March, 4 2010
Karijini National Park, Oxers Lookout
William L Fox

The first place in the park that Paul takes us is Oxers Lookout, which stands three hundred feet above the meeting place of the Red, Weano, Joffre, and Hancock gorges at Junction Pool. It's a major scenic climax in WA, the steel viewing platform hanging over gorges where flocks of bright green budgerigars wheeled in synchronized formations below us. A rappel, or abseil anchor point was set off to one side for rescue crews hauling unfortunate hikers up from the pool. The gorge walls were stained with numerous seep springs, underground water from precipitation in the Hamersley Range percolating between the sharply delineated bands of iron.

And now I'm sitting in Weano Gorge, the others having proceeded to Handrail Pool, the next stop downstream and the home of the olive python. I'm looking at a layer of blue material and wondering if it's asbestos, and at the subsurface water running out of the rock wall, and thinking about what's on top of the earth here, and what's below ground, and what's flowing where. Up top it's semi-arid mallee scrub and gum trees with intermittent streams; down here the deciduous trees are green, the water flow continual. Up above in 1861 the surveyor Francis Gregory came through looking for rivers flowing east to an inland sea--when in fact the water was underground and flowing west to the ocean. Up top it's all about looking down for water and iron ore, said ore transported from the mine in nine trains a day, each at least three kilometres long. Even the gods here, the ancestors of Dreamtime, don't come from above, but arise from and disappear back into the underground. I can't help but wonder if it's because so much water in the interior of Australia is subsurface--and that it springs up seemingly out of nowhere--and thus below ground is where traditional beliefs would reside. Life needs water, and if the water is underground, surely there would be a living world beneath us.

The rest of the group troops up the stream to retrieve me. They've been swimming and managed not to encounter the python, and we spend the rest of the day wandering from gorge to gorge, Paul leading us down into and out of them, all with flowing water. None of them are as deep as the Weano, but at the end of the day we go for a swim in the Hamersley Gorge. All day Paul has been declaring this most dramatic canyon in the park, if not the deepest. And he's right. A steep trail leads down a hundred feet to a broad cobble beach with trees and reeds fronting the water. On the right is a series of stepped plunge pools and slick water slides where the stream enters a broad pond; to our left the water flows between vertical cliffs. It's pastoral and lovely, but framed by that violently shaped geology that's visible behind and across from the pond from us. Layers and layers of extremely deformed bands--chocolate, magenta, blues so deep they're almost purples, and yellow--are folded in gigantic whorls. The force and time it takes to pretzel thick iron ore strata into such hallucinogenic swirls are simply not comprehensible outside the realm of mathematics.

The formation of the iron here during the Precambrian predated the presence of oxygen on Earth, so there are no fossils. The banded iron formations of the Pilbara are 500 metres thick and can extend for up to four or five hundred kilometres in any direction, and contain ore that's on average 65 per cent iron. At the newest and deepest depths of the nearby Tom Price mine, and below the water table, the ore is so pure--basically hematite--that magnets stick to it and you can arc wield it. Even here by the pool when you bang two pieces of rock together they sound metallic. During the 18th and 19th centuries, reading geological strata was an endeavour compared to that of reading the Book of Ages, a geological equivalent to the Bible, a secular story slowly supplanting a religious one. Even now, when confronted with geology this extreme, the word 'creation' pops unbidden to mind.

This time I give into the heat, take off my shirt and jump in the cool waters. I float down the gorge on my back, Barry ahead of me, Carolyn behind, and watch the cliff tops and gum trees and clouds go by. I wonder what this all meant to the traditional owners. We're swimming between primal strata, bands of rock above and below us, as well as to either side, cleaved by the water. Pictures of Hamersley Gorge often appear in Australia geology books to illustrate the effects of tectonic collision, and I consider the tortured geology a fine metaphor for the conjunction of a large open-pit iron mine with a national park, and for Euro-Americans swimming in what must have been a place of significance for the Aboriginal peoples. Barry wonders how the three major groups who have lived in Karijini for at least 20,000 years--the Banjima, Yinhawangka, and Kurrama--negotiated the shared use of such places as Oxer Point and Junction Pool.

The system-reticulum of Australia, the continental network of Aboriginal songlines, has been described as the most sophisticated non-mechanical technology in history, an encoding of laws in story, dance, song, and art governing the use of terrain and resources that up until the mid-twentieth-century would have governed how the conjunction of water and land here was perceived, used, and conserved. The songlines are part of a highly evolved set of social tools encoding the environmental knowledge necessary to survive in a harsh land, the stories mnemonic devices transmitting behavioural laws from generation to generation through dance, song, and rock art. The rocks in Australia have been used by humans as a resource for millennia, and not just in forms as crude as ore.

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