Exploring the Pilbara – Part 3

If you missed the start of our Pilbara adventure, you can catch up here. It all started on the WA coastline, just shy of Exmouth at the Cape Range National Park, one of the most accessible spots to explore the Ningaloo Reef just offshore. From there we climbed the steep Chichester ranges into the Pilbara heartland, camping at the peaceful Millstream Chichester National Park, to explore the surrounding area.

Gorges ripped into the landscape

In this issue, our journey continues to the Karijini National Park, arguably the jewel in the Pilbara crown. It has a tapestry of red gorges ripped into the landscape, natural swimming holes and waterfalls, said to be some of the oldest rock formations on earth. Sealed road access is available from every direction ensuring high popularity, a culture shock from our previous isolation.

Walking to the Gorge Rim lookout

Within the national park, the main points of interest are the sights within the Dales and Weano recreation areas, including gorges, pools, lookouts and waterfalls. Dales is the easiest to access courtesy of sealed roads. The walking trails are more representative of hiking, with few clear trails and many requiring navigating your way through boulder strewn river beds. The gorge rim provides a bird’s eye view of everything below including the swimming holes, gorge floor and the Fortescue Falls. Steep steps lead to Fortescue Falls, then a short walk to Fern Pool, revealing a delightful swimming hole and other small falls.

The beautiful swimming hole at Fern Pool

Back at the Fortescue Falls, a trail follows the gorge floor following small markers. Hug the left-hand side rock wall before carefully crossing the slippery rocks in the creek. Circular Pool at the far end of the gorge is protected by sun for most of the day making it icy cold. Still, it makes for a refreshing dip after the hike, prior to your return trip. As an alternative to backtracking to the starting point, climb the vertical goat track to the Three Ways Lookout. While the path is steep, it saves a big return walk with some amazing views of the gorge along the way.

Hiking along the gorge floor towards Circular Pool

There are segregated generator and non-generator camping areas at Dales, to spare those looking for peace from the constant motorized hum. The camps are organized into loops with central facilities, with many sites benefiting from mature tree shade cover.

In contrast, Weano’s Recreation area is accessed via the unsealed section of Banjima Drive, past the Visitors Centre. The road can be severely corrugated, making it an arduous 80km return trip, so make sure you drop tyre pressures to suit. The gorges and walks are more adventurous than Dales, including abseiling and rock-climbing stages. Weano Gorge is the easiest of the walks with steps leading down to the basin and a short walk along the gorge. The signage could be clearer.

Late in the day with limited other foot traffic, I found myself off the path a couple of times, backtracking to the last known marker to reassess the route. Hancock Gorge throws down the gauntlet with a super steep descent into the gorge, followed by an even steeper ladder, wading through waist deep chilly water to bring you to Spider Walk. With the rock walls so close, the only way forward is to brace your arms and legs outstretched against each side of the gorge. Shuffling forward, you eventually reach Kermit’s Pool, a swimming hole completely enclosed by towering rock walls.

Circular Pool

An alternative camping site is conveniently located at the Karijini Eco Retreat, just off Weano Road near the gorges. Flushing toilets, hot showers, camp kitchen, restaurant, bar and kiosk cater to all needs. Shade is at a premium and the sites are very open, more so than Dales.

Just a bit higher please

The Visitor Centre is worth a look with plenty of information on the park including the geology, history, flora, fauna, art displays, tour bookings and general points of interest. Then there’s a cultural display by the traditional owners to welcome visitors to the park. The toilet blocks here have a single shower in both the ladies and gents’ toilets, available for a small fee, payable in the Visitors Centre. The water runs warm for a few minutes, so make the most of it. The toilets are open during the hours of the Centre.

Beyond the national park, north of Newman via Nullagine, an old gold mining district, Skull Springs Road provides passage into Carawine Gorge via the back way. The road eventually regresses to track status after the first 40km, limiting passing traffic to an occasional vehicle, leaving you to admire the landscape alone. Camels inhabit the area, so keep your eyes peeled. The track can be subject to closure so check with Main Roads before travelling.

Camels near Carawine Gorge

Carawine Gorge on the Oakover River is accessed by a dirt track 14km off the Ripon Hills Road, around 100km east of Marble Bar. At the time of travel, the area was looking a little bare, following a cyclone some years ago, which flattened much of the surrounding tree-scape. Take a right turn at the old fuel drum and follow the wheel tracks down to the popular grassed area along the gorge. There are a couple of lovely shaded camp sites along this section suitable for tents, a few swags or small camper trailers, with views to the gorge and the pretty waterway. Otherwise plough through the sea of gravel and river rock, to find a spot to suit along the gorge. We trekked our way to the end of the gorge and set up camp, backing up to an escarpment with the place to ourselves, so it was another evening of sheer serenity.

Our camping spot all alone at Carawine Gorge

The next day we continued our trek north to Marble Bar, Australia’s hottest town. The highlight is the fresh water pools featuring the beautiful jasper quartz, which comes to life when wet, magnifying its rich colours.

Jasper Quartz
Jasper Quartz

Opting for another back-road shortcut, we meandered along the Muccan Shay Gap Road towards the Eight Mile Beach. The road is subject to closure without notice, so check with the local shire or ring the number posted at the start of the track. Keep an eye out for road trains servicing the mines along this route, as they throw up a massive dust cloud with potential for rock damage from flying stones. Get well clear of the road if you see them coming.

Anyone need a pea? Sturt’s Desert Pea in flower

The last leg of this journey through the Shay Gap and onto the Boreline Road, traverses a sandy track that for most parts is smooth travelling, lobbing you onto the Great Northern Highway about 50km south of the Eighty Mile Beach caravan park. The tide goes out a long way in these parts imparting a long walk to reach the water’s edge, but the beaches are beautiful and worth the effort. As the sun set, we marvelled at our Pilbara adventure and everything we had experienced. From relaxing in the clear, turquoise waters along the coastline; to the peace and tranquility of Millstream; the rugged ranges of Karijini; and the isolation of Carawine Gorge. You’d be flat out packaging an off-road adventure with such a diverse bunch of destinations, but it’s there for the taking in the Pilbara.

Our Pilbara adventure!

References & Downloads

Cape Range National Park

Ningaloo Coast Visitors Guide

Millstream Chichester National Park Visitor Guide

Karijini National Park Visitors Guide