In the southern-most corner is the first challenge – Kalbarri National Park.
It’s d-d-dusty and hot outside, the mercury’s pushing 33 degrees and I-I-I-I’ve just spent the last few days on a b-bu-b-bus. It’s f-f-fair t-to say I’m d-d-dy-dy-ing for a dip. And I’m-m-m more than ready to r-ri-ri-ride out the bum-numbing 25km of c-corr-rr-rruga-a-a-ations to get there.
Heck, the physical abuse will make me appreciate it all the more.
I’d already marveled at the parched landscape of the Pinnacles, and scoured my own surf (and my knees) on a sand board, but right now I needed water. And the rugged beauty of Kalbarri Gorge is well worth the excursion – a splash in the cool waters of the Murchison River as it meanders to the sea is a sparkling highlight on my WA itinerary. And as I finally stood at the Z-bend lookout looking down, I could see its curves glistening tantalizingly below like the proverbial tempting serpent.
I just had to get down there. Gulp.
By George – it’s Michael
As we started out it quickly became apparent that there was a kind of path to follow. All the same, I was glad to be following someone who knew the way down… The trail plunged sharply downwards through boulder-strewn escarpments and thick vegetation, and the best way forward was often hidden to the untrained eye. Our group consisted mainly of girls, and in a misguided act of chivalry our guide decided to marshal the only two guys into position over the “trickier” bits. The idea was that they’d help the ladies pick their delicate way through the clefts, but it didn’t quite work out like that.
Despite spending most of his time in the gym, this guy obviously took more time out flexing his muscles in front of the mirror than engaging in outdoor pursuits. He had more cosmetic products than the rest of the bus put together, and he ferried the whole lot around in a svelte black wheeled suitcase. I’d clocked him on the first day and done a double take – with the diamond-shaped diamante earring and square-frame sunglasses I could’ve sworn it was George Michael.
It took the guide five attempts to get him to realise he was required to do something, and then as we carefully negotiated our way down short sheer drops and over rocky outcrops, his trendy Diesel trainers afforded him as much grip as a pair of carpet slippers. I actually had to hold him steady to stop him slipping and breaking his neck.
Eventually, after a varied and exciting natural assault course of boulders and tree routes, with a few dodgy wooden steps thrown in for good measure, we all reached the bottom in one piece. I didn’t want to think about getting back up again. Hands on hips, the group let out a collective sigh and stood for a moment, drinking in the majesty of the gorge, basking in the sun and the achievement of our long descent.
And then we remembered why we were there. The place was suddenly filled with airborne garments as they were peeled off and we scampered down to the water like extras in some demented Carry On film.
It was amazing. Cool, clear and fresh, the water was perfect. And after a blissfully quiet interim that lasted about five minutes, it was time for the usual aquatic antics – jumping off rocks, fish-spotting, girl-on-shoulders splash-wrestling action… Oh – and we actually managed to explore a bit of the gorge while we were at it. Then it was time for a necessary game of “Guess Who’s Vest?” before tackling the climb back up.
The fact that there was a different route initially came as good news, but as we stood at the bottom looking up, there was dissent in the ranks. The group was divided. Half were flying the: “Oh cool, it’s just a set of vertical ladders,” banner; and the rest swiftly decamped to: “Oh my God, we’re all going to die.”
I don’t have a problem with heights (it’s falling from them that worries me…) so the climb didn’t faze me at all. I laughed in the face of vertigo, and was able to appreciate the arresting views over the gorge as we climbed – but there were definitely some hairy moments for some members of the group.
Slightly less nail-biting, but equally as exhilarating, were the walks around the Loop and track around Nature’s Window – a natural opening in the rock that framed the gorge perfectly – but I still don’t think you can beat a scramble and a swim to experience the gorge at its best.
And in the northern-most corner is challenger two – Karijini.
Of all Australia’s gorges, Karijini is the showstopper. The all-singing, all-dancing scene stealer of the geological world, sequined with secluded lagoons, crystal pools and grandiose waterfalls. Think Ru Paul going all-out cabaret. And like all resplendent drama queens, it comes with a little attitude – the exposed walks and slippery climbs are deliciously exciting but have claimed both life and limb of adventurers past.
With this in mind, as I picked my way precariously along slippery black rock, each foothold barely wide enough for my feet, I couldn’t help visualise the pretty pictures of death imaginatively and colourfully depicted on the gorge warning signs we’d passed 10 minutes previously. Shoes strung around my neck and bag hoisted up on my shoulders, I flattened myself against the jagged rock face that soared upward to graze the blue sky waaaay overhead. I sought out finger holds in the wet cracks – pointless if I fell, but more to keep my balance than anything – and shuffled crabwise around the curvature of the cleft.
Between a rock and a hard place
Going through the pool that lapped the shelves beneath my feet seemed by far the more sensible option, but after an exploratory wade revealed the water got very deep, very quickly, I had to reason that cameras can’t swim and concede defeat.
Besides, the guide said it was easy, so I thought, who was I to argue? The answer that presented itself at this point was someone with a firm grip on their senses. Too late.
This was the “Miracle Mile” – the ultimate gorge walk between Hancock and Weano Gorge – an old character-building exercise for Perth schoolboys, now guaranteed to make most travellers wet their pants. I know mine were soaking already and sticking to me like an irritating second skin.
An hour before we had innocently congregated at Oxer lookout to admire the yawning chasm below. The guide had cheerfully pointed to the narrow crack at the bottom.
”We’ll be coming out there later,” he asserted.
Coming out? How were we going to get in? The rock face was dark and forbidding from our lofty vantage point in the sun, and looked completely impassible. But, sure enough, after a brief but pleasant trek through open, sun-dappled pools, the path brought us quite literally between a rock and a hard place. The sunlight had been reduced to a thin sliver overhead, and the ever-narrowing fissure slowly converged so in places you could touch the rock on either side.
With each twist of the gorge there were new obstacles to negotiate, and slithering, swimming or climbing, each person was a link in the lemming-like chain helping the group forwards.
We’d just completed a little swim through when we were pulled up short – the pool was cordoned off with tape. The sign informed us that it was closed due to a rock slide, and so we could go no further. Everyone was gutted. We’d got the whole team spirit vibe going and we were having a blast.
But like the guide said, on the upside we had more time to splash around where we were. And I can think of worse places to be stuck for an hour or so…
For me Karijini delivered the knock out punch and is WA’s undisputed champion, but like so many places Down Under, both are worth getting under your belt. You can do it!
The experience: Western Xposure, Ph: 08 9371 3695.