Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Hamersley Gorge (Karijini National Park)

The shortest gorge walk in Karijini National Park, Hamersley Gorge makes up for it by providing the park's best swimming holes - including the incredibly beautiful Spa Pool. Basically just a flight of steps leading to the water's edge, the current 400 metre trail provides stunning views of the wide, natural amphitheatre and incredible, banded rock formations but could be even better if restored to its original length

Distance: 400 metres (return)
Gradient: A series of steps into and out of the gorge.
Quality of Path: Largely on well formed steps
Quality of Signage: Generally well signed and clear
Experience Required: Some Bushwalking Experience Required
Time:  10 minutes, not including a swim
Steps: Many
Best Time to Visit: Winter
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees apply.
Getting There: The trail starts at the Hamersley Gorge car park. From Karijini Dr, head north along Hamersley-Mt Bruce Rd for 31 kilometres then turn right onto Nanutarra Rd. The Hamersley Gorge Rd turn off is 21 kilometres further down the road. 

Having tackled the 9 kilometre return Mt Bruce Summit Trail in the morning and having refueled in Tom Price in the afternoon, Alissa and I headed out to Hamersley Gorge on our way back to the Eco Retreat. Located far away from the other gorge walks in Karijini, its a lengthy drive down unsealed roads to reach Hamersley Gorge, however the gorge is home to one of the most photographed and beloved pools in the entire park, and as such was a high priority for our Karijini trip.

Upon arrival at Hamersley Gorge, Alissa and I noted a makeshift, laminated sign had been sticky taped onto the trailhead indicating that access to 'the area above the falls' is no longer permitted due to a spate of injuries in 'recent months'. As such, the official Hamersley Gorge is now an extremely short walk of no more than 400 metres!

From the trailhead, the trail heads down a series of well formed steps that lead to the gorge floor.

Hamersley Gorge is wider and with a more amphitheatre-like shape than the other gorges in the park. Even more unusual is the fact that the banded formations of Hamersley Gorge have been pushed up on an angle and are decidedly uneven. All the other gorges have been formed with relatively straight banded lines, whereas Hamersley's bands are erratic and heavily tilted. Give the large, open space, the view of the gorge wall is a stunningly beautiful sight for those descending to the pools below.

Although there are quite a number of steps, they are very well formed and should be easy enough for most able bodied walkers.

The trails leads to a beautiful pool at the bottom of the gorge that would be open to the sunshine during the middle of the day. As such, the water in Hamersley Gorge is noticeably warmer and more appealing for a Winter swim than some of the extremely cold pools deep within the more shaded gorges like Handrail or Kermits Pool.

To the right of the steps are a series of small waterfalls upstream. With the track now truncated by the ranger's notice, that's it for the trail - its basically just a series of steps up and down to the large pool that, while stunning, is not much of a walk at all. As a bushwalking blog, I don't consider such short walks as being worthy of a write up and this is easily the shortest walk ever covered by the Long Way's Better. I wouldn't even be writing about Hamersley Gorge at all if not for this:

This is Spa Pool. Beloved by nature photographers and frequently promoted as a 'must do' by everyone from travel bloggers to Tourism Australia, Spa Pool regularly appears in photography books and in promotional photographs selling Karjini as one of the finest national parks in Australia, even being promoted by Explore Parks WA a week or two before our Karijini trip. Due to a few people getting injured and the closure of the walk above the falls at the time of writing, you are no longer permitted to visit this absolutely beautiful place.

Now, I'm a major stickler for the rules and take great pleasure in watching people who break the rules get punished for doing so. I've often half-joked that I'd love to volunteer as an infringement officer for Parks and Wildlife so I could fine people who don't pay to enter national parks, and that repeat offenders who spread Dieback by riding their dirt bikes on walk trails like the Bibbulmun Track should have their bikes confiscated and destroyed. I agree fully with Parks and Wildlife telling people off for diving into the water at Joffre Gorge given the potential for submerge hazards, and as much as I'd love to enter the Restricted Areas of Hancock, Weano and Knox Gorges, I totally understand why our lack of rock climbing and abseiling experience and equipment should preclude Alissa and I from just wandering in without permission. In spite of it going against my usual principles, Alissa and I did what I estimated that 50% of all visitors (including familes with young children) to Hamersley Gorge did on the two days we visited - ignored the sign at the trailhead and continued on above the falls to the Grotto and Spa Pool. As this is not an official trail and access is not permitted, I will not provide detailed information on how to get there. However, I would like to talk about why I don't believe this place should be closed and why there must be a better way.

The reason behind the closure is fairly obvious if you're trying to make your way to the Grotto (pictured above; Spa Pool is at the very end) - some of the rocks near the falls here have been polished smooth by water and are easy to slip on. If you make it past the smooth rocks, you are then walking on ground that has been tilted up at an odd angle, and as such has a jagged form that would be potentially dangerous in a fall. Combine this with the fact many visitors to the gorge walks basically enter the gorge already in either board shorts or a bikini and are wearing the flimsiest of flip flops as footwear instead of walking to the water with proper shoes and more protective clothing, and it is no wonder than people were getting injured.

Even though I clearly understand the reasoning and agree that steps towards risk mitigation should be undertaken, closure seems to me like a poor outcome given that it prevents access to such a beautiful part of the gorge, and the fact that the risks of slipping and injury are no worse here than in many other walks in Australia - I would consider the walk to the Grotto to be a Class 4 walk on the Australian Walk Track Grading System. The awkward section to get to the other side of Kermits Pool in Hancock Gorge was way more challenging and scary for me than getting to the Grotto, and there are parts of the ascent of Talyuberlup Peak in the Stirling Range that I would consider more hazardous. In Tasmania, Cradle Mountain and Mt Ossa on the Overland Track feature sections where hikers could quite easily fall backwards and slip if they're not careful, and the same would go for many of the granite dome walks in the South West and Great Southern during the wet and windy winters. And that's not to mention all the Black Diamond-rated cycle trails that are part of Trails WA's massive push to create trails hubs throughout Western Australia. Walking and cycling are by their nature dangerous activities, and while unnecessary risk should be taken out of the equation, it is futile - and even undesirable - to try and remove it entirely. 

The difference of course is that people climbing a mountain or doing a challenging downhill cycle generally understand the risks and are wearing suitable attire for the task at hand, while some visitors to the gorges at Karijini think flip flops are acceptable and are less cautious. This is a hard one to deal with, but here are some suggested solutions that came to mind when thinking about allowing access to the Grotto and Spa Pool while reducing risk:

  1. Prohibit access to the area above the falls for those not wearing proper footwear, and put up signs warning those continuing on to nevertheless proceed with caution due to the real risk of injury. 'People have been injured/Lives have been lost' signs usually do the trick. 
  2. Make guests sign a Walker Safety Checklist or similar before heading out. We had to sign a document before undertaking the Overland Track basically specifying that we were well prepared and had all the correct gear. Making guests have to speak to a ranger about the dangers might drive the message home. 
  3. Bolt a railing or a chain to the wall along the slippery slope section. There are precedents for this in Handrail Pool and on Mt Bruce already and it would mitigate the chance of falling during what I would consider the riskiest section of the walk. I know times are tough financially in Western Australia, but I'm sure a length of chain bolted to the rock would not be overly expensive - hell, I'd happily chip in!
  4. Mark a route that avoids crossing the waterfall section. Wading or swimming through the main pool at the end of the current official walk avoids the slippery waterfall crossing, and from there it is not as difficult to reach the Grotto. Likewise, swimming from the Grotto to Spa Pool is easier and safer than walking.

Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Why am I making such a big deal about the closure? Because Spa Pool is absolutely amazing; along with the Weano & Hancock Gorges Walk and cycling down Roeburn-Wittenoom Rd in Millstream Chichester National Park after the Camel Trail, swimming in Spa Pool was one of the Top 3 best things things I did over our whole Pilbara trip - and I'm not really big on swimming most of the time. Albeit smaller than you might expect, the pool is simply beautiful, and the fact the water upstream is open to sunlight means the pool is warmer than many others in the park. My swim in Spa Pool will be something I'll always cherish, and I think it would be a shame if access was completely banned in perpetuity. 

Although easily the least impressive and satisfactory walk in the park due to its brevity, Hamersley Gorge was one of our favourite places in Karijini, and has the distinction of being the only gorge that Alissa and I visited twice (we returned on our way back from Millstream Chichester). This is due to the fact that Hamersley Gorge is one of the best places to swim in the national park - even without Spa Pool. Spa Pool is however justifiably celebrated, and I just hope that a sensible compromise can be reached, and access will be permitted once again. 


  1. Hi Don, I loved Hamersley when I was there back in the dark ages too, it had the best swimming spots. The spa pool wasn't so well known when I was back there in the 80's though. I'm a little looser with adhering to rules and regulations, my personal rule of thumb is that if the area is closed for environmental reasons then I respect the rule. But if its just to protect people from themselves then I'll use my own discretion, a lot of these closures are due to public liability issues I suspect. Loved your selfie in the forbidden spa pool - classic.

    1. Hi Kevin, I enjoyed reading your post on Karijini and it was great to see photos of the gorge from back in the day. In terms of rules, I'll happily respect them if its environmental, religious sensitivity (eg climbing Uluru) or a legitimate safety issue, but I do agree that sometimes things go too far. I think the overall flatness of WA has bred a particularly fearful attitude to any rugged terrain - I can imagine Stapylton Amphitheatre being restricted for instance.

      I also have a theory that the relative youth of bushwalking trails in WA means that we didn't have time to develop traditional routes before public liability became such an issue. Things like Tarros Ladder in the Blue Mountains would never be allowed on a new trail today, so most of our trails in WA have had their proverbial and literal sharp edges risk assessed away.

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