It’s the wet season in the Pilbara. Cyclone Veronica has just dumped over one-third of a metre of rainfall across the coastal region. But further inland Karijini National Park and Newman are yet to receive rains needed to soak the still-dry land, recharge the creek beds, get the waterfalls flowing and replenish the waterholes; so triggering the usual annual explosion of plant and animal life.
The region contains some of the oldest and most striking geological structures in the world. The ancient rocks have been folded and eroded, leading to today’s captivating landscape of rugged red ranges, tree-lined creek beds, and magnificent gorges, so well-known to walkers, canyoners, and other visitors to Karijini National Park. There’s also the long and rich Aboriginal history, plus unique flora and fauna.
Yet few walkers today are aware of the wonderful opportunities for off-track, wilderness walking in the Ophthalmia Ranges, near Newman, only 140km to the southeast of Karijini.
Most know Newman, 1300km north of Perth, as a remote mining town supporting massive iron ore operations, including the Mt Whaleback mine, the biggest single-pit, open-pit iron ore mine in the world. But experienced bushwalkers will be more attracted to the mostly undisturbed Pilbara landscape to the north of the town; where they can walk cross-country through the spinifex, taking in panoramic views from the open ridge-lines, and at other times scrambling down into deep creeklines flanked by stunning red cliffs and dotted with beautiful white-trunked gum trees.
Following the creeks leads to some of the hidden gems of the Pilbara; secluded, picturesque waterholes with cool, shaded waters providing idyllic, well-spaced campsite locations, ideal for a multi-day backpacking exploration of the area.
Access to the waterholes area is by rough 4WD tracks. Many drivers head first to the familiar Kalgan’s Pool which featured in the Australian production “The Japanese Story” (2003). The 25km drive in along Kalgan Creek and across several shallow billabongs requires off-road 4WD experience. The trip from Newman takes 1.5-2 hours. The main pool and other shallower pools along the creek are located in a scenic gorge with high walls of banded-iron formation. Due to its popularity as a 4WD camping spot it is often not the most peaceful spot.Read More
Eagle Rock Pool on Coondiner Creek to the northwest is a nice camping and swimming spot and offers a more secluded starting point for a multi-day walk around the waterholes. The drive from Newman takes about 2-2.5 hours, including about 46km along a northern 4WD track. This bypasses a large new open-pit mine, expanding from the west; a reminder that mining leases cover most of this area. Whichever 4WD access route is used, drivers need to obtain a BHP access permit in advance from the Newman Visitor Centre. Also seek the latest information on the 4WD track conditions and let the Centre know your walk plans.
The Eagle Rock Falls, located just 2km down the creek, are an outstanding attraction, even when not flowing. They drop in two steps, 12m and 60m high, into Coondiner Gorge which is surrounded by stunning red cliffs popular with rock wallabies and rock climbers. Permanent pools are found at the base of both falls most of the year.
After an initial day or two exploring Coondiner Gorge, walkers can set off on a flexible circuit of five or more days, taking in several of the many waterholes in the area, including ‘Hidden Tree Pool’, Three Pools, Kalgan’s Pool and Stuart’s Pool. Advance knowledge of the main waterhole locations and good navigation skills are essential, to minimise the risk of missing a waterhole and so running low on drinking water.
Spending two nights at some campsites provides opportunities to explore for the day without a full backpack; searching for other waterholes, or ancient aboriginal rock engravings, or just sitting patiently and quietly, watching for the myriad wildlife around the waterholes: rock wallabies, birds, fish, and pythons; even an occasional feral camel. Birds often seen include zebra finches, budgerigars, pigeons and many others. You are also likely to come across the occasional mounds of the western pebble-mound mouse; happily not considered to be an endangered species.
The ideal time for walking the waterhole circuit is in June-July, in the dry season, when the conditions are generally near-perfect, with clear skies and max. temp. around 23 degrees. The nights can be surprisingly cold, with light frosts not uncommon. But during the cool nights look up to marvel at the clarity of the stars, planets and Milky Way shimmering in the dark sky.
Pilbara walking is adventurous and can be challenging, mostly rocky underfoot, and spinifex needles may irritate your legs (wearing gaiters can help). Plans must be flexible: In the dry season an unexpected deluge can still cause flash flooding, affecting not only walking/camping plans but also 4WD access or escape. The waterholes are mostly ‘permanent’, but rainfall for the current wet season is well below the average; Kalgan’s Pool is very low and other pools may dry up unless replenished before this wet season is over. Carry sufficient water and also a PLB; preferably also a sat-phone. Make sure your 4WD is also well equipped (including a puncture repair kit!).
Contributors: Dave Osborne (HikeWest); Tony O’Brien (Albany Bushwalkers Club).
(Posted: March 2019)