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Wednesday, 23 May 2012 07:59

Heartland: Pilbara, WA

Leaving the white sandy beaches and tropical fish of Ningaloo Reef behind, it was back to the dusty outback to tick another magical destination off the bucket list - this time Millstream-Chichester National Park in the Pilbara.

While the Pilbara is generally dry and arid, water flows year round in Millstream. The Millstream wetlands are fed by a natural underground reserve contained in the porous dolomite rock, which itself is fed by runoff from the Hamersley Ranges. It is believed to store 1700 million cubic metres of water - making the area a haven for plants and animals.

We stocked up on supplies and fuel in Karratha then headed down the Karratha/Wittenoom Road. It provides safe passage through the steep terrain of the Chichester Ranges, and is sealed to Barowanna Hill. The road runs parallel to the Pilbara Railway that transports iron ore from Tom Price and Newman to Karratha Port for export. Occasionally the locomotives run past, weaving their way through the mountains with an endless trail of carriages in pursuit. Alternative access is available from the north via the Roebourne/Wittenoom Road or the west via Millstream/Pannawonica Road.

We set up camp under a Millstream Palm at the delightful Crossing Pool Campground on the banks of the Fortescue River in the park's southwest. The camp used to be much bigger but with regular flooding was lost to the river. These days it is limited to about eight vehicles in undefined campsites under mature tree cover. It's a lovely peaceful spot with a gas barbecue, pit toilets and communal picnic table on a grassed plot. There are excellent bird watching opportunities and the river is suitable for swimming, paddle craft or fishing. Embankment ladders at all of the main swimming holes prevent injury from entering via the slippery banks.

The 17km Snappy Gum scenic drive sweeps through vegetated scrublands featuring white-barked gums, pincushion spinifex and a proliferation of paperbarks along the river bank. A lookout provides spectacular vistas in every direction, particularly the tabletop mesas and the Hamersley Range in the distance.

The drive links to the main Miliyanha Campground on the other side of the river, adjacent to the Millstream Homestead. It has 20 designated sites arranged in a circuit, with each tucked into the scrub, but offering little shade. There is a camp kitchen including a gas barbecue, toilets and both hot and cold running water. The homestead was formerly a pastoral station running 55,000 sheep but these days it serves as an unmanned visitor centre with plenty of information on the surrounding area. If needed, the ranger can be contacted using the intercom at the front counter. Camp hosts look after the camps in peak season, collecting fees and distributing information.

From the homestead a walking circuit leads you on a tour of the grounds and into the bushland through scattered date palms, introduced by the early Afghan cameleers. A management plan is slowly removing them so the native Millstream Palm can again flourish. The walk leads to the magical Chinderwarriner Pool - carpeted with lily pads.

The pretty Murlamunyjunha Walk also links the two campgrounds, tracing the path of the Fortescue River. A couple of metal grills provide passage over the river as it narrows, leading to an erosion zone where the landscape shows dramatic damage from earlier floods.

In the park's northeast a largely unsealed road winds its way to Mt Herbert where a number of walks depart in the same direction from the car park. They include the walk to McKenzie Spring (4.5km), Mt Herbert Summit (600m), the Chichester Range Camel Trail (8km) and the Cameleers Trail (4km). The signage isn't great, however all the walks skirt the base of Mt Herbert and divert off the path at designated spots.

Back in the car and a few more kilometres down the road is the walk to Python Pool, a permanent plunge pool at the base of a tall escarpment and a great place to cool off in the warmer months. Simply follow the creek bed, stepping over the large boulders to get there. Snake Creek Campground is the final stop, although the facilities are limited to a pit toilet and a few clearings.

Back on the road, we headed towards Carawine Gorge and, leaving Nullagine, a sign advised the track was open for 4WDs. But 46km down the road we were greeted with a 'Road Closed' sign at the Mt Olive Track junction. We backtracked to Nullagine and the local cop shop to report the inconsistency. After conferring with Main Roads they confirmed the road was closed. Bugger! Now we know that when touring on back roads it is a good idea to check the road status with local authorities or Main Roads before heading out. So we jumped back on Marble Bar Road and wound our way towards Marble Bar, Australia's hottest town, to see the sights and catch up on a shower at the local holiday park for the night.

The price of diesel in the Pilbara makes for an interesting discussion. At the time of travelling, Exmouth on the main highway was asking $1.82 per litre. Further inland at the mining towns of Tom Price and Newman, diesel pumps out at only $1.68. But at Marble Bar it's back to $1.94, plus a 5% credit card fee to thank you for your custom.

To save on fuel costs in Western Australia we subscribed online to Fuel Watch, a service provided by the Department of Commerce. Simply select your destinations, fuel type and preferred fuel vendor and an email pings your inbox each day with fuel prices. While not all destinations are supported, most are, and the information we got sent was accurate. It's a pity this service isn't offered in the other states.

The next day it was off to Carawine Gorge, this time via the bitumen Ripon Hills Road. The way is littered with carcasses, as the speeding road trains are unable to stop for wandering stock along the unfenced plains. En route we came across our first really serious wide load, taking up the full width of the road. Fortunately, they were able to squeeze us through, a lead car warning upcoming traffic that we were there.

Carawine Gorge is located on the Oakover River and accessed via a dirt track around 100km east of Marble Bar. It lies within Warrawagine Station however tourism access is managed by the Department of Environment and Conservation, and the site remains free to visit. We caught our first glimpse of marauding camels along this route, grazing in the distance. It wasn't to be our last, as approaching Carawine Gorge along the access track, we spotted a second group, who kindly posed for our photographs, before wandering off into the scrub.

There are plenty of camping options at Carawine Gorge. Taking a right turn and following the wheel tracks at the old fuel drum will take you down to the popular grassed area along the gorge. There are some lovely shaded sites along this section suitable for tents and small camper trailers with views to the gorge and the pretty waterway. Otherwise you can plough on ahead at the fuel drum and find a spot along the gorge. We trekked our way to the end of the gorge over a sea of gravel and river rock to set up camp, backing up to an escarpment. We had the place to ourselves, giving us an evening of sheer serenity.

The next day we followed the main road to the junction of Skull Springs Road, which we had endeavoured to reach from the Nullagine end, and here the road was clearly marked as closed. As it was nearing beer o'clock we opted to return to camp, put our feet up and stare out into the gorge and watch the sunset. A distant dingo howling broke the silence of an otherwise quiet evening.

Heading north again past Marble Bar, we opted for another back road shortcut to Eighty Mile Beach, along the Muccan Shay Gap Road. A sign at the track entry provides a contact number for the local shire to check the road conditions and having learnt our lesson we made the call to confirm the road's status - open to 4WDs. The mining interests keep the road wide and in reasonable condition. Keep an eye and an ear open for road trains, as tourists are not expected along this route. Keeping the UHF radio in scan mode will generally warn you of their presence. The drive was quite pretty, running parallel to a mountain range not dissimilar to the Moralana Scenic Drive of the Flinders Ranges as it weaves and dips along its route. The last leg of the journey through Shay Gap and onto Boreline Road traverses a sandy track that for most parts is smooth travelling.

We lobbed into the Eighty Mile Beach Caravan Park on the Foundation Day long weekend along with half of WA.

The tide goes out a long way in these parts meaning a long walk to reach the water's edge, but the beaches are beautiful and worth the effort. As the sun set, we marvelled at our Pilbara adventure and pondered what the Kimberley would bring.

Source: Camper Trailer Australia #43


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