As my feet left the cliff face and I started plummeting down into the gorge, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. What felt like an eternity later I hit the icy cold water with a splash and a bit of a shout and plunged into its inky depths.
Hidden away in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Karijini National Park has breathtaking gorges, crystal clear natural swimming pools, waterfalls and an abundance of walk trails of varying levels of difficulty.
The Banjima, Yinhawangka and Kurrama Aboriginal people, the traditional owners of the Hamersley Range, call the area Karijini. The name of the national park recognises the historic and ongoing significance of the area to these people, and their involvement in the management of the park. Many areas with in the national park are important and even sacred to the Aboriginal people culturally and physically. Fern Pool and Circular Pool are particularly special, visitors to these areas are encouraged to enter the water quietly and avoid making loud noises.
Luckily no such restrictions are required on Red Gorge a few kilometres away from the more sacred Dales Gorge. On my last trip to Karijini I connected with an adventure tour group who have qualified ropes access guides and can take people deeper into the park than a casual visitor is allowed. It is a very full day, you jump from several waterfalls into deep pools below as you make your way deeper and deeper into the park.
The day starts out with a briefing and getting kitted out, my kit is a fair bit heavier as I'm carrying all the usual gear, a cut down version of my camera gear and a tripod (I know, I know... can't do waterfall shots without a tripod though). We make our way down into Red Gorge, hike our way through the gorge until we get to the end of the tourist area, this is where the adventure starts.
Our guide sets up some ropes and we abseil off a log and down through the first of many waterfalls into a swimming hole. Even with the wet-suit on, entering the icy cold water momentarily takes my breath away. It is a short swim to the next waterfall where we take off our packs and throw them the 7-8 meters down into the pool below, I've got to admit, throwing the pack with my camera in it and my tripod attached to it went against every instinct I have. Then it was time for the first jump.
While I've always had a physical reaction (aching knees and elbows) to heights, I have mentally conquered the fear I had of heights quite a long time ago. I've always been the type of person who has to go do dumb stuff to confront my fears... like joining a public speaking club when I was deathly afraid of it or climbing the tallest trees I could as a kid to prove I wasn't afraid (just stupid). So when it came to jumping off the waterfall, I went first... to prove to everyone including me that I make poor choices when it comes to my own safety.
It is quite the rush to jump off a waterfall into the very deep pools below, getting down there I found my camera gear had survived just fine (it was inside a padded case) and my tripod was still attached to the bag. The rest of the day involved more waterfall jumps, more swimming and more wondering if my camera gear was ok.
After a quick break for lunch and an idyllic, current assisted swim we started the assent back out of the gorges. Most of it was fairly steep and required ropes to assist us as everything is quite slippery. Other parts required an actual rock climb to get out.
All in all it was an awesome day that takes you through some of the most picturesque parts of Karijini that the general public doesn't get access to without a qualified and certified guide.
The rest of Karijini National Park is very scenic and can be done self-guided if you are reasonably fit and healthy. There are some severe elevation changes so I wouldn't recommend it if you aren't all that fit and healthy. An area of the park that is well worth the visit and effort to get to is the natural Spa Pools. I first photographed these many years ago and the photos went immediately viral after I shared them.
I've now visited Karijini about a dozen times, each time I find new angles and views to photograph, new experiences and a renewed appreciation for how amazing it is. I was fortunate enough to have some of my photos from Karijini picked up by National Geographic for a story they were running awhile ago. I love seeing my work in magazines, but to see it in National Geographic was a dream come true!
Beyond the amazing gorges, there are easily accessible lookouts where you can peer down into the gorges below, I'd recommend staying well within the safety barriers in these areas though as people have lost their lives by slipping and falling into the gorges.
The ideal time of year to visit Karijini is from the end of March through to mid-October, outside of those times of year you are in the middle of the Australian Outback in summer, it hits over 40 degrees celsius daily during summer. The outback can be very harsh, even deadly, to the unprepared, especially in the summer heat, that said, it is all sealed roads to the park with a fair bit of traffic, so not overly dangerous.
The only accommodation within Karijini National Park are either the eco tents at the Eco Retreat (highly, highly recommend them and the food there is incredible) or self-sufficient camping in designated camp grounds. The nearest air-conditioned accommodation is in the near by town of Tom Price, which is about 90 kilometres from the park entrance, about an hours drive.
The nearest airport with vehicle hire is in Paraburdoo, otherwise it is a 16+ hour drive from Perth, the state's capital and nearest international airport. I've always done the drive as it is significantly cheaper than flying and hiring a vehicle.
I'm planning on heading back to Karijini again at some point next season as I've still got a few places I've not covered on my many trips! I may take a very small group of photographers with me as a workshop / tour, let me know if you are seriously interested.
Beyond the gorges, creeks, waterfalls and amazing swimming the park gets covered in wildflowers at the right times of year and there are a few "mountains" (not really mountains, just large hills in my opinion) near by, including the tallest one in Western Australia. I've not done the hikes up these, but there are a few with 4x4 tracks you can take up.
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