Marching Through the Pilbara

Earlier in March, the journeying of creative minds through the vast Pilbara landscape continued as internationally renowned writers Barry Lopez, William (Bill) Fox and Mark Tredinnick, landscape portraitist Larry Mitchell, photographer Paul Parin and FORM facilitators, Mags Webster and Carolyn Karnovsky descended into the gorges of Karijini and wove through kilometres of dusty roads up into Millstream before hitting the cooler shores of the Pilbara’s west coast.

For Barry, Bill and Mark this was their first Pilbara experience. How fitting it was that it started at the tiny, quintessentially ‘outback’ airport at Paraburdoo. As we stepped off the plane and into the enveloping wall of heat and ducked our way past giant, flying grasshoppers into the arrivals shed it was clear from the wide eyes and huge smiles of our intrepid travellers that the adventure had well and truly begun.

After loading our gear into the back of a couple of utes we hit the road (keeping an eye on the bags and backpacks that threatened to bounce off the back of the tray), arriving in Tom Price just before sundown.

That evening the true conversation began over the experience ahead of us. What would we see? Who would we meet? How would the experience change us?

Our first full day started at a bleary-eyed 4:30am which, despite being difficult for some, was well worth it for the incredible dawn light that welcomed us as we entered Karijini National Park.

, Barry, Mags and Mark listening to the hum of bees in the morning sun

Guided by Paul (a frequent visitor of the Park) our first stop was Oxer lookout to take in the breathtaking views of the junction point where Red, Weano, Joffre and Hancock Gorges intersect.

Mark, Paul, Larry and Barry peering over Oxer lookout

With the promise of a cooling dip, we descended the rocky steps down into the prehistoric terrain of Weano Gorge. Cameras and notebooks were packed safely away as with both hands we gingerly navigated the slippery rocks and ‘abseiled’ our way down into the black waters of Handrail Pool. Our reward for exploring Karijini during the searing summer temperatures was being able to swim in the pool which at other times of the year is cold enough to warrant wearing a wetsuit.

Mags gathering herself before navigating the slippery rocks and later, calming herself in Handrail Pool

As tempting as it was to continue floating in the pool all day, we slowly snaked our way up and out of Weano Gorge (taking one or two breathers along the deceptively steep steps) and continued down into the rocky amphitheatre of Kalamina Gorge.

Barry, Mark, Mags and Carolyn at Kalamina Gorge

After a short visit to the lookout over Joffre Gorge we continued to what would be the highlight of the day- Hamersley Gorge. Nothing can prepare you for the dramatic colours and the complex patterning of the rock faces caused by millions of years of complex geological forces. The purple hue of the surrounding rocks is quite astonishing and something that can’t be captured on camera, despite even Paul’s best efforts.

Paul Parin getting into position at Hamersley Gorge. Photo on right by Paul Parin

With the heat of the day and muscle fatigue finally taking its toll, we finished the day with another swim before heading back to Tom Price for a solid night’s sleep.

Day two began at a much more leisurely hour and by mid morning we had reached the top of Mount Sheila for an unforgettable morning tea, courtesy of Elaine and Frank Argaet (graduates of FORM’s P.H.otography workshops).

Bill atop Mount Sheila. Photos by Paul Parin

Elaine and Frank are Tom Price residents and kindly offered to be our guides for the day, taking us along the private road that connects Tom Price to Millstream-Chichester National Park. The road is long and unless you’re Car One in the convoy, very dusty… What met us when we finally reached Millstream was a lush wetland oasis, springing from an underground aquifer and fringed with date palms and paperbarks. The water, which is fed from the Fortescue River through porous dolomite rock, is crystal clear and luminous, shimmering shades of turquoise and vivid green. The site branded any of us speechless for quite some time as we all took a quiet moment to take in the majesty of the place.

Chinderwariner Pool, Millstream Chichester National Park. Right hand photo by Paul Parin

By late afternoon we had reached the Dampier coast, welcoming the sea breeze that we had been without for the last three days.

By Sunday we had reached the midway point in our journey and in many ways, this was the day that really connected the experience for the group. We had journeyed from the centre of the Pilbara where much of the State’s resources are extracted and followed the ore trains and gas pipelines to the coast, arriving at the Dampier Archipelago to see the huge port operations which ship these resources offshore.

Our tour of the Dampier Archipelago started with our local guide, Shane Peters taking us to the Burrup Peninsula to view the area’s rich repository of Aboriginal rock art. The Archipelago is considered to have the largest concentration of rock art in the world, estimated at perhaps a million petroglyphs.

Barry, Bill and Mark at Burrup Peninsular. Photos by Paul Parin

Our tour of the Dampier coast continued by boat taking us through the calm waters of Mermaid Sound to Malus Island, a barren place stripped bare of all its trees during its operation as a whaling and pearling station in the 1870s. Many of the islands that we passed through Flying Foam Passage are stark in their beauty. Jagged rock faces tumble into the water, occasionally softened by mangroves or the white sands of a secluded bay.

Exploring the Dampier Archipelago with Shane Peters (top Left). Photos by Paul Parin

By Monday we had farewelled the Burrup and were starting to make our way towards Port Hedland, taking in Cossack, Point Samson and Roebourne along the way. But first, a mandatory stop at the Pilbara Perk in Wickham. This cafe provides the best cup of coffee and blueberry muffin in the whole region – official! Owner Ross Wall was on duty and he impressed our dust-stained panel of judges (as everyone knows, coffee is the fuel creativity – well, it is for some of my FORM colleagues), all of whom, since leaving Perth, had been hanging out for the real deal in caffeine.

The ideal place to work off the subsequent buzz proved to be Cossack, a place which invites contemplation, so literally does it spirit the visitor into another age with its gracious buildings and solid masonry. Established in 1872 at the mouth of the Harding River, Cossack was the birthplace for the West Australian pearling industry and was a bustling port for some years, gradually declining over the turn of the last century until it was abandoned in the 1940s.

Next stop the town of Roebourne, and Roebourne Art Group. This dedicated collective of talented Aboriginal artists was established in 2002, and through beautiful paintings it produces profound commentaries on the changing landscape of this part of the Pilbara.

Kaye Warrie and Loreen Samson show Barry, Mark, Mags and Bill their catalogue of artwork. Photo by Paul Parin

Lunch was in the lovely coastal village of Point Samson. And it was very good. If blue bone groper is on the menu, order it.

A final detour in the area took us to inspect The Claypans Project just outside Roebourne, a massive earth/art project designed and executed in the middle of 2009 by artists Arif Satar and Audrey Fernandes-Satar and around 400 local schoolchildren. Now beginning to degrade and disintegrate back into the landscape as originally planned, this bas-relief sculpture still has the power, even in the bleaching light of the afternoon, to cast shadows which trick and intrigue.

On arrival in Port Hedland (via Whim Creek and the ‘hello Harry’ cockatoo at the pub) we embarked on a sunset boat trip around the harbour. The hulls of container ships reared up in the gathering dusk, and we speculated on the size of the crews required to pilot these titan vessels. In these days of computer-aided ‘everything’, probably fewer than one would imagine. After all the natural wonders we had witnessed over the last few days, these testaments to human engineering and design, as much as the cargo they were designed to carry, were a stark reminder of what happens to the stuff that comes out of the ground where we had so recently been walking.

Photos by Paul Parin

It was perhaps no surprise that during the final day, there was a sense of ‘powering down’ as we all began to ease ourselves out of Pilbara time into shapes that would fit back into our usual lives. Goodbyes at Perth airport were quick, no need to blur them with any more words. We’ll save those for the time when the experience of the trip has settled, and some of its power can be translated. It’ll come in its own time, like the red dust, or better still, the water, working its way up through the many strata of consciousness, until it filters out into the air.

Gorge Glow

L-R, Larry Mitchell, Mark Tredinnick, Barry Lopez, Mags Webster, Bill Fox, Carolyn Karnovsky, Paul Parin

I have all just recently returned from an amazing cross country expedition through the Pilbara. My traveling companions  consisted of 4 writers, a painter, a project manager and myself, one very humbled photographer. The shared experience that followed was truly unique and indeed very special as we all brought our different skills, perceptions and broadly different life experiences along for the ride. We looked, watched, tasted, swam and sweated as we traipsed from east to west and experienced a fairly broad cross section of what this dramatic Pilbara region has to offer.

More images to follow…

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