Christmas in the Green Jewel of Australia’s Red Desert

Dec 25, 2013

We asked you for heartwarming atheist Christmas stories, and you responded!

This one is by Christine Robinson. 

Photo: Weano Gorge, Karijini National Park, Pilbara Desert, Western Australia. Credit: Christine Robinson, 2005.


You've probably seen a dragonfly, but have you seen a flying dragon? I've seen both in one far off place.

Being Scottish, my idea of winter was snowy blizzards, freezing temperatures and 16 hours of dark each day, Often the only colour in quiet and still white Scotland is holly, the evergreen leaf with red berries.

I associate Christmas time with snowy winters, but then, the Middle East where it all started historically was probably meek and mild compared to winter in Scotland. That preconceived idea of Christmas was based around my northern hemisphere winter experience, which had to be rethought when I spent over a decade in Western Australia. There November and December are intensely hot and dry. They come just before the rainy season begins, which then makes it hot and wet. So it's Christmas but it doesn't feel Christmassy even to an atheist.

One Christmas came at the end of a few long hot summers at Curtin University in Western Australia, studying Architecture and, in particular, natural sites that water carved out, creating spaces that were revered as special or sacred in the traditions of ancient cultures. That Christmas, I craved water immersion and a visit to a desert oasis, the green jewel in the red sand of the Pilbara: Karijini Gorges.

Traveling north from Perth, you go back in time to an ancient land. The Pilbarra area is one of two places that first emerged from the shallow sea that covered the entire Earth in the pre-Cambrian era, along with the Transvaal in East Africa. Valbarra, as it was known, emerged as the first land above the water: terra firma.

For 16 hours we drove north with stops at Shark Bay, where the Stromatolites sit in the shallows at Hamelin pool, the first colonies of life. We continued north to Exmouth and Coral Bay, where Ningaloo Reef begins off the coast, and finally headed south to Tom Price, a mining town close to Karijini National Park. It's a bone shaking couple of hours driving over corrugated red dirt roads and off road tracks. There, the Visitor Centre's curvy contemporary architecture is made from rusted red iron sheets that well fit the site that is run by the friendly local Banyjima people.

From the 45 degree heat of the flat desert surface we descended down from the desert plain into a huge gash torn through the red land. We discovered a hidden green paradise of vibrant plants, creatures, pools and falls of fresh water. Our descent was like going back in time, down through the banded iron rock formations of Dales and Weano Gorge. We traversed over hexagonal slabs of red stone so hot it could burn skin — as I well knew, going barefoot! (Barefoot was my style because the track required crossing waist deep water pools, then hot rocks, then more water pools, then more hot rocks, so you were always getting wet.)

The surrounding lush green trees and plants hide rare creatures that are unique to the gorge oasis, like the most precious creature we were probably quite privileged to have seen, a rare flying dragon. It was a kind of gliding lizard that floated silently down through the trees and past my gaping mouth and wide eyed face. It was gone in a few seconds but seemed like moved in slow motion. I still missed getting a photo, having frozen and not wanting to scare it off.

The rest of the gorges are refreshing and amazing, and take you through an ancient paradise of waterfalls. Fortesque Falls, its Fern pool, and Weano Gorge take you on an exciting descent down to the amazing circular swimming space of Handrail pool, with cool fresh water to immerse yourself in. We saw many animals including a bright blue sparrow, red dragonflies, blue dragonflies, kookaburras, red lizards, large ants and kangaroo, and no crocs — they didn't come that far south I was told by the locals. But poisonous snakes and spiders do abound in the gorge. I saw a white snake in the water and fled. I picked up a little red rock from the gorge to take back with me, that fit snug in my hand. I now know it's a tool, because it has finger dents in it and a flat smooth surface.

We took some great video and photos of our two trips to this paradise, both at Christmas time 2003 and 2005,  both just narrowly avoiding the rainy season in the tropics: flash floods can kill people in these gorges. The land definitely needs to be respected and revered.

Even on a tight budget Karijini is still accessible. Petrol is the main cost and camping is cheap. If you have the intent to journey to the remote gorges you will be richly rewarded. I soaked up the essence of the ancient Australian first land and that made me feel rich beyond wealth. I gained more unique experiences out there than any traditional Christmas festivities could have brought me.
Christine Robinson

Written By: Christine Robinson
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