Let's Fly Away

Story and Photography by Patrick Hayes

Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

When time is short is and the bush is beckoning make the most of your holidays by flying away from it all.

The stretched Toyota Land Cruiser rumbled into the forecourt of the Potshot Hotel in Exmouth, WA, and with a big grin Tim Baird of Design A Tour jumped out to greet me, toss my canvas bag into the trailer (baggage limit 10kg – room for basics only) and usher me into the 13-seat ’Cruiser. 

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d go on an “escorted” tour but it turned out to be a magical experience.
Peak hour traffic snarls.

I was introduced to the folk on board, Nadja from Munich, Germany, who like me was just joining the tour, Anna and Frank from Sydney, Giancarlo (“call me Jack”) and Michaela from Milan, Italy, Malcolm from Queensland and Ali and Alan, who were locals – sort of – and who were future trek leaders on a training trip. They had already learnt a lot of the necessary skills, Ali working with the Outward Bound organisation and Alan spending about 12 years as a soldier and learning to live rough in the WA outback. They constantly surprised with their knowledge of the Karajini geology, plants and animals.

The group had already been on the road for four days from Perth to Exmouth via dolphins at Monkey Mia and swimming with manta rays and tropical fish at Ningaloo Reef, and were on the final six days from Exmouth to Broome. They welcomed me on board and it didn't take long before we were all good mates, united by our desire to see the marvels of the Pilbara. Like me, they were keen to cram as much discovery as possible into the days we were able to get away from our workaday worlds.

I was still getting used to seeing people strolling about in T-shirts and shorts. Only the day before I had left Melbourne on a typical August Sunday. The temperature was about 10 degrees Celsius and the television weather folk were announcing fresh snowfalls on Victoria’s high bits.

At the airport, the wind sliced through my Snowgum fleece jacket despite its Wind Stopper lining.

It was cold and it had been cold for the past month. Melbourne’s hail and rain was being greeted effusively as it topped up the reservoirs but it was also keeping the people, me especially, huddled indoors.

I had worked out that we were about to put to bed a copy of On The Road and that I wouldn’t really be missed if I snuck off for about 10 days. Actually, the On The Road crew had decided it had been a while since I had gone bush and that I was becoming too grumpy. They were all for pushing me out the door.

But 10 days wouldn’t be enough to get me to what I thought would answer all my prayers: watching a warm sun go down over a campfire somewhere northerly and hot like on the red rock landscape of the top end of Western Australia. It would take me that long just to drive across the Nullarbor and back.

So I considered a novel (for me) way of getting away for a week in the bush: By jetliners. In one day I could get from Melbourne to Perth to Exmouth, from winter to the heat of the “dry season”; a flying distance farther than from Melbourne to Indonesia.

For a Victorian, it was just as exotic as a visit to Asia. Looking down from the Skywest Airlines (yes, it is still operating despite an affiliation with Ansett) plane flying from Perth to Exmouth, the red and white circular clay plans and streaks of sand dunes looked like an Aboriginal dot painting. How did those artists know what the landscape looked like from the air?

I had thought about but eventually ruled out hiring a four-wheel-drive, hiring camping and cooking gear, stocking up on food and just heading out into the bush. The gloss was stripped from that dream by the thought of being alone and getting bogged. Or lost. Or having more than one punctured tyre and only one spare. Or watching those marvellous sunsets each night without another human nearby to echo my enthusiasm.

Joining a tour was the answer and it would also give me the opportunity to find out why people were prepared to fly halfway around the world to spend a week or two of relative discomfort just to see the Australian Outback.

Interestingly, all of the people on board said they would never take a bus tour even though it would enable them to sleep in hotels and motels and to eat a la carte every night. 

It would not offer them the type of experience they were looking for.

The group 


This team were prepared to live with the idiosyncrasies of the Aussie canvas swag or tent so they could experience first-hand the rare and remote beauty of the Australian wilderness. In Europe, I suppose, there is always an inn and restaurant within cooee but that’s not what the Europeans were looking for. Nor was I, and it was refreshing to find out that there are specialised tour firms available that meet those needs. Anyway, nobody complained of difficulty getting off to sleep.

Sitting around a campfire at night, hearing dingoes howling on a nearby hill and sleeping under the stars in a swag gives a feeling of wonder and connection with an ancient land that no night on a motel inner-spring mattress will ever equal.

Tim, who runs the Design A Tour company with his brother Ean, knows and loves the Karajini area with the easy familiarity of a local lad. He knew how to lead us through difficult country, chasms and gorges that the bus traveller never sees and probably wouldn’t want to. He allowed time for discussion of the route and, if anybody wanted to stop for a photograph or to examine something more closely, the ’Cruiser stopped to accommodate them. He reorganised the schedule on one day so that we could go fishing and hunting mud crabs. (We caught four large crabs that made a superb meal, cooked up in a cattle station bunkhouse where we were spending the night.)

Despite the rugged terrain Tim’s Design-a-Tour treks sometimes involves, there is no age limit. The brochure states: “Age is irrelevant but you must be an active outdoor person to enjoy these camping tours… in some instances you may be required to scramble over rough and uneven surfaces. This may also involve some climbing over large rocks and swimming through extremely cold water, although it’s entirely up to the individual as to how far you wish to go”.

So why the Karajini National Park in WA’s Pilbara area?

It’s remote, of course, and it’s red and it’s warm but it is also unique.

Looking out across the landscape while driving along it appears flat, red and rocky and dotted with spinifex, mulga and snappy gum trees. At the time there were also bright yellow, red blue and purple flowers lining the road but even they could not take away the feeling of isolation and vastness. If you know where to wander through it, the flat vista opens up to reveal deep gorges with underground aquifers feeding breathtakingly beautiful streams flowing through plants and trees that have managed to exist there since long before man walked the earth.

If you want ancient, you don’t want Rome’s Colosseum or Egypt’s pyramids. They number their years in a few thousands. The age of the Pilbara’s towering edifices of stratified rocks are measured in millions of years and they are the oldest permanent landform to appear on the earth’s surface. They are also mainly made of iron (the red color is rust) and the open-cut iron ore mines in the area will supply the world’s needs for hundreds of years.

The hidden gorges that we clambered down, crawled and swam through under the watchful eye of Tim and his two apprentices, were amazingly beautiful. The flat layers of rock with the water tumbling from one layer to another looked like the garden of a rich Roman senator rather than the random result of nature at work over millions of years.
The terraced rocks on the sides of the gorges look like abandoned skyscrapers in a lost city but they date back millions of years, back to before any form of life walked on earth.
Majestic outback scenery.

But there are marks left by man in relatively recent times, about 20 or 30 thousand years ago. These are carvings on the rocks left by Aborigines when the area was richer and the climate more temperate.

Eventually, the gorges give up the water and let it flow freely as the Fortescue River. 

Our first stop after Exmouth was Turquoise Bay where we soon found our swimming costumes and plunged into the clear water with small fish darting around our legs.  The water was warm and refreshing. Was this really the same country I had been in yesterday? 

Frank and Anna saw a whale surfacing out to sea. They called to tell us but by then it had sunk back into the ocean.

We cruised on under the curious gaze of emus and euros to Giralia sheep station (a mere 265,000 hectares – or 1000 square miles) where we were fed dinner with wine from the station cellar on a patio shaded by tamarisk trees and put to bed on comfy beds in the shearing quarters. Well, we don't have to rough it all the time.

Next day we headed for the Hamersley Ranges and iron ore mining town, Tom Price, to stock up on food before heading out to a bush camp.

For the next three days we camped in the bush just beyond the boundary of Karajini National Park (Tim knew just where to go and you can't have a campfire inside the park boundaries) and explored the hidden wonders of the gorges.

On the fourth day we clambered through some gorges in the morning, stopping for a swim in the pool beneath the spectacular Fortescue Falls before heading for Pardoo cattle station and our mud crab gourmet meal. We again spent the night in relative luxury in the station quarters.

Next day, the sixth day of my trek, we skirted the edge of the Great Sandy Desert to reach Broome and cruised down onto Cable Beach to toast our arrival.

I stayed in Broome for two days, tasting a bit of luxury at the Mangrove Hotel, and then boarded a jet to make it to Perth and Melbourne in a day, arriving back in the drizzle and cold just 10 days and a lifetime after setting out.

Fact File

Touring choice: 

The 10-day Design A Tour trek from Perth to Broome (or the reverse) costs $1512. Tents, sleeping bags, swags and most meals are provided. Accommodation is a mix of bush camp and station quarters.

Design A Tour conducts a number of tours as well as individual charters.


Design A Tour, tel, 9841 7778,or free call 1800 61 7778 email, info@dat.com.au

Western Australia Visitor Centre, Forest Place, Perth WA 6000. Phone 1300 361 351.


Ours were from Hema’s Road Atlas but Hema also has separate WA maps and a special Pilbara map: Contact (07) 3340 0000 for stockists.

Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.