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Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Pilbara

Updated on March 25, 2010

Two neighboring national parks protect a broad swath of this majestic region. Karijini National Park, four hours south of the coastal town of Port Hedland, lies at its blood-red heart. At 1,548,690 acres, it is Western Australia's second-largest and Australia's third-largest national park. It comprises a vast sweep of the Hamersley Range, which rises almost 4,000 feet and stretches 250 miles across the Pilbara like a voluminous skirt. Smaller Millstream-Chichester National Park, to the northwest, encompasses similar terrain but resembles a desert mirage, concealing deep, permanent pools shaded by enigmatic palms. It's an ideal stopover for those returning to the coast from Karijini.

Gnarled and rusted, the ancient Karijini landscape wears the scars of years of evolutionary change. The red, iron-rich formations that characterize the park are some of the oldest exposed rock on the Australian continent. The transformation of the park's waterfalls and gorges can be dramatic during the summer wet season, when they are flushed by torrential rain. Dry creek beds become surging brown torrents, and floodplains greedily soak up moisture, storing it in vast underground reservoirs that nourish snaking groves of majestic river red gums and shady coolibahs long after the storms have passed. In the slotlike gorges, the water pools for much of the dry winter, sustaining a variety of more sensitive plants and animals.

Throughout the fierce Pilbara plateau, where the animals are either hunters or hunted, spinifex is the major battlement. And with 12 species of the prickly plant clustered densely throughout the region, it's a defense system of military proportions. Few plants are better adapted to the harsh conditions or as essential to its wildlife. When it's dry and hot outside, the spinifex is a cool retreat, helping the resident reptiles, insects, and mammals conserve moisture. Especially for tiny insects, the mass of intertwined spines serves as a windbreak and safe haven.

For a closer inspection of this vegetation, visitors need stray only a short distance from any road or campground. Spinifex residents are, however, more elusive. Sightings of nocturnal mammals such as the spinifex hopping mouse, red antechinus, and Pilbara ningaui, all small rodentlike creatures, are rare, but walkers sometimes flush plumed pigeons, spinifex birds, and striated grass wrens.

Millstream's spring-fed pools in Millstream-Chichester National Park have supported countless generations of people and wildlife. Visitors to Millstream are soon awakened to its wonders. At dawn, the skies are splashed yellow and green with the swift wings of budgerigars, and at dusk in summer black and little red flying foxes emerge from their daytime slumber to feed noisily on the rich nectar of the paperbark tree's blossoms. By day, rainbow bee-eater birds drop from the sky like winged opals to chase insects by the pools; by night, the northern quoll, a spotted cat-sized animal, forages for fruit and carrion.

In the harsh summer months, Millstream-Chichester's four main water holes, Python, Deep Reach, Crossing, and Chinderwarriner, can be as tepid as baths; immersion is far more comfortable in winter, when the average temperature is an invigorating 68 degrees F (20 degrees C). Canoeing is a terrific way to explore the pools, but swimming is undoubtedly the most popular pursuit. In Deep Reach, the park's largest pool, there's ample space for a few leisurely laps and rarely a crowd. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer size and grandeur of the Pilbara, so vast are its grasslands and so precipitous its gorges. But this grand landscape also cradles subtle delights, verdant pools, fragile creatures, and rich folklore. Often parched and always unforgiving, the Pilbara is rarely disappointing.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Shark Bay

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