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Australia: Karijini Drive

“It’s that van or no van,” says Pete, the manager of an Exmouth car rental depot, as — in the complete absence of sleeves on his shirt — he wipes his nose on the back of his hand, and nods towards a dilapidated Mitsubishi delivery vehicle.

Australia: Karijini Drive
Karijini National Park. Image: James Draven

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Spray painted down one side, in embossed letters, are the words ‘Jethro Tull’, emblazoned on a canary-yellow background. Subtle.

Next to it sits a gleaming, four-wheel-drive affair. Rugged tyres suspending its running gear a good foot from the ground, it looks every inch the perfect vehicle to tackle northwest Australia’s outback and Karijini National Park.

“You can’t have that one — we’ve messed up your booking. This one will be fine, though; it’s great runner,” Pete says, as he turns the engine over and the fan belt shrieks in protest. Nothing, it seems, that some gunk in an aerosol can won’t temporarily fix.

Begrudgingly, I take the keys and walk round to the driver’s door to find the phrase ‘LSD — we take acid to make the world seem normal’ spelled out in large letters. Travel journalism just went gonzo.

Located in the sprawling outback of the Pilbara region, recently tarmacked roads have now made Karijini National Park accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles. It’s with this in mind that I venture into the park — driving what’s ostensibly a clapped-out milk float — to trek, wade and swim through the area’s plunging gorges, shaded and cool even in the midday heat; dive into its viridescent natural pools, overlooked by great dangling bats and swooping, showboating cockatoos; and — in a manner befitting a Timotei advert — take my morning showers alongside sunbathing cormorants in its sparkling waterfalls.

I soon find the asphalt has mostly only been laid on Karijini Drive, the arterial black ribbon of highway that bisects the park, as my underinflated tyres pop and crunch over the crumbs of dirt and gravel that constitute Banjima Drive — the gnarled trickle of claret, clotting under the blazing sun, that snakes between the park’s main sights, and is presently winding across a rolling landscape of golden savannah. The surrounding tall grasses, glowing amber and swaying almost imperceptibly in the still morning air, abruptly tumble in great clumps down into Knox Gorge, their falls broken by a geological kaleidoscope of platforms, streaked with white and cobalt, that jut out from the red cliffs like a forgotten, partially unsuccessful game of Jenga.

Low on fuel, and with the next roadhouse an extra 30 miles away by sealed road, I’m forced to make the choice between running out of petrol on the remote highway in 45-degree heat, or risking broken suspension and punctured tyres on the corrugated, unpaved dirt track connecting the park’s two key recreation areas. I opt for the latter.

A huge, black bird, eating kangaroo carrion in the middle of the road, is startled by my rattling kitchenware, clanking atop rock-hard suspension. Beating its wings, the creature launches into the sky before circling overhead with the morbid optimism of a vulture. In the baking-hot wilderness, I wonder briefly if the wedge-tailed eagle will be feasting on me in few days time, as it screeches indignation over its abandoned meal.

Facing rough terrain, I drop down into a lower gear and the van’s fan belt screams back an agonised retort.

parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/karijini