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Karijini National Park ... a journey into an ancient land.

Updated: Nov 12,

Karijini National Park is one of the Australia's true marvels ... One could even go so far as to say it is one of the planet's true marvels.

Karijini is the reason why I came back to Western Australia about 11 years ago. I came to work for somebody guiding restricted class 6 anyons in the park. I was then living and working in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales as a canyon guide.

The first time I visited Karijini was over 25 years ago and thought it was one of the most stunning places I had ever visited. Back then I only explored the public access areas of the park. When I came back to Western Australia from the Blue Mountains to work guiding the restricted access class 6 canyons I fell in love with the park even more.

When first arriving in Karijini one sees the ancient red hills covered with spinifex, which vary in colour from yellow to green depending on the season, and are dotted with snappy gums of white bark and green leaves. The contrast is stunning. Large termite mounds can be seen everywhere, like giant monoliths they seem to stand guard everywhere you look.

Karijini National Park from the air with rain clouds moving in.
Karijini Savannah (photo credit Tristan McKenzie)

a large Karijini termite mound
Karijini Termite Mound (photo credit Nathan Dobie)

There is no obvious evidence of what lies beneath the surface at first glance. It is not until one begins the descent into this ancient earth that the true beauty of Karijini is revealed. It is like taking a step back in time where layers upon layers of banded ironstone reveal the ancient history of this place. Each layer is a volcanic sedimentation from eruptions of a bygone era. The sediments were deposited when the Earth was young and still forming. These formations are what give the gorges of Karijini their characteristic beauty. We will discuss their formation in another blog. From the air one can see the deep cracks cut into the earth over time. These are the must see parts of Karijini that most visitors come for.

Gorges Karijini National Park
Karijini Gorges from the air (photo credit Tristan McKenzie)

From the very first steps one takes when entering these gorges, it is like entering another world and a giant step back in time the deeper you go. The heat of the day begins to drop a way as one descends deeper, a cool breeze often drifts up from below with the smell of something enticing and enchanting. More and more water becomes evident, which serves a a stark contrast to the dry and often dusty land above. Karijini is classified as a semi-arid desert, with daytime temperature in the earlier (April and May) and later parts (September and October) of the season often being 35 degree celsius or above. Situated above the 23rd parallel and experiences dry and wet seasons. The dry season, which is peak season and the best time to visit to park, generally begins at the start of April and the wet season generally begins at the end of October. Over the years with the impact of anthropocentric climate change the regularity of the seasons have been upset. This has also negatively impacted the park and its flora and fauna. The relatively regular seasons to which all things within the park have adjusted over thousands of years, are finely balanced and as much as the Karijini landscape and its inhabitants are able to survive harsh extremes, they are also sensitive to this change. We are now experiencing dryer wet seasons as well as rain in the dry season. The water levels within the park have dropped over the years that I have been guiding there. The floods which used to cleanse the gorges and flush out weeds and invasive species are no longer as high, nor come in as much regularity and with as much force as they used to. We will discuss some of this in another blog post.

Like most deserts it gets colder in the evening and nighttime temperatures in June, July and August can drop to below zero. For the hottest summer months time heading deep into these gorgeous as a welcome reprieve. The water is nevertheless still fresh as some of the pools are quite deep and the evening temperatures even in summer, still drop enough to keep the pools cool. The cold is night time temperature I've experienced and Karijini was -7°C. It is not uncommon to have frost covering the ground and everything has touches in the July winter months. The daytime temperatures though are still a pleasant mid 20s and sometimes above. Visiting the park always bring something warm to wear, even in summer for the nights are still cool and when the winds pick up at times it becomes cooler still.

As you descend deeper into the gorges, the rocks feel like they are wrapping around you as they enclose above your head and start to narrow the view of the sky. This brings on an eerie light as well as providing further shelter from the heat above. Public access gorges range from classes 1(wheelchair access at the lookout in Dales Gorge) to 5(the most challenging public access areas) from easiest to more challenging. When accessing the gorges, a good sense of balance and awareness of how the ground changes underfoot, as well as a relatively good level of fitness is required.

Although, the park is for all ages, I would say, know your limits. All too often I come across people that are really struggling and should not have gone as far as they have come. There have been quite a few deaths and injuries over the years, rescues are common place and occur each season. Most of these could have been avoided if more care was taken with regards to respecting the land one is walking on and not pushing yourself when you really shouldn't have. Loose rocks and slippery surfaces require careful navigation and suitable footwear. Thongs and bare feet are not the best options. Bare feet tend to slip quiet a lot on the slippery surfaces, as well as allowing for easy injury on the sharp stones which often can't be seen when walking through the shallow pools as one ventures deeper. Soft soled sneakers that you are comfortable getting wet, are the way to go. Volleys are one the best shoes for this. I have found Solomons and Keens, which both tend to have relatively hard soles, make it very easy to sleep and not feel stable on your feet when walking wet surfaces. Hiking shoes, which also tend to have harder soles, are in the same boat.

Walking sticks/poles are 100% not recommended as far I am concerned. If you're not stable enough on your feet, and/or carry and injury that requires these, this not the place for you. Sticks and poles can easily get stuck in crevices/cracks, throwing you off balance, they can easily slip when you rely on the too much, and they don't leave your hands free to maintain 3 points of contact where needed, nor allow you to protect yourself with your hands if you fall over. Seeing people with poles in the class 4 and 5 areas always makes me very nervous.

Another that is not recommended is babies/small kids carrier, you know the ones strapped to you front of back (especially the ones that sit high up). These also makes me very nervous. These gorges require people of all ages, including kids that can walk by themselves, to treat them with respect and an awareness of the remoteness of Karijini. Rescues by the State Emergency Services (SES), can take up to 10 hours, and require a lot of resources. People that make up a rescue team, often have to come from hours away. This can be extremely difficult especially when there is roping involved. I have been part of a few rescues and know all too well how long they can take and how difficult they can be. Most accidents happen in the public access areas.

Class 6 gorges are the restricted access gorges, these go deeper and become even more stunning!

Do not attempt to access these gorges without a guide or by obtaining a lawful authority from National Parks. As well as being dangerous, heavy fines are imposed. Over the years of guiding in the park, I have unfortunately caught a few people down there illegally, some needed rescuing. The best way and the safest way to access these areas is on a guided tour.

This is where we come in ;) To date, with hundreds of trips under my belt over 10 years, I have not had an evacuation. My staff and I, take safety very seriously and our motto is: Safety first without exceptions. I have turned people away that are not suitable for our trips. We do try to try to accomodate most people and are always open to a discussion. Our decisions are final though and always based on the safety for all participants. The youngest we have taken into class 6 to date was 6.5 years old, and the oldest I have taken was 84 ... he was very fit and ran rings around some the younger members of the group. We never want to let age get in the way of an adventure :)

We run a variety of trips into these restricted access gorges, ranging from day trips to multi day trips. We began running restricted canyons with the Karijini Adventure, Original almost 10 years ago. Back then there was another commercial operator located in the park that ran restricted class 6 canyons as single day trips only. So as to not compete with this operator and to offer something different, we only ran multi day trips with accommodation, food and airport shuttles provided. We also offered one extra class 6 canyon trip that one else was offering, the Joffre Journey. We still offer this to this day. It is a stunning trip that starts at 8 o'clock in the morning entering via Hancock gorge for its entire length and into class 6 where it descends deep into the heart of Karijini. It runs for the full length of Jeffre gorge, over 6.5 km, and exiting at the Eco Retreat around 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

When this operator closed its doors during Covid, we stepped up operations and began running Karijini Day Adventures as well as three other multi day trips the Karijini Yoga & Canyoning Adventure the Karijini Painting & Canyoning Adventure, and the Karijini Photography Adventure. We are a Perth based business and only come up for the dates listed on our website. These dates are updated regularly. Please check these for our availability and plan your trip around these dates if you are looking to come on one of our adventures. We have run private trips in the past and can come up outside these times. This will require a minimum number and minimum cost. Please contact us to discuss this.

Although the public access gorges are stunning and definitely worth a visit, the real magic happens when you go deeper, away from the crowds and as deep as you can go into the heart of Karijini. Some of these restricted gorges are up to 135 metres deep. They have pools that never run dry of which the bottom cannot be seen or easily reached. These restricted Gorges are all connected to one another and we run our adventures with different exit and entry points at the western end of the park where the Karijini Eco Retreat is located. If you are looking at joining us for a single day trip to Eco Retreat office both camping eco-tents and cabin style accommodation. If you are looking at staying at this side of the park, please book your accommodation well in advance as they retreat books out during the school holidays. We run our class 6 day trips during the school holidays as this is the busiest time in Karijini and we need to maximise the return on our investment of coming up from Perth. For our multi day trips we sort the accommodation for you in eco-tents with ensuite bathrooms.

Please check the website links above for full details of all our Karijini adventures. If you have something specific in mind for teambuilding and/or a special occasion, please get in touch. We are more than happy to look at catering a bespoke adventure for you and your group.

Karijini Hancock Gorge, class 6, via ferrata
Hancock Gorge, class 6, via ferrata

Karijini Hancock Gorge, class 6: The Chute
Hancock Gorge, class 6: The Chute

Karijini Knox Gorge, class 6: Natural Rock Slide
Knox Gorge, class 6: The Slide

Karijini boasts some of the oldest naturally exposed rocks on the planet. Some of these rocks have been dated 2.5 billion years old. The gorges/canyons of Karijini have been carved out by water and natural erosion for billions of years. The word canyon and gorges are interchangeable, and depend on where you come from in the world. A canyon or gorge, refers to geology carved out by water over time. The stunning red rocks of Karijini are rusting which gives them their iconic colour. The natural process of oxidation occurs due to the large quantities of iron ore found within these rocks. This ore not only gives Karijini it's iconic colour but unfortunately also leads to an extensive network of mining operations surrounding the park. As much as these mining operations bring vast amount of wealth to Western Australia and Australia as a whole, they unfortunately are also responsible for negative impacts on the park.

Karijini is the second largest national park in Western Australia and covers an area of 627,422 ha. It is currently ranked in the top five visitor experiences for the state, and is one of my all-time favourite places in the world.

Karijini used to be called the Hamersley Range National Park, and was discovered by a party led by explorer F.T Gregory who explored the area in 1861. He named the Hamersley Range which runs through the National Park after his good friend Edward Hamersley. The National Park was then named after the range; Hamersley Range National Park.

It was renamed Karijini, which means hilly place in the Banyjima tongue, in 1991 to recognise the traditional owners and custodians of the land. This land is home to 3 traditional aboriginal groups; the Banyjima, the Kaurrama and the Innawonga. The traditional custodians of Karijini, have ancestors that lived on the land for over 30,000 years.

The Karijini Creation Myth

Aboriginal dreamtime stories speak of a giant serpent which is known by many names throughout Australia but known as the Warlu in the Banyjima language. The Warlu that is said to have made its way from Coral Bay, all the way to Jirndawurrunha (Millstream National Park), created all the gorges, waterways and pools in Karijini. This Warlu was a sea serpent and called Barrimirndi. Legend has it, Barrimirndi became angry with two boys who cooked and ate a parrot. Barrimirndi followed the scent of the singed feathers in search of the boys. Travelling underground, he wove his way up the river now known as the Fortescue, cutting gorges and rivers into the landscape. Sometimes he broke through the surface to check for the scent, creating a waterhole before disappearing underground again.

He reached his destination at Jirndawurrunha and came up at Nhanggangunha (Deep Reach Pool).

Barrimirndi found the boys there, raised them up into a wananggaa or willy willy (a dust devil) in which they were injured. When they fell back down to the ground, he ate them whole. The local people tried to pull them from the serpent’s stomach, but were unsuccessful. Angered by the people’s actions, Barrimirndi drowned them in a flood. Barrimirndi still lives in Nhanggangunha.

When one enters the pool, one must take a sip of water into the mouth and spit it out calling “nguru” to let the serpent hear your respect for the land.

The traditional owners of the land still practise this out of deference to Barrimirndi every time they enter the waters of Karijini. We also do this and ask our clients to do the same when we enter the gorges.

Karijini from the air
Hamersley Ranges, Karijini National Park (photo credit Tristan McKenzie)

Mount Bruce, Karijini National Park
Mount Punurrunha, aka Mount Bruce (photo credit Nathan Dobie)

Mount Punurrunha, also known as Mount Bruce is a solitary monolith which stands at the entrance of Karijini National Park when approaching it from the Western side. It is the second largest mountain, if one can call it that by global standards, in Western Australia. It is 1234 meters high ... convenient height and almost seems not real. It is Klein by many people and makes for an outstanding climb best done early in the morning as it can get very hot during summer during the day. Take plenty of water and make sure you have some protection. The return journey varies depending on your level of fitness anywhere from 3 hours to 6 hours. We do offer this trip as part of our multi-day Karijini adventures.

My next blog post will cover Karijini's geological creation and connection to the theory of Panspermia and why we are all possibly Martians. Worth a read ... and backed by science :)

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