The Pilbara is a "craton" - a fragment of the earth's original crust of 3.5 billion years ago that somehow never got splintered and re-absorbed into the planetary interior by the milling of plate tectonics. About 2.5 billion years ago it lay under a shallow sea, and iron ores were deposited on the seabed, interlayered with volcanic ash. The earth's atmosphere had very little oxygen, so the iron was oxidised by marine bacterial photosynthesis - it was only when all the iron was sated that the bacteria converted earth into a "blue planet", 2.3 billion years ago. The seabed deposits were compressed into layers of dolomite and shale, then uplifted as the Hamersley Range of mountains, bringing a rich source of minerals within reach of any society that prized them.
The north edge of the range is a scarp eroded by streams into deep gorges and canyons, with a red banded appearance from the dolomite. The gorges broaden and their outwash fans out across the Fortescue valley. This creates a grand scenery of seasonal waterfalls and pools, with the ever-changing light playing on the coloured rock layers. In a wetter climate such old mountains would have eroded away, but this has long been a tropical semi-desert.
The minerals brought large-scale mining to the area from the 1960s. The national park was established in 1969, then extended and took its present name in 1991. There's room enough for co-existence — the park is bisected by a freight railway — but there has been conflict, see Wittenoom below.
Flora and fauna edit
Most of the land is a dry savannah, with hummock grasslands, Acacia and similar wiry shrubs, and stands of trees such as Eucalyptus. June to Sept the wild flowers bloom, such as mulla mullas and Karijini wattle. Common animals are red kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos (a distinct species, not a cross-breed) and echidnas.
Summer temperatures are often above 40°C while winter days are warm and clear, but nights are cool or even frosty. Summer dry spells are punctuated by thundery downpours, or cyclone winds and torrential rain - get out of the area if these are forecast.
Visitor information edit
Get in edit
There is no public transport around the park, so you need a vehicle and a full tank before setting off. The nearest service stations to the park are 80 km west at Tom Price and 105 km (65 mi) east at Auski.
The park lies west of the Great Northern Highway (Hwy 95) between Port Hedland (316 km) and Newman (178 km): this is a good sealed road. Most areas are reached by turning off at Juna Downs onto Karijini Drive. This crosses the park with side trails for the visitor centre, Dales campsite, Joffre Weano and Hancock gorges, the eco retreat and Mount Bruce. Eventually this road brings you to Tom Price and rejoins Hwy 136.
Hwy 136 westbound leaves the Great Northern Highway at Auski and runs outside the park boundary, with no access to the areas in the hills above. Eventually it trends south, with the turn off to Hamersley Gorge. Continue south for Tom Price, where you meet the west end of Karijini Drive and can loop back towards the majority of sights.
From Exmouth and elsewhere in Gascoyne Region you can also turn off the NW Coastal Highway to follow Hwy 136 east. This road is mostly sealed, though that's not yet reflected by Google Map street view, and work continues in 2022. The remaining unsealed sections are graded and suitable for 2WD, but caravans or mobile homes need extra care.
The park south of Karijini Drive is bisected by a railway and mining corridor. The southern portion has no tracks, no nothing, and is expedition territory.
Fees and permits edit
Visitor fees are standard for Western Australia's parks. A private vehicle with up to 12 occupants is $12 and a motorbike is $8. This is only good for a single entry; however campers only pay for their first entry on top of their camping fee. There's no charge if you enter on foot or by bicycle, which given the distances and heat would be heroic or mad. Multi-entry passes for all parks are available for 5 or 14 days, a month or year.
Dogs are not permitted in the park.
Get around edit
The areas of interest are some distance apart and you need a vehicle to move between them. 2WD is suitable.
See and do edit
- Joffre Falls (1 km southeast of the Eco Retreat on Weano Rd; can be reached by a trail from there. However the easier approach is via Banjima and Joffre roads to the lookout and car park on the other bank). A walk takes you down into the "slot canyon", looking just about wide enough to drop a coin in, until it broadens out at the pool in "the amphitheatre". This trail is 1.5 km or 2 hours and involves some scrambling and clinging onto the rock face.
- 1 Knox Lookout (at the end of the road past Joffre Falls). The chasm is best viewed in early morning or late afternoon light, and the view north is its intersection with Wittenoom Gorge. Hiking down into the gorge is a 2-km, 3-hour return trip.
- 2 Weano Recreation Area. Can be reached by Weano Rd past the eco-retreat. There's a picnic and BBQ area, shade and toilets. Oxer's Lookout at the very end of the road is at a stream junction, with views along Weano, Hancock, Red and Joffre gorges. Trails of varying rigour descend to Handrail Pool and Kermit's Pool.
- 3 Hamersley Gorge. Perhaps the most scenic corner of the park. Reach it off Hwy 136: the access road is sealed and there are toilets by the lower car park. Rippled rock formations shimmer in the water; it's safe to swim in the pool.
- 4 Mount Bruce (Punurrunha). A 1234 m / 4049 ft high mountain, rising prominently by Karijini Drive. Turn off onto the unsealed track leading 3 km south to the parking lot (no facilities) at the west end of the ridge. An easy walk heads 500 m south to view the Marandoo mines. Honey Hakea trail then continues uphill for another 4 km to another viewpoint. You're now halfway to the summit: it's best not to continue in hot weather, as the complete return is a 9-hour slog. Mount Bruce is the state's second highest mountain; it's edged for the top spot by Mount Meharry, 62 km southeast and 15 m higher.
- 5 Kalamina Gorge.
- 6 Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool (in Dales Gorge). Fortescue Falls and the nearby Fern Pool are the most popular bathing spots in the park. Rock terraces surround Fortescue Falls, allowing sunbathers space to soak up the sun, and Fern Pool is a great place to shelter during the warmest moments of the day.
The visitor centre has a souvenir shop.
Eat and drink edit
Eco Retreat restaurant is open daily, serving April-Oct to 8PM and Nov-Mar to 6:30PM. It has limited capacity and booking is strongly recommended. There's also a burger takeaway and a BBQ area.
And that's all there is. There's access to drinking water, but campers need to bring their own essentials.
- 1 Karijini Eco Retreat, off Weano Rd, ☏ , email@example.com. Glamping near Joffre Falls, with luxury tents, cabins and standard caravan and camping pitches. It's owned and run by Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, not by the park. Accommodation rates don't include the park entry fees. Restaurant capacity is tight, book your table as soon as you book your stay. No dogs. Pitch $44, eco-tent $220, luxury tent $380.
- 2 Dales campground, Dales Rd (off Karijini Drive), ☏ . Park-run campground near Fortescue Falls. Open all year, booking essential June-Sept. This campground offers no running water. Adult $11/night.
- 3 Karijini Eco Retreat. Offering a slightly less basic camping option, campers can enjoy a shower, use basic kitchen facilities or visit the retreat's restaurant if running low on food.
Outside of Dales campground and the Karijini Eco Retreat, no camping or overnight parking in any other area of the park is permitted.
- Tom Price 80 km west is a small town with basic accommodation for mine workers, which may be available to passing visitors.
- 4 Auski Munjina Roadhouse, jcn Hwy 134 and Great Northern Highway (110 km east of park), ☏ . Simple but clean place with rooms, campsite, restaurant and fuel. It's an hour's drive from the park, and could save your skin on the weary Newman-Port Hedland Rd. Dogs permitted in campsite. Double room $160, pitch $30, hook-up $40.
Stay safe edit
Be prepared for desert heat, poor roads, no fuel or other facilities, and no mobile signal if you run into problems.
The narrow canyons are prone to flash floods, and lives have been lost. Evacuate from the gorges immediately if it rains.
Snakes are rare in the gorges, but a venomous bite will entail a major evacuation effort. Be aware of snakes and if bitten follow snake bite first aid.
As of March 2022, there's a scratchy mobile signal from Telstra along the Great Northern Highway and at Hamersley Gorge, but nothing along State Route 136 or elsewhere in the park, and no signal from the other carriers. However 4G from Optus is available at the visitor centre, eco-resort and Dales campground, with a range of 3 km.
- 7 Wittenoom along Hwy 136 just north of the park demonstrates the downside of Pilbara. It's a ghost town contaminated by asbestos - crocidolite or blue asbestos, the worst kind, as the fibres spear into your lung linings to trigger cancer. Wittenoom and Yampire Gorge were mined from the 1930s, but abandoned in the 1960s when they became unprofitable and the health risks were obvious. The government has taken ownership of the area, closing it off and ejecting the last handful of "extreme tourists", diehard settlers and "Mad Max" wannabes: photograph the "Keep out" signs then move smartly on. The Aboriginal community has called for remediation of the land, but that could be more hazardous than leaving it be.
- 8 Juukan Gorge west of the park was found to contain a cave with evidence of 46,000 years of human habitation. The gorge is close to the Brockman mines of Rio Tinto, who are proud of their "community agreements showing respect and commitment to inclusive engagement with communities and land-connected peoples". Then in 2020 they blew the cave and gorge to itsy-bitsy smithereens, which was all totally legal.
Go next edit
- The main highways return you (if you've left enough fuel in the tank) to Port Hedland, Newman, or to the Gascoyne Region towards Exmouth.
- Another road to the coast is north off Hwy 136 via Millstream Chichester National Park, a former sheep-range that is comparatively lush for Pilbara. This road eventually joins the coastal highway at Fish Rock; turn west for Roebourne and Karratha.