Wildflowers of the Pilbara

By Sue White 13 October 2010
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Take a journey through the vastness of the Pilbara to discover its beautiful wildflowers.

IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE 400,000 sq. km of red-rocked gorge country that makes up Western Australia’s remote Pilbara and you’ll quickly get a sense of insignificance.

But in an area where ‘vast’ and ‘sweeping’ are obvious descriptions of the two- billion-year-old landscape, it’s also nice to appreciate the little things. A visit to the Pilbara during wildflower season (winter/spring) offers the perfect opportunity, as its during this time that roadsides and river systems host their colourful floral pockets – tiny but impressive contrasts against the area’s red pindan earth, blue skies and green spinifex grasses.

While holidaymakers on annual leave may be on a schedule, wildflowers are not. Theoretically, the Pilbara’s flowers are some of the first in WA to emerge each season, but reality depends on what nature has been up to.

“2010 has been dry,” says Scott Godley, senior tanger at Millstream-Chichester National Park, where 200,000 hectares of spinifex, red-rocked escarpments and hidden oases coexist.

“Wildflowers are not just seasonally driven, but also rainfall driven. So it depends how much rain we got in the previous wet season. You can’t always predict what will come out here, but you’ll always find something: the mulla mulla, Sturt’s desert peas and native roses are all out if you look around,” he says.

Mulla mulla by the roadside in the Pilbara, WA. (Photo: Micah De Brito)

Painted roadsides

One of the joys of discovering the Pilbara’s wildflowers is that you often don’t have to look far beyond the roadside.  “A lot of the wildflowers grow really well in disturbed areas like the sides of roads,” says Scott.

This is good news, because longish drives (5-6 hours in a day) form an inevitable part of the Pilbara journey. Unless you’re also keen on the 1200-km drive from Perth, flying into Exmouth/Learmouth and renting a vehicle is recommended.

Road trip

Start with a couple of days in nearby Cape Range National Park, where up to 630 species of wildflowers have been recorded. Between spotting wild cotton, various peas and native tomatoes, you may also find the rare black-footed wallaby. As a bonus, there’s excellent snorkelling on the adjacent Ningaloo Reef.

From here, be prepared to get dusty as you make the 625km journey to the mining town of Tom Price. Stock up before pausing for a few days in nearby Karijini National Park, a popular inland destination for its remote gorges and freshwater pools that are perfect for swimming.

If conditions are right, the lower slopes of the Hamersley Ranges – from Karijini through to the inland town of Newman about 150km away – offer some of the best wildflower viewing of the region. Look for up to 65 species of acacia, numerous varieties of the impressive pink mulla mulla, native roses and hibiscus, and of course the bright red Sturt’s desert pea (South Australia’s floral emblem).

Heading back to the coast via sealed and unsealed roads, stop off at Millstream-Chichester, making sure to detour to the Python Pool – there are excellent views enroute.

As you prepare to complete the loop, detour from Karratha to the Burrup Peninsula before returning to Exmouth: the Peninsula is home up to 100,000 petroglyphs (rock engravings) and is one of the world’s largest rock art sites. Deep Gorge is known as being one of the best spots; you’ll see more with the afternoon shadows rather than midday sun so time your visit accordingly.

While the Pilbara doesn’t boast the dense blankets of wildflowers found in the south of the state, the wide open spaces mean you’ll often feel you have these ancient landscapes to yourself. But remember in the land of ‘big’ to keep an eye out for the small but spectacular seasonal flowers; they may just make you believe that size doesn’t count after all.

Sue White travelled courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.