Secret rivers run deep in WA desert

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

The eastern third of the Pilbara is almost entirely desert, and we are right on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert.


It’s hot and dusty in camp and we decide to get in the kayaks, paddle over into the full shade of the big, red rock face opposite, and drift.

The temperature is instantly many degrees lower and there’s even a breath of breeze over the water.

Lesley lies back, photographing rainbow bee-eaters as they come to perch on tree boughs  above the water, as Grady manoeuvres the kayak into place.

Virginia sits in the front of our kayak watercolour painting, as I try to keep it straight.

We are in our kayaks in the desert, all gently distracted, all thinking about yesterday.

For it was an idyllic expedition day — one of my life’s most extraordinary days. It was a day to remember ...

The eastern third of the Pilbara is almost entirely desert, and we are right on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. There are red dunes nearly 20m  tall just over the horizon.

And yet we are in kayaks, paddling on clear, deep, cool water ...

We’d had a leisurely breakfast, packed the boats with lunch and cameras and paddled off. 

There are surprising river systems in the desert landscapes of the Pilbara. The ecosystem of the De Grey is a glitch; an anomaly — species whose range is restricted to the monsoonal north of Australia also appear in  this stretch of country. In a sense, it is part of the Kimberley in the Pilbara.

But we are further inland still, on the Oakover River, which is way up its catchment.

In some places we have to get out and wade, pulling the kayaks. In others, we paddle on wide water.

We see jabirus — the magnificent black-necked stork — and paddle the kayaks quietly alongside one. As the sunlight penetrates the water, we paddle along watching shoals of fish beneath.

The key for the four of us is a pair of Sevylor Colorado inflatable double kayaks. They are taken from their bags (about the size of a big backpack), inflated with a hand pump in a few minutes, and open up the desert waterways. We use split paddles, which fold in half to pack easily.

There’s me and wife Virginia, and Kings Park and Botanic Garden senior curator Grady Brand, and Kings Park director of horticulture and conservation Lesley Hammersley. In previous years, we’ve driven to Uluru, and travelled the Connie Sue and Anne Beadell highways in the Great Victoria Desert.

But this year, geologically, we have gone deeper still, for the Pilbara craton is one of only two stand-out regions of Archaean crustal rock, dating back 2.7 to 3.6 billion years. This is the earliest visible geological chapter in the Earth’s history. The other is the Kaapvaal craton in South Africa. There are geological theories which indicated that they were both on Ur, the lone and possibly first supercontinent on Earth, about three billion years ago.

On this leg of the trip, we base ourselves at Carawine Gorge, about 100km east of Marble Bar, first up the good bitumen Ripon Hills Road, and then about 21km on a sand and stone track. Although it’s on Warrawagine Station, tourism access is managed by Parks and Wildlife, and camping is free.

There’s a grassed area along the riverbank where caravans and camper trailers pull up. People in four-wheel-drives venture further down, over a scree of river stones.

The gorge and rock face itself create a microclimate — and by late afternoon, it casts full shade over the whole camping area.

In the morning, the red of early sun creeps down the rock face as I watch the toast crisping over coals.

There are painted finches, a couple of star finches and the meep-meep-meep of zebra finches. A grey-crowned babbler and white-winged triller add to the morning.

Over on the rock face, fairy martins fly in to their bottlenecked mud nests, stuck to the underside of ledges.

Out on the water, we watch a flock of 20 black swans, and 13 big, healthy Australian pelicans.

But Lesley will later say that seeing the fish and having the chance to watch them in their environment is a highlight for her.

Grady adds: “To us, seeing the fish like this means it is a good ecosystem.”

But the constant stars of the bird show are surely the rainbow bee-eaters. They fly in arcs from branches, their wings delicately kaleidoscopic. 

I watch one juggle a big moth to get it into the right position to swallow. Another wipes the sting off a bee before calling it morning tea. And with that, we boil the billy and indulge in Lesley’s date slice, cooked on the camp fire.

Duration: 03m 32s

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