Photographer Ignacio Palacios uncovers a piece of paradise in the middle of the Outback.
“It’s the best-kept secret of the Outback,” nods Ignacio Palacios, before I’ve even finished the question. “It’s just a little gem.”
I’m here to talk to this photographer – a Spanish native who travelled the globe for 10 years, before settling in Australia – about his “very special” trip to Karijini National Park, a place that, for the most part, mass Australia has no idea even exists.
“It was so beautiful,” he says, with a shake of his head. “For me, it is the most beautiful national park in the country. There were some locations where I just could not stop taking photos. I just could not.” He stops for a moment, then says it: “It’s the most photogenic park in the country.”
More than Uluru? Kakadu? The Kimberley? Yes, he nods.
It’s a big statement, certainly, but for those who’ve been here, it’s not a controversial one.
Australian Traveller’s own editorial panel – including Dick Smith, Catriona Rowntree and Bob Ansett – once labelled Karijini an absolute bucket-list item. Lonely Planet describes it as “genuinely stunning”. And Daniel Scott, 2011 Australian Travel Writer of the Year, names it ‘one of his favourite places’.
“Of all the 200 Australian national parks I had so far visited,” Scott writes, reflecting on his first visit there, “Karijini, with its ancient chasms cleaved out of the Hamersley Range, left the most indelible impression on me.”
Sadly, most Australians will never manage to get here – or even, get to know much about it.
“I’ve been exploring for a long time; for four years I’ve explored Australia. [But] I hadn’t heard of Karijini when I first came here,” admits Palacios, who has photographed landscapes in 70 different countries (yes, 70).
“I just kept seeing beautiful pictures of these colourful gorges, in books by other photographers, and wondering where they were.”
Granted, Karijini is not the easiest place to get to. At the heart of Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the north-western corner of the state, the park – formerly known as Hamersley National Park – is a good three days’ drive from Perth.
Or slightly more sensibly, a regional flight to either Newman or Paraburdoo, which are 190 kilometres and 100 kilometres away respectively. But then, it’s not the hardest place to get to, if you are happy to put in a little effort.
“The park is just a little thing,” points out Palacios.
“With The Kimberley you’ve got big boats, helicopters, or you have to drive for days and days to get around… but here, you hire your 4WD at the airport and when you arrive, it doesn’t take long to go from one place to another.” And there isn’t anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the beauty of this place, he continues.
“The colours, the nature… it’s so wild. Even when it’s dry there are many places to swim. It’s just so fresh and beautiful.”
Breathtaking views and soulful silences aside – with two-and-a-half-billion years under its belt, this landscape is one of the oldest on the planet – the swimming here is a highlight.
Several remarkable watering holes abound, some easily accessible even for the littlest among us, along with a year-round flowing waterfall, Fortescue Falls – something of a rarity for a park that happens to be in the middle of the desert.
There isn’t much that’s ‘normal’ about Karijini. Crowds are non-existent. Wildlife is bountiful. And in the middle of it all is another surprising find: a quiet collection of 50 eco-tents, complete with a little restaurant and well-stocked bar.
“It’s not like a luxury hotel,” Palacios is quick to add, seeing the gleam in my eye. “It’s just nice tents. Very, very nice tents.
“Although the food is really beautiful, too,” he adds as an afterthought. “I slept a lot. It was just so relaxing to be there.”
I can think of other adjectives I might use to describe a visit to Karijini, but I stay silent.
And rightly so: Palacios’ images speak all for themselves.
The details: Karijini National Park, WA
Getting there: Qantas operates daily flights from Perth to Paraburdoo and Newman – approximately two and three hours drive away respectively. Car rental is available at both airports; it is advisable to make the journey by 4WD.
Alternatively you can take a full-day guided tour from Tom Price with Lestok Tours or if you’re a thrill seeker, West Oz Active Adventure Tours.
Where to stay: Karijini Eco Retreat is a multi-award winning indigenous-owned retreat, offering unpowered camp sites (from $30 per night) and dorm-style tents (from $120 per night).
But our pick is the deluxe eco tent with private ensuite (from $178 per night). The alfresco restaurant allows guests to dine under the outback stars whilst indulging in some quality cuisine.
Alternatively Dale’s Campground offers several unpowered sites (from $7 per person/per night), but they don’t take bookings – so first in, best dressed. 08 9189 8157
Need to know: A pass is required to enter the national park – prices for a day pass start from $11 per vehicle. Visit karijini.com for more details.
The best time to travel – and peak season – runs from May to September. The temperature can reach in the 30s during the day but nights can get quite cold, so pack some woollies.
There are some stunning walks through the gorges, but check the difficulty of the track before you hike and take plenty of water with you.
Ignacio’s latest exhibition, ‘Red Hot West – Karijini’, is on show at Sydney’s Gaffa Gallery until 18 Feb. For more information, call 02 9283 4273 or head to iptravelphotography.com.au