THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``You must always do it when you come to the waterhole (speaking of the tradition
of taking some water into your mouth and gently spraying it out again). People ask
me why Aboriginal people do it and I ask them why do people say grace?"
Darren Injie, Yinhawangka Language Group.
Back in the time known as Nhulyugama when the earth was soft Thurru, the great sea-serpent, emerged from the sea and, in the way of Warlu, moved through the country we know as northwestern Australia creating rivers and carving out gorges. The most awesome of these works lay in the country of the Banyjima people, country they called Karijini or "hilly land". In the words of singer Wobby Parker, a Martidja-Banyjima Elder, ".....we call this place a name. We belong in this country. This country belonged to my dead fathers and mothers, grandfathers. We're still here today and my sons, sons-in-laws and daughters will be taking over when I can't walk any more in this land." In modern times, it has been named the Karijini National Park by the Australian government but once it was the territory of the Banyjima, Kurrama and Innawonga Aboriginal peoples who have been there for a least 20,000 years. It is also the home of red kangaroos, euros, wallaroos, echidnas, geckos, goannas, and a large variety of birds and snakes including pythons. Most of the Aboriginal people are now gone, the victims of the white invader, his diseases, his inhumanity and his greed. Even most of the kangaroos have left, driven away by the avaricious mining operations, the explosions, trains and vehicles. Yet down in those gorges, in the silence of the depths and the isolation of the cliffs, there remains an untouched wonderland of rock and water and trees. It takes some effort to get there but it is effort richly rewarded. Water is the essence for it etched out the canyons and nourishes all the life within and around the gorges. It falls as tropical rain during the winter and trickles down through the layers of rock to emerge as spring water centuries later. And so the streams run year round in most of the gorges. In some like the Red Gorge and Joffre Gorge the water rests as great deep pools that span all the way between towering red walls. In others it creates magnificent cascades that sparkle in the glinted sun. Fern Pool in Dales Gorge, known to the Aboriginals as Jabula, the serpent's pool, is particularly revered; two lovely streams tumble over a ledge into a beautiful fern-ringed pool that provides a truly delightful swim. But the Aboriginal people for whom this place has very special meaning ask that you slip into the water as quietly as you would enter a church. Moreover you should pause to take in a mouthful of water and spray it gently back again as a symbol of reverence. In the words of Darren Injie of the Yinhawangka Language Group, ``You must always do it when you come to the waterhole. People ask me why Aboriginal people do it and I ask them why do people say grace?"
It is not easy to get to Karijini National Park. One way is to drive about 750 miles north from Perth (one of the most isolated major cities in the world), mostly along the lonely Great Northern Highway. On the way you cross the Tropic of Capricorn. Another way is to fly from Perth to Paraburdoo, a small mining town whose airport terminal consists of toilets, a check-in desk and an x-ray machine all crammed into a small, temporary shack. Usually there is just one flight a day each way and the passenger list consists almost entirely of miners. All the beer on the plane is consumed before the plane reaches its cruising altitude. When you land in Paraburdoo you realize that the terminal shack is lost amidst line after line of 4WD off-road trucks for rent, at least one per miner. These are not only equipped in the front with massive kangaroo-guards, probably made from titanium, but they also have a large aerial or mast and a very large orange light on top of the cab. I mention these matters just to warn you that there is not much else to rent and these tanks of the desert are expensive. There is also a shuttle bus to the slightly larger mining town of Tom Price some 50 miles to the north but that may leave you without transportation since there is no vehicle rental place in that metropolis. However you manage it the next stop is Tom Price and there you may need to find a bed for the night. The only option is the Tom Price Motel which I had some difficulty locating until I recognized that the pub filled with miners lined up along the long wooden bar was also the check-in location. Moreover, once checked-in it was necessary to exit the bar, navigate your way through the drive-in vehicle repair station and then go round the back to locate your room. However, once found, the rooms are comfortable. Trouble is even if you get to Tom Price, you are only part of the way there for it is another 50 miles to the center of activity at Karijini National Park, namely the Eco-retreat owned by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation. This is also the only place where you can get a meal or a bed for the night within easy distance of the Park. Note that the road from Tom Price to the Eco-retreat begins as asphalt but is dirt for most of the way.
At 6274 square kilometers, Karijini National Park is the second largest Park in Western Australia. It is a jewel hidden away in a part of the northwestern Australian outback known as the Pilbara. The almost featureless desert landscape is covered with grass called spinifex, sprinkled with a variety of trees and dotted with huge termite mounds. In the cooler months the land is covered with yellow-flowering cassias and wattles, northern bluebells and purple mulla-mullas. After rain many of these plants bloom profusely. The area was first explored in 1861 when F.T.Gregory led a party inland from a landing point at Hearson Cove near Dampier. The first settlers arrived two years later and by 1899 700,000 sheep were being grazed in the region and much of the Aboriginal land had been taken from them often with much loss of life.
Upper Knox Gorge
Karijini is special because here the Joffre River and its tributaries have sliced deep, vertical gorges into what is otherwise a flat and quite featureless desert landscape. During the summer, rains fill the aquifers in the ancient rock of this land and the resulting springs cause water to flow in the gorges for most of the year. This water has cut narrow and crennelated canyons that provide a number of spectacular canyoneering adventures. About a mile-long stretch of the main canyon is known as the Red Gorge though the watercourse further downstream is known as the Wittenoom Gorge. The Red Gorge lies at the heart of the canyoneering adventures in the Park and, like its major tributary, Joffre Gorge, it contains long cold pools bounded by red, vertical walls. The principal tributary gorges that feed into the Red Gorge are Joffre, Hancock, Weano and Knox Gorges. Only Joffre and Hancock can be ascended (though, in the case of Hancock, this requires some technical equipment); consequently all canyoneering adventures consist of a descent through one of these gorges and an end-of-day ascent through either Hancock or Joffre.
In March of the year 2008, I learnt of the existence of Karijini National Park by coincidence. One day a particular shop window caught my eye while I was strolling through the old markets of Fremantle early in my three month sabbatical at the University of Western Australia. The window displayed a large photograph of a spectacular, red-walled canyon complete with a series of lovely pools interspersed with sparkling cascades. I had to find out where this magnificent place was located and was fortunate enough to find the owner and photographer within. He told me of his fascination with a place called Karijini and filled me in on how to get there. I left the store not only with a book of his photographs but also with a determination to get to Karijini National Park. Later that day I discovered the Park website and learnt of the only place to stay in the Park, namely the Eco-retreat. Moreover, my excitement grew when I found a link to an outfit called West Oz Adventure Tours (http://www.westozactive.com.au) who ran canyoneering adventure tours in the deep canyons of the Park. West Oz Adventure Tours was run by a guide by the name of Danny Francis and was also based at the Eco-retreat. I immediately emailed Danny (email@example.com) with an inquiry about his canyoneering trips into the gorges of Karijini. The upshot of all this was that several days later, after figuring out some of the logistics, making a reservation at the Eco-retreat and receiving an offer from Danny to collect me from Tom Price, I was ready for Karijini. I caught the early flight from Perth to Paraburdoo on May 7, 2009, met with Danny in Tom Price that evening and arrived at the Eco-retreat ready for some great canyoneering. Unfortunately Danny had broken his collar bone a couple of weeks before so we were to be accompanied on our hikes by his assistant Brydie O'Connor.
Early the next morning, I met the other individual who had signed up for the adventure that day, a young man named Phil, who, amazingly, also hailed from County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. We walked over to Danny's headquarter tents and got outfitted with wetsuits, harnesses, Tevas and large inflated inner tubes whose value I questioned, wrongly it turned out for they later proved essential. We loaded all our gear into Danny's bus and drove about 14 miles over rough dirt roads (probably impassable after rain) to the Knox Gorge overlook and trailhead. After a brief stop at the overlook where we peered down into the 300 feet deep Knox Gorge, Danny left us to drive back to camp and we hiked down the steep trail to the bottom of Knox Gorge with the inner tubes around our shoulders. In the canyon we walked a short distance upstream to see a beautiful, verdant pool decorated with Native Fig trees and Paper Bark Gums. Then, turning downstream, we passed other small pools as the gorge began to narrow and the vegetation disappeared. It was only a few hundred yards to the start of the serious narrows where we first climbed down into a waist-deep pool to progress. Here, nailed to the left wall, was a notice warning the casual hiker of the extreme dangers immediately ahead. A shoulder-wide, steep and slippery section about 30 yards long followed before the bottom dropped out and we could only peer forward through a narrow slot down to a deep grotto pool. It seemed far below us but was probably only about a 35 feet drop. We had arrived at the top of the much discussed Knox Slide where we had been told of two options, namely a controlled rappel or a free, uncontrolled slide. Almost all the young people who pass this way are into adventure and excited about the doing the slide. I really could not chicken out and so, with some trepidation, resolved to also slide. So the inner tubes were flung down and the guide descended with her camera. In fact, the slide was easier than I anticipated. It involved a smooth slide of about 25 feet before being launched into a free-fall of another 12 feet into the deep, cliff-ringed pool about 35 feet in diameter. An easy swim took one to the slot exit from this pool. Here we paused to take pictures and to enjoy this remote and pristine crystal grotto buried deep in Karijini National Park. I doubt the Aborigines ever came this way but it is still pleasant to think that they would have appreciated its grace.
The Knox Gorge Slide Descending the Knox Slide
(Photo by Brydie O'Connor)
The exit slot from the Knox Slide was only about 30 feet long and, at the end of it, we encountered another vertical drop of about 20 feet into a second cliff-ringed pool. The pool was only knee-deep in the landing area and so we needed to use the bolts installed in the left wall for a rappel descent. However, the pool deepened near the exit slot so it was necessary to swim to the narrow slot exit. Logs caught in the short exit slot eased the climb out of the pool and suddenly we were standing in the sunshine on a low ledge at the edge of a huge pool that almost spanned the Red Gorge.
From the low ledge we awkwardly sat down in our tubes and began the first of many paddles up through the Red Gorge. The water was surprisingly cold and without the inner tubes the long swims in the shade would have left us chilled to the bone. Instead, floating mostly above the water we could stay fairly warm especially when taking advantage of the places where the sun reached into the bottom of this deep gorge. The water was not continous but rather consisted of five pools (all over 100 yards long and one over 300 yards long) seperated by short boulder-strewn sections of flat canyon bottom. The third and longest pool was particularly beautiful, decorated with small patches of greenery, native fig and gums trees, below the red, iron-rich cliffs. We lingered here in the silence and the sun, listening only for the occasional call of the ? bird echoing down the canyon.
After the fourth pool the spectacular, 120 feet Weano Falls were passed on our right. We looked forward to that vertical rappel descent a couple of days later. Just beyond Weano Falls we arrived at the shore of Junction Pool that encompasses the exits of both Joffre Gorge and the much smaller Hancock Gorge. It took us about 3.5hrs to get to this point and we paused here in the sun to enjoy a delightful lunch on the rocky beach of Junction Pool. High above Hancock Gorge we could see the Junction Pool overlook that is as close as most tourists get to the marvellous Red Gorge.
The Chute in Hancock Gorge In Hancock Gorge
Revived by a good lunch, we paddled across Junction Pool to the very narrow opening leading into Hancock Gorge. Inside we paused at a flat area to deflate our inner tubes and prepare for the ascent ahead. About 20 yards further into the narrow and deep gorge a left turn brought us to the bottom of the long narrow cascade known as the Chute that drops about 100 feet down through some of the oldest rocks in the world. The climb up the Chute was quite straightforward and we paused to inspect the layers of rock some 2.5 billion years old. At the top we turned left and arrived at a much wider and flatter section with a large pool that was passed on the left. This was followed by a small cascade that led up to the bottom of the beautiful, cliff-ringed Regan's Pool. This canyon jewel is named after the volunteer rescue team member, Jim Regan, who was swept to his death in the Chute by a flash flood that occured while he was participating in a rescue in Hancock Gorge. The other rescuers (and the injured person) survived the flash flood by being beached before the Chute. To ascend Regan's Pool we needed to climb to a high ledge on the left that is equipped throughout its length by secure bolts. The guided tours set up a safety line here and provide each customer with cowtails to secure themselves as they traverse about 60 feet above the pool. Care was needed here since the much-used footholds were wet and slippery.
Above the short cascade that led down to Regan's Pool we came to another lovely pool known as Kermit's Pool, the point where tour groups and other hikers must halt during a descent of Hancock Gorge if they are not equipped with technical gear. We encountered a large group of young people who had many questions about what lay below this, their furthest point of descent. Bypassing Kermit's Pool, we came to a narrow slot section known as the Spiderwalk that ends in a broad amphitheater. Here the raw rock of the gorge ended and the canyon became more open and greener. We reached this point about 5 hours after the morning start.
Upstream of the amphitheater, we passed several moderately long pools by contouring around on narrow ledges on the left (they could also be swum or waded) and just upstream of these came to a ladder on the right that marked the start of the trail climb out of Hancock Gorge. Above the 20 foot ladder a steep trail led up to the plateau above and to the Hancock Gorge trailhead and Weano Picnic area where Danny was waiting with the bus to take us back to the Eco-retreat. It had been a spectacular day with 5.5 hours of adventure during which we travelled 1.8 miles.
Weano Gorge narrows Entrance to Jade Pool in Weano Gorge
A day and a half later I was back at Danny's tent in the early morning preparing for another great day in the gorges. Our starting point would be the same as the end point of the first adventure, namely the Weano Picnic Area. But this time our route led down into Weano Gorge and, after a brief easy descent, we paused at the bottom to enjoy some lovely, verdant pools before starting down the canyon.
Just a short distance downstream, the gorge began to deepen and narrow and we came to the first canyon-spanning pool where we needed to wade. Beyond this was a short section with trees and greenery but the canyon soon narrowed further to a dark slot only about 4 feet wide. After about 100 yards this slot suddenly opens up to a large cliff-ringed, circular pool known as Handrail Pool that gets its name from the short section of railing that aided our short descent from the slot to a ledge on the left that runs most of the way around the pool. The footing here was very slippery and, in spite of the handrail, I slipped and hurt my elbow. Falls seem a frequent occurence at this spot. Indeed, later in the day as we were returning to the trailhead we learnt that someone had fallen at Handrail Pool and that a rescue was in progress.
Handrail Pool is deep and made for a most pleasant swim on a hot day but other swims lay ahead. The exit from Handrail Pool is also a slot and involved a deep wade and swim through a dark narrow section of the canyon. At the end of the swim the gorge continues narrow, turns and drops steeply to the narrow gate that marks the entrance to another magical place called Jade Pool. Care is needed here for, again the footing is slippery and, just beyond the entrance, there is a drop of about 10 feet to the surface of Jade Pool. There are bolts placed in the wall of the slot leading to the Jade Pool entrance and we rigged a rope handrail to avoid an accident. The bolts extended through the entrance gate and around to a wide ledge on the right about ten feet above the surface of the pool.
Weano Falls, Red Gorge Looking downstream at Regan's Pool
This deep and lovely swimming hole is surrounded, almost enclosed, by towering rock walls that glint with red. Whatever sun filters down turns the water to a shade of gorgeous pale turquoise and hence the name, Jade Pool. A high ledge on the right about 10 feet above the water surface provides the launching point for a jump into the jade pool followed by a mystical swim out through the narrowing exit to another short section of slot. More short cascades follow and then we used small ledges on the right to descend to another large open area and pool with broad rock flats to the right. As we emerged onto these rock flats we saw ahead a window through which we could see the far side of Red Gorge. We were almost at the end of Weano Gorge. The water exits this last big, unnamed pool, proceeds through the window and drops 120 feet down Weano Falls to the bottom of Red Gorge. Ledges on the right allow passage through the window to the rappel anchor, 2 solid bolts joined by a chain, positioned above the drop down the line of the falls. From this anchor we rappelled 120 feet down the very slippery face of Weano Falls to a pool with a swimming disconnect. It was a short swim to the rocky beach beside Junction Pool where we again had lunch. Though it was an option to ascend by one of several possible routes in Joffre Gorge, we chose to ascend the magnificent Hancock Gorge for a second time. It was a good choice for it seemed even more beautiful second time around.
So it was that I satisfied the irresistable impulse that had transfixed me the moment I passed that Fremantle shop window. Karijini would be a great memory to carry away with me from my time in Western Australia. Not just the gorges but the kindness of the people at the Eco-retreat and especially of Danny Francis and Brydie O'Connor. There was a tough and essential grace about these people that matched their environment.
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Last updated 9/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen