After teaming up in Cervantes, I happily offered Andreas a lift to Kalbarri, 400km to the north, as we were both planning to visit the National Park there. Little did we expect such terrible driving conditions; at times, I couldn't see a thing through the driving rain, and had to use the Force to see the road. However, we got there in one piece, and managed to fit in a visit to the coast to see Red Bluff before sunset. Red Bluff is a large, jutting cliff that gives you a good view of Kalbarri town and the Indian Ocean; it was extremely pleasant, and followed by a mean, lean spaghetti bolognese à la tent.
The next morning the rain held off, so we drove out to the ranger station to see which roads were open. Unfortunately the road to the most spectacular area of the park was closed, but the ranger suggested a walk from Ross Graham Lookout to Hawks Head along a gorge, so off we went.
As you drive through Kalbarri National Park, whose boundaries encompass most of the Murchison River as it meanders towards the sea, it looks pretty boring and flat. However, the parts of the park that are worth exploring – apart from the coastal features – are the stunning gorges that the Murchison has cut into the bedrock. The ground in Kalbarri was, until recently (in geological terms), under water, and much like the cliffs along the Great Australian Bight, it rose up to create a flat, barren plain. It's made out of sedimentary sandstone, so the mighty river found it reasonably easy to erode an erratic and deep gorge system, which obviously isn't visible as you drive through the park. But take the roads to the lookouts and there, laid at your feet, are these amazingly deep cuts into the red earth, with huge cliffs made up of all sorts of strange, red-coloured bands.
The first walk we did followed the river through a couple of u-bends, and after climbing down into the gorge at Ross Graham, we followed the river-bed along. There's a knack to gorge-hopping, which involves trying to keep to the inside of any bend, as the river will cut a sheer face on the outside of any bends, and will deposit all its sand and shingle on the inside of the bend, which is easier to walk on than a vertical cliff face. This meant we had to cross the river a total of four times, a slightly hairy prospect after such heavy rains. One crossing involved carefully climbing through dead and dying gum trees while the river flowed beneath, hoping that you didn't pick a brittle branch that would give way and mean a rather soggy trek along the bank; most of the other crossings were of the stepping-stone variety. We eventually got to Hawks Head, after about four hours, and the view was quite magnificent, the gorge being much deeper at that end of the walk.
We followed that walk with a trek along the coastline, just down from our campsite. Despite names like Mushroom Rock, Rainbow Alley and Pot Alley, it wasn't that thrilling, reminding me of the volcanic coast of Gran Canaria, which just brought back memories of bad holidays. The wind was also getting into its stride, so we soon retired to cook a mean chilli con carne, with a six pack of very welcome Victoria Bitters, made all the more enjoyable by the interesting conversation.
The Z-Bend and Loop
By Saturday all the park's roads were open, so we were able to visit the park's highlights, the Z-Bend and the Loop. We drove to the Z-Bend early in the morning, and if we thought the earlier gorges were stunning, this was just incredible. I have no idea how deep the gorge is at this point, but I've read it reaches down 80m (240 ft), and I can well believe it. It's hard to describe looking at a bend in the river, as it cuts a Grand Canyon-esque furrow through deep red, stripy rock, the cliffs speckled with stumpy green bushes, and a deep blue sky above to accentuate the colours. It was quite incredible.
The Loop, some 10km north of the Z-Bend, is a walk around a loop in the river, about 8km in length. We set off in mid-morning, and it has to rate as one of the best bushwalks I've done yet. It starts off by following the cliffs into the bend, then goes down into the gorge to river level, where the sand and silt create these little grassy meadows, with kangaroos hopping all around and the river flowing alongside huge, red cliffs. We had to climb along the cliff when the silt ran out, walking along ledges jutting out of the red walls, just above water level. As the rock is so sedimentary, erosion has created this amazing layering of rock, so it's quite easy to make your way along the cliff faces. After turning the bend, we started to climb back up, before reaching Nature's Window, a hole in the rock from which we'd started.
The dirt roads in Kalbarri are also worth a mention. If you've got a car you don't mind throwing around, like a hire car, or maybe a 1977 Toyota Corona, give them a go. It's the biggest driving thrill, speeding 26km along a road that's effectively a long, thin sandpit. I didn't have proper road grip for the whole skidding drive, and the potholes made it just like a video game: go right, jump the hole in the road, slam a left, steer into the skid, accelerate out... great fun, and absolutely not safe at all. Especially when these bloody great emus keep running out in front of you just as you're getting some serious speed up. It's a hoot.
After we got back and Andreas bought me a couple of beers for doing the driving – it didn't take him long to figure out where my weak spot was! – I took him to the bus after getting his address. He was great company and I was sorry to see him go, even though I knew it was better to be travelling on my own. There's a well-known theory of parting: it's easier for the person going away than the poor soul staying behind, because there are fewer reminders and more distractions if you're the traveller. So I waved him off and headed back to plan my journey north, and further into the unknown.