The Kennedy Range: Unknown Landscapes In The Aussie Outback
The high, red ridges of the Kennedy Range National Park rose unexpectedly out of the ground on the edge of the horizon like some monstrous, rocky beast. The surrounding land was unnervingly flat. Flatter than anywhere else I had ever seen. And the ground was redder than I’d ever thought possible.
This was my first real foray into the red outback of Western Australia, and I was on a mission to find the distinctive cliffs, gorges and ridgelines of the Kennedy Ranges. What I found, was an unusual and out of place landscape in a remote, harsh, yet strangely beautiful country.
From Carnarvon to the Kennedy Range National Park Western Australia
The Kennedy Ranges are a relatively unknown and much under-visited national park in the north of Western Australia. It’s a place of extremes and contrasts, that in the hot summer months experiences excruciating temperatures and in the long, dry winters, becomes barren but almost bearable. It’s a place that’s remote, that is in all respects far from anywhere and that by all reasonable estimations should be completely uninhabited. And because of all this, it was a place that I just had to venture to.
I was travelling along the north-west coastal highway from Perth – eventually, I would travel as far as Broome – and after travelling over 900 kilometres along straight roads, surrounded by increasingly sparse landscapes, I found myself in the small ‘city’ of Carnarvon.
Carnarvon is the largest settlement of any note in the vast Gascoyne Region which stretches from the Pacific Ocean, far into the depths of the red, Western Australian outback. Carnarvon has a population of just under 5000 people, but that’s exponentially more than anywhere else for hundreds of kilometres.
This is the hub of life on the edge of the desert; a highway city with a staggering number of supermarkets – 2 in fact – and pubs – at least 4 on the last count – that attracts people from across the land. Carnarvon intrigued me, and I wanted to know more about the interior of this vast region the city guarded, a land that loosely followed the bends and twists of the dry Gascoyne River.
A few hundred kilometres inland was the country town of Gascoyne Junction, and just down the road from here were the Kennedy Ranges, an area of exposed ridges that are battered by the elements in the otherwise very flat landscape that they are such a distinctive feature of.
Driving the long road from Carnarvon to the east, passing nothing but scrub, dead kangaroos and a few of the region’s magnificent but intimidating Wedge Tailed Eagles – birds large enough to cause much damage to a passing car as they scavenge the highways – I eventually rolled into the isolated town of Gascoyne Junction.
This was the last port of call before I hit the gravel roads further into the outback and before I made it to the Kennedy Range.
From the single lane highway on the edge of the town, I could already see the red rocks of the Kennedy Range glistening in the bright sun, far off in the distance. This is an extraordinarily flat and empty landscape, and even though the cliffs were still a long way off, from a slight elevation I could see them clearly, starkly rising from the ground, everything else around red and perfectly horizontal.
I thought that I was beginning to realise a sense of the extremes that beset this strangely wonderful countryside, but I quickly came to the conclusion that in fact, I knew nothing at all. As I came to the edge of this small town, which has a resident population of just 150 people, I saw a huge sign on the roof of a house that proudly stated it was marking the level of the 1988 flood water. Surrounded by nothing but dust and dry air, I was shocked, but I was soon crossing the empty Gascoyne River, where below the steel bridge, the river bed was wide but almost empty.
This is an extreme world. I was visiting at the beginning of May, the start of the dry season. Even just a few weeks out of the wet season and the region’s primary river was already dry. But as I learnt, when it rains, it rains hard here, and as recently as 2010 Gascoyne Junction was almost swept away entirely. The 1988 floodwater marker that I’d seen, was just the tip of the roaring storm.
I crossed the riverbed, and the road turned from tarmac to gravel. This was the start of real outback territory, and as the dust swirled around the car I was soon nearing the national park.
The local Aboriginal name for the Kennedy Range is Mundatharrda. The local Ingarrda people have roamed these lands for thousands of years, long before the Europeans arrived to build houses that are washed away by the elements. If anyone understands this land, it’s the Ingarrda, and in this empty world, they flourish.
The distinctive Kennedy Range acts as a landmark, a meeting point in the red desert for the locals, as their traditional land stretches for thousands of kilometres in either direction. The shade and shelter of the Kennedy Range becomes a haven for wildlife in the dry months, and it’s one of the few places in the region that can retain freshwater, hidden amongst the gorges and rocks. This huge, rocky range is not just a beautiful sight on the horizon, but an integral part of life in the region.
The dirt road that leads into the national park is built between tall rocks, while ahead of me the cliffs themselves reared red and bright against the windscreen of the car. I was soon swallowed completely by the range.
I would camp out under the stars that night, at the national park’s campground, surrounded by red rocks and in the light of the perfectly clear stars. In the morning, as the sun rose, I awoke early to avoid the heat and began the short hike to Temple Gorge.
I was soon surrounded by the high walls that line the gorge and I was scrambling over rocks and splintered trees as I made my way ever further into Temple Gorge. Here, in the gorge, surrounded by shade and following the quickly drying creek bed I was transported to a different world. It was cooler here than outside. The rock was red but it was covered in places by green vegetation. There were geckos, birds and the faint tracks of snakes had been left unmistakably in the sand.
The walk was shorter than I’d expected and I was soon confronted by a dead end. The rock rose impressively high above me while below there was a deep, natural well that still contained water. This was one of the most important watering holes in the area, and perhaps that’s why the European explorers called this gorge a temple.
I emerged from the confines of the gorge into the by now hot, bright sunshine and I wanted to find a sense of perspective and scale amongst the rocks and ravines.
I followed the trail back to the campground, before setting off across the dusty, beaten track that followed the shadows of the cliffs. The Escarpment Trail took me straight between two of the rocky outcrops, and I climbed over boulders and fallen trees along a path that began to rise sharply.
Sweating profusely in the heat of the sun, I pulled my way to the top of the track, where the ridgelines opened up gloriously before me. From the height of The Escarpment, as it was known, I could see all around me for kilometre after dusty kilometre.
I could trace the track I’d followed below me, from the campground and through the gorge to where I stood now. Ahead of me were the Kennedy Ranges, and I could see their full extent and size. What was most impressive, however, were not the rocks themselves, but the supreme contrast with the flat, desert landscape arrayed before me in every direction.
For the first time since my venture into the outback of Western Australia, I was beginning to realise the vastness of this ancient land and to appreciate the efforts of anyone – be it Aboriginal, European settler, or even just a hot and sweaty travel writer – who had the ability to survive out here.
Equally though, from my vantage point high up on The Escarpment, I began to realise just why a select few did want to call this country home, why they toiled in the red dust, spent months parched for thirst before seeing everything they’d built washed away in raging floods in an instant when the rains fall.
The beauty of this land lay in the fact that there was little here. The beauty is found in the extreme nature of the desert. This is a place like nowhere else in the world, and I resolved at that moment that I would travel further into the outback, to places even more remote, to see what else this enchanting desert held hidden in its dust.
Kennedy Range National Park Travel Advice
The Kennedy Range National Park is a remote and isolated National Park in Western Australia. It’s an area of natural beauty that most tourists and road trippers in the state will simply bypass, as it’s far off the main tourist trail. But for me, that was the main appeal for visiting. There were few other tourists there and the drive in was about as classicly ‘Outback’ as you can imagine. Few tours will ever travel here, so you will need your own transport. Here’s my quick guide on travelling to the Kennedy Ranges.
- Stock up on food and supplies in Carnarvon, the nearest ‘city’.
- There’s no freshwater in the national park, so take plenty.
- There’s only fuel available at Gasgoyne Junction, near the park, so fill up here or take full jerry cans with you.
- There is a $12 per vehicle entrance fee, however, there isn’t always anyone around to collect the money! There will be volunteers running the campsite in summer, and they will take payment for the national park fee and for the small camping fee if they are onsite.
Location of Kennedy Range National Park in Western Australia
The Kennedy Ranges are far off the main North West Coastal Highway which many travellers will be taking from Perth, up the coast. The nearest and largest ‘city’ is Carnarvon, a settlement of just under 5000 people, that acts as the main hub for the Gascoyne Region. Carnarvon is 900 kilometres north of Perth. From Carnarvon, you turn inland towards the small town of Gascoyne Junction. There’s only one road, so it’s impossible to get lost once you find the correct turnoff, which is just before the bridge out of town from Carnarvon.
Carnarvon to Gascoyne Junction is a three-hour journey, and there’s absolutely nothing along the way. This road is sealed the entire way. The road from Gascoyne Junction to Kennedy Ranges is unsealed but in good condition most of the year. I drove a two-wheel drive vehicle along it with no problems. The park entrance is found at the ‘Temple Gorge Campground’ which from Gascoyne Junction, is a distance of 60 kilometres. This will take at least an hour on the dirt road.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Kennedy Range National Park
The Kennedy Ranges are far enough north in Western Australia to experience a very distinct wet and dry season. During summer, temperatures are humid and hot, and there is a lot of rainfall. The rainy summer lasts from November through to April, and this is not a good time to visit. The area is prone to flash flooding, and the dirt roads can frequently be washed away. Gascoyne Junction was even completely submerged a few years back by flood waters, and on your way out of town, you will see a sign on a roof showing the flood levels in 1988!
The dry season is beautiful, with lovely warm temperatures and constant sunshine. This is the best season for hiking and camping, and it lasts from May through to October.
Walking Trails in the Kennedy Ranges
There are 6 official, marked hiking trails within the Kennedy Range National Park. All of them are easily accessed from the Temple Gorge Campground. Take plenty of water, wear a hat and good walking boots and leave early in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat.
Temple Gorge Trail
This is the best trail in the park to hike if you want to immerse yourself amongst the steep walls of the red rock gorges. It starts from the Temple Gorge Campground and winds its way over rocks to a seasonal water hole at the end of Temple Gorge. It’s an easy 2-kilometre return walk.
The Escarpment Trail
The Escarpment Trail takes you to the summit of an exposed ridge for absolutely spectacular views across the park and the surrounding landscape. The walk takes you through a narrow gorge, before rising sharply to the ridgeline. This is a 3.4-kilometre return walk from the Temple Gorge Campground and takes around 2 hours.
The Escarpment Base Trail
If you don’t fancy the steep hike to the top of the Escarpment, then take the Escarpment Base Trail instead. This is an excellent way to see experience the high ridges of the Kennedy Range without actually climbing them. It’s a 6-kilometre return hike from the campground.
Honeycomb Gorge Trail
The Honeycomb Gorge is an unusually weathered gorge that has over time become shaped like a honeycomb. It’s a simple 500-metre return walk from the Honeycomb Gorge car park.
This isn’t much of a walk, as it’s just a few hundred metres long, but it does lead you to an incredible viewpoint that is absolutely wonderful in the morning just as the sun rises.
Drapers Gorge is a 1.6-kilometre return hike that takes you through one of the epic gorges in the range. You can join this track from the Escarpment Base Trail.
Camping and Accommodation
The best place to stay when visiting the Kennedy Ranges is the Temple Gorge Campground. This is the official national park campground and it’s located right at the entrance, and at the start of many of the hiking trails. It’s an incredible place to spend the night, with incredibly dark skies, and it’s a wonderful place to wake up in the shadow of the great cliffs. There’s a small fee for camping here, and basic facilities including a drop toilet, a firepit and a few picnic benches. In the dry season, you will find there are usually a few volunteers stationed here. There is no power or water. See the map below for the location.
There is also a caravan park located at Gascoyne Junction, from where you could day trip to the national park. If you need power or water, then this is the best place to stay, although it’s not quite as beautiful. There are powered camping and caravan spots as well as basic cabins, alongside good facilities such as kitchens, toilets and showers. You can find out more at the Junction Tourist Park website.
All Words and Photos by Richard Collett