Way of the sea serpent

Daniel Scott is moved by the power of nature as he navigates the 2500-kilometre Warlu Way linking Broome and Exmouth.

It is just after dawn when we lower our kayaks into the still water of Crossing Pool - or Murlamunyjunha, its more musical indigenous name - in the Millstream-Chichester National Park. The morning mist, which the Yindjibarndi people believe is smoke from the spirits' campfires, is already dissipating. As we push off, the kayaks slice through a liquid rendering of the paperbark-lined banks, the treetops turned bronze by the Pilbara sunrise.

On the water, we are the only things moving, stealing away before even the corellas have stirred. Upon our arrival at the campground a day earlier, mobs of the white-plumed bird - the Yindjibarndi's totem - had hung like welcoming Christmas lights in the waterside trees. When we shut the campervan doors they blasted skyward in screeching clouds.

Now the only sound is the sluice and trickle of the olive-green pool around the kayak bows. With a few digs of his paddle Greg forges ahead. I've known the part-Aboriginal Sydney barrister for 17 years but this road journey is our first "big" trip together.

This morning marks the mid-point of our 2500-kilometre drive following the Warlu Way, which links the north-western towns of Broome and Exmouth. The route is inspired by the indigenous legend of the sea serpent, or warlu, which emerged from the ocean and crossed this arid land creating waterways as it moved. Where we are paddling is close to the place, at Nhanggangunha (Deep Reach Pool), where that spirit serpent is believed to live. This makes it one of Western Australia's most significant indigenous cultural sites.

It takes 20 minutes to reach the far end of Crossing Pool and, in that time, I've come the closest an agnostic can to a religious experience. The natural beauty, the palpable spirit in the surroundings and the tranquillity of dawn have combined to have more effect on me than any of Europe's great cathedrals. As we reach the foot of some red cliffs rising above the pool, I lie back, close my eyes and let the kayak drift.

Thwack! I collide with the reedy bank, drop my paddle and disturb a tableau of blue-black cormorants. They shake their long necks disapprovingly and raise their wings, ready for an exodus. "Congratulations, mate," Greg says sardonically, "you just broke the spell."

Since our departure from Broome a week ago, moments of serious awe have been leavened by levity, usually at my expense. It's how this odd couple, who have both left families behind on the east coast, coexist in a rented four-wheel-drive campervan.

Our "pop-top" includes a metho stove, a sink with running water, fridge and two double beds. As an optional extra we're carrying camping chairs and a collapsible table. With two 90-litre diesel tanks and an airconditioned front cabin, the vehicle is well-equipped for long distances.

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Heading out of Broome along the Great Northern Highway, we move quickly through the gears and don't change down again for 260 kilometres. For that distance the highway travels through the north-west's version of the Nullarbor, a vast coastal flatland that we christen "the plains of nothingness". But just as a blood-red sunset disappears to our right, it suddenly becomes the plains of somethingness, as a big brown cow stumbles into our path. We brake and swerve, missing it by a wet nose. But it's an early warning about the hazards of outback driving.

An hour later we arrive at Eighty Mile Beach Caravan Park, which had an even closer brush with disaster when Cyclone Laurence hit in December. "One amenity block was ripped up," supervisor Pete Morris recalls, "and hurled five kilometres."

The coast is the not only part of this remote region to experience extreme weather. On our second day, we cut inland to Marble Bar, a gold- and jasper-mining settlement dubbed "the hottest town in Australia". For 161 consecutive days in 1923-1924, the temperature here didn't drop below 37.8 degrees. When we arrive about lunchtime, it is a degree higher than that. So we take refuge in the historic Ironclad Hotel. The only other patron is pub cleaner "Bung" Western, 75, who looks glued to his bar stool.

While Cyclone Laurence went on to deliver a deluge to Australia's interior and southern states, the eastern Pilbara had an unusually dry "wet" season this year. It's so hot and dusty that we're tempted to retreat to the coast. However, after travelling just 40 kilometres north of Marble Bar we turn off to visit Doolena Gorge and like it so much that we stay.

It is one of the trip's most memorable evenings. It begins with a long walk, during which we discover bat-filled caves; continues with a sunset that ignites the gorge walls; and ends with a campfire dinner. It's not until we've been on the road for an hour the next morning that we see another person.

For the next four days we weave along the Pilbara coastline, giving the industrial towns of Port Hedland and Karratha a wide berth. It's iron ore, gas and oil that dominate the region now but at the end of the 19th century, as evidenced by the neighbouring historic towns of Roebourne and Cossack, this area was the domain of goldminers, pearlers and pastoralists. To say they treated local Aborigines badly is an understatement. Museums in Cossack's courthouse and at the old Roebourne jail relate tales of men, women and children being forced to free-dive for pearls and display sickening photographs of indigenous prisoners in metal neck-chains.

Our exploration of this remote coastline, with its archipelagos and jutting peninsulas, begins at Point Samson, a sublimely located seaside town. We stay overnight at the spotless Cove Caravan Park, have lunch on the veranda of the Point Samson Beach Tavern, cook fresh scampi tails for dinner and swim at Honeymoon Cove.

Later that morning we leave the mainland for West Moore Island, a former pearling station that is the Pilbara's newest all-inclusive retreat. We have the low-lying sand island to ourselves. Over 24 hours, we visit neighbouring Depuch Island, which emerges eerily, like Uluru, out of the turquoise sea; go snorkelling in shallow rock pools exposed by retreating five-metre tides; eat oysters off the rocks; and watch the sunset and sunrise reverberate across the Indian Ocean.

Back on the mainland we find our way to one of Australia's most prolific Aboriginal art sites, Deep Gorge, on the Burrup Peninsula, just north of Karratha. There are more than 10,000 petroglyphs on red boulders, some depicting thylacines, extinct here for 4000 years. We have to tread carefully to avoid stepping on images of emus, turtles and human figures etched into the rocks.

If this extraordinary gallery represents the Pilbara's distant past, its present is symbolised by the Karratha gas plant, sprawling like a giant, fuming space-station nearby. That evening the glow from the plant, part of the North West Shelf Venture, which produces more than 40 per cent of Australia's oil and gas, forms the background as we barbecue dinner at Hearsons Cove, overlooked by the rock engravings.

The next morning we follow the Warlu Way inland again, towards its spiritual heart in Millstream-Chichester National Park. The landscape becomes reminiscent of Arizona, with the Chichester Range protruding out of the coastal plain in cone-shaped hills and ochre mesas.

We spend the next two days exploring the 200,000-hectare national park. Much of it is a desert oasis, with deep waterways, such as Crossing Pool, winding through it, fed by an underground aquifer. Other sections, as we see when we take the coiling road up to Mount Herbert in the park's north, are characterised by spinifex-covered hills and spectacular oblong-shaped escarpments.

The Yindjibarndi roamed this area before the Pyramids were built but it wasn't until 1861 that it was discovered by British explorer Francis Gregory, who recommended it for grazing. At its peak, Millstream Station covered 400,000 hectares and ran 55,000 sheep. The station homestead is now the visitor centre and is linked to Crossing Pool by the 6.8-kilometre Murlamunyjunha Trail, which threads between red gums, white tea trees and palms.

From one special national park we journey on to another, Karijini, 150 kilometres further south. We start at Hamersley Gorge, in the park's north-west. It is a broad, boldly coloured fissure dropping down from the plateau in a succession of shallow falls and blue-green pools. Waves of rock, ranging in hue from purple through ruby to terracotta, run through the gorge walls. After a short climb, we find a grotto, hollowed out of an overhang. Brimming with cool, fresh water, it's an ideal spot to spend the hottest part of the day.

Later, we peer down into an even more profound split in the earth at Oxer Lookout, where three ravines meet, before descending deep into Hancock Gorge, a lean, water-filled chasm with 100-metre walls.

On a previous visit I'd stayed in the campground at the newly opened, Aboriginal-owned Karijini Eco Retreat and eyed its safari-style tents. This time, after eight dusty days on the road, we are happily booked into one.

Over the next two nights, we take full advantage of our solar-heated en suite shower and the retreat's restaurant - minor miracles in a place so isolated.

The retreat is managed by Fiona Gordon, who recalls earlier female outback pioneers such as Jeannie Gunn and whose job description includes fighting bushfires and removing venomous snakes from toilets. On our second day Gordon shows us around her backyard. She takes us first to the intimate, lemon-scented Kalamina Gorge, then leads us on a four-kilometre creek-side walk in Dales Gorge. The trek skirts fern-fringed cascades, passes multi-layered primordial rock and is bookended by swimming holes. Like the pools at Millstream, Karijini's gorges resonate with a compelling lifeforce.

You can follow this route, linking Exmouth to Broome, in either direction but the two national parks are inevitably central to the journey.

For us, the end of the Warlu Way is just a 650-kilometre drive away. We cover it fast, stopping only once between Karijini and Exmouth, at the middle-of-nowhere Nanutarra Roadhouse.

Arriving at Exmouth is like ghosting back into modern civilisation from the ancient past, especially when we step inside our plush two-bedroom apartment at the Novotel Ningaloo Resort. We hardly know what to do with all the space.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Kea, Tourism Western Australia and North-West Tourism and hosted accommodation throughout.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop once a week to Broome from Melbourne (4hr 35min) for about $327 while Sydney passengers pay about $336 and fly via Melbourne. Qantas flies via Perth daily from both cities. Virgin Blue flies with a change of aircraft in Perth for $339 one way from Melbourne and $349 from Sydney, including tax.

Touring there

"Pop-top" 4WD campervans from Kea cost from $1365 a week. On this route, pick-up from Broome attracts a remote location fee and vehicles need to be dropped off in Perth, 1200 kilometres south of Exmouth, with an additional $350 payable for a one-way hire; see www.keacampers.com.au.

For information on the Warlu Way, see www.warluway.com.au. Dampier archipelago day cruises, see www.discoverysailingadventures.com.au.

Staying there

Eighty Mile Beach Caravan Park has powered sites from $33 a night; see www.eightymilebeach.com.au.

Powered sites at Cove Caravan Park, Point Samson, cost from $37 a night; see www.thecovecaravanpark.com.au.

West Moore Island is $300 a person a night in motel-style rooms, including transfers from Karratha airport/Point Samson and all activities, meals and evening beer and wine; phone 08 9184 5145, see www.westmooreisland.com.au.

Karijini Eco Retreat has deluxe ensuite eco tents from $259 a night; phone (08) 9425 5591, see www.karijiniecoretreat.com.au.

Novotel Ningaloo Resort, Exmouth, has a swimming pool, restaurant and various accommodation options, including ocean-view apartments, from $295 a night; see www.novotelningaloo.com.au.

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