Carawine Gorge Adventure

This is a story I wrote some 15 years ago about a trip to Carawine Gorge. At that time the road to Carawine was all gravel from the Marble Bar Road (which itself was still mostly gravel). Satellite phones were not commonly available, and HF radio could be used to connect to a Telstra HF network to make a phone call. Carawine Gorge was renowned for the beautiful trees that surrounded the banks, these have all gone now after a large cyclone wiped them out.

You can check out an ancient videos that was taken during this trip(this is like watching old silent movies when compared to the quality of the modern video cameras!). I still had a Landrover Defender back then, which was a superb off road vehicle, but had a useless airconditioner, leaked oil and dust equally, had large gaps in the door when closed and was so noisy that I gave up trying to listen to the AM radio.

From 4WD Video

One long weekend Daniel and I decided to head of to Carawine Gorge, which is about 300km from Port Hedland on the edge of the desert. Daniel invited his mate Luke, whose father was the last Air Traffic Controller at Port Hedland airport.

We had a late start on the Saturday because the Landrover had a faulty seal. This delay caused us a few problems.

When I picked Luke up, I told his mum that we should be back by lunch on Monday, if not send in the planes. This was something Luke's dad would have organised as part of his job. This also was to cause a problem!

Carawine gorge is down the Marble bar road then east through some stations. It is pretty lonely country. But we headed off hoping to make the gorge before dark. The Landrover was a shit of a car, dusty, noisy and the air con was not very good. We didn't make good time and some time during the afternoon a storm blew up.

At dusk I found an old gravel pit to camp in. At least it was out of the wind, which was fierce!

The boys set up their tents and I pulled out my camp stretcher. Tea was jaffles cooked on a fire that was hard to keep going. We decided to go to bed early, and it was still pretty warm, but I was in the open so that was ok.

Some time during the evening I felt some huge drops of water hit me on the face. Then the skies opened up, and with the wind the boys woke up and were a bit frightened. I tossed my stuff in the car and told them to sleep inside the landrover. I slept in their tent, for a while at least. I woke a bit later and my feet were wet, but far from just soaking through the tent top, this water was on the ground. I got up and found that there was a huge puddle of water near the tent. I climbed into the car as well, as the rain was still pelting down.

I wound down the window a little to let in some fresh air, and could hear a lovely trickling sound of running water. I dozed a little, and then woke with a start. Water would be trickling INTO the gravel pit and there had been not let up with the rain.

Very quickly I gathered all our gear and just tossed it into the back. We took off and I drove for a couple of hours. The track was extremely slippery, and even though the Landrover was constant 4WD I had to select low ratio, just to keep moving. It was hard to keep straight!

We stopped for a little while on a small hill, until daylight. Then we sloshed our way to the gorge. We planned to have lunch then move to an old mining settlement later.

The boys found a raft and wanted to go onto the water, but it was too swift and I checked the knot holding the raft to the tree. I cooked lunch for them while they played.

Another camper came up for a chat, and I told him we would take off shortly, for the mining camp (which was abandonned). I said I wouldn't camp under trees because of falling branches. He sort of laughed at me, and then bugger me dead a huge branch fell down about 10 feet away. It frightened both of us.

Just at that point another two 4Wd came up and I spoke to the driver of the first car another landrover. He asked which way we were headed and when I told him back towards Port Hedland he let me know that the road was closed. Apparently a road closed sign had been put up AFTER we went through. This was a bit of a problem, because I needed to be back at work on Tuesday, and remember that tomorrow was Monday and the "planes should be out by the afternoon". He then asked whether the water was rising. I turned around to answer and saw that the water was now foaming, I quickly checked the raft and found the knot I had checked earlier was about a metre below the water. Shit 1 m in half and hour. This meant the Oakover river we had crossed earlier that morning as a trickle would be deep, and probably not passable.

These two guys were going to try to get through by going to other way to Nullagine. I agreed that was a good idea and said I would tag along. But I had to contact Hedland on the HF radio first to let them know we were stuck and would not be arriving home on time. I drove off to find a high point. I couldn't get through to home, but was able to relay a message once I told the operator we were trying to avoid a rescue coming out.

When I was driving back I ran into someone else from Port Hedland and told them the story and he was also keen to come with us.

We congregated back at the gorge and made some plans. Not all cars had CB radios, and there were a few inexperienced drivers, one with a small baby. We decided the two Landrovers would lead and tail-end charlie (I was tail end charlie). The other Landrover drivers name was Bob, his mate was Rob, and the other 4WD a Pajero was driven by Paul. Rob and Paul were pretty new to real 4WD stuff. We made some convoy rules so we could keep in touch with headlights.

The track was so wet and slippery that we were all in low ratio. As the tail end I was able to let go the steering wheel, and use the ruts to guide the car through. It was bad for the road, and we should not have done it. But is was great 4WD action.

We got to a creek crossing that was about a metre deep. The little causeway had been badly washed away and was so narrow that one set of wheels on each car would be on the edge. There was a steep drop off into fast water on each side.

The two boys thought this was a bloody big adventure, not knowing how much danger there could be.

Bob and I got out some emergency gear such as shackles and snatch straps. We positioned my Landrover for an quick recovery of Bobs vehicle. We had checked out tie points and everything before we ventured into the water. We got all vehicles through without a mishap.

Even though we didn't need it, we were prepared to rescue a vehicle quickly if something went wrong. Paul in his Pajero was so nervous, he did the crossing with their baby out of the vehicle, just in case.

Once we were all through we took off again. The road was worse than before and the mud was getting to be boggy. We knew we had to cross the upstream ford of the Oakover River and hoped it would be passable.

We eventually got there about 3pm, and it was still raining. The river was huge and wide. The water was flowing so fast, that if you tied a rope to a tree you could have skied. We walked in about 10m and the water was at ball height. This means it is too deep to cross and we still had about 200m to get through.

We decided to camp the night and wait it out. The two of us from Port Hedland, were not prepared for an extended stay. We had brought only simple camping food, and not a lot of it! Bob and Rob and there partners had just come out of the Rudall River National and were still stocked up.

They cooked up a beaut roast with a tea cake for desert.

During the night Bob and I marked the water's edge, to monitor if it was going up or down. For some time it went down and we sighed with relief, and went to bed. But in the morning, though the rain had stopped, the water had risen again, to a point where our first rock was covered.

We sat back and waited, all the morning checking the water level. The two boys were not convinced we were in a spot of bother and had a thoroughly marvellous time.

Just after lunch the water had started to go down again, but not fast enough. We were able to walk out further, but it was still too deep for us.

Late in the afternoon, probably around 2:30, we heard engines. It took about 20 minutes before the first car pulled up. It was a tag along tour group, also coming from the Rudall River. They were on a deadline and were supposed to be 600km away by lunch the next day. Not likely to happen!

And there were 13 vehicles in all. The four of us were a bit annoyed the peace would be shattered. But the tour guide wanted to check out the situation for himself. I remember him as very tall, and he stalked off into the water. He came back 3/4 hour late and the water line was over his chest.

He determined his group could get through. We watched in utter disbelief as they prepared their vehicles, tarps over the front, seal up airfilters etc. They did all the right things.

Then the tour guide set off. I have never seen anything like it. A video was made of this exercise and is used by the SES to show people what not to do!

He took off a bit upstream, because of the water's speed. He had walked the route thoroughly so he knew where obstacles would be. As he went past us he waved and said he had changed his mind about which way he was going. His car was actually floating and he had no control.

There were rocks downstream and fallen trees, we were worried he would tip over and get stuck. But he managed to hit the dirt again and was able to drive out.

The next vehicle got through without drama, and it was the only one to do so. The third vehicle very nearly ended in tragedy. The driver stalled the car and didn't hear everyone yelling at him NOT to restart his engine (because water could get sucked in a destroy the motor), but he got it going. Only to stall again. He restarted a second time and everyone is becoming a bit frantic. Then the unimaginable happened he started to float and the current turned his car around. He was floating backwards, totally out of control. You can here the cries of despair on the video. This was not good, not good at all. But then when you think all is lost, God plucked him from disaster. He had the presence of mind to put the floating vehicle into reverse. He hit the dirt and shot up the slope through some small saplings and kept going until he was well clear. Apparently he didn't stop shaking for over an hour.

The tour guide then decided to pull the other vehicles through using a few snatch straps joined together. This proved more successful, but each car was dragged through at such a speed that the car was totally covered in water. They got water in all the air vents. A few had radios on the floor that were ruined. But eventually they were all through. Before they left they asked if we would like a pull over. Without hesitation the four of us said "NO". We waved and turned back to our camp.

We could hear their engines for ages after that.

The next morning we found the river was well down, and easily walked through. But it was still dangerous and needed care. The depth was still about a waist height. I figured that my air intake was on the downstream side so the water wouldn't get in.

Once again we set up my car as an emergency pull out. We checked all the tow points once again, and thoroughly discussed what we were going to do. Bob went first and made it through with no problems.

Both Paul and Rob, were pulled through as they were not confident. Then it was my turn. The boys thought it was a piece of cake, but it was very exciting and required a huge will power not to stamp on the accelerator and charge through. I must admit it was a tad nerve racking, but what a buzz to have got through. Landrovers don't have very good door seal. They are still the only car in the world you can close your fingers in the door and not get hurt! We opened the doors and let out 6 inches of water.

We next found out why we heard the other vehicles for so long the day before. There was another big crossing. Maybe not as deep, but longer and there were holes in the tracks, which also turned mid stream. All the drivers walked the track and worked out landmarks to make the direction change.

Once again we had set up our emergency procedures and thoroughly briefed everyone.

We got through without incident.

I think it was another 200km to Nullagine and within 20 km of the river we were kicking up clouds of dust. We had a couple of small creeks to cross, but nothing like the day before.

We arrived in Nullagine and got messages home to Port Hedland to make sure everyone knew we were ok. Paul the other bloke from Hedland found out that his work had been told that he would be ok because he had hooked up with me. I don't know what gave them that idea!

But the roads out of Nullagine were closed and there were plenty of people milling around, including the tour group. Though they left a day before us, they had arrived in Nullagine only a couple of hours ahead of us! The road to Port Hedland remained closed, but they opened the road to Newman (going exactly the wrong direction), so there was this mass exodus when the sign came down.

We eventually arrived back in Port Hedland the next day after stopping in Newman for the night. We had a fantastic adventure a great time, the boys thought it was nothing and everyone else just accepted it as another story.

A few weeks later another couple lost the hire vehicle in exactly the same crossing. They had to be rescued by police after there was a big air search.