Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Kimberley & The Pilbara

At the magnificent Windjana Gorge, limestone walls 320 feet high tower over the Lennard River, which rages through the chasm during the Wet but is reduced to a trickle in winter. A trail leads along the eastern side of the gorge past stands of paperbark (known locally as cadjeput), stem-fruited fig, and Leichhardt trees, where hundreds of flying foxes roost by day. Among the many fossils embedded in the gorge walls are the bones of Devonian reef fish and the shells of gastropods (wormlike creatures). Windjana has also yielded the bones of a several-million-year-old ancestor of the saltwater crocodile, which measured around 23 feet in length.

Tunnel Creek National Park contains one of the Kimberley's coolest refuges, a half-mile chamber carved through a limestone ridge by Tunnel Creek. Visiting this subterranean system entails wading through pools and scrambling over rocks, flashlight in hand. (The walk should not be attempted during the Wet, when flash floods can occur.)

Shine your flashlight into the crevices above you and you are likely to spot one of the five species of bat that reside in the tunnel. Direct your beam sideways and you may pick out the red reflections in the eyes of some relatively harmless but prehistoric-looking freshwater crocs.

Those with more time to spare may be tempted to continue eastward along the Great Northern Highway to Halls Creek and the domes of Purnululu. For travelers seeking adventure, the Gibb River Road offers challenging four-wheel driving through some of the region's most rugged and majestic scenery. This is one of Australia's most exciting and demanding off-road routes, and it requires thorough preparation and a sturdy vehicle. Even a challenging journey along the Gibb River Road does little more than scratch the surface of the Kimberley. For each chasm or waterfall you see, there are probably another 20 hidden away in the enormous cattle stations and national parks that cover the plateau, and many other spectacular sights lie along the remote coastline. But a short visit is sufficient to gain a sense of the region's antiquity, its startling contrasts, its magic, and its splendor.

The Pilbara, Western Australia

The harsh Pilbara region of northwestern Australia is renowned for the spectacular, yawning chasms that incise its rolling spinifex plains. It's a landscape of rich colors and contrasts, dazzling wildflower displays, challenging walks, and astounding ancient geology. That the dramatic gorges and grasslands also harbor lush permanent pools, significant Aboriginal sites, and a plethora of curious arid-adapted plants and animals comes as something of a revelation. Aboriginal people lived off the land for tens of thousands of years, and the Pilbara is the very source of their ceremonies, stories, and law. Most were forced off their homelands a century ago, with the arrival of European settlers, but are now returning to contribute to the management and promotion of the park.

On short guided walks, visitors can also learn where to find the nutty-tasting bardy grubs, an Aboriginal delicacy, and discover how to dig a soak in a creek bed to bring fresh water to the surface. Aboriginal people running the park's visitor center also willingly share their proud history.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Pilbara

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