Pilbara’s Karinji NP: Culture etched in stone

By Karen McGhee 2 March 2015
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Encompassing 200,000sq.km of some of Earth’s most ancient rocks, Western Australia’s Pilbara region stretches from a coast harbouring ancient human art to an ochre-red inland cut by gorges and waterfalls.

KARIJINI’S 6274sq.km are more than 300km from the coast and about two-thirds of the way towards the eastern limits of the Pilbara. But despite being one of the country’s most remote national parks, Karijini is among WA’s most visited parks outside Perth’s metropolitan area. And Dales Camping Area is fully occupied most days during the Pilbara’s peak May–September tourist season. It has 140 campsites, 7km of looping roadway and can ­accommodate up to 800 people overnight.

Steve Berris, one of Karijini’s four rangers, says the park attracts more than 200,000 people a year, due partly to its reputation with visitors, both Australian and international; word-of-mouth has been the main  reason for the park’s growth in popularity. But the park is also being used by an increasing number of locals, Steve says.

“Yes, it’s remote, but we’re smack bang in the middle of the engine room of Australia’s mining economy,” Steve explains, referring to the region’s ­multibillion-dollar iron-ore mining industry. “We’re surrounded by what are called ‘mining camps’, but they’ve got airports to fly workers in and out, and each of them can have a few thousand people [at a time]. So we’ve got thousands of people living and working within a 100km radius of the park and we’re a very popular destination on their rostered days off.”

There are very few accessible tracks at the southern end of the park, which is remote and undeveloped; even the rangers rarely get there. It’s the spectacular water features in the northern section that bring most people: plunging gorges, cascading waterfalls, icy streams and rock pools carved from the BIFs by the erosive force of water over aeons.

Walks into these sites are well marked and graded from a relatively easy level three to five, which require very good fitness and flexibility and, in some places, a bit of nerve to negotiate. However, all the park’s main gorges can also be viewed safely from high lookouts, most of which have nearby parking for cars and buses.

As well as its popularity with grey nomads, Karijini also has a reputation among the thrill-seeking rock-climbing and abseiling fraternity who canyon down the steep, slippery walls of the gorges. But restrictions have been tightened significantly since the 2004 death of SES volunteer Jim Regan, who was swept away during the rescue of some inexperienced visitors who were caught in Hancock Gorge during a flash flood. Canyoning in Karijini is now permitted only with a recognised tour operator or with prearranged approval through the Parks and Wildlife office in Karratha.

It’s not yet possible to book a site at Dales Camping Area and there are no other public camping grounds, so travellers are advised to have a plan B in case they arrive and it’s full.

The park does feature a more glamorous camping experience (at hotel rates) at privately operated Karijini Eco Retreat, where tents equipped with solar-heated showers and mosquito nets are pre-erected on raised floors. Developed and run by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation and Gumala Enterprises, the complex includes an à la carte restaurant offering gourmet meals. As is common everywhere in the prosperous Pilbara, prices reflect that it’s a long way to the nearest town.

Beyond its waterways, Karijini is a spectacular semi-arid landscape dominated by grey-green spinifex and the rich-red mounds of termites – the basis of most food chains out here. Along with millions of spinifex-eating termites, each mound can support up to 100 geckos of different species.

Large marsupials are rare, because they can’t survive on the hard-to-digest spinifex, but there are a lot of small nocturnal marsupials, rats, mice and bats, including the carnivorous ghost bat, which is endemic to the region. Western pebble-mice are common native rodents found in Karijini and elsewhere in the driest parts of the Pilbara. They accumulate piles of small rocks, often more than a metre in diameter, beneath which they live in colonies.

There are no public rubbish bins in Karijini, so what you take in, you take out, even from the eco retreat. Campfires are banned everywhere year-round. The ban is not just because a fire in this arid climate can run for weeks and across thousands of hectares of spinifex and mulga, posing high risks – it’s also because firewood is scarce.

Aboriginal significance of the Karijini

LIKE MURUJUGA, KARIJINI has deep significance for the local indigenous peoples. Among the most important sites is the picturesque Fern Pool (known as Jubara), a women’s place located at one end of Dales Gorge. It’s here that the Dreamtime Creation Serpent lived after writhing from the coast through the Pilbara landscape to create the region’s waterways.

Mt Bruce (Punurrunha), the state’s second-highest mountain, is in complete physical contrast. Located on the way out of the park towards the mining town of Tom Price, this site is a significant men’s place, so much so that indigenous women raised in the lore won’t even look at it as they pass.  

Karijini means ‘hilly place’ to the people of the area, but, says Maitland Parker, an elder with the local Banjima group, Karijini refers not only to the national park but includes all the Hamersley Range.

Maitland was the senior ranger at the national park for some 25 years, until about five years ago. He now works as a consultant providing cultural awareness tours and presentations for both the senior ­hierarchy and on-site workers of the big mining companies operating in the Pilbara.

Aged in his 60s, Maitland has witnessed ­extraordinary change for his people in the region during his ­lifetime: from the ration camps, reserves and ­settlements of the 1960s and ’70s into which different language groups were herded like cattle, to a Pilbara where profits are shared and culture is acknowledged, respected and considered.

“Aboriginal people say, ‘Look that’s my country, that’s my Yurlu. And in there I abide by my laws that have been put down by the Mingala,’” Maitland explains to the miners and their bosses. “So, when Christian people talk about God, Jesus and everything else, we’ve got that same type of belief. Mingala gave us everything and put it in the country and so we abide by all those laws and customs that have been put down there.

“Cultural awareness was forced on them at first, but the mining companies, the government, are making headway now and they’re making changes and it’s all for the better. Our people feel a lot more freedom in that now, and there’s a lot more respect.”

Local Pilbarans – both blackfella and whitefella – will advise you, with a wink, to be careful about the red dust getting into your veins. It is, of course, ­physiologically impossible. But there should be a ­warning about it getting into your soul.


The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #120.

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