Our heartbeats began to race as the howling in the distance got closer and closer, like a night train arriving with an unknown cargo. Camping in the Australian outback was always going to be a challenge but this was our first night and it was just us and our swag tent. We’d heard that dingoes, Australia’s indigenous wild dogs, hunted in packs of six to eight during the night in search of kangaroos (or anything else they fancied to eat). And, sure enough, a pack of them was on the search that night…straight through our campsite.
Being the resourceful type I made the regulation safety measures my top priority – zipping up the front of our swag tent with enough zeal that the zip handle cut into my fingers. We looked at each other and simultaneously placed our index fingers over our mouths just in case either of us was planning to let out a scream.
And then we waited. Silently.
The dingo’s footsteps approached our tent, just a thin piece of canvas between us and the meanest mutt in the outback. We held our breaths like a couple of characters in a B-movie horror film, expecting the worse, hoping for a quick end. I wondered whether the dingo might have got a bit bored of kangaroo meat and was on the lookout for something different. Just for a change.
And then it was all over. The dingo strolled past and we lived to enjoy our first campfire breakfast.
Welcome to the Outback. Welcome to Australia.
We camped in Karijini National Park, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, an area that’s not even well-known to Australians, never mind the rest of the world. But we were blown away by the sheer beauty of the place. Think swathes of green bush and eucalyptus trees set against a backdrop of shockingly red soil and impossibly deep red gorges, featuring crystal clear streams and dramatic waterfalls. Add in clear blue skies and winter temperatures of 27 degrees C and we’d say it doesn’t really get much better than this.
We’d only found out about it after some extensive research and had chosen it as the first major stop on a three-week circular road trip around the western edge of WA. Our decision to come to Australia was made in Bali when we saw that we could pick up a three and a half our flight to Perth with Air Asia for 100 Aussie Dollars (£50). A no-brainer really. We’d so enjoyed our east-coast honeymoon in Queensland that it seemed like too much of an opportunity to miss the chance of exploring the west coast too. We knew it would be a bit of a budget-buster for us compared to SE Asia, but some friends of Nicky in Mandurah, just south of Perth, had kindly offered to lend us their swag tent and some camping equipment. So it was game on!
We picked up our car rental at Perth after flying in from Bali and headed straight to Mandurah for our essential camping supplies. You know the sort. 12 bottles of wine, a bottle of gin and the odd six-pack of Aussie craft beer etc. Our first night was spent as guests of Nicky and Paul in their lovely Mandurah home before we packed the swag and everything else into the car and hit the road at first light the following morning.
Our drive north to Karijini National Park would take two days, but it was a memorable one. We’d heard that there was really nothing to see along the 1600km journey via the Great Northern Highway. But we loved it. Once we got out of Perth and its suburbs we found ourselves driving through the outback for miles upon miles. And that meant huge yawning vistas of prime outback and hardly any traffic whatsoever. That is, apart from the occasional “road train” – an articulated lorry with up to four carriages in tow. But, with straights in the road of up to 6km in length, it wasn’t too much of challenge to overtake them.
Unfortunately, the casualties of these monstrous trucks can be seen on the roadside, usually accompanied by one or more huge eagles. Apparently, kangaroos are more prominent at dusk and dawn and they have a tendency to run towards the bright lights of approaching traffic rather than away from it. We even saw a large and very dead cow in the middle of our lane. If left unattended in the heat their bodies can explode, so there are workers who patrol the roads and remove them while they’re still able to. Australia!
After 16 hours of driving, we arrived at Dales Camp, the first of two sites we’d be staying at in the National Park. It had a gorgeous location in the bush, although the on-site facilities were either very basic or non-existent.
After two nights there we moved on to the Savannah Campground at the Karijini Eco Retreat. We preferred this location as it felt as if we were even more in the outback with big open spaces. And luke-warm showers rather than freezing cold ones!
Our pitch faced right out on into the wilderness, which made for great late afternoon glasses of red wine while watching the sunset.
The night sky here was absolutely incredible too. The Milky Way put on a show for us each night in spectacular fashion and, as our swag had a fold-backable roof, we were able to lie back and gaze at it from the comfort of our sleeping bags. Which didn’t last long as the temperatures plummeted after the sun went down.
However, on our second night we took a star gazing trip, which was enough to make Nicky positively squeal with excitement. We were taken on a short trip outside the campsite to an outdoor mini-theatre featuring four powerful telescopes. There we were able to view at close quarters the Milky Way, Saturn and its rings, and take photos of the Moon’s surface with our mobile phones!
Access to many of the sites is geared to 4-wheel drive cars – and there were lots of them around – but our two wheel hire car helped us to explore the more popular sites, thanks to Nicky’s meticulously cautious driving. We’d decided to think about jet washing the car to get rid of all the red dust for another day. Now was the time to just go for it.
From Dales Camp it was a brief walk to Dales Gorge, along a dirt track through the outback, surrounded by lots of huge, red termite mounds. They were dotted all over the countryside and were a beautiful additional feature of the landscape.
Sheer cliffs of iron-infused granite plunged down to the gorge floor, green foliage clinging to it wherever it could. After a walk along the rim we climbed down to the floor and took in such sights as Fortescue Falls, Fern Pool and Circular Pool. The walk itself was not particularly taxing. The more challenging walks would come later. But we still had to keep our wits about us as it meant clambering over rocks and through river beds, complete with potentially venomous snakes, spiders et al.
Access to this gorge was from the Savannah Campground, across a surreal landscape of gum and bloodwood trees.
The gorge itself was even deeper than Dales’. The hike down was also a definite step up in terms of difficulty – bordering on mountaineering at times. Some of our traverses across rocky ledges involved holding on to rocks above us while we shifted our feet from ledge to ledge. But the views on the way down were worth it.
The payoff for our endeavours was stunning too. As we crossed the stones along the river bed and turned the corner we were greeted by a huge bowl of rocks, dominated by a flowing waterfall of incredible beauty. It felt like what it must have been like to see Rivendell from Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was all we could do to just sit there and take it all in.
Our climb back up the cliffs allowed us to look at the gorge and its waterfall from different perspectives, and these were even more spectacular.
While Dales and Joffre Gorges could be reached with a short stroll from the campsites, Weano and Hancock Gorges involved a 10km drive along a red gravel track, which really did test our car’s tyres and suspension. Not to mention Nicky’s nerves. She’d long decided that my driving style wasn’t up to the task and so she assertively jumped into the driver’s seat and took the challenge head on. Medals and plaudits will no doubt follow very soon.
Once again, from the viewing point we were treated to some sublime scenery as four gorges converged at Oxer Lookout.
The grade of hiking was now getting progressively more extreme and, after a fairly lengthy trail around the gorge rim, we then descended to the river bed and entered a very narrow section of gorge with a fast flowing stream running through it. We managed to negotiate this by walking through the middle of the stream rather than traversing the rocky ledges.
As the gorge narrowed even further, the stream got steeper until it disappeared as a waterfall over the precipice below – plunging into “Handrail Pool”. There’s a reason it’s called this – to get down to the floor level you have to descend via a handrail either side of a vertical piece of steel pipe. Our task was to exit the waterfall at its peak, across to the handrail and then scale the remainder of the descent into the bowl below. Which, of course, as the experienced gorge trekkers we’d now become, we did with aplomb. Simply stunning setting yet again. And what a place to enjoy a picnic lunch.
And, finally, on to Hancock Gorge – certainly the most challenging of the four gorges we visited. We had a certain amount of trepidation about this one as a hiker had fallen to his death only two days before (although he had strayed away from the marked trail). And a woman had broken her leg the previous day too. But, after a chat with the park ranger, we decided to go for it.
And the hike was certainly one not to be taken lightly. We waded through neck-high ice cold water and traversed long sections of steep rocky ledges until we came to the star attraction – the so-called “spider walk”. It’s a very narrow section which usually involves shuffling along with your feet and hands on both walls. But we again took the option to (carefully) walk straight through the stream. An exhilarating hike once again. Unfortunately no photos this time due to the proximity of lots of water and my chances of falling into it camera-in-hand. Note to self – look into buying a waterproof camera housing. Or better still, invest in a “Go-Pro”.
There were other gorges to visit in the area but our lack of a four wheel drive meant that we had to give them a miss – for now anyway. We absolutely loved Karijini National Park – the scale of the place, its raw beauty and the sense of being somewhere truly wild and unspoilt. Our first experience of camping in the outback was also a game-changer too. You really do have to be self-sufficient. But it was an unforgettable experience that we intend to experience again.
And that includes the late-night and early morning howls of the dingoes. We kind of miss them, really.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.