Go with the flow in Kalbarri
Kalbarri Edge Resort.

There are certain places in Australia where the landscape is so sublime it renders you stupid, where all you can do is sit on a rock and quote Winnie the Pooh.

"Rivers know this; there is no hurry. We shall get there some day."

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I'm certainly in no hurry. Looking down on the Murchison River, a broad serpentine that glides from the Robinson Ranges in central Western Australia to the Indian Ocean at Kalbarri, I try to etch the scene on my memory forever.

The wisps of mist, delicate as a pony's tail, hovering above the river, the red cliffs plummeting into the ribbon of olive-green and the broad brushstrokes of the heathland, stretching as far as the eye can see.

On its 780km journey to the sea, the Murchison has sliced a wide path through the Kalbarri plateau, chewing at soft sandstone and creating 80km of spectacular gorges, now protected by the Kalbarri National Park.


LOOP WALK

I set off early with a small party of five to tackle the 8km Loop walk. Starting at Nature's Window, a natural rock arch within the national park, we cross a narrow ridge to reach a plateau that has almost been cut off by the tight bend in the river.

From here, we head east along the gorge rim, negotiating boulders and passing through galleries of eroded sandstone and rocky cairns.

"The Tumblagooda sandstone is only 400 million years old," said Kevin, our guide. "And it's thick. More than 1400m, and the bottom has never been found."

Kevin explained that the rock was laid down during the Ordovician period more than 400 million years ago when sands from the Yilgarn block were washed on to a broad rift valley which opened between Australia and what is now southern Tibet.

The final descent from the rim to the river is tough and when we reach the sandy beach we disappear into the water like tadpoles freed from a bucket.

I float on my back and stare up at the red and white cliffs embossed against a cobalt-blue sky and decide that no colour palette is more perfect than that produced by nature.

Chinaman's Beach, Kalbarri. Picture: Tourism WA

THE RIVER

From the sandy beach we follow the course of the river around its horseshoe bend, picking our way along the stony ravine floor before tackling the steep ascent back to Nature's Window. It's exceedingly hot, at least 10C hotter than outside the gorge, and I'm leaving a snail trail of sweat on every rock I touch.

After the gruelling six-hour walk, I take the lazy option and spend the remainder of the day driving to various lookouts within the park - the Z-Bend, formed when vertical joints within the sandstone allowed the river to carve a series of switchbacks, Ross Graham Lookout, the easiest place to access the river, and finally Hawk's Head, where peregrine falcons to hunt.

As the sun declines, the gorge begins to glow, like someone has turned on a light inside. I settle down on a rock with my notepad, admiring the scenery as I'm sure many before me have done.

Dragonflies dance around my head. I make some notes and listen to the sunset. As Pooh Bear would say: "Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering."


KALBARRI CARAVAN PARK

It is almost dark as I drive the 35km back to Kalbarri. My base camp is a cabin in the Murchison Caravan Park, a friendly place opposite the beach where the Murchison eases its way into the sea.

Kalbarri is blessed with a unique marine environment, safe swimming beaches, surf breaks and sheltered bays as well as the estuarine environment of the river.

Any time is good to visit, though June through to November has the added attraction of whales and wildflowers. The season kicks off with a Canoe and Cray Carnival in June and wraps up in November with the Murchison River Music Festival.

This delightful coastal town is a reminder of gentler times; of childhood holidays, of seagulls and sunburn, of fish and chips on the beach.

But, for now, I have grown-up requirements - a swim, a beer and a nice dinner. The calm, turquoise water of Chinaman's Beach satisfies the first, the Kalbarri Hotel the second and the Edge Resort, where I dine on fresh Kalbarri lobster and pink snapper, the third.


COASTAL CLIFFS

The next morning I drive to the Coastal Cliffs, a few kilometres south of town. Here the ravenous ocean is held in check by dramatic cliffs that soar above.

Over millennia, wind and waves have torn at the soft sandstone creating natural formations such as Mushroom Rock, Natural Bridge, Castle Cove and Red Bluff.

It's hard to tell who is winning the war between land and sea in this Mexican stand-off.

Humans have also battled the elements - mutineers who were set ashore from the Batavia near Red Bluff in 1629 (and who hold the unhappy distinction of becoming Australia's first white settlers); passengers on the Dutch ship the Zuytdorp, which crashed against the cliffs in 1712; and explorer George Grey, who foundered here in 1839.

I'm hoping for a peaceful end to my journey as I set off along the Mushroom Rock nature trail, a two-hour walk which joins Mushroom Rock with Rainbow Valley in the southern section of the national park.

There are interpretive signs explaining the geology and nature but I barely notice. I just stroll, enjoying the boom crash opera of the waves below, the taste of the salt on my lips, the breeze in my hair, the sun on my back.

When I spot a sea eagle, my personal good luck totem, I am in travellers' nirvana.

Over the coming days, further adventures await - a canoe safari through the gorges, a wilderness cruise to the lower reaches of the Murchison and perhaps a ride along the river on horseback. But for now I'm happy to sit and enjoy the moment.



FACT FILE

• Kalbarri is 590km north of Perth via the North West Coastal Highway. It takes about seven hours by car.

• Kalbarri Edge Resort is a 4.5- star resort in the heart of town offering studio rooms, spa suites and two-bedroom apartments. Visit kalbarriedge.com.au or call 9937 0000.

• Murchison Caravan Park is opposite the Murchison River. It offers cabins and powered or un-powered sites. Visit murcp.com and call 9937 1005.

• For more information on Australia's Coral Coast, visit australiascoralcoast.com.

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Australia's Coral Coast.

The West Australian

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