Western Australia: Ancient rock meets relentless sea

By Heather Ramsay

Heather Ramsay finds pelicans, parrots and dramatic formations in West Australia.

Nature's Window at Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia. Photo / Supplied
Nature's Window at Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia. Photo / Supplied

The southern approach to the Western Australian town of Kalbarri slices through the coastal section of Kalbarri National Park, where the tempestuous Indian Ocean is held at bay by dramatic cliffs that soar 100m above the cobalt waters.

The relentless onslaught of waves and weather on soft sandstone and limestone has exposed banded layers of white and red, while in places the land has succumbed entirely, creating impressive natural formations like Mushroom Rock, Natural Bridge and Red Bluff.

It's hard to judge whether the land or the sea has the upper hand in this continual battle, but humans who have entered the fray have often been heavy losers.

Since the 17th century, the unpredictable waters of Australia's northwest have claimed many vessels, including two ill-fated expeditions led by George Grey, who later became Governor of New Zealand.

Grey's second expedition foundered at the mouth of Kalbarri's Murchison River in 1839, and he became the first white explorer to cover this section of coast when he undertook an epic 500km trek through the harsh, inhospitable land back to Perth.

Aptly, the highway we follow into Kalbarri is named George Grey Drive, a scenic route that offers several lookouts over the spectacular seascape and the Murchison River estuary, where the low-key resort town spreads along a blindingly white beach.

The calm turquoise waters beckon, and minutes after checking into our accommodation we're lolling about in waist-deep water watching the sun slip towards the western horizon. Two pelicans glide gracefully toward us, eyeing us with what seems like friendly curiosity.

Their true motives are revealed the next morning when we return to the waterfront for the daily pelican feeding. Armed with a bucketful of fish, a local volunteer delivers a few key facts about the habits of Australian pelicans.

But his audience is soon distracted when half a dozen pelicans skid in to land on the water, and waddle up to wait for breakfast.

A few fish later, they depart and so do we - this time for another avian encounter at Rainbow Jungle, the Australian Parrot Breeding Centre. Internationally recognised for its breeding programme of endangered Australian parrots, the 7500sq m complex is home to dozens of species including the largest free-flight parrot aviary in Australia.

Luxuriant tropical planting, reflective pools and tinkling water features are a welcome contrast to the arid land outside, and as we wander along shaded brick pathways, the occasional parroty "hullo" emanates from the foliage.

The bird theme continues at the inland section of Kalbarri National Park. As our Kalbarri Adventure Tours vehicle bucks along a corrugated track of yellow sand, guide Davo spots an emu family picking their way through the low, grey-green scrub. While we're stopped watching two adults and three chicks forage in the bushes, Davo identifies splashes of red, pink and white, the last vestiges of Kalbarri's famous wildflower season.

Over millennia the Murchison River has carved a serpentine path through this part of the park, chewing at soft sandstone and creating deep gorges with sides striped in red, purple and white.

Further along at Nature's Window, we wait while high-spirited backpackers take photos in front of a rock formation that frames the river and gorge below.

Silence descends when they leave and as the sun goes down, we watch as the rocks are set aflame with the deep red so characteristic of the Australian outback. In the gorge below, half a dozen kangaroos emerge from the bushes then hop lazily to dig for fresh water alongside a stagnant waterhole.

The next morning we hire a small powerboat to explore the lower river but low tide means we end up dragging the boat through the shallows, past a long sand island where nervous pelicans stand poised for flight. Under a jagged hilltop formation called Castle Rock, we pull into a beach criss-crossed by animal prints.

While we swim and explore we have the uncanny feeling we're being watched, and sure enough, as we putter back to town we see a lone kangaroo watching our departure. It seems in this remote part of Western Australia, the animals know if they wait patiently, human intruders will soon be on their way.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas has daily connections to Perth via the eastern states. Kalbarri is approximately 500km north of Perth.

Where to stay: Kalbarri has two camping grounds and several motels and low-key resorts. Kalbarri Edge Resort is a new complex offering self-contained apartment accommodation and a restaurant.

What to do:

* Kalbarri Adventure Tours

* Rainbow Jungle

* Kalbarri Boat Hire

Further information: See westernaustralia.com or australia.com.

Heather Ramsay and Dennis Richardson were guests of Tourism Australia and Qantas.

- NZ Herald

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