Sunday, 28 September 2014

Bush Camping in the Pilbara

We left Tom Price ready to tackle a few hundred miles of Pilbara beauty before getting to our free camp. Exmouth was our next major destination, the starting point in our trek southward, but much too far to do in one trip. So we ooh-ed and aah-ed at the amazing scenery unfolding in front of us: gentle hills covered in geometric spinifex patterns,  mountains of rock and stately ridges crossed this land.

It was so inspiring Fiela couldn't contain himself and after repeatedly asking, I consented to a true bush camp in the middle of nowhere. We drove off the road onto the red red dirt,  far enough from the road to be hidden from the the cars passing by and set up for the night. We built a fire, cooked some steaks over it, drank  too much wine and loved our life.
The Uys Huis, littering a pristine Pilbara cattle track with crap.
The next morning's pack up was quick despite our hangovers, and we washed the last of the surface Pilbara dirt off right there out in the open, safe in the knowledge that there was absolutely not one person for hundreds of kilometres.
Happy husband- fire, beer and rooster (of the metal bbq kind).
It would take days of swimming on the fringes of Ningaloo Reef for the red to come out of the cracks in our feet and campertrailer, and it would take more than a pressure cleaner to get that blood dust of the North Australian country out of our heart. What was it about this red dirt that was cursed daily by me and my blue dishrag and yet in the hum of an afternoon quiet it seemed perfectly true to rub it through your fingers, draw lines through it on the ground and taste it around the corners of your senses?

The Pilbara, the Kimberley and Arnhem Land have etched themselves onto our bodies, our car and our mobile home and will no doubt be washed off eventually. But it is country of momentous attitude, spirituality  and importance. These enormous places are where the essence of this land can still be found and felt. Come here with your heart open, and if you are Australian, skip the European Contiki Tour or the Bali all-inclusive and book a few weeks in the Central and North West of your land.

Our country is amazing, I'm ashamed it has taken me such a long time to realise it.  

Digging a hole. 

Outback Barbie House.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Hamersley Gorge and the Tom Price Pit Tour.

After our Tom Cruise-esque climbing efforts of the previous day, the idea of Hamersley Gorge, supposedly the most accessible and child friendly of all the Karajini walks, was quite lovely. We also felt like our times of isolation, vast tracts of spinifex covered country and high-vis day wear were almost behind us: after this little walk we were heading for the coast with a Tom Price detour.

Hamersley Gorge from the top- only a short walk to the bottom.
Anyway, Hamersley Gorge has recently been tarted up with state of the art infrastructure like concrete steps (how luxurious) and toilets which aren’t yet coated in red dust (but are still of the drop kind so no real advancements there). The water course at the bottom is pretty and shaped for lazing away the day with some tanning oil which was exactly what some backpackers were doing- I didn’t think anyone did that anymore. Skin cancer must be easily curable in Europe.

Coloured and curved seams in the rock walls.
However, it’s the gorge walls which are the most impressive. Layers of different coloured sedimentary layers form curving patterns along the walls, showcasing the ancientness of this land and its beauty in one fell swoop of the rock. The kids played at the bottom, Fiela went for a swim and I gazed around at the amazing formations of the walls.

Beautiful Hamersley Gorge from the bottom.
We had heard that as Hamersley was at the very northern boundary of Karajini National Park, there were some free camps just around the corner where you could camp, have a fire (handy as it was pretty cool) and generally have the place to yourself. Despite our best efforts, these free camps alluded us and we headed out of the pristine national park for the more industrial confines of Tom Price.
Typical Pilbara.

Whilst the contrast between the spectacular scenery of Karajini and the neat rows of mining humanity of Tom Price couldn’t be greater, there was something about this town that was at first endearing. Yes my socialist friends, the heartland of Pilbara mining is actually quite pleasant. There are no grubby faced and exhausted men roaming around and the streets are clean- not a speck of iron ore or Lady of the Night to be seen anywhere. The company houses are neat, each with their toy of choice out the front (campertrailer, boat, jetski, trailbike etc and a purpose built trailer for each of them) and the infrastructure for the people living here exorbitant- a sports oval to make any town twenty times the size jealous, roads without a pothole in sight and a hospital whose main traffic is that of not-so-sure footed walkers from Karajini, rather than actual miners.
A beautiful sunset from Tom Price Caravan Park.
We booked into the caravan park to enjoy its actually-hot-showers, electricity and water. We spotted Kit and Di over the way and of course Marguerite made a beeline for them, inviting them via paper invitation to her birthday party a few months down the track. They politely declined.

Caesar, already bored on the bus tour of Tom Price Mine, and we haven't even moved yet.
The Workshop.
The next day we joined the Tom Price Mine tour along with about 20 Grey Nomads and one other family. Honestly, wearing the safety gear alone was worth the $30 price tag, but more so was Caesar’s reaction at the machinery and life size Tonka trucks. The gravelly voiced driver informed us of the ins and outs of the town (purpose built for the mine), the mine (they had quite literally dug up a mountain) and the people who worked there (women were the preferred truck operators as they unsurprisingly took fewer risks than men and the train drivers earned a base salary of around $180,000 per year). Apparently the Tom Price Mine would only be viable for another ten years of 24hour a day production, but “not to worry” there was at least another “forty years of production” around from mines recently discovered. The boom would continue “until China’s done with it then India’ll be ready to take what’s left.” Sigh. We got out of the bus and looked down into the pit from the safety of the high fence, hardhats and plastic glasses and whilst I concede that in the grand scheme of global economics it is this industry which has kept Australia afloat, I can’t help but be saddened and angered that we had pillaged this beautiful land to do it. I looked at where an ancient mountain had once been and it was poignant. The trucks were tiny at the bottom of the pit but like common household termites they had slowly but surely feasted on this great piece of land. I didn’t really listen to the rest of the tour.
The hole where a mountain used to be.

We bought Caesar a t-shirt with a big truck on it and high tailed it out of there, keen to leave the high-vis workwear and enormous holes in the ground behind.

Marguerite, seeing the funny side.

Feeling like useless and small...

Gratuitous machinery shot.

The pit.

Lifesize Tonka truck.


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Class 5 Walks at Karajini National Park and a Grey Epiphany.

Pilbara Scenes.
So in my previous posts I’ve possibly  been a little scathing of the role of the Grey Nomad in the caravanning ecosystem; casting them as tall giants, towering  powerfully over the rest of us and blocking out the sunshine. But truly, they are not. Slightly annoying at times yes, but then so are we with our “Marguerite!!”s and “CAESAR!!!”s etc. It may not be a symbiotic relationship, but at times I don’t know what I’d do without these young-at-heart travellers. Like most stereotypes,  it is what it is- a stereotypical mold which is rarely a perfect fit for anyone with grey hair travelling around. So I apologise to anyone showing signs of age on the Australian travel circuit. In writing about you, I've thrown every Greying Nomad under the canopy of those living an insulated and strange 80 Mile Beach/-like existence which is completely unfair! This became startling apparent in our canyoning, sorry, I mean bushwalking trips in Karajini.

Hancock Gorge from the top.

Deciding to tackle Hancock Gorge and the "Spider Walk" first, this 400m Class 5 walk started with a short and sharp bang involving an almost vertical ladder. The gorge itself still looks rather benign, even with its narrow ledges just above the creek. But there comes a point in this short walk where you realise the 80 minute timeframe for 400 metres is completely justified. The first is where you take off your shoes to wade through about 30 metres of cold water (easy), and then when you're clinging to a rock face over the water,  edging along for another 50 metres or so. This took a really long time, with Fiela having to coach Marguerite across narrow and slippery ledges while he stood in water on a narrow slippery ledge. It wasn't steep or high, but the knowledge that the water is cold, the bottom rocky and the camera in my backpack expensive, well it was a long 50 metres. Di and Kit were right behind us and she fell, camera and all.
Looking back at the first harrowing bit of our Hancock Gorge Walk.
Sorry, didn't I mention who Di and Kit were? That's because they materialised behind us on this walk like an apparition in our travelling world, sent to encourage us verbally and by example. If I'm as agile, adventurous and hard working as these Grey Nomads when I'm in my sixties, I'll be very, very happy.
The Ampitheatre in Hancock Gorge.
We made it to the next section of the walk in time to realise that the last 15 minutes of tense rock negotiation wasn't actually the "Spider Walk". Your shoes stay off as you have a quick breather and size up the next section: a slippery,  dangerous looking chasm leading down into more cold water.
All nonchalance, ready to tackle the Spider Walk.
The spider walk is so called because you can negotiate it by placing your hands and feet on opposite walls and edge your way down to the bottom, thus theoretically keeping your shoes and feet dry (this is clearly discouraged through signage at the top, most of which reinforce the fact that if you take unnecessary risks like trying to keep your feet dry and you don't die, you certainly won't get medical treatment until at least 12 hours and a major SES operation later). Or you can walk through the water with your shoes off (it wasn't actually that slippery, using the walls as ballast before you get to Kermit's Pool, a serene and small body of water unfolding between the worn, smooth rock.

Kermit's Pool.
Looking back up into the Spider Walk.

Adrenalin Junkies.
Before we descended into this part of the walk I was considering sending Fiela down by himself and babysitting the kids at the considerably safer part of Hancock Gorge. But like two of a kind, the Fiela and Marguerite adrenaline train had already left, metres into the chasm before I could voice concerns for myself, sorry, I mean the kids, on this part of the walk. Down we went. Marguerite had a few tremulous moments (quite rightly) when she could feel and see that her hold on the smooth rock walls was tenuous. But again Fiela guided her down carrying Caesar the entire way, with me as useless as tits on a bull, bringing up the rear.

Fiela guiding Marguerite through. Meanwhile I can't even get the setting on the camera right

We finally made it to the bottom and marvelled. It wasn't hard to picture the sheer force and volume of the water which must career through this small chasm, weathering the rock every Wet Season and enchanting visitors during every Dry. Fiela jumped in for a well deserved swim, but again, chicken shit here doing the writing couldn't face the cold. Enter Stage Right Di and Kit who dived in like they were doing their morning laps at Bondi's Icebergs. They congratulated us on getting the kids down to the pools and told us a bit of their travel story, culminating in the tidbit that they had a Landcruiser ute (bakkie) to which they had affixed a roof top tent, travelling up to Karajini from South Autralia for a few months holiday (NB more chicken shit action as I related our story from the lofty heights of a Jayco Swan). Here they were, people in their sixties, doing it their way, throwing themselves into the experience and having a blast in the meantime. This seemed vastly different to the insulated crew we'd encountered from Broome and 80 Mile (and a few before that), whose daily past times were fixed to the day of the week and the time of the day.

Perhaps this is the point of difference: The Uys Huis was travelling for the purpose of seeing and doing, whereas an element of the Grey Nomad lot seemed to be travelling for the purpose of existing somewhere other than where they normally existed. What had happened to their sense of adventure? Of meeting new people? Of experiencing something out of their ordinary? And yes, again, 20 years after they'd done it the first time? So perhaps my beef isn't with those with grey hair who are travelling, but rather with those travelling with a grey attitude towards those and what is around them- and this extends to lots of people we've met on the road, not just Grey Nomads. Afterall, we're all on life's highway, it doesn't hurt to smile and wave.

 So anyway, Hancock Gorge was beautiful, we looked, we walked out: it took almost two hours with a swim (for an 800 metre round trip).
Into Weano Gorge. This also involved some ledge walking but since I'd already been up to my waist just to get to them, it seemed much less harrowing than our Hancock efforts.
We had lunch and then walked into Weano Gorge and down into the Handrail Pool. This was a similar walk in terms of difficulty, and yes, you HAD to use a handrail to get down to the bottom pool. Lots of shoes off action here as well and due to my latter rant and no doubt the fatigue I've hoisted upon the average reader's brain, I'll just post some photos of it.

One more gorge to go people, and then it's time to make for the coast.

The Uys Huis Hero, carrying the younger Uys Huis Troops.
The pointy end of Weano Gorge- around the bend in the rock walls is Handrail Pool.

Handrail Pool.

The Handrail.
Some crazy toddler halfway up a rock wall. No wait: that's Caesar.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

How to survive a Class 5 Bushwalk with small children at Karajini National Park, Joffre Falls.

Once we'd managed to extricate ourselves from Dales Campground, we made our way north through Karajini toward the more challenging canyon, sorry I mean gorge, walks. Driving onto the dirt roads after a few weeks of bitumen was like ripping off that bandaid stuck on your arm and hairs: painful. I even braced myself and groaned when I could see the red stains from cars coming in the opposite direction off the dirt and back on to the bitumen. The dust billowed behind us and our smooth ride was again punctuated by the (very minor) corrugations. The flying dust even coated the trees on either side of the road, looking like great slashes in the pristine landscape, bloody cuts through the green flesh of the Pilbara.

Karajini Driving.

We stayed at the Karajini Eco Resort, which at twice the price of the Dales campground was more expensive, but there were showers and barbecues and it was just metres from some spectacular gorges. The first we tackled was Joffre Falls, a spectacular waterfall with a pretty full on walk involving some Class 5 sections- the most difficult kind. It all started fairly benignly, especially once the fun police at the top of the walk reminded me that there was a cliff and that it would be a long drop to the bottom for Marguerite. No shit Sherlock.  I'd managed to keep a lid on my burgeoning fear of heights and one of the kids careering off the edge, but after this unhelpful comment, adrenalin was already coursing through my body;  and we hadn't even come close to the tricky bits yet.

At the top of Joffre Falls, looking down the gorge.

My fears were slightly allayed though when we came to the top of the cliff, sorry I mean path,  and two young guys hoisting their kayak up over the lip. Seems they'd carried it down in the hope of paddling through the gorge, but it had narrowed so much they'd turned around 100 metres in. We admired and chuckled at their adventurous spirit, but felt pretty sorry for their kayak, small pieces of which could be found on numerous rocks all the way down to the bottom.

Looking down the gorge from halfway up the cliff.

So it couldn't be that bad, could it? Yep, it was pretty steep, and in places I felt like Tom Cruise at the start of the second Mission Impossible movie where he's hanging off some rock. The only difference of course was that I wasn't getting paid squillions and Tom Cruise wasn't guiding Suri down the cliff. Fiela, the hero of our walking expedition yet again guided us down, lifting Marguerite onto the rocks her little Class 5 legs couldn't get to, carrying Caesar and checking on how my hyperventilation was going all at the same time... Truly, it probably wasn't that bad, but when you're using your arms almost as much as your legs to climb down, it ain't an easy walk! Of course Fiela and Marguerite loved it, joined by Caesar who was gagging to get out of the carrier and join in the rock climbing action.

Cliff climbing markers.

The pools of water at the bottom were frigid,  another watercourse seeing perhaps only an hour of warming sunshine per day. It was spectacular of course, layers of rock having been worn away by eons of  Wet season rains, smooth stones which clearly feel the brunt of months of water charging through this small crevasse in the vast Pilbara. And high! The sky felt like it was a loooong way away.

We explored the bottom of the gorge as best we could without more hypothermia and hyperventilation. Fiela braved the waters and swam up and around the bend in the gorge to have a good look at the falls. They're about 35 metres tall and the water falls down lots and lots of curved rock shelves.  Caesar was making the most of being let out of the carrier and was zooming up this cliff face and that and could only be diverted to throwing rocks in the water (a much safer activity) from time to time. It was also getting late in the afternoon and let's be honest, I just wanted to get those kids on some flat ground where the possibility of broken bones was considerably less.

The 'walk' out of Joffre Falls.

We climbed out and realised it would have been quicker to walk from our camp than driven and since we were all quite tired we drove straight home without bothering to see the Knox Gorge lookout a few hundred metres away. We learnt from friends later that it was spectacular, yet another Significant Sightseeing Oversight  from the Uyhuis Travel Journal of Regrets.

The gorge bottom.

Anyway, the showers back at camp were solar powered,  and since the  weather had turned cool and cloudy, our cleanse was brief that night to say the least. The barbecue facilities were awesome though,  and did our steaks proud (I'm not sure what they're feeding the cows up this end of Australia, but the scotch fillet has been uniformly excellent no matter whether it's from a butcher, supermarket or the freezer section of a tiny village store). And despite another dodgy night's sleep thanks to a trio of German lads playing cards next door til 12am, I was feeling better about tackling the really difficult walks (one in particular called the 'spiderwalk')  tomorrow after our trauma-less Joffre jaunt.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Karajini National Park: Circular Pool and Fortescue Falls.

Karajini National Park is spectacular; an area of the Pilbara with deep gorges secretly cutting through the landscape, arterial blood red dirt, spiky spinifex  grass and faded looking trees dotting the landscape. The Uyshuis was a little ho-hum-ish about the gorge walks here in Karajini, but from the outset we could see they were vastly different from any walks we’d attempted before. And it was wonderful to be back in a national park, surrounded by seemingless endless untouched Pilbara landscape.
A typical Pilbara landscape of camouflage greens, blood red dirt and hidden jewels; in this case Circular Pool.

One of the more gentle descents into a Karajini Gorge, getting to Circular Pool was simple
compared to what we would experience in the coming days.
We camped the first night at Dales Campground, a national park run site overseen by the overly officious camp hosts. Perhaps they were volunteering on the premise that if they kept people in the campground for long enough, they’d get a kickback… I’m not sure but I really had to convince the lady who welcomed us (and took the fee for the night) that no, I wouldn’t be extending my stay and yes, one night was all I needed.

Circular Pool from the top.
Beautiful and frigid Circular Pool.

Anyhoo, we set up and went to Circular Pool in the afternoon. We’d read the walk was only a kilometre long and set off down into the gorge thinking it would be a quick 45 minutes with a swim. We hadn’t factored in the sheer drop in the gorge walls and the frigid temperature of the water. The afternoon light was spectacular and the walk was challenging in a hoisting yourself over rocks every now and then kind of way. The pool at the bottom was gorgeous but never receives warming sunshine, and after Fiela jumped in, I decided to follow suit and swim across to where warm water trickled down the circular walls. Marguerite had her swimsuit on and as soon as she saw us in the water also decided to swim across, despite our loud and emphatic protestations, the water being (at a guess) 9 degrees celsius at best. Luckily she’d shamed a young British backpacker who was umming and aahing about swimming through the pool to jump in also, as halfway across she started to succumb to hypothermia. He had swum with her, saw she was struggling and managed to drag her over to me on the ledge and the warmer water. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but watching her eyes starting to widen in fear, her teeth chattering and her limbs slowing down, it all felt pretty real. She was never in real danger, with Fiela and I eagle-eyeing her across the pool, but it was a valuable lesson for Marguerite to literally test the waters before she should jump in.

That panicky moment over, we wrote our names on the walls with ochre along with every other graffiti artist of 2014, and walked back out. You can walk from here along the bottom of the gorge to Fortescue Falls but we felt lazy, and just went back to our noisy camp (thanks for the ringside seats to your midnight card games you French F*!kers).
A poor effort at capturing the size and dramatics of this gorge. 
The next day we tackled the Fern Pool and Fortescue Falls. Again the descent was incredibly steep but it wasn’t long, and considering the coolness of the day (26 degrees), I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a swim. Fiela and (surprisingly) Marguerite did though at Fern Pool, a peaceful little pool ringed by palms, ferns and gums, corellas screeching and the smell of bat poo faintly in the air. It was a beautiful spot and the water was definitely warmer than the previous day’s arctic forays. We also had the place to ourselves which was lovely.
Unperturbed, Marguerite was ready to hop in again at Fern Pool.
Fiela getting his zen on at Fern Pool.
We left the campground and headed up to the other end of the park and its more challenging walks at Joffre Falls and Weano Gorge. We’d heard they were spectacular, but not for the faint hearted. Surely it would be a walk in the park, a piece of cake… Wouldn’t it?

Tree hugging. Lucky eucalypt.
Ready to walk down to Fern Pool and Fortescue Falls.

Beautiful Fern Pool

Marguerite and Fiela.

Ferns at Fern Pool.