The Kalbarri National Park experience begins for me long before I turn into Gorge Access Road to the official entry.
Soon after turning off North West Coastal Highway on to the 70km of Ajana-Kalbarri Road, taking me towards the town itself, the abundance of the national park in this particularly good October is evident.
Plants are plumped up and full of life. Grevillea is in bloom and smokebush shimmers, mirroring clouds sitting against a blue sky.
And there in the road is a thorny devil, seemingly just waiting to be picked up and moved to the safety of the roadside yellow sand in which it makes its home.
The pretty red verticordia monodelpha is just blooming.
The flowering season is set to extend to the end of November.
As the sign at the national park’s Four Ways carpark points out, the flora in Kalbarri National Park is as diverse as a rainforest, with more than 1000 plant species here.
And there’s diversity in the visitors, too. There’s a young couple with a baby in a shaded backpack, a French couple, two young German men, and a couple of seniors couples, stomping along with sticks.
And there’s me, seeing the national park with fresh eyes, and thoroughly enjoying it for the first time. How did I not quite get this before?
It costs $13 per car to go into Kalbarri National Park.
Most of the roads are sealed, with an additional 22km recently completed as part of the $20 million Skywalk project.
From the carpark, there’s a 1.2km return walk to the Z-Bend Lookout. The sign recommends allowing an hour, but the path is good and flat, and even at a meandering stroll it’s no more than 40 minutes, with plenty of time to enjoy the plants and splendid views. It’s a great spot to look out over the gorge and bending Murchison River.
The River Trail is 2.6km, with a descent to the river through a gully and chasm. Allow two hours for this more demanding walk (and a bit more for the chance to dip your feet).
Four Ways Trail is 6km return — allow two to three hours. There’s a quite steep uphill return but great scenery, geology and land forms.
Wind has eroded a hole in the layered red sandstone to create a natural picture frame for the pretty view of the Murchison and its gorge.
At this moment, late in the afternoon, it’s completely still.
From the carpark, it’s a 1km return walk to Nature’s Window, first on a sealed path, down a small flight of steps, and then with a pretty simple walk across rock. This time of day is good, with rosy light falling upon the rock.
THE LOOP TRAIL
The red and white banded, sandy sediments which form the rock of this river gorge were deposited millions of years ago, when this was tidal flats.
Indeed, some of the rock has set for all time the ripples made by waves moving in this ancient, shallow sea.
There are fossilised tracks where animals once crawled.
They are some of the rewards for putting the recommended three hours into the 8km-9km Loop Trail. The others are the feeling of just cutting loose a bit in the national park for, after the first few flat kilometres, there’s the steep descent into the gorge and some small climbs and a bit of scrambling.
It’s been a long time coming, but the once much-vaunted Skywalk this month took a step closer to reality, with the $4.59 million contract for its construction being placed.
Two 100m-high walks at West Loop will project 25m and 17m beyond the rim of the Murchison River Gorge.
It is due to be completed by the middle of next year.
Kalbarri days are themed by water as much as they are by the red sandstone coastal cliffs and river gorge.
ESTUARY & RIVER MOUTH
As I paddle towards the river mouth, the water clears until it is crystal, turquoise, transparent, casting my shadow on the rippling sand bottom way below. The Finn Gizmo ski is perfect on the roof rack and for messing around on the Murchison estuary.
The river mouth is famous for its dogleg entry, where boats have to run abeam of the swell until they turn the last mark and head out.
But most are mucking about in dinghies and on paddle craft on the estuary.
I’m a bit surprised, too, as I have never paddled here before — and what actually appears to be just the rather sandy finger of headland to the north of the estuary has a channel inside it. The big Pacific and other gulls lift off as they see the Finn coming but I barely notice as I’m watching the terns fishing. Kalbarri has gull-billed, Caspian, crested, whiskered and roseate terns, which are a constant delight to me.
And then another — pink sand. There are drifts of it, a light salmon pink in ripples.
And further on, not only a beautiful beach to walk but rocks to explore and then, briefly, a whip-thin snake sunning itself on the sand.
Back on the ski, paddling back over to the foreshore, where there are dinghies and sailing catamarans for hire, the water is too tempting. But the sight of a human in it brings the interest of a nor-west blowie as long as my forearm. He comes in to have a go, is chased off and returns time and again. It turns into some weird sort of game. Kalbarri is alive. Natural. Authentic.
THE RIVER UPSTREAM
Sometimes the water’s shallow and I slip over the canoe’s side, to walk barefoot on the sandy bottom, towing the boat on a strap, and glad I brought it for this.
I guess there’s paddling, and there’s paddling, and they’re equally good, for it’s all about just mooching down the Murchison.
Mullet jump clear of the water. A massive wedge-tailed eagle, too big to be juvenile but marked like one, takes off from a branch.
We stop in a sheoak grove for lunch in the shade, follow the bank and track down the middle of the wider stretches, in a languid, satisfying day on the river.
It started by driving up to Murchison House Station to put the canoe in (they charge $10 a boat to launch there). There are four of us in two boats, and we’ve left the other car just this side of the township, on the sand track which follows the river, to cut off the last few kilometres. It’s 13km from the station launching spot to the town. Commercial operators offer paddling excursions.
Fishing and Kalbarri go hand in hand (or hook in hand, in one moment which I witnessed).
But first a warning about the demersal finfish ban which started on October 15 and finishes on December 15, covering the West Coast Bioregion from the Zuytdorp Cliffs down to Black Point on the south coast.
This gives a breather to the slow-growing fish which live on or near the ocean floor, often at depths of more than 20m — gropers, cods, emperors, snappers, dhufish and coral trout among them.
But Kalbarri is as much about family fishing — whiting, tailor, mulloway, mangrove jack, black and yellowfin bream, all found in the Murchison River and fished from jetties, dinghies and paddle craft.
Stephen Scourfield shares some of his favourite Kalbarri experiences...
- Kalbarri golf course is run by locals, and they’re proud of it. In fact, they call it “the Hidden Jewel of Golf on the Mid West Coast”. It’s open seven days a week and visitors are welcome. “Have you seen it,” one local asks me. “You’ve gotta go up there.” Kalbarri’s Golf Club’s fully reticulated 18 holes and clubhouse are the result of dedicated voluntary work by members over 37 years. Its 5747m includes seven water hazards and nine sand hazards. There are views to the Indian Ocean and Chinaman’s Lookout to the west and the Weld Ranges to the east.
- Residents are pretty proud of their new foreshore footpath, which is wide and smooth. There are two playgrounds on the foreshore — the new Kalbarri Nature Playground overlooking the river mouth, and one near the marina.
- A good holiday needs good breakfasts and, more importantly, good coffee. And I find it at a choice of cafes.
- A crowd quickly gathers on the Murchison River estuary’s foreshore. It’s pelican feeding time, and the big birds come waddling up, all beaks and yellow-rimmed eyes. Visitors sit on an arc of benches as one of Kalbarri Pelican Feeders’ volunteers lines up children, gives them a fish each to toss to a bird, and makes them wipe their hands on the grass. There’s a nice little flow of pelican facts, and time for selfies. Everyone’s happy — JUand happy to make a goldJU coin donation to cover the JUcost of food. Feeding is at 8.45am. JUCliff Ross, who JUowned a museum in Kalbarri called Fantasyland, began feeding JU the pelicans in 1975.
- Kalbarri still holds its reputation as “an old holiday spot”. The place your parents took you when you were a kid. A chap stomps past our apartment early in the morning with The West under his arm. Then another, and another. “There’s a queue when the door opens,” says someone. Another chap passes in his go-fast gopherGofer, with a pirate flag and West Coast Eagles cap.
- Last Sunday, I lent a tent to a young couple, just off to Kalbarri. He’s a Perth boy, she’s from Berlin, and Kalbarri is a way to give her the WA road trip experience, with “red and sand” and dramatic landscape at the end. The Kalbarri short break is being reborn by a new generation.
- Following the south bank of the Murchison River through town and past the marina brings you to a sand track, which runs along the side of the river. There are private spots, sheoak groves, fish jump. Make your own little adventure.
- The average daily temperature through November is about 26C. From December, expect average overnight temperatures around 19C and daytime averages around 33C.
For more on visiting Kalbarri, go to australiascoralcoast.com/kalbarri.
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