into the park you can explore the decent ruins of the Millstream homestead. There is a visitor centre here with quite a bit of information about the history of white settlers and the aboriginals that were here before them.
The track, called Snappy Gum Drive, winds through steep termite-mound covered hills, crossing the Fortescue via a broad cement causeway and continuing around back out to the main road.
The other half of the park, the Chichester half, is located about 35km further north. Compared to the Millstream section, the country here is beautiful and sparse, the endless rolling plains of the Pilbara imagination, broken abruptly by Python Pool.
Ringed by organ pipe black stones stretching up to the sky, Python Pool is a deep swimming hole with a dry waterfall cutting into the vertical precipice surrounding it on three sides.
You can climb up and jump back into the pool from the rocks, but when I was there I heard a harrowing story of someone who decided to jump in from the top, no doubt fueled by beer and Kodak courage, and broke his back. That not being a mistake I was willing to repeat, I kept my leaps fairly tame.
What separates Python Pool from the myriad swimming holes of Karijini is its relative distance to just about anything else. It is a true oasis in the middle of the Pilbara desert, a hidden sandy beach overlooking a towering wall of stone – you don’t see this every day back home, or anywhere else for that matter.
MILLSTREAM CHICHESTER NATIONAL PARK is 1200km north of Perth and 200km north of Karijini National Park. The park protects the old Millstream station on Millstream Creek and the Chichester Range.
DEEP REACH is a deep pool on the Fortescue River. It is a sacred place to the local Yindjibarndi people and is also respected by neighbouring clans.
MILLSTREAM HOMESTEAD provides a visitor centre service which is open daily. The homestead is not staffed fulltime but is patrolled and maintained by National Parks rangers.
CAMPING AREAS at Millstream include the Milliyanha and Stargazers Campgrounds. Both campgrounds provide barbeque facilities but open fires are not allowed. No online booking is available for either campground.
THE PYTHON POOL is located within the Chichester Range and is a 50km drive from the Millstream camping areas. No camping is available at Python Pool.