Luckily Sunday saw the rain hold off long enough for me to drive from Nanutarra to Karijini National Park, previously known as the Hammersley Range National Park. I went via Tom Price, a remote mining centre that's actually quite an attractive spot, again taking the dirt roads to save time. But this time the rain had done its work, and it wasn't so much like driving on a sandpit, more like driving through a mud bath. I took it very slowly, but one thing's for sure: the front onside wheel arch on my car, which for some reason is missing the part that stops dirt getting inside the panel, is now rammed full of Western Australian dirt. When I open the passenger door, different coloured earth falls out every time, littering petrol stations and parking bays all over the state. I like to think of it as my sedimentary diary; perhaps I'll be able to sell it to a geologist in Melbourne when I get back.
Karijini is where the real gorge action is: Kalbarri and Cape Range may have gorges, but Karijini is king. The reason? Karijini has loads of 'em, and they tend to meet up in the most spectacular displays of rock, water, height and sheer splendour, and that takes some beating. I spent Monday exploring the large clump of gorges in the centre of the park, and I must say it blew my mind.
I started early; the rain was still holding off, so I thought I'd beat the weather and get some exploring in before the clouds broke. Luckily they cleared and the day was beautiful, but there's no point in tempting fate up here in the northwest, as apparently it's wetter than normal at the moment; it looks like I've brought the weather with me again, so I'm not taking any chances.
After setting up the tent at Fortescue Camp, my first visit was to Joffre Falls, a waterfall in Joffre Gorge. The area I decided to explore consists of four gorges, which meet together to form a pattern like spokes in a wheel, the hub being a place called Oxer Lookout. After last night's rain, each of the gorges was flowing (albeit slowly compared to the torrents in summer), so the falls were falling and the gorges gorging, which was one good thing about the unseasonable weather. Joffre Falls, apparently a three hour hike into and out of the gorge, took me all of 15 minutes to get into, and the same to get out; this is perhaps another example of the rangers over-estimating times to put off casual tourists, which is better than making them sound too easy, I suppose.
There's a system in operation in Karijini, where walks are classified in four categories: walks (really easy), tracks (a little more challenging), Level One routes (you might break into a sweat) and Level Two routes (you have to get details from the ranger, because these are only for hardcore walkers and climbers). I'm beginning to discover that Level One routes are a breeze; I wonder what Level Two is like...
Having explored Joffre and enjoyed the solitude of the gorge, where even sunlight doesn't stir the utter stillness, I jumped in the car and slid my way along to Red Gorge, adding yet more layers to my sedimentary diary in the process. Here the gorges start to get really deep; you could fit quite a few houses on top of one another before they poked over the top. I walked a fair old pace round the Red Gorge lookout, which ended with a stunning view, at least as impressive as the Z-Bend in Kalbarri. All along the way were these termite mounds, and when I got to the lookout I came across a huge cloud of their occupants, who suddenly looked very interested in my sweaty T-shirt. I suppose that when you haven't washed your hair for three weeks you just have to take the grief when it comes, so for a bit of sport I spent a while hanging round a spider's web I'd spotted, watching him catch hundreds of the tiny insects in his web, tying each of them up before devouring them for his breakfast. That was one satisfying way to get rid of a cloud of pesky termites.
Another walk from the same car park led down Knox Gorge, which took me down into the heart of the gorge, through flood waters and alluvial forest, to the end of the Level One section, which changed into a Level Two when the creek disappeared down a very thin v-shaped gorge. I would have explored further, but the sign said that this was only for very experienced rock climbers with flotation devices and ranger backup, so I turned back. It was a shame really, but it's pure stupidity to tackle things like this when you're on your own and unequipped.
Handrail Pool was another story, though not immediately. Handrail Pool is in Weano Gorge, and when I'd climbed down into the depths of the fissure, I turned up the gorge instead of down it. After a few kilometres of easy creek-navigation, I decided I'd gone wrong, so I headed back to the car to drive to Oxer Lookout.
Wow. Oxer is positioned where the four creeks meet, and the sight is truly immense. It's hard to describe how overpowering these gorges are, and Oxer Lookout is quite staggering. Photos just don't do it justice; the impressive bit is the depth of the thing, and you have to be there to experience the vertigo first hand. There I was, looking down into a gorge that nobody could get to without specialised equipment, a good 100 metres below. It was knockout stuff.
Welcome to Level Two
Just off from Oxer was the track down into Hancock Gorge, a challenging little number that took a little longer to navigate. For part of it I had to shuffle along ledges jutting out of the rock – as with Kalbarri the rock is sedimentary, but in Karijini the rock is much harder, and has been worn smooth by torrents of water, making the climbing both easier (because the rock is hard and will support your weight) and harder (because it's devilishly slippery when wet). However it wasn't long before I got to the delightfully named Kermit's Pool, where there was another sign to say this was where the walk graduated to a Level Two.
Then along came this young couple from Melbourne, and we got chatting, as you do when you're in a deep gorge far from the sun. They were about to turn back when this middle-aged couple came out of the gorge – from the Level Two area – and said it was really quite easy, as long as you kept your head. Emboldened by numbers, the three of us trekked some distance down the Level Two track, rock-climbing some bits and scrambling the rest, before eventually deciding enough was enough, and heading back to the car for lunch.
That short introduction to gorging was just what I needed. It brought back all sorts of tricks I'd learned at school in the rock-climbing society – like putting your hand into a fissure and clenching it into a fist, from which you can hang your body weight; and hugging the sheer face so smooth hand grips are as secure as possible – and all of a sudden the gorges didn't seem so frightening. To cap it all, a tourist van arrived with loads of choking old smokers and beer-bellies who headed off down to Handrail Pool, so when I'd finished my lunch I tromped back down the track, turning the right way this time. Before long I'd arrived at this amazing circular pool in a deep gorge.
I have a phobia that involves dark water. I just hate it. I've managed to cope with it in the past, such as when I went water-skiing off the coast of Spain, but I still hate dark water. I even get scared if I'm in the bath and someone turns the light off; that's irrational enough to be a phobia. Gorges are peppered with really deep rock pools, full of water fresh enough to drink and cold enough to shrink your manly pride to the size of a peanut, and if you're going to really explore gorges, you've got to swim these pools. I took one look at the pool and thought, 'Stuff that!' and hung around the side, unable to go further.
And that's where I thought my walk would end, but as the Beatles said, it's getting better all the time, and I think my phobia might be slowly shrinking. There I was, minding my own business on the side of this circular pool which drained out of the gorge on the opposite side from the entrance, when these two cute little blondes came in and proceeded to strip down to swimwear and jump into the rock pool. I just watched and made polite small talk, offering to take their photos for them and commenting on how cold it looked. I'm clearly still a smooth operator even when I haven't washed for a week; besides, there's something attractively hypnotic about girls and rock pools, as the ancients knew when they concocted all those myths about nymphs...
And then this other couple arrived, and we got chatting. Meanwhile the two blondes had disappeared off down the gorge over on the other side, into Level Two territory, and after a few minutes they returned to say that it was quite beautiful down there, and go on, it wasn't that cold or deep, you big wuss, go for it. The other couple – Graham and Sandy – looked interested, so we said, 'What the hell?' and stripped off down to our shorts.
The ensuing journey down the water-filled gorge was amazing. We scrambled over slippery rock faces, waded waist-deep in freezing water, avoided the evil-looking snake that dropped onto us from the lip of the gorge above and swam menacingly away, and eventually got to the end of the creek. By this time the two blondes had decided that they were cold and headed back – they had been in the water for some time, it has to be said, but I suspect the snake scared them off – but we three plodded on, arriving at a hole looking out down a sheer cliff face, where the creek cascaded out and into the gorge I'd seen from Oxer Lookout.
That, we thought, was the end of the trail, but a little exploring showed that we could climb round the hole – some 100 metres up – and edge our way down to the bottom of the main gorge. Sandy wisely decided to stay behind, but Graham and I climbed down the cliff and eventually stood at the bottom of the gorge that I had seen from Oxer Lookout earlier in the day. Little did I think I'd be standing there later... we must have been insane.
Strange things happen in gorges, too. While we were looking up at Sandy, this dog appeared at the top of the waterfall. We couldn't believe it, but these guys following behind had brought their Jack Russell along, and he so nearly went over the edge. Now that would have been a sight.
It was a long way back up, but before long we'd made our way back to the pool, where even I went for a swim, something I'd never have managed even hours before. The entertainment wasn't over, though, as this old guy turned up and started climbing the walls of the gorge, like Spiderman; we watched, amazed at his progress, before he eventually fell back into the pool to a round of applause. You meet all sorts in these gorges, you really do.
That night disaster struck my light sources for the second time, following the loss of my petrol lamp in Cape Range. My torch, the only source of light I had, died while I was just getting to the exciting part of my book. The bulb just blew, and as it was a Maglite, not a normal torch, I was going to have to try to resurrect it at – yes, you guessed it – a camping shop, Meanwhile the only light I have at night is the little light inside my car, and even that's beginning to flicker. A portent of some kind, perhaps?
Tuesday was another lovely day, so I headed off to Mt Bruce, Western Australia's second highest peak, in the south of the National Park (the highest peak, Mt Meharry, is in the southeastern part of the park, and is a fair drive off the highway through private land that you need permission to cross; as it's only a few metres higher than Mt Bruce, I figured I'd stick to the runner-up). It was a pretty challenging climb, particularly in the heat of the morning sun, but after an hour and a quarter I was at the top of the world and the view was stunning. Unfortunately there's a rather ugly iron ore mine to one side of the mountain, just outside the borders of the park, but the view over the park was like nothing else.
I'd managed the climb before lunch – not bad for a climb that was supposed to take six hours – so I decided to up sticks and head out east to the last clump of gorges left to explore. On the way I climbed down into Kalamina Gorge to see the waterfalls, and again, it was a totally different type of experience. It had a fern-lined waterfall cascading over black, layered rock into a shaded rock pool: very relaxing. I explored the gorge for as far as you could go, but after some precarious rock scrambling I found the gorge was totally flooded, and I didn't fancy a swim on my own, so I tromped back to the car to drive to Fortescue Camp, just down the road.
This was where disaster struck – which you can read about it in the next tale – so it was a few days before I was able to return to Karijini to see the other gorges. My blown tyre had prevented me from exploring Dales Gorge, so I drove back into the park slowly, because I was in a pretty black mood and I knew that if I drove as aggressively as I felt, the dirt road would win.
Before long I passed Mt Bruce, for what seemed the umpteenth time. Then it struck me: what better way to get rid of all the negative energy I'd built up in the last couple of days than with a forced march up a mountain? So I set off in a huff and covered the 4.5km and goodness only knows how much vertical climbing in 55 minutes, which was a pretty good time. At the top I just collapsed, completely knackered, legs burning and sweat dripping off my face. And d'you know what? It worked. I felt great! There was that gorgeous view, and at once I knew I'd made the right decision. My worries seemed so irrelevant as the desert stretched out in front of me... and all of a sudden my burst tyre and collapsing plans didn't seem quite so important after all.
Feeling better, I drove to the campsite at Dales Gorge and had a quick look round – though not enough to spoil the walk for the next day – and ended up in a beautiful waterfall, Fortescue Falls, reading a book and just relaxing. That night the stars were out with no moon, and I felt totally at ease again; my stress had evaporated and I felt complete happiness about my journey. It looks like I've found a cure for temper tantrums: climb a mountain. It's not much use if it happens in the middle of a city, but perhaps I can find another cure for that culture.
So on Saturday I finally explored Dales Gorge. I took it nice and slow, and wandered up and down it a couple of times, exploring off the track and relaxing by the beautiful Circular Pool and Fortescue Falls, before eventually coming back to camp for a nice cup of afternoon tea, an enjoyable habit that I've picked up recently. That night was a stunner, with the Milky Way stretching right across the clear night sky, the clear skies dropping temperatures to just above freezing, quite a contrast after the mid-twenties of the midday sun.
Under this canopy I went for a wander round the circle of campsites I was in (Fortescue Camp consists of a collection of circular roads with sites jutting off them). As I walked round, by starlight rather than torchlight, I passed all these cosy pools of light, each with a different scene captured inside. The elderly couple reading; the young lovebirds nattering while huddling together to keep out the chill; the middle-aged couple arguing about something trivial; the family playing cards, trying to tone down the young kids' competitive edge by telling them it's only a game; the lone traveller, checking his maps; the foreign couple, speaking fluid French over a steaming pot... such variety. It made me think of mediaeval times, with the old storyteller gathering the people round the campfire, flames flickering on expectant children's faces, more animated with each twist in the tale. Or perhaps a camp of travelling revellers celebrating the summer solstice, complete with druids, conjurers and roasting pigs. It reminded me of the Glastonbury Festival at night, too; happy memories of campfires, gentle sounds of merriment, and folk songs on the breeze. I felt a little sad that this sort of thing doesn't happen much in England – going off into the wilderness for a weekend's camping – possibly because there isn't much wilderness to do it in. And camping in the English winter would be rather more uncomfortable than camping in the Australian winter, not that it's particularly comfortable sleeping in a frost anywhere...