Pilbara rivers

AMANDA BURTON — 27 June 2014

You’ll hear boaties talk about how you must respect the ocean, that ‘she’ is powerful, unpredictable and home to hidden dangers. However we Australians are land-dwellers and we often don’t seem to give the same respect to the inland waters we encounter — the rivers, creeks, streams and brooks. If you take a trip to the Pilbara, you’ll find out that these waterways can have just as many unpredictable moods as the ocean.

Amanda Burton explores the rivers of the Pilbara from the Gascoyne River to the Lyndon River…

Pilbara river crossings

The Gascoyne River

As we set out from Carnarvon, the lush, green countryside gave us no warning of what lay ahead. Heading north towards the Kennedy Ranges, we planned to explore the lesser-known western side, before climbing over the top of the range and back down to the eastern side. The track started wide and easy, but soon got narrow and wet, and showed evidence of vehicles sliding and bogging. Thankfully a number of twisty ‘chicken tracks’ let us avoid the worst bits.

Before long the track disappeared into a wide expanse of water, which according to the map was the Gascoyne River. We parked and waded across the 50-plus metres to the other side. It wasn’t too deep, but the current was strong and the bottom was soft in places. We figured we could probably make it, but if things did go pear-shaped, there was a notable absence of reachable winching trees. The water could well be up to the bottom of our doors and as the grandparents’ Hilux is a little challenged in the clearance department, it would be well underwater.

We all agreed it wasn’t worth the risk of flooding the vehicles and having to endure the stench of damp, festering carpets for the rest of the trip. So the Gascoyne River reigned supreme and we retreated, a little disappointed that our trip had failed at first contact. However a gorgeous campsite on the bank among the river gums and coolabahs soon soothed our melancholy as we planned a new line of attack.

Book accommodation in Carnarvon.

Gascoyne Junction

We decided a better-formed crossing point was in order and headed towards Gascoyne Junction. Upon entering town we were greeted by conflicting crossing condition signs, and although there was plenty of repair-like activity going on at the crossing, the sign read “Open”. So we entered, generating a rather impressive bow wave as the water parted to allow the big ’Cruiser and following Hilux through.

Just then the UHF screeched to life. It was a head honcho at the shire, telling the workers at the crossing to change the conflicting signs to all read “Closed”. It was too late, as by now we were halfway across. We gave a friendly wave to the guy coming to change the sign and we were off. Gascoyne River take two: successful crossing.

The Lyndon River

After negotiating the bollards at the eastern Kennedy Range, our next planned stop was out the back of Millstream National Park. With our original itinerary now out the window, we found ourselves caught short and began looking for a place to set up camp for the night. The Lyndon River crossing caught us by surprise; it was bone-dry, in sharp contrast to the flooded Gascoyne we had just left behind.

The Fortescue River

After a few days playing out west of Millstream National Park around the Fortescue River, we woke to a redder-than-red sunrise. The ancient mariners’ rhyme “red skies at morning, sailors take warning” sprang to mind, and what a true premonition it turned out to be. We fled out to the coast, reaching the bitumen just before the unseasonal rain hit. June is supposed to be the ‘dry season’ up here, but it was now far from it. The roads were flooding and we started to wonder if a cabin cruiser might be a better option than the AOR Oddy we were towing. This area sees its fair share of rain in the wet season, but the UHF was buzzing with comments from truckies about how this was as bad as they had ever seen it.

The De Grey River

We had a week’s accommodation booked at Kooljaman, so ploughed our way northwards through the floodwaters, hoping that by the time we arrived, the Cape Leveque road would more closely resemble a driveable thoroughfare, rather than its reported current incarnation as a river. A damp overnight stop along the way at the popular De Grey River rest area gave us another taste of a river’s many moods. Overnight the water level in the river rose so much that our campsite was a good two metres closer to the water’s edge than when we had retired the night before.

On sunrise the wind arrived and brought with it a raging rainstorm, which pulled out tent pegs and whipped canvas awnings like untrimmed sails. After struggling with a very wet pack-up we clawed our way into the ’Cruiser, heater on, demister full bore, and made our way out through huge puddles towards the highway. Along the way we encountered a multitude of soaking, bedraggled campers and caravaners, many of them now stranded in the middle of their own personal red lakes. Once we were back on the highway, we were subjected to a day of torrential rain; at times you couldn’t see five metres ahead and the white road markings were no longer visible. Pulling over wasn’t an option, as either side of the road had disappeared under the water. By late afternoon we finally outran the storm. Looking back at the bank of dark clouds behind us, we could only pity those who were heading into it.

The De Grey River crossing

After a couple of weeks drying out on Cape Leveque, we tentatively headed back into the Pilbara. The Boreline Track took us out towards the Yarrie Mine site, past the old Shay Gap town site, which had now all but disappeared in the scrub. The effects of the recent rain were still very evident with water nearly a metre deep gushing over the causeway.

We nosed our way along the edge of the river, and encountered a couple of Queenslanders who were camped up, also waiting for the water level to drop. They reckoned another 24 hours should just about do it and if they timed the tides right the flow would be slower. The Yarrie station hands had told us that a nearby pool was now infested with bull sharks that had swum upstream in the high water — so the ocean certainly did have some influence, even this far up. We moved on and set up camp a little further along.

The next morning we wandered back to check the crossing; it had dropped noticeably, but was still fast-flowing. We were so enjoying the peace of our riverside campsite, fossicking for shiny gem stones and dipping our toes in the water, that it didn’t take much to convince ourselves to stay another day and let the water level fall a little further. The following morning we dragged ourselves away to attempt the manageable-looking De Grey River crossing. It was now closer to knee-deep, with a concrete base, but it was much wider than the average crossing and gave us plenty of time to appreciate the fact that our 4WD was doing a pretty good impersonation of a boat.

Coppins Gap

After all the major river crossings we had successfully negotiated on this trip, it was actually a little creek crossing where we encountered the most carnage. With the De Grey behind us, we were looking for a place called Coppins Gap. A small innocuous sign pointing down a narrow track was our only indicator. The track was rough, but the scenery was beautifully coloured with green spinifex, yellow wattle and red grevilleas.

We turned onto an even rougher track — up, down, and around, with washouts, sandy bits and the inevitable creek crossings. Around a blind bend we came across a very strange sight: a seemingly new, bright, clean Prado, nose down in a deep waterhole, water lapping at its windscreen. A rather wet, glum-looking guy in work clothes stood nearby on the bank. He told us he travels this track every week checking the water levels at the gap, and that this was crossable last week.

It was a perfect example of why you must never become complacent when any sort of water crossing is required. Always remember: if you cannot walk it, you cannot cross it.

Discover why you should take this advice seriously in 32 reasons why mud sucks.

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Adventure Travel Pilbara Equipment 2014 WA