Consider your options!
The warning was obvious, this was my last chance to turn back. “The trail gets much harder and hotter from here.”
If I didn’t have at least two litres of water, I should retrace my steps to Nature’s Window.
I thought it over. Shrugged. And carried on.
The Loop Walk in Kalbarri is famous enough that it’s one of the sights that you travel there for. Calling it a “walk”, though, might be underselling how challenging it can be — and possibly why it needs so many warning signs.
The Canoe the Gorge excursion I’d booked got cancelled, so I made plans of my own.
Nature’s Window is best seen at sunrise. The only problem was, sunrise was around 5.30 and the national park doesn’t open until 6 am.
I figured I would get there when the park opened, and start hiking at 6 am, since Google Maps told me it was only a 15 min drive from where I was staying.
I was awake, out of bed, dressed, fed and in the car precisely on schedule.
Except when I arrived at “my destination” I found Google Maps had interpreted Kalbarri National Park differently than I had intended and taken me to tourist information instead of to The Loop.
A quick reprogram and The Loop was now a 45 min drive away. It would have been 30 minutes if I had gone the right way at the start.
Extreme Heat Risk
Pulling into the national park, there were warning signs with stark messages of extreme heat risk. The Loop Walk would be closed from 7 am.
There’s a reason the best times to visit Kalbarri are in the Spring and Winter.
Summer heat can be dangerous in the gorges. It’s not uncommon for days to crack 40 degrees or more in a Western Australia summer, and I hadn’t taken into account that temperatures in the gorges can be ten degrees hotter.
It was still before 7 am. Did the signs mean you had to start The Loop before seven or finish it before seven? How can you finish before seven if the park doesn’t open until six? You’d have to start walking at least two hours before the park opened.
I practically leapt out of my car when I got to The Loop and grabbed my bag. I was already behind schedule, and so long as I started walking before 7, everything would be fine. Probably.
3 – 4 Litres of Water
I’d prepared well enough. I had close to three litres of water, and a separate water bottle I had filled the night before and chilled in the fridge.
Except that the second water bottle got left behind, so I had less water than was ideal to start.
Despite the extreme heat warnings, the forecast for the day was mild. They predicted a high of 30-something degrees, rather than 40-something. I could still be finished by 11 am.
Everything should be fine. I set off down the trail.
It was a short walk to Nature’s Window. I missed sunrise, and the view wasn’t as spectacular than I had hoped, and I was a little disappointed.
A few tourists were hanging around, wearing warm hats and windbreaker jackets, and taking pictures.
Either because it wasn’t yet, 7 am and a little cold, or because viral Instagram posts had unfairly raised their expectations, they didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the spot.
With little reason to hang around, I pressed on, and I saw more warning signs. Literal warning signs.
Do not start the walk after 7.30 am in warmer months. Wear long sleeves. Carry three to four litres of water. Walk with a companion.
I was in short sleeves, had less than four litres of water, and had no companion. Was I going to turn back? No way.
Into the Wild
It’s a four-hour hike. I figure I will walk for an hour and reassess conditions — how much water I have, how I’m feeling, that kind of thing. Then I can turn back if necessary.
Before the trip, I sensibly bought a mobile power bank. Since my phone can’t be relied on to hold a charge when I need it, it was a good thing to have “in case of emergency.” I even managed to pack it in my backpack that morning before heading out.
What I didn’t remember to pack was a charging cable.
No matter. Instead, I would just keep my phone on flight mode. It isn’t like I would be browsing social media or streaming music while I was walking, so it would be fine. I also had a camera that wasn’t my phone, so that would also stop the battery running down.
Before I started walking, I sent a message to my partner. It was a brief message to let her know I was heading “into the wild” and that I probably wouldn’t be contactable.
I didn’t know if I would have any mobile signal once I started, but she knew where I was, and the message let her know how long the hike should take, giving a reasonable timeframe of when to begin to worry if I didn’t get back in touch.
My phone safely on flight mode and tucked away, I’d barely started walking before I slipped on some loose scree, broken fragments of rock, and almost twisted an ankle.
I began to question how sensible it was to use the phrase “into the wild.”
I hoped my partner wouldn’t connect it to the book of the same name, where a young man dies in the wilderness, partly because of some ignorant and unfortunate decisions, and partly some lousy luck.
Luckily, I was unhurt. Even if I was hurt, I was still so close to Nature’s Window that someone could reach me quickly enough if I needed help.
It did give me pause. If I wanted a sign not to do this alone, this was it.
Down to the River
Below me, I could see the Murchison River snaking its way through the limestone gorges. I was excited to be here — I’d driven six hours the day before to get to these gorges — and it was so peaceful.
The tourists behind me at Nature’s Window were the only people I’d seen that morning, and if I stopped and listened, I couldn’t hear any signs of humanity.
There was no traffic noise — no shouting or arguments or conversations. There were no planes overhead or distant sounds of construction. No matter how much I strained to hear something, I could have been the only person left on the planet.
For the first three kilometres, the walk was a meandering trail along the rim of the gorge — heading steadily downwards, but like me, not in a great hurry to get anywhere.
The walking was easy, the sun wasn’t hot yet, and the only thing slowing me down was stopping to admire the views.
If You’re Waiting for a Sign, This Is It
At the three-kilometre mark is another sign. It effectively says “abandon ye hope, all who enter here.”
It is effectively the point of no return. This is your last chance. Hikers have died on this trail!
They were probably hikers who didn’t have enough water and were walking alone.
Without taking my water out of my backpack to check levels, I know I probably have less than two to three litres. But I have come this far without any difficulty, I’m not tired, and it’s still not too hot.
There are 5km left to go. It only gets more difficult when you have to climb out of the gorges. What’s the worst that could happen?
If I think about it, I have descended 3km into a gorge. The worst that could happen when hiking alone is quite serious.
If I was to hurt myself at this point, it would take several hours to reach me and more to get me back out.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t be considerably easier or safer to retrace my steps at this point.
By The River
As I walk along the gorge, following the waypoint signs, it looks like they are pointing along the rocks. Do I now walk along the rocks, or closer to the water? The latter would make sense.
There’s a joke. Growing up, we all thought quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it is as adults.
I’m reminded of this in the moment and don’t know how deep the mud will go. I step back quickly, grateful that I’m not stuck, and that my boots were laced tightly, and escape with only mud up my legs.
On reflection, the signs did mean to walk on the rocks. I’ve seen pictures of wetter times of the year when the river is higher, and it’s evident that you walk along the narrow rocky ledge — there’s less quicksand risk when there’s no sand.
I don’t know for sure how long it took for the Murchison River to carve out the gorges of The Loop. The walls of the canyon are stunning to look at in the morning sun, all striped and banded. They are also more than a little humbling.
Considering they are famous for containing fossils, my best guess is that the gorge must be something like 400 million years old.
Signs of Life
A short distance ahead, I see movement. I have been walking for hours, and it has been a long time since I last saw anyone, heard anyone, or even saw any signs of people.
I see it again. Maybe two people.
I walk on, and I see it’s a white animal, not a person. But… is that a dog? Did someone bring their dog in here?! There are two animals, I think, maybe they’re sheep, which also seems odd for where we are.
As I get closer I see the animals three goats, two white and one black. Surprising, but not as surprising as sheep. Or dogs.
A short while later, I see a couple of people. I can’t tell if I saw them as well as the goats earlier, it seems like a coincidence if not. The thing is, I don’t know where they have come from.
I can’t remember if there was more than one other vehicle in the car park when I arrived. There had to have been at least one, belonging to the tourists at Nature’s Window, but was there another?
How much earlier than me would this couple have had to set off to not see any sign of them before now? Unless they walked the reverse way, and are now walking back up, rather hiking than the whole loop. It doesn’t take long to catch them up.
They’re a middle-aged Aussie couple, and we talk about how lovely and fresh it is — it’s ideal hiking weather. The conversation lags, and I don’t know the etiquette of this.
Since I’m walking alone, should I now walk at their pace and stay with them? If only for safety. Or out of politeness. But they also might not want company. Instead, I walk on.
I figure now that at least if I fall and hurt myself, they’re behind me and will catch up — and be able to get help.
The Way Out
Before I’m out of the gorge, the sun comes out, and it’s starting to get hot. I can see, way at the top, Nature’s Window and there are tiny figures of people up there. It’s a steep climb in soft sand and loose rock, 2km uphill.
I eventually get to the top, practically staggering. There are people everywhere around Nature’s Window with selfie sticks and lounging seductively across rocky ledges for Instagram stories.
I stop and admire the view, take some pictures to see how it’s changed since I started, and then I just keep going.
In front of a family, I slip on some rocks and bang my knee. It’s not bad, but I consider to myself that it’s lucky I didn’t do that at the start of the walk, or I might have just turned around rather than risk it getting worse
A short while later, I meet the family again at a photo spot. They say something about a photo, and I think they want me to take their picture. “Are you ok?” they ask me. “Yes, I’m fine.” I don’t know why they are mentioning it again.
But it turns out they don’t want a photo, they were going to look at one together, and they thought I was approaching them for help.
I make it the rest of the way, briefly daunted by a staircase that now seems more difficult than anything else that day.
Around the car park for The Loop were shelters for picnics. Before heading home, I sat quietly in the shade of one, surrounded by a veritable cloud of flies. Tired, sweaty, dirty, peaceful and happy.