The Six Gorges of Karijini in Western Australia
By Dan Campion
Australia is famous for its National Parks, we’ve got everything from the tropical rainforests of the Daintree National Park in Queensland to the glimmering white ski slopes of the Alpine National Park in Victoria.
There is a national park for every preference of outdoor activity, but for those of us that like to go beyond the handrail and boardwalks, there is one park that stands out among the rest, Karijini National Park. Karijini is the jewel in the crown of the West Australian parks.
It is a barren and ancient place, a place where tiny streams hidden among rolling hills trickle over hard rocks and spinifex before plunging into dramatic sheer-sided gorges.
Ideal for naturists and photographers, the Park has been shaped by time, billions of years of water flowing over rocks have carved out the enormous chasms that are now known as the gorges of Karijini.
The six main gorges we’ll cover here are Joffre, Hancock, Weano, Dales, Knox, and Hammersley.
Joffre Gorge is my all-time favorite of Karijini’s Gorges, this could be due to the fact that there is a campground positioned within a five-minute walk but more likely because of its sensational and mind-blowing beauty.
The entry into Joffre is at times a very steep incline with no handrails in site. Before we continue, it should be said the safety precautions of Karijini are far from overbearing, although this is one of the reasons it’s a favorite among travelers.
The Park has a ‘find out for yourself’ attitude that can be taken almost as far as you’re willing to go within the realms of common sense.
People have died at Karijini and personal safety is your own responsibility. Once you’ve reached the bottom of Joffre you are faced with a decision, to go left, or to go right. A right will take you to the massive, multi-leveled Joffre Falls that tinkles down into a circular cavern called The Emporium.
The enormity of these falls is difficult to describe, we’re talking over 100 meter high cliffs broken up into three levels creating one gigantic, softly flowing waterfall.
However, the real fun at Joffre is in the opposite direction. After marveling at Joffre falls you can head downstream, slide down a relatively small cascade then plunge into the icy cold water and swim down the length of the gorge and around the corner.
Sheer cliff faces on both sides rise up to at least 100 meters tall and squeeze together creating narrow passages giving an almost claustrophobic sensation as you swim.
Once you’ve reached the end you can make your way through a small cluster of paperbark trees, past Olympic Pool and down to the edge of another sheer drop with a huge waterfall.
If you’ve made it this far you’re doing great, here’s where a little local knowledge goes a long way.
Head over to the right-hand side of the gorge and start climbing down, about half way there are some wonderfully positioned ledges that you can jump from into the pool below, don’t worry, it’s plenty deep enough!
This gorge favorite among photographers because of the two pools at the end of the passable section. Hancock, like Joffre, requires explorers to get wet on their journey although all-out swimming is not necessary, the water passages of Hancock are shallow enough to walk through.
About two-thirds of the way in you’ll reach the famous Spider Walk, this section consists of a narrow passage with a slippery creek flowing through the center.
The most effective way to continue is to place one hand and one foot on each side of the chasm and shimmy your way along like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.
After the Spider Walk, you’ll find yourself in a cave with the mesmerizing Kermit’s Pool in the center. This is quite possibly the most photogenic rock pool you’ll ever come across so now is the time to take your camera and start snapping.
Beyond Kermit’s Pool is Reagan’s Pool although access is forbidden without a proper guide and equipment.
An insider’s tip for Hancock Gorge is to explore to the right of the entry stairs, it’s a rough track but you can find a beautiful swimming hole with a few large snappy gums clinging to the cliffs.
Knox is the unsung hero of Karijini, this gorge receives the least attention from visitors but it has plenty to offer. Although not as dramatic as its siblings, the rock formations of Knox are impressive.
A walk up the Gorge will show wide cliff faces with bands of deep blue and purple, small streams trickle down into puddles that gradually flow into larger pools surrounded by snappy gums and fig trees.
There are some wonderful, private swimming holes and sun baking locations.
Weano Gorge consists of dark twisted rock corridors with a few large caverns with large rock pools, to reach the end of Weano swimming is required.
Many visitors decide against this because of the sub-freezing temperatures of the water in Weano, although if you are brave enough to face the cold the journey is quite spectacular with tall, narrow passages that let very little light in.
There is a famous local story of a huge olive python sliding down into one of Weano’s pools and pulling out a fully grown Kangaroo that had fallen in and died. If you head to the park’s visitors center and ask the staff politely, they will show you an old photo of the snake in action.
Dales is in another area of the park from the other Gorges, about 40km away. Dales Gorge has its own campground which is operated by the national park and can be booked online.
The Gorge itself is very different from the other Gorges of the park, it’s essentially a large L shape with a magical and relaxing walking track that takes you from end to end.
There are three major sites to see in Dales Gorge: Fortescue Falls, Circular Pool, and Fern Pool. All three of these are highly sacred sites to the local Aboriginal people that have inhabited the area for thousands of years.
Fern Pool is particularly special, this was used as a birthing pool for Aboriginal women, back in those days no men were ever allowed to enter the pool.
Restrictions have loosened up since then and it is now an amazing swimming hole, although the highest amount of respect and appropriate behavior must be observed while visiting this area of the park.
Last but certainly not least is Hammersley Gorge, Hammersley is further afield than any of the other gorges in the park but it’s well worth the drive. The gorge features some of the oldest rock formations known to man, you can actually see the layers of the earth’s crust and the changes it has undergone over time.
Hammersley is also home to another amazingly photogenic rock pool: Spa Pool. The trick to capturing outstanding photos of Spa Pool is to wait until it is completely in shadow, either on a cloudy day or once the sun has disappeared behind the walls of the gorge.
Hammersley is a great gorge for families or couples looking for a spot to picnic. If you’re feeling like a swim there is plenty to see with a short swim downstream.
Karijini is the traditional home of the Banyjima, Kurama and Innawonga Aboriginal people. Evidence of their early occupation dates back more than 20,000 years!
The visitor center of the park contains loads of information about the Aboriginal history of the area and is definitely worth a look.
When visiting Karijini it is important to respect the area and the restrictions put on visitors.
The Gorges listed here are not the only gorges in the park and there is also plenty of bush tracks to walk and mountains to climb, all that’s left to do is to go check it out!
Dan Campion runs hightechnomads.com in Australia.