I want to die in the Kalbarri gorges

Curves of the Murchison through Nature's Window

More accurately, I want to be able to die in the gorges of Kalbarri National Park. It’s not that I really want to die, or for anyone else to die, but I want it to be possible: to fall, overheat, get lost or just break a leg and know that I may die because of it. I feel that remoteness from civilisation, unmediated intimacy with geology and ecology and serious risk of misfortune all facilitate a shift towards a more open and contemplative awareness…and that all of those elements are part of the appeal of experiences in nature. My sense is that’s exactly the sort of shift in mind and ‘space’ that most people desperately need when going on an adventure or holiday – a different physical, digital and psychological context from the one they normally inhabit. I’d like Kalbarri National Park to stay a sort of ‘sacred’ space that way, but it’s changing.

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Lichen layered on ancient traces of biology turned geology

For some context, Kalbarri National Park is 650km north of Perth and probably the most spectacular natural terrestrial landscape within a day’s drive of the State’s capital. The place is gorgeous: layered, multi-coloured rocks in the gorges; intricate patterns in the exposed rocks made by recent lichen, millennia-old ocean currents or prehistoric animal tracks; distant green rolling hills contrasting the clear blue sky; and, white sand beaches hugging the curves of the Murchison River. It also has some of the best rock climbing in WA, if not Australia, amazing biodiversity and rare species, and many other features of historical and recreational signifcance.

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Millenia made visible through exposed geology

It’s already a popular destination with the iconic Nature’s Window and other lookouts attracting increasing numbers of tourists (up 20% compared to last financial year). Now, the Park’s attractiveness and accessibility is being boosted: construction has begun on project that boasts: two cantilever Skywalks to enable visitors to walk up to 20m out, 100m above the gorges at West Loop, sealing 22km of roads, a kiosk, mobile communications towers and “a promotional campaign to drive public interest and increase visitor numbers”.

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Artist’s impression of the Skywalks, via Perth Now

Frankly, I think it’s going to be amazing, and am happy so many more people will get to experience this place, and probably learn more about it through self-guided tours, commercial tourism experiences and interpretive apps on their phones.

I am, however, aware of the change in consciousness that will happen when I visit after July next year. Currently, I drive down a rough unsealed road, notice my mobile coverage is gone, remember (or forget) to tell someone where I am going, and realise the all the water I have for the trip is what I’ve already got with me. All these things give me cues to shift my attention, consider the consequences, be sure I’ve packed the essentials, and be prepared for both an amazing adventure and the possibility that it could end badly. Further, as I climb down the rocks into the gorge, I notice the many opportunities to roll my ankle, fall down a crevice, or run out of water….and that any inattention or carelessness may have consequences.

Next year, after the changes, my and everyone’s experience will be different. We will drive into the park along bitumen, be able to post to Instagram or Snapchat, feel adventurous when we grab a Red Bull from the kiosk then, maybe, catch a moment’s silence to take in the views while a group next to us giggles as they try to squeeze themselves and abyss in the background into the frame of a selfie. Then, if you venture down into the gorge and hit a spot of bother, you will be able to whip out your phone and call for help and make your inattention, carelessness or lack or preparation a shared problem. There’s a certain quiet and contemplative space that you will have to deliberately create, rather than that be the natural and compulsory experience.

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Tackling a warm-up boulder problem, with full safety precautions (a mat).

One a recent trip a friend broke his foot while climbing in the gorge. It was his first time climbing and the accident happened on his last effort to get up a small climb. In a moment of enthusiasm he over-reached his limits and fell, then had to painfully hobble along the rocky river, up hundreds of natural steps and ledges, only supported by a stick for a crutch and his friends for encouragement. There was no other option. My young nephew, whose recreation is mostly indoors and digital, was also with us. He not only had an amazing time, but also got to witness the consequences of making a mistake out in nature where help is not readily available. For my nephew it may be one of those sort of important formative experience he doesn’t forget. For my friend he certainly won’t – he couldn’t walk unassisted for 3 months.

Earlier in that same day we were resting a few hundred metres east of Z-Bend lookout, quietly sipping water in the shade after some strenuous hiking into unexplored territory. Overhead we heard buzzing, and noticed a drone flying around, exploring remotely.
The drone was symptomatic. In coming years there will be more drones, the buzz of mobile phones, a proliferation of social media posts, probably some sort of adventure-sport festival. The space and place will be different, nature will be less natural and less dangerous, more popular and less peaceful. One thing will be the same though, even if only a few kilometres further along the gorges, out of season, or in rarer circumstances – I’ll still easily be able to die there.

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View East from the Loop Walk in Kalbarri National Park