(As a premise to this post, if you’re planning on doing a road trip out in the Australian bush, please make sure you do get a big spare fuel can. With hindsight it’s funny for my sister and I to joke about how we never bothered to get one, but the Australian outback can be very hostile and we were in the well travelled, relatively populated part. If you get stuck out of signal and in the middle of nowhere it can be really dangerous, especially as you get further North, so make sure you always have spare fuel and plenty of water, just in case.)
Our extended stay in Exmouth determined the turning point back South on our road trip. We had just enough time for a day in Karajini but there wasn’t any hope left of making it to Broome. Not that we minded; a week of diving trumps another beautiful beach in another dusty coastal town any day. A month to get to Broome and back at our easily distracted pace was always going to be a struggle anyway.
From my last post I may have made it sound like there’s nothing to do in Exmouth if you don’t dive – far from the truth; we filled two dive free days there easily. A nondescript tourist hut in the middle of an industrial carpark as you enter the town, is packed with ideas if you’re stuck for things to do. We signed up for a sunset whale watching tour ($79 with Ocean Eco Adventures) on our first night; a blithe attempt to overcome my sickening fear of whales.
At first I hated peaking over the side of the boat and seeing the barnacled backs and rutted fins of the humpbacks which were constantly surfacing around us. We’d only been out of the docks 4 minutes before we had our first sighting! The crew knew all there is to know about humpbacks and came up with hundreds of facts and tales to make the monsters seem slightly less monstrous. Placated somewhat by the drowsy effects of a food baby from the exquisite banquet of cheese and crackers, humus, sushi and fresh Exmouth prawns (we gorged after two weeks of super noodles and tinned tuna), I had come around to watching the vast beasts playing around by the end of our two-hour tour. To my eye, no whale will ever be beautiful and god forbid I ever end up in the water with one, but I’m on my way to tolerating the sight of them at least!
Shot Hole Canyon – Cape Range National Park
Inland, we roamed the Cape Range National Park in Pea, our 4×4 ($46 for a 4 week ‘Holiday Pass’ for all WA National Parks), hoping to finally pick up some of the red dust on her white body and gain the authentic, dirty road tripper look! On the road into Exmouth from our desolate free campsite, ‘Termite Nests’ was a turn off for Shot Hole Canyon, rambling into the ‘mountain’ range East of us (They’re no more than big hills, none break the cloud line, but Aussies like to think they’re mountains for lack of anything more impressive). Shuttling to and from diving, we hadn’t been sure whether a tank of petrol would be enough to get us out to the canyon and back (Sweet Pea had a tiny tank and stupidly we only had a tiny spare jerry) but risked it anyway one morning. Clutch slipping, Pea struggled up some of the insanely steep sections of road whilst we bit our nails passing precariously close to canyons dropping vertically either side of the narrow tarmac. Bitchumin disintegrated to gravel, to compact red dirt until finally, we reached a summit of rock and dirt, the start of the canyon walk.
Laden with water (Cape Range is incredibly exposed with almost no shade) we set off on the 6km return trail to the canyon. The truest Australian bush we’d experienced thus far, it actually it felt like what I imagine the African Savannah to be like; land stretching endlessly to a curved horizon, tall scratchy grasses rasping our legs and scrubby trees with greying, skinny gnarled bark struggling to thrive on the red dirt and gravelly land. And empty, lonely; occasional remote bird calls with nothing to echo off. No whisper of padding paws, or rustles as grass stems parted, no hum of distant human chatter. Just the silent roll of the land towards the curve of the horizon. Dirt turned to solid rock which became fractured and unstable towards the canyon edges. Their slopes begin gradually but pick up gradient fast so you can’t get too close to the edge without risk of dislodging rocks and falling probably to your death.
Shot Hole Canyon is incredible, though from a distance the land plummets suddenly from the flat plane of rock as if a sink hole, hundreds of meters deep, had opened up and swallowed. One piece of the mountains jigsaw misplaced, leaving a gaping scar. Streaked with reds and sandy beiges, flecked with the green of vegetation, some of the vast overhangs left by rockslides didn’t look gravitationally possible. I wouldn’t like to test them! Far below, a golden ribbon indicated the road through the belly of the canyon, eroded raw since the Second World War began the urbanisation of Exmouth.
If we’d continued over the hill we’d have got to Turquoise Bay and other apparently sublime snorkelling sites accessible only by 4WD. But our ever low petrol gauge had other ideas so we headed back the way we’d come, rolling in neutral all the way back to the main road, taking some hair raising corners rather too fast.
The Vlamingh Head Lighthouse
Equally far out of Exmouth, but to the North, is Vlamingh Lighthouse built after the SS Mildura wrecked itself on the turbulent Exmouth shores. The cattle vessel is visible rusting in the ocean below. A now non-operational lighthouse, this used to be one of the loneliest places in the world for the original occupants, at least until the town of Exmouth was fully established during the war. Miles from anywhere, supplies had to be brought here overland by camel. No other human settlement was reasonably reachable from the two huts inhabited by the two resident lighthouse keepers. From its perch atop the Exmouth headland the sweeping view really does give you an idea of the desolation the inhabitants must have felt. Luckily we had beautiful blue skies and a tranquil ocean at our feet, but the threat of a storm would easily transform awe at the beauty into terror.
The Road to Karijini
No less isolated, Karijini is an eight hour drive from Exmouth ( according to Wikicamps) with only one petrol station en route, Nannutarra Roadhouse, where we dually filled Pea up. With five hours still to go before the Eco Retreat where we would camp and no petrol stations until we joined back onto the Great Northern Highway, we were fairly apprehensive as we left Nannutarra.
Four hours later our tank was grumbling on empty. The bitchumen road had become unsealed, ready to guzzle even more fuel, not to mention the discomfort of a journey vibrating on dirt rutted by heavy mining vehicles and road trains. We had a choice; carry on along the unsealed road that the sat-nav told us was the quickest way to Karijini, or take the sealed road to our left, signposted Tom Price. The bitchumen could have returned after a few kilometres but we had no way to tell and not enough fuel for turning back if it didn’t. Hours away from the last bar of phone signal, Google couldn’t tell us what was past Tom Price and the dysfunctional sat-nav was no help either.
So far, many signposts in the middle of nowhere had heralded nothing but empty, flat planes, maybe a dry lake or barely identifiable tracks into the distance to possible homesteads; the fact Tom Price was signposted did not mean we would necessarily find any hope there. Having passed no-one on the roads in maybe 2 hours, we chose to be optimistic and pushed Pea on towards Tom Price, the fuel gauge creeping past empty.
A huge mine was soon visible in the mountains rising around us, but experience told this didn’t always mean public fuel stops. A brown cloud was flowing menacingly down from the summit of the mine towards us. It was bizarre but we didn’t stop to find out what it was. Forcefully cheerful, Livi and I sang along to Sticky Fingers (our go-to in emergencies ever since Gold Snafu got us through bed bugs back in Vietnam) refusing to dwell on the possibility of nothing existing at Tom Price.
Praise the road-tripping Lord, a shell sign peaked into view and we were saved! We filled up and bought a packet of extortionate Tim Tams to celebrate with, along side a camp-heater-luke-warm cup of Yorkshire tea. Reluctant was an understatement to describe how we felt about leaving Tom Price, but it was getting well past mid-day and we wanted to explore some of Karijini before the sunset; our Exmouth escapades forcing our time schedule onwards.
Karijini Eco Retreat and Joffre Gorge
The Karijini Eco Retreat was only 45 minutes further on. We parked up in our unpowered site for $20 each, which is extortionate for an unpowered, un-shaded site. However, fines for camping illegally in a National Park are tear-inducing so we coughed up. Sun cream slathered on, we headed for Joffre Gorge, a five minute walk then a steep clamber from the reception building.
Evening already taking hold, the sun was resting half way up the gorge sides and the water had lost any of the day’s heat. We took a dip regardless, fast growing used to the cold. Paddling upstream, through a low flying cloud of mozzies, Livi and I found the narrow, deep stream of water opened into a giant, shallow, softly sculpted bowl with a gravel island in the centre. Probably, this is flooded over in wetter seasons. As you explore the landscapes of Karijini you’ll discover most of the gorges have beautiful secret features if you follow their streams onwards from the main tourist pools.
Ingenuity is crucial in filling your evenings road tripping; once the sun goes down you have no light unless you want to run your car battery down (in the middle of nowhere… no thanks) or you’ve remembered camp lights and want to attract colossal bush bugs (absolutely not). Livi and I opted for just shifting our sleeping patterns, going to sleep with the sundown and getting up with the first light. But the Eco Retreat actually had a bar and plentiful light so we made a night of it, getting tipsy on Bee’s Knee’s and several G&T’s bought by two guys travelling up to work on the mine. The four of us had a raucous night courtesy of the Rio Tinto mining company well after everyone else had left the restaurant.
Eventually the long suffering waiter directed us to a disused yoga tent with no roof where we could stargaze and leave him in peace. The Eco Retreat is vast and sparse so we ended up stumbling drunk through the bush for half an hour before we found the tent. Probably not the best idea in a country where everything seems to want to kill you, but hey, what doesn’t kill you…! The stars out in the wilderness of WA are indescribable. I never knew there were so many crowded in the sky, plentiful to the point it’s hard to make out even well known constellations! The beauty was sobering and without an alcohol jacket the desert chill got to us and we returned to Pea after several shooting stars had graced our night.
Handrail Pool and Kermit’s Pool
Exploring Handrail and Kermit Pools were the order for our second day. Find them down the appallingly rutted Weano Road, which almost shook poor old Pea to pieces even at just 15kmph!
Parking up in the Weano Day Area, you can walk to both pools along beautiful, relatively easy hikes through the oasis of the deep gorges. Once you clamber down into the belly of the gorges you’re shaded from the worst of the sun which is punishing on the land above. It’s best to go down with as minimal baggage and a waterproof camera. Some sections are entirely filled with water and it can be difficult to traverse the steep sides if you want to keep dry. I went laden with my very non-waterproof camera and no lunch which was a regret. We arrived at Kermit’s pool early in the day and could happily have lounged on the smooth rocky ledges in the sun, dipping in the cool water for a couple of hours.
After a lunch of cold tinned tomato and aldente pasta (camp stove cooking at its finest) we headed out for the more adventurous handrail pool. The gorge first opens out into an amphitheatre with stepped seats naturally carved into the wall. The curve of the river takes a 90 degree turn and a sharp drop into a tight, slippery passage way where you have to ‘spider walk’ through. With a precarious foot high above either side of the trickle of water and palms pressed against the smooth stone, you edge your way along, inching lower so that you’re not left stranded when it finally opens up and your feet can spread no wider. What you reach is the ‘Hand Rail’ Pool, so named because you have to clamber down the waterfall with the aid of a hand rail to prevent a fall renowned for breaking bones and bloodying people’s faces. When we were there in September there was talk of closing the pool off to the public.
The pools are deep and cool and carved into the most magnificently coloured walls of rock. WA’s colour scheme is full of reds and sandy browns, and in Karijini the flowing water polishes these to the vibrancy of wet paint, smooth and gleaming. You don’t need Photoshop to bring out the brilliant streaks of yellow in the deep, red walls the colour of drying blood. These, in contrast with the vegetation, exuberantly green, in their hidden oases provide a luxurious colour palate.
There are many more gorges you can explore in Karijini and it’s worth having a 4WD as I’ve heard some of the best are accessible only this way. We didn’t have the luxury of time on our side so after just a day of exploration we had to plough on. Reluctantly we began the journey south, assuming it would hold tedious days of long drives and little to occupy our imaginations. As it turns out we still had some of our best adventures to come.