Adventure around the Z Bend

Daniel Scott discovers it's can-do in the canyons where the Murchison meets the sea.

I feel like Dick Dastardly in the Wacky Races cartoon, clinging to a charging, snorting rhino-like vehicle. The more I try to outrun the goggle-eyed, bandy-legged emus galloping beside the track, the more my quad bike slides in the sand, flinging red dust in my face. As the emus speed away into the riverside bush, I swear I can hear them snigger, leaving me muttering "drat, drat and double drat" into my helmet.

It's close to the end of a two-hour quad bike safari, near the West Australian seaside town of Kalbarri, when I have my Dastardly moment. For the rest of the late afternoon ride, following the lower reaches of the Murchison River, the tempo is more relaxing.

Our five-person tour begins at Murchison House Station, eight kilometres inland from Kalbarri, with a training session. "You are completely in charge of the bike," says the reassuringly maternal Ellen Nightingale, who runs the safaris with her partner, Martin Rodger. It takes about 10 minutes to stop being tentative and twice that to start relishing the dips and turns in the four-wheel-drive track.

With much to savour in the riverside scenery, we take our time. We pose for pictures at the water's edge, stop for home-made biscuits in the shade of gums at Gregory Rocks, then loop our way up to Big Red Hill. From here there are views over the river delta and Kalbarri on the coast.

The quad-bike tour is my introduction to the Murchison River, an ancient waterway that drew settlers to this part of the mid-west coast. Originating about 780 kilometres inland, near the desert town of Meekatharra, the river slices through the nearby Kalbarri plateau, carving gorges, before sweeping into the Indian Ocean here.

The Nanda Aborigines lived in this region for thousands of years and Australia's first white settlers - Dutch mutineers from the ship Batavia - were left ashore here as a punishment in 1629. Among the first to visit for recreation were thirsty Cornish lead miners, working leases in the riverbed upstream, more than 150 years ago. However, it wasn't until the 1940s that a tiny resort evolved beside the Murchison estuary, 592 kilometres north of Perth.

Although still small, with a population of about 2000, Kalbarri is now a popular destination for fishermen, boaters, surfers and families escaping Perth's summer heat. With the recent addition of the Kalbarri Edge Resort - luxury apartments in the town centre - it now has a full range of accommodation. The resort's seafood restaurant has added a touch of quality to Kalbarri's dining scene. Fresh local crayfish is on offer in most eateries.

Stretching south of Kalbarri is a succession of coastal cliffs, battered and worn by the ocean into bluffs, points, natural bridges and craggy islets. They form one section of the Kalbarri National Park. Another section, inland, encompasses the equally dramatic formations sculpted by the Murchison River.

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On my second day, I visit the two most spectacular gorges: the Loop and the Z Bend. I look through the Nature's Window rock formation to the winding river canyon below and do a fly-infested eight-kilometre walk around the rim. At the Z Bend, I take a short trail to a lookout that looks into the heart of the 150-metre-deep gorge.

The following day I head further into the 183,000-hectare national park on a kayaking tour. Just reaching the spot where the kayaks are kept is an adventure, our bus shuddering along an uncompromising track to Fourways, where we climb down into a steep-sided canyon.

Once on the Murchison River, we paddle beneath layered and banded cliffs of Tumblagooda sandstone that were formed 400 million years ago. I sit back in the kayak and let the green river carry me through the red landscape. Looking up at the rock shelves and jutting ledges, it's clear that this used to be an offshore reef.

Drifting along the Murchison River adds a final touch of serenity to three adventurous days in this unspoilt and spectacular part of the West Australian coast.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Kalbarri Edge Resort and Coral Coast Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Kalbarri is a seven-hour drive north of Perth via the coastal Indian Ocean Drive. Skippers airline operates three flights a week to Kalbarri from Perth; see skippers.com.au.

Staying and eating there

Kalbarri Edge Resort, Porter Street, has apartment-style accommodation, a restaurant and swimming pool. Edge restaurant is open daily for breakfast and dinner. Phone 1800 286 155; see kalbarriedge.com.au.

Black Rock Cafe, 80 Grey Street, is a foreshore eatery with an outdoor dining area. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 7am-late. Phone (08) 9937 1062; see blackrockcafe.com.au.

Kalbarri Motor Hotel, 365 Grey Street, serves superior pub meals. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Phone (08) 9937 1000.

Touring there

Kalbarri Quad-Bike Safaris runs one-, two- and three-hour tours from $65 a person. Drivers must be 18 and have a driver's licence. Phone (08) 9937 1011; see kalbarriquadsafaris.com.au.

Kalbarri Adventure Tours has half-day kayaking trips in the national park costing $90 adults and $70 children; see kalbarritours.com.au.

More information

See australiascoralcoast.com.

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