Outback underworld

Plunging gorges, hidden waterholes and the deep-blue Pilbara sky lure Daniel Scott back to Karijini National Park.

KARIJINI is one of the oldest landscapes on the planet. If the Earth's history were condensed into a 24-hour clock, with midnight representing the beginning of time 4.5 billion years ago, then some rock here was making its appearance, as sediment laid down on a primordial seabed, about mid-morning. It wasn't until 11pm that dinosaurs arrived and as for we human gatecrashers, we turned up only in the day's dying seconds.

When I first visited this 627,000-hectare national park at the heart of Western Australia's Pilbara region in 2007, it left me awed and humbled. At Hancock Gorge, where I found myself surrounded by 2½-billion-year-old banded iron formations, I felt closer to the soul of the planet than I'd ever been.

Of all the 200 Australian national parks I had so far visited, Karijini, with its ancient chasms cleaved out of the Hamersley Range, left the most indelible impression on me.

It's now three years later and I'm back, the visit forming the core of a 4000-kilometre road trip from Broome to Perth. Reaching the remote park has been a huge adventure. Travelling by four-wheel-drive campervan with my mate Greg, a part-Aboriginal Sydneysider, we've journeyed for a week along the unspoilt Pilbara coast before cutting inland at Karratha.

On the way south we spent two days exploring another spellbinding national park, Millstream-Chichester, an oasis of winding waterways in the seared red desert. Then we followed the dirt access road, which runs alongside the rail line linking the Pilbara mines with giant export tankers off the coast. We passed train after two-kilometre-long train, laden with iron ore, chugging north; they are a reminder that minerals extracted from this ancient landscape have helped Australia stay afloat during the global recession.

Industry is forgotten the moment we arrive at Karijini. We enter the park through the north-west and head first to Hamersley Gorge, one canyon I'd not visited before.

Hamersley is a gaping, multi-hued fissure dropping down from the surrounding plateau in a series of shallow waterfalls and olive-green pools. As we descend into it, the layers in the rock walls become apparent, like lines of wisdom in an old person's face. Some layers look as crimson and raw as freshly butchered wagyu beef. Others are almost blue.

Below the rock walls the waterholes are irresistible. We wade in and float on our backs looking up at jutting overhangs and a deep-blue Pilbara sky. Then, finding a natural spa hollowed out of rock at its far end, we climb in and let its cool, clear water swirl around us.

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In an instant, I remember why Karijini is one of my favourite places, as spectacular as the Kimberley and Kakadu but with a tiny fraction of the crowds. Here at Hamersley, we are among a handful of visitors.

For Greg, on his first visit to Karijini, the easily accessible Hamersley provides a perfect introduction to the park's plunging gorges. But I want to show him Hancock Gorge and its 2½-billion-year-old rock; for that, we'll have to work harder.

We drive along the park's western edge and then, in the shadow of Mount Bruce, Western Australia's second-highest peak, turn along Banjima Road, Karijini's main dirt road. It's late afternoon when we arrive at Weano Day Use Area, close to the junction of several steep-sided gorges twisting through the landscape.

At Oxer Lookout, we peer down 100-metre cliffs to where three gorges meet in a shadowy underworld. Then we begin our descent into Hancock Gorge, at first along roughly hewn steps and then by climbing down a metal ladder bolted to the rock wall. Next, we pick our way along the stony ravine floor until we come to a chest-deep pool we have to wade and swim through.

The gorge is narrowing and now, at Spider Walk, we squeeze between grey-blue rock walls less than a metre apart. Finally, we reach an echoing water-filled chamber. We drop down into it and rest on a smooth ledge.

"It's like being at the centre of the Earth," Greg half-whispers, not wanting to disturb the hush, "like this is where it all began."

Then, out of nowhere, we hear female voices. Sirens of the underworld, we wonder?

But no, just then a blue- helmeted brunette bobs into view further down the chamber, offering a breathy and very English "Hello there". Two more female Britpackers follow, adorned with ropes and metal buckles and accompanied by an abseiling guide, Dan.

We bump into Dan and the sprites again that evening at the nearby Karijini Eco Retreat. This Aboriginal-owned retreat has 50 deluxe eco-tents, a campground and a well-stocked bar and restaurant. For the next two nights, we swap our dust-soaked campervan for a tent with solar-heated shower.

When we meet the retreat's manager Fiona Gordon, she is wrangling a snake from the communal showers, but later she joins us for dinner, demure as cut glass. She's the sort of outback character the Karijini attracts.

"The remoteness is challenging," Gordon admits of the location, 1600 kilometres north of Perth. "But its beauty gets under your skin."

The next day, Gordon shows us some of her backyard. We begin at intimate Kalamina Gorge, where the ochre walls and an explosion of greenery are amplified in indigo-coloured pools. At one end, a waterfall flows softly over flat rock steps, a monitor lizard basks in the shade and brilliant red dragonflies flit about.

We stop next at the Karijini Visitor Centre where an exhibition and local Aboriginal staff help us understand Karijini's creation stories. At a time when the ground was soft, we learn, serpent spirits travelled across the land, giving it shape and form, making the mountains, rivers and gorges. Those spirits now dwell in pools throughout Karijini.

Two important waterholes are deep inside Dales Gorge, a long, broad gash in the landscape on the park's eastern side. When we arrive at the first of them, Fern Pool, hidden behind a veil of trees above dramatic Fortescue Falls, the spirit is palpable.

After offering a just-learnt indigenous sign that we are only passing, blowing water through cupped hands, we slip quietly into the profound green pool.

We spend several hours at Dales, following a two-kilometre trail along the canyon floor to Circular Pool, another spiritually significant place set beneath sheer cliffs.

The trail weaves beside a sedge-fringed creek that collects in shallow, sunken gardens before sweeping on over broad rock steps. Along the gorge walls the rock rises up in irregular crenulations, outcrops and occasional chunky terraces.

Some rock stacks adjacent to the trail look like carefully chiselled, perfectly positioned sculptures. Other vertical slabs lean haphazardly against rounded boulders. It's all nature's work. Karijini's gorges were created when a drop in sea level, millions of years ago, caused rivers to slice down through compressed, uplifted rock. They've been further defined by erosion and weathering.

Back at the Eco Retreat, we toast another fiery Karijini sunset and discuss how insignificant the magnificent landscape makes us feel. Somehow material struggles and other anxieties and, for me, even the recent death of my brother, are put into context by this incomprehensibly old part of Australia. We all feel connected to Karijini too, especially Greg.

That night the moon rises so full and bright that we can find our way into Joffre Gorge, just at the back of the retreat. We clamber down its sloped sides to a pool and continue on to a moonlit natural amphitheatre.

It's a balmy night so we sit down inside it and for a few hours barely move. The only noise is the trickle of a waterfall down the gorge's far wall. It's hard to discern how quickly time passes. But, at some point, I fall asleep.

When I stir the sky has turned milky-grey and the first glimmers of sunrise are beginning to appear above the gorge rim.

The Karijini is awakening to another day and from where we sit, inside this ancient gorge, it feels like being at the dawn of time.

The writer was a guest of Karijini Eco Retreat and travelled with assistance from North-West Tourism and Kea campervans.

WITH THE KIDS

KARIJINI is not the easiest place to reach, so it's best for families with good travellers. Once you're there, though, it's a giant adventure playground.

For families with kids under 10, Eco Retreat general manager Fiona Gordon suggests visiting "the easily accessible Kalamina and Weano gorges and Fern Pool in Dales Gorge".

For older kids, narrow gorges such as Hancock present a fun challenge.

For the ultimate Karijini buzz, sign up the family for an abseiling trip with West Oz Active Adventure Tours. westozactive.com.au

Trip notes

Getting there

The nearest major town to Karijini is Karratha, 397 kilometres north. Qantas flies to Karratha from Sydney and to Paraburdoo, 100 kilometres from Karijini, from Perth.

The best way to see Karijini is on a road trip. The park lies at the heart of the Warlu Way, a 2500-kilometre drive, inspired by Aboriginal legend, linking the north-western towns of Exmouth and Broome. See: warluway.com.au.

Kea hire four-wheel-drive "pop-top" campervans from $1365 a week. www.keacampers.com.au.

Staying there

Karijini Eco Retreat has deluxe tents from $259 a night; camp sites from $29. karijiniecoretreat.com.au.

You can also camp at Dales Gorge.

See + do

Apart from Hamersley, all gorges are within an hour's drive of the retreat.

At Weano Day Use Area, 14 kilometres from the eco retreat, you can explore Hancock Gorge and access Handrail Pool, an enclosed swimming hole, in Weano Gorge.

Lestok Tours offers Karijini day-tours for $145, with pick-up at the Eco Retreat. lestoktours.com.au/karijinipark.html.

Further information

Milyering Visitor Centre, Karijini National Park. (08) 9189 8121. australiasnorthwest.com

The best time to visit is between April and October.

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