ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING
IN THE SOUTHWEST

© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike Q2. Weano and Joffre Gorges, Karijini National Park

Characteristics

Pool in upper Weano Gorge
Karijini National Park, at 6274 square kilometers the second largest Park in Western Australia, is a jewel hidden away in the outback of northwest Australia, in a region known as the Pilbara. This desert landscape is covered with grass called spinifex and scattered with a variety of trees. Huge termite mounds are a feature of the scenery that is almost devoid of people. In the cooler months the land is covered with yellow-flowering cassias and wattles, northern bluebells and purple mulla-mullas. After rain many plants bloom profusely. The wildlife includes red kangaroos, euros, wallaroos, echidnas, geckos, goannas as well as a large variety of birds and snakes including pythons.

Today the Pilbara is home to a few remnants of the original Aboriginal inhabitants and to some scattered mining operations that, nevertheless, exercise considerable influence over most of the affairs of the region. Karijini National Park (which used to be called the Hamersley Range National Park) is the traditional home of the Banyjima, Kurrama and Innawonga Aboriginal people, the new name Karijini meaning "hilly place" in the Banyjima tongue. Evidence of their occupation dates back more than 20,000 years.

Karijini is special because here the Joffre River and its tributaries have cut 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 these adventures and, like its major tributary Joffre Gorge, it contains long cold pools bounded by vertical red 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 this account we describe a descent through Weano Gorge and an ascent via Joffre Gorge.

Since the winter months of July, August and September bring rain and the water is very cold and since the plateau temperatures can be very hot in the summer, the best time to visit is probably in the fall months of April or May.

There are only a couple of campgrounds in this widely spread out Park and only one place to find a bed for the night or a meal, namely the new Eco-Retreat (http://www.karijiniecoretreat.com.au) which, in addition to a campground, rents tents with beds. The Retreat (22o23.176'S 118o16.602'E) is also the hub of all current Park activities and is within hiking distance of the gorges described above. If you plan to follow either of the adventures described here, I would recommend that you sign up for a guided tour with West Oz Active Adventure Tours (http://www.westozactive.com.au) based at the Eco-Retreat who provide all the equipment you need. The owner, Danny Francis (email: info@westozactive.com.au) is the local canyon expert. If you wish to canyoneer on your own then you need to have a nationally recognized accreditation to abseil (rappel) and be lead by a qualified and acredited leader.

Trailhead

It is not easy to get to Karijini National Park. One way is to drive about 750mi (1200km) north from Perth, mostly along the lonely Great Northern Highway. Another way is to fly from Perth to Paraburdoo, a small mining town whose airport is the closest to the park, and rent a car. This airport also serves the slightly larger mining town of Tom Price, 50mi (80kms) away. The Eco-retreat is another 50mi from Tom Price, and a large part of this is dirt road.

This adventure begins at the Weano Picnic area (22o21.404'S 118o17.093'E) and ends at the Eco-retreat (22o23.176'S 118o16.602'E). Consequently it requires a car shuttle unless you get an early morning ride to the former and are staying at the latter. To get to the Weano Picnic area from the entrance to the Eco-retreat (22o23.176'S 118o16.602'E) turn right and drive about 6.5mi (10kms) to the picnic area.

Hike

From the Weano Picnic Area (22o21.404'S 118o17.093'E) hike past the information shelter and down the steps into the bottom of Weano Gorge (22o21.459'S 118o17.217'E). At the bottom of the steps and just upstream there are some lovely pools that are worth stopping to admire. Then, almost immediately as you start down the canyon, the gorge begins to narrow and there is a canyon-spanning pool where you need to wade. Beyond this is a short section with trees and greenery. But the canyon soon narrows further to a dark slot only about 4ft wide. After about 50yds this slot suddenly opens up to a large circular pool known as Handrail Pool (22o21.568'S 118o17.352'E), 0.4mi and 30min from the start.

Handrail Pool in Weano Gorge
(Photo by Brydie O'Connor)
Weano Gorge narrows
Handrail Pool gets its name from the short section of railing that aids your short descent from the slot to a ledge on the left that runs most of the way around the pool. Be sure to use this railing for the footing here is very slippery and falls are a frequent occurence at this spot. Handrail Pool is deep and makes for a most pleasant swim on a hot day but other opportunities to swim lie ahead. The exit from Handrail Pool is a slightly wider slot and the next section is a deep wade and swim through a dark narrow section of canyon. At the end of the swim the gorge continues narrow, turns and drops fairly steeply to the narrow gate that marks the entrance to Jade Pool. Care is needed here for, again the footing is slippery and, just beyond the entrance, there is a drop of about 10ft to the surface of Jade Pool. There are bolts placed in the wall of the slot leading to the Jade Pool entrance and it is wise to use these to prevent an uncontrolled slide into the pool. The bolts extend through the entrance gate and around to the wide ledge on the right above the pool. You should reach Jade Pool about 1hr after the morning start.

Entrance to Jade Pool in Weano Gorge
Jade Pool is a deep and lovely swimming hole surrounded and almost enclosed by towering rock walls. Whatever sun filters down turns the water to a shade of gorgeous pale turquoise. You can proceed along the ledge on the right about 10ft above the water surface or you can jump into the pool and enjoy swimming out through the narrowing exit to another short section of slot. After a short cascade you follow ledges on the right that bring you out to another large open area and pool with broad rock flats to the right. As you come out onto these rock flats you will see ahead of you a window through which you see the far side of Red Gorge. This is almost the end of Weano Gorge. You should reach this point about 1hr 20min after the morning start having travelled just 0.55mi.

The water exits this last big, unnamed pool, proceeds through the window and drops 120ft down Weano Falls (22o21.684'S 118o17.434'E) to the bottom of Red Gorge. Ledges on the right through the window lead to the rappel anchor, 2 solid bolts joined by a chain, positioned above the drop down the line of the falls. From this anchor you rappel 120ft) down the very slippery face of Weano Falls to a pool with a swimming disconnect. It is a short swim to the rocky beach beside Junction Pool which is just a very short way upstream to the right. You should reach Junction Pool (22o21.695'S 118o17.364'E) about 2.5hrs from the start having travelled 0.63mi.

Descending Weano Falls
Junction Pool encompasses the exits of both Joffre Gorge and the much smaller Hancock Gorge, with the exit from Weano Gorge just downstream. Usually there is a welcome patch of sunshine on the rocky beach of Junction Pool and this makes for a nice lunch spot. High above Hancock Gorge you will be able to see the Junction Pool overlook that is as close as many tourists get to this gorge.

At this point you commence your ascent out of the Red Gorge. There are three options for this ascent that we will call the Hancock Option, the Partial Joffre Option and the Full Joffre Option. The Hancock Option is an ascent up Hancock Gorge; this is covered in the other Karijini adventure described in this collection. Instead we describe here the two Joffre Options. Both of these involve swims/floats through long 100yd plus pools similar to the pools in Red Gorge. The two Joffre Options are as follows:

Partial Joffre Option:
The partial Joffre Option begins with a 100yd swim/float up Junction Pool through the Joffre Gorge exit between sheer red walls. Beyond that are two more 100yd plus pools that must swum or floated before you come to the Joffre scree slope on the left hand side about 0.5mi from Junction Pool.
Joffre Falls from the viewing platform
Here, on the rock in front of you, is the scree slope exit sign. You exit up this scree slope following the line of the gully all the way. The first part is fairly steep climbing but this transitions in the second half to a hike through the spinifex grass. After about 0.5mi the gully will lead you to the Knox Gorge parking lot and your return vehicle. This ascent takes about 2hrs for a total of 4.5hrs and a total mileage of 1.1mi.

Full Joffre Option:
The full Joffre Option involves a transit of the entire Joffre Gorge from the Junction Pool to the spectacular Joffre Falls which are adjacent to the Eco-Retreat. This involves more than 10 swims/floats through deep pools of various lengths, some several hundred yards long and all in the shade. In between the pools are rocky sections but nothing technical. It takes about 6hrs to complete this transit of about 2.7mi (4.4kms). The terminus is the spectacular Joffre Falls which are adjacent to the Eco-Retreat about 0.4mi away.

The climb out of the Joffre Gorge is on your right about 50yds downstream from Joffre Falls. The ascent route up a broad, steep side canyon is clearly marked with yellow triangles. You first ascend ledges and then follow the broadening canyon as it turns left and then right approaching the plateau above. A short distance after the right turn look carefully for the unmarked trail that climbs out of the shallow gully on the right. This is the trail back to the Eco-retreat about 0.4mi away. This option will mean a very long day of 8.5hrs during which you will travel 3.7mi.

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Last updated 6/11/09.
Christopher E. Brennen