Rockstars of our rare red land – The West Australian

The Pilbara tells a story ancient and modern — from the cradle of life to its contemporary towns and the industry that drives WA’s economy, and underpins that of the country.

That story all comes from the rock itself — so what better than to celebrate the rockstars of the Pilbara. With the July school holidays coming, and the interstate and international borders shut, we have the state to ourselves.

HOW TO PLAN & GET THERE

The Pilbara’s sunny but mild days and cool nights between now and October make this the best time of year to travel there.

Basically, I’d plan for two days driving there and two days back. It’s a great and safe adventure — enjoy the landscape on the way.

For the July 4 to 19 school holidays, I would drive north on the inland route, up Great Northern Highway, via Mt Magnet. Drive home southbound along the coast, through Carnarvon. (Or vice versa, of course.)

Even leaving early on Sunday, July 5 (giving the Saturday 4th to get ready) and arriving home at teatime on Saturday, July 18 (giving Sunday 19th for the clean-up and put-away before school on Monday 20th), gives 10 days in the Pilbara.

WHERE TO STAY & HOW TO BOOK

I’ve stayed in good hotels and motels in all these towns and cities, from Newman to Tom Price, Nullagine to Marble Bar, Karratha to Onslow. I did a great trip just staying in inexpensive accommodation and touring round. I’ve done most just camping all the way, both in caravan parks and national parks.

Get advice from the visitor centre nearest to the places you’re planning to stay. Find their details at visitorcentreswa.com.au.

Karratha: karrathaiscalling.com.au and 9186 8055.

Newman:newman.org.au and 9175 2888.

Port Hedland: visitporthedland.com.au and 9173 1711.

Tom Price:tomprice.org.au/visitor-centre/ and 9188 5488.

For more on national park camping:parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au

For national park camping bookings:parkstaybookings.dbca. wa.gov.au

Camera IconWater in a Karijini gorge. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

TOWNS & BIG SPACES

There’s plenty of space and spots to camp out, national parks with designated campgrounds, caravan and camping parks and 24 hour stopping spots.

Inland Pilbara towns like Tom Price, Paraburdoo, Newman, Marble Bar and Nullagine have interesting histories, plenty of characters and are set in brilliant landscape. Basing yourself in town for a few days and exploring the local areas is good.

On the coast, Karratha and Port Hedland have modern industry set in ancient landscapes. They’re good, and comfortable, bases from which to explore. At the end of a suburban street, there you are, in that Pilbara landscape. Onslow is a good place to stay. Don’t bypass places like Cossack, Roebourne and Port Sampson.

10 PILBARA Rockstars

Karijini National Park and its gorges.

Millstream-Chichester and the Fortescue River.

Python Pool (Millstream-Chichester) and the “flat-top” landscape to its east.

Onslow and the Mackerel Islands.

Newman, its excellent Visior Centre (with an ore truck out the front and mine tour departures) and East Pilbara Art Centre, mostly dedicated to the work of Martumili artists, who are based there.

Hickman meteorite crater and Punda rock art site (near Newman).

The Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago, with its petroglyphs.

Karlamilyi (Ruddall River) National Park and out to the Canning Stock Route.

Real, red towns. Port Hedland, Dampier, Tom Price, Paraburdoo, Newman, Marble Bar and Nullagine have strong characters, interesting histories and red dust in their veins.

… but overarching all of this, the Pilbara’s a rockstar for me because of its story ancient and modern, from the cradle of life to modern industry).

Camera IconHamersley Range in Millstream Chichestern National Park. Credit: Supplied

THE BIG NATIONAL PARKS

The Pilbara landscape is distinctive — blond spinifex set against chocolate coloured rock. And Karijini National Park is where it all comes together in gorges and lookouts. Start with Dales Gorge, Weano Gorge and Oxers Lookout. There will swimming! (But the water stays pretty cold.) Fortescue Falls, Circular Pool and Fern Pool are warm weather treats in Dales Gorge. Weano Gorge has a relatively easy walk down steps to the basin, then along between layered rock walls and paperbark pools to Handrail Pool — another good swimming hole. I like the walk along the bottom of Kalimina Gorge, which shows off the rock’s structure. Red Gorge and Knox Gorge also both give dramatic views and pools. Camp in Karijini National Park or stay at Karijini Eco Retreat, where there’s camping and safari style tents with comfortable beds, ensuites, and a restaurant. The park covers more than 6270sqkm.

Millstream Chichester National Park takes in some of the icons of the Pilbara. On the Fortescue River, there are swimming areas at areas Deep Reach and Crossing Pool, and then there’s the welcome sight of Python Pool. And head to scenic Snappy Gum Drive, on the north side of Fortescue River. Explorer Francis Gregory named Millstream for “a fine tributary running strong enough to supply a large mill” and pastoralists worked this country from 1865 until 1967, when it became a national park. The Homestead Visitor Centre has information and walk trails. Look out for rainbow bee-eaters, sacred kingfishers and bustards. From June-August, wildflower show, with Sturt’s Desert Pea and more than 20 species of mulla mulla. Millstream has a good museum and welcoming water holes.

Karlamilyi National Park, in the east Pilbara, is the State’s biggest and most remote national park. Between the Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts, its 1.3 million hectares includes Ruddall River. There are escarpments and plateaux, sandstone and quartzite, stony hills and undulating plains, spinifex country, salt lakes and dunes. The main drive is the Telfer-Talwana Track, or the Kintyre Track, which crosses the park from north to south. There’s bush camping but no water or facilities.

Murujuga, on the Burrup, was the 100th national park declared in WA. The Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago has more than 100,000 prehistoric rock engravings, or petroglyphs. While those on the Burrup are best known and most easily accessible, there are lots on Dolphin Island, too. Some date back more the 30,000 years. The most popular spot for art on the Burrup is Ngajarli (Deep) Gorge. Ask the local Karratha Visitor Centre for a map and ask about cultural sensitivities.

Why the Pilbara’s a rockstar

The Pilbara features strongly in the Geological Survey of Western Australia’s list of the geological icons of WA …

Its geology spans 4.4 billion years.

The Pilbara has the earliest evidence of life on Earth, 3.5 billion years ago. In a valley in the East Pilbara, that spark of life happened. Microbes lived in warm ponds, grew into stromatolites and are now fossilised. They are the earliest recorded life on Earth.

There are banded iron formations dating back 2.5 billion year old.

And, of course, it has those giant hematite iron ore deposits in the Hamersley Range.

If we’re really digging deep into our own backyard, we should start with the Pilbara rock itself. The region is one of Earth’s oldest blocks of continental crust — it began forming more than 3.6 billion years ago.

Research seems to conclude that its rocks were not formed through the more usual plate tectonics process, in which the outer layer of the Earth’s crust’s stiff tectonic plates, which drift across the surface, bump and grind when their edges touch. That process only began around 3.2 billion years ago — and rock in the East Pilbara is older showing signs of being formed by a series of “gravitational overturn” events before that.

Gravitational overturns happened when the Earth was young and too hot for the rigid plate tectonics to form. It was more like a melted chocolate bar.

Thick piles of basalt lavas erupted and formed a dense crust, which the underlying, boiling core could barely support. The base of the cooling crust was heated again by the hot mantle beneath and started to melt again, making buoyant granitic magmas.

This all led to “unstable stratification” — low density granites overlaid by high density basalts, both layers bending and flowing in the high heat. Granitic blobs wanted to rise, basalts wanted to sink. Geological scientists call the blobs “plumes” and the reorganisation process going on “gravitational overturn”.

I have travelled the Pilbara with planet evolution scientists from NASA and the Caltech — the California Institute of Technology, a private doctorate-granting research university in California. Some told me that, in terms of understanding planetary evolution, the Pilbara was more useful than the entire moon program.

To complete the geology story, see where it’s taken us in the modern era. There are usually tours of BHP Billiton Mt Whaleback Mine, leaving from Newman Visitors Centre, and tours of Rio Tinto’s operations at Tom Price.

Camera IconHistoric display in Newman Visitor Centre. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

EAST PILBARA

Newman is a good base — you could stay here a week and day trip the region. Take a trip out to the Punda indigenous art site (about 20km from town, up the BHP access road) and Hickman Meteorite Crater.

Head on up to Marble Bar and Nullagine. Near the town of Marble Bar there’s the rock bar itself with its water holes. Nearby, there’s Comet Gold Mine with a museum, Chinaman’s Pool on an A-class reserve, and Corunna, the World War II air base. A four-wheel drive is needed to explore Coppin’s Gap and Doolena Gorge.

Around Nullagine, a gold rush town established in 1888, and the site of Australia’s first known diamond find, there’s Beaton’s Creek Gorge waterhole, Garden and Daylight Pools, and the ancient rocks of Conglomerate Gorge.

SHARING MY SPOTS …

Punda rock art site. Petroglyphs of human figures, spirit characters, boomerangs, kangaroos and emus, animal tracks and symbols used for waterholes and camps. After 28km on the sealed Marble Bar Road, we’ve turned onto the wide, graded gravel BHP road, followed this for 31km, and turned off onto a 13km track to the start of the Punda valley. Ask at Newman Visitor Centre for directions and free access permit.)

Hickman meteorite crater (out of Newman, 10km past Punda). Geological Survey Western Australia geologist Dr Arthur Hickman spotted this crater in the Hamersley Range in 2007 and it has been named for him. The 260 metre diameter crater is between 10,000 and 100,000 years old, but difficult to date. Good camping.

Corunna Downs WWII Airfield (from Marble Bar, down Corunna Downs Station Road and Salgash Road.) Japanese reconnaissance aircraft scoured this part of the Pilbara for a base which they knew must be here, but never found it. Beneath them were about 300 people, most in four-man tents, obviously without air conditioning or refrigeration, and tormented by heat, flies, snakes and scorpions. About 300 people lived at Corunna Downs, most in four-man tents, obviously without air conditioning or refrigeration, and tormented by heat, flies, snakes and scorpions. The temperature can reach 50C. The combined 30th bomber group of the US Air Force and No 25 Squadron of the RAAF were here from 1942 to 1947, with missions peaking between 1943 and 1945. Long range B24 Liberator bombers thundered down these strips which are still cleared. S 21°25’53.79″, E 119°46’56.73″.

Camera IconCorunna WWI airfield, East Pilbara. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

HIGH HIGHLIGHTS

Mt Meharry, the highest peak in WA at 1249m, with a track to the top. (It’s 85km from Tom Price, via Great Northern Highway, across Juna Downs Station and Parks and Wildlife land.)

Karratha lookouts. TV Hill Lookout, via Millstream Road; Rotary Lookout, via Yaburara Heritage Trail; Salt Shaker Lookout, via Yaburara Heritage Trail; Searipple Lookout, off Searipple Road.

WET HIGHLIGHTS

Water near Newman. Eagle Rock Falls and Pool; Three Pools (a three-tiered cascade, the track to this gorge is rough); Stuart’s Pool (rock track nicknamed the “two tyre track”); Opthalmia Dam, holding back 16sqkm of water, the dam was built in 1981, modelled on the only other one of its kind, in Israel. Kalgan’s Pool. (Down a 20km track just north of Newman.)

Staircase to the Moon. View from Onslow, First Avenue; Cossack, Settler’s Beach; Karratha, Hearson’s Cove; Port Hedland, Cooke Point Caravan Park on Goode Street.

Camera IconThe Courthouse. Cossack, in the Pilbara. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

TOWN HIGHLIGHTS

Port Hedland Courthouse Gallery and a cultural centre.

Cossack, once a port for pearl luggers before they moved to Broome in the 1880s, then for gold prospectors, and then the Pilbara’s pastoralist industry. And all that history seems still alive in Cossack.

To get to Cossack and Port Samson, I have turned off North West Coastal Highway at Roebourne — traditionally home of the Yindjibarndi people, and a town gazette in 1866, with stone heritage buildings. Roebourne Art Group, at 27 Roe Street, represents Ngarluma, Guruma, Banjyima, Marthuthunira and Torres Strait Islander artists too.

PILBARA COAST

The Pilbara coast is unusual for its hundreds of islands, from the Montebellos to the Mackerels. Point Samson Peninsular has beaches, plenty of fish, coral gardens, heritage trails and historic buildings which have been restored.

For fishers …

Bluebone fish, barramundi, whiting, crabs and squid. Just about everywhere along the Pilbara coast, and on its islands, there’s excellent fishing. Drop a line into holes and gutters at dawn and dusk. The locals’ favourite destinations include Dampier, Point Samson and Cossack, Onslow, Cowrie Cove, off Village Road, near Port Hedland, and the Mackerel Islands.

For boaties …

The Pilbara Inshore Islands Nature Reserve contains mostly small, remote islands between Exmouth and Cape Preston. Winter is most popular for boating, and brings with it the annual whale migration.

In addition to good fishing and birding, there are four species of marine turtle (green, loggerhead, hawksbill and flatback) that nest on the islands — particularly the Muiron, Locker, Thevenard, Serrurier and Sholl islands. Only day use is permitted on most islands.

Launching a boat out of Dampier, Karratha, opens up the Dampier Archipelago — 42 islands and islets within a 45km radius of Dampier. Twenty-five are nature reserves and many are good for day trips. Visitors are allowed to camp on some, including Enderby, Eaglehawk, Dolphin and Gidley. Camping is allowed only up to 100m inland of the high-water mark and for up to five nights only.

Tidepole Island is now better known as Sam’s Island. Sam came to the Pilbara in 1965 and it’s said his first visit to this island was on a raft. He loved the place so much he built a “castle”, which is still there. There’s trailer boat hire and boat charter. British explorer William Dampier visited in 1699, hence the name.

The State Government announced in August that the Port Hedland Spoilbank Marina would include a four-lane boat ramp, doubling the original size of the boat-launching facility, following community feedback.

Mackerel Islands. Just over 20km off the coast near Onslow, the Mackerels reef fish, coral trout, North West snapper big schools of queenfish and golden and giant trevally and pelagics including sailfish, wahoo and, of course, Spanish mackerel. Back in Onslow, try Four Mile Creek and Beadon Creek. There’s cabin accommodation, a restaurant and other facilities.

Boaters at the Montebello Islands can camp on Primrose, Bluebell, Crocus, Hermite and Renewal Islands all year, and on Northwest Island from April to September. They can stay no longer than five consecutive nights, and within 100 metres of the high-water mark. They were the site of three British atomic weapons tests in 1952 and 1956, and bunkers, monitoring stations, tracks and scrap metal can still be found on some islands, including Hermite Island.

Point Samson Peninsular provides a bridge between the terrestrial and oceanic worlds, from its beaches to coral gardens and abundant fish. It has heritage trails and restored historic buildings. Fish for barramundi to red emperor, prawns to blue manna and mud crabs, there’s a big variety of species in the tidal rivers. And there’s good accommodation and facilities

CLASSIC WATERING HOLES

Country pubs are all about country life, and they are often where we passers-through get a close-up glimpse of locals who stick and stay.

Iron Clad Hotel, Marble Bar. The Iron Clad Hotel was first built in 1892, and is about as iconic as pubs come. Heritage listed in what has been recognised as “Australia’s hottest town”, it’s a sweet combination just screaming for a cold drink. The pub opened in 1893 during the gold rush, at around the same time that Marble Bar was officially gazette. And it stands by a long-held promise: “You’ll receive a warm welcome.” HA!

Nullagine Hotel, Nullagine. We’re 189km northeast of Newman, 100km south-west of Marble Bar and 298km from Port Hedland. We’re in the heart of the East Pilbara in Nullagine, established following the discovery of gold in 1888. Gold prospecting and gem fossicking are still popular, and diamonds and gemstones were also mined here. The pub’s also known as the Conglomerate Hotel.

Esplanade Hotel, Port Hedland. Part if the fabric of the town, the Esplanade Hotel is part of the fabric of town, and its refurbishment makes this Port Hedland’s only 4.5 star hotel.

Pier Hotel, Port Hedland. It’s been here on The Esplanade since 1914 and has a colourful history. I’ve been here on “open mic” night — a stairway to heaven, not. Every Thursday is Karaoke Night … “come over, sing a song”.

‘Dampier Sailing Club’, Karratha. A great view and welcome at what is officially the Hampton Harbour Boat and Sailing Club.

Port Hedland Yacht Club, Port Hedland. A member will sign in up to five guests and introduce visitors to a friendly crowd. The food is famous — especially the curry.

Samson Beach Tavern, Port Samson. Take great ingredients — cold drinks, good food, Indian Ocean — and add a brilliant view.

Beadon Bay Hotel, Onslow. Built in 1924 and the survivor of many cyclones. (A real stunner in Onslow is the Onslow Beach Resort.)

Camera IconRed Earth Arts Precinct in Karratha, which opened in May 2018. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

ROCKSTAR ARTISTS

There are also rockstars in the arts, of course. Look out for local arts and crafts in shops, visitor and community centres and roadhouses and, of course, in the art centres which are much hubs of the Pilbara.

Local artists display, and through their eyes we see a different interpretation of the landscape, and respond to their sense of place.

Newman Some Martumili artists might be based at the East Pilbara Arts Centre, as I’ve mentioned, but its outreach programs see art coming in from outcamps and workshops. Opened in 2016, the community has a strong sense of ownership of the centre — it’s a live and vibrant part of the region.

Then, two hours’ drive from town, Wanna Munna rock carvings are worth time, by a shady waterhole close to the Great Northern Highway. There are carvings on the rocks in a small gorge in the upper reaches of the Weeli Wolli Creek. Walk on downstream to larger pools. (Ask at Newman Visitor Centre.) martumili.com.au

Millstream Yinjaa-Barni Art is a group of artists who predominantly belong to the Yindjibarndi language group. Their ancestral homelands are around the Millstream Tablelands. Look out for the work of Clifton Mack, Wendy Darby, Donna Wills, Cheyenne Phillips and Aileen, Alicia, Allery and Dawn Sandy. yinjaa-barni.com.au

Port Hedland Port Hedland Courthouse Gallery has long been a cultural centre, with The Junction Co running the community and cultural and arts space. Exhibitions have a local leaning and it sells bespoke artsy items. Its Jury Art Prize is on in its virtual gallery. Vote at thejunctionco.com.au

Spinifex Hill Studios, the home of the Spinifex Hill Artists, in the South Hedland Town Centre, works with Aboriginal artists from many different language groups and presents art of many styles. spinifexhillstudio.com.au

Karratha Adding spark to Karratha’s still new-look town centre, Red Earth Arts Precinct is a permanent home for arts and culture. The building’s shape reflects the Karratha hills that overlook it and it has a 450 seat theatre, rooftop cinema, outdoor amphitheatre and library. redearthartsprecinct.com.au

Cossack The Cossack Art Award, run by the City of Karratha Arts and Culture Team, usually comes to a head in July and August, when up to 300 works are accepted for exhibition. The team announces: “Unfortunately due to COVID-19 restrictions we have decided to only take Pilbara based artists for 2020. But for all our regional WA and interstate friends please keep an eye out for our 2021 awards.” Entries will be limited to 150. Major events such as the gala evening and family day have been removed from the program, and the exhibition will be presented online as a digital catalogue and virtual gallery, with online sales available. cossackartawards.com.au

Distances

Perth to Mt Magnet — 560km

Mt Magnet to Karijini National Park — 800km

Karijini to Millstream-Chichester National Park — 285km

Millstream-Chichester to Carnarvon — 635km

Carnarvon to Perth — 890km