I woke up at 5:15 am and left my room at the campground at 6:00 am to partake in hiking, abseiling (rappelling), and rock climbing. It was still dark outside, but I needed to give myself an hour to drive to the tour company.
As I drove through Karijini National Park, the sun started to rise, giving me some incredible views. I drove down a gravel road before arriving at West Oz Active Adventure Tours, where I met the six other people going on the tour.
The tour was called The Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was highly rated on TripAdvisor and looked like the adventure of a lifetime. Over the next 12 hours, we would hike down to a canyon, wad through cold water, rappel and climb down to the lowest part of Hancock Gorge.
Australia has ratings for hikes on a scale of one to five, with five being the most difficult. The hike into the gorge was a class five, and it becomes a class six, which means ropes are required. West Oz Active Adventure Tours is the only company allowed to take people beyond, where the class six begins.
I had never rappelled before, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I called the company before I booked it, and the woman on the phone said that if I were an active person who was used to hiking challenging trails, I would likely be fine. The cost of the tour was more than $300, but the reviews and pictures were so amazing, I decided to take a chance. The reviews raved about the company safety standards, so I figured that I was in good hands.
I met the two tour guides, Josh and Sim. Josh appeared to be in his 30s, had long hair pulled back, and had a small beard. Sim appeared to be in his 20s and looked like an older version of the funny, crazy-haired kid from Stranger Things. There were shipping containers with gear, and the guides had already laid out all of the equipment we’d need. We filled out paperwork and listened to a demonstration. One of the guides hung from the shipping container with a rope and showed us what to do. He also showed us what not to do.
Watching them on the ropes was making me nervous, which was making the owner take notice. He gave us an “out” twice because he said there was no backing out once we were on tour.
We put on neoprene shirts and full-body wetsuits. It was winter, and the water that we’d be tubing and swimming in was extremely cold, almost freezing. The wetsuit was tight, and I wondered how I’d do climbing in that thing. The guides gave each of us yellow, plastic backpacks that were fairly waterproof. We each got a lunch and water bottle to put inside.
We lined up and stood by each set of equipment. The guides were great at having us put on one piece at a time, ensuring we were doing it correctly. By the time we were ready to go, I felt heavy. I had on a full wetsuit, a life jacket, hard shoes, ropes and harnesses, a helmet, and a backpack. I left my belongings in the car because the guides brought waterproof cameras to take pictures, which was great.
We loaded into a huge off-road truck. I sat up front near Andy and Kristi and chatted with them. I explained that I had quit my job in Los Angeles to travel, and Andy patted my shoulder in approval.
The people on tour were:
- Andy and Kristi – Andy was fit, and in his early 50s, but looked much younger. He used to work in accounting, but was working remotely while exploring Australia. He and Kristi were from the Gold Coast. She was in her 40s, had blonde hair, and was thin. She worked as a speech therapist and was super sweet. Andy was traveling for a couple of months, and Kristi joined him for a couple of weeks.
- Chris and Katherine – They both appeared to be in their early 30s. Chris was Canadian, from Toronto. Katherine was a teacher from Perth. The couple met while on vacation and decided to live in Australia because of their generous vacation allowance. Katherine looked just like Kristi, and we all (even the guides) kept confusing the two of them, especially with all of the gear on.
- Nik and Anita – They were a couple in their 20s and were from Switzerland. Nik had blonde hair, was fit, and had been in Australia for eight months. He had a one-year working holiday visa and had spent most of his time in Perth working and learning English. Anita went to Australia to spend six weeks with Nik. She was beautiful with long, light brown braids. She had the most adorable laugh that instantly made me smile.
It was a 20-minute drive to the gorge, and when we got out, Andy said he had an “old man bladder” and had to use the restroom. It was a lot of work taking off our gear and wetsuit, so we all decided to take advantage of the outhouses while we could.
The start of the hike was down a class-five section, and it was steep! We had our backpacks on and had to carry our innertube in our arms, while in a wetsuit.
When we reached the bottom, we crossed the rocks and some tourists. It was extremely slippery, so I was thankful that they gave us good shoes. We waded in a foot of water through the “spider walk” where tourists were trying to get their perfect Instagram shot. The narrow section is famous because the space between rock walls is so limited that you can climb up like a spider and touch both sides of the walls while being suspended over the water (if you’re strong enough). Josh, the guide, told us that he’s had to rescue too many people who slip off the walls, so none of us did the pose.
We arrived at a section with deeper water, and Josh instructed us to get inside our innertubes to float down the corridor. He demonstrated the best way to position ourselves, with our butts facing the tub. Then we’d just fall from the rocks into the hole in the innertube. Josh was great and held on to our tubes so they didn’t float away. The thing is, the tubes were small. Most of us failed and flipped right away when landing on our innertube. We laughed hysterically and did our best to climb back inside.
The water was cold! The guides told us that it was the warmest section, so I was happy that we had wetsuits. We slowly used our hands as oars to guide us down the passway, and I told Andy that I was nervous about rappelling, and he said, “Just don’t go first.”
Pretty quickly, we were at Kermit’s Pool, the last section where regular tourists can go. A simple rope went across the area with a sign instructing people not to go further. Josh got excited, “This is where WE get to go!”
They knew that I was nervous about this part because it’s where we’d have to use our ropes to move horizontally about 40 feet. The jagged rock ledges were minimal, about one to two inches for our feet. The guides had me partner with Sim, so he could help me if I needed it. There was a rope strung horizontally with brackets every six feet.
The guides had told us that only one person was to be connected to a section at a time. We had two carabiner clips so that when we were loosening one clip to pass the bracket in the rock, we’d always be connected by the other hook. This way, in case we accidentally slipped while moving from one area of the rope to the next, we wouldn’t fall and die. Once we were finished with a section, we’d call out to the person behind us to attach their carabiner to that section.
It all happened so fast. I knew I was with Sim, but he went first. That meant I was next and would be the first guest to go across and then down. Excellent – I was the least experienced! Most people were new to rappelling, but they seemed more experienced with these sorts of things.
I followed behind Sim, connecting to a section once he was past it. The ledge was small, but there was enough room to walk on it. Then we came to the section that they warned us about. There isn’t enough room on the ledge to walk, so we’d have to push off with our legs and be in an L shape. Then we’d use our legs to move side to side to get us to the next section. They had given us a demonstration and told us not to bend our legs and to keep them shoulder width apart, or we’d fold, forcing our body to hit the wall.
I was nervous about putting my butt out and let the rope hold me. Sim was fantastic, staying near me and showing me what to do. I did as instructed, except I bent my legs and bumped against the wall and then into Sim. Thankfully, I straightened my legs, and once I felt the rope’s tension, I felt ok. I crossed over and continued until we were at a ledge with a couple inches to walk again.
There was a flat rock platform about two feet wide where we’d rope up and rappel down. The group followed behind Sim and me, and there wasn’t enough room for all of us to be on the ledge. I had to abseil down the rock wall about 12 meters (40 feet) as the group was still going across horizontally.
Josh quickly set up all of the ropes and flew down at warp speed. As I watched him, I started to panic, thinking I would not have the nerve to do that. Sim told me to think of distractions because I said if I have time to think about it, I’m going to freak out. He started to ask me questions about the U.S., “Do you know anybody interesting? I think everyone from the U.S. is interesting. I really want to go there one day. Maybe Oregon. I have a friend there.”
Sim talked as he connected all of my clips and harness to the rope. It helped because I’m an overthinker. Suddenly, it was time for me to abseil down. I had a hard time getting myself to “sit down” and let the rope hold me. Sim told me repeatedly that he had me, and no matter what, I wouldn’t fall. I was connected by a rope and an extra safety rope.
I looked down and saw Josh waiting for me, smiling and confident that I could do it. I looked to the side and saw the rest of the group lined up against the wall, watching me. I didn’t want to hold up the group and disappoint the guides. I didn’t have much time and knew I needed to rappel down.
I leaned back and remembered to keep my legs straight, tight, and shoulder-width apart this time so I wouldn’t collapse to the side again. I was in position, and the group said that I looked like a professional. They gave me enough confidence that I started to release the rope.
My right hand was holding the rope behind my back, slowly releasing it. Being behind my back helped to ensure I didn’t release too much too quickly. My left hand loosely held the carabiner clip. That was it! I was sliding down the wall!
The whole way down, I remembered to keep my legs tight and straight, maneuvering along all of the cracks and rocks. It was actually fun, and I was surprised when I hit the bottom. I wanted to do even more! Josh helped me to get unhooked, and my arm was tired because I was holding on to the rope too tightly. I was able to sit on a rock and watch everyone else abseil down, one at a time. It was best that I went first because I didn’t have time to freak myself out.
The group did a great job at rappelling down, and we were having a blast. At the bottom of that section was Regan’s Pool. Josh told us a story about why it was named that. In 2004, there was a catastrophe. The gorge wasn’t restricted at the time, so anybody could climb down and back up. It’s an incredibly steep and challenging gorge, so I can’t imagine doing that without ropes. Needless to say, many people got injured by falling, breaking bones. Rescuing someone deep in a gorge is no easy task, and the nearest town is Tom Price, which doesn’t have many people available to rescue.
That day in 2004, there were three separate falls in three different areas of the gorge. It was a perfect storm. The rescue team was overextended, so volunteers were called in. Because of the conditions, it was taking hours to rescue these people on stretchers. Night fell, and when some rescuers were at that pool, a sudden flash flood came rushing in, throwing everyone around. One guy held the stretcher and saved the injured British woman, but a 36-year-old man named Mr. Regan drowned. He was the first and only rescue volunteer to lose his life on duty in Western Australia.
The pool was named after him, and the gorge was declared a disaster area and closed to the public. One in every 300 guests to the gorge needed a rescue, which was a drain to their resources. After some time, they reopened the gorge but only allowed West Oz Active Adventures to take people past Kermit Pool because they are certified and have an excellent safety record. Josh pointed out that many people don’t realize when they hike unprepared (like some of the people we saw in flip flops) not only endanger themselves, they endanger rescuers.
We continued to the Garden Pool, getting in the water once again. I could not seem to master that innertube. I always had a hard time getting in without flipping, and then once I was in, it wasn’t easy to stay in. We were in the tubes several times as we continued down.
We crossed down through a section that had water drizzling down the rocks, but the ledges were a few inches, so we didn’t need ropes. It was still steep and slippery, so we had to take our time down the section.
Next up was The Chute, a 45-degree incline waterfall. The space was narrow, with water flowing down the layered rocks. It was gorgeous! To get down, there was a rope that we’d hold onto as we climbed down through the water. It must have been 40 feet down, and we’d go one at a time. Josh was at the bottom, waiting for us, while Sim was at the top, helping us get clipped in. They warned us that it could be slippery and to watch our footing.
Before we started the climb down, we had to shout a compliment to Josh. We were all having a blast. Part of our waist ropes and clips had a plastic yellow square patch to help protect our butts. It made it look like we were wearing diapers, which they call nappies. All-day, we joked about our nappies.
After a few people climbed down, it was my turn. I was doing a great job, feeling confident and strong. Halfway down, I got too confident. I started moving faster, thinking that I was a pro. Suddenly, my foot slipped, and I fell on my side, into the crevice where the water was. They warned us that if we slipped, not to fall on our arm or elbow because we could do serious damage. It was better to fall on our butts.
It all happened so fast – I couldn’t help it, but my elbow and arm instinctively went down to break my fall. Thankfully, because the crevice was so narrow and my backpack was so puffy, it broke my fall. My arm fell into the crack, but the pressure was limited when my bag wedged itself. Josh came running up to make sure that I was ok and I told him that I was alright.
Anita went after me and decided to just slide down the chute on her butt! It was pretty funny and Nik followed her lead.
We continued climbing down farther and farther into the gorge. We got back into the innertubes when we got to Junction Pool at the bottom. It was much more water than what we had experienced earlier, which made sense since it was the bottom. I just prayed there weren’t water snakes around. We laid back on our innertubes, slowly moving while looking up the massive rock walls. That rock is the oldest exposed rock on the planet. I couldn’t believe I made it!
We were in awe. Josh said that only half a percent of tourists who visit Karijini National Park make it to that section of the gorge. We were extremely fortunate. I understood why the tour was called the Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was magical. Josh told us about the local tribes and the elders who used to meet at the bottom, which is where we’d have lunch. We had a moment of silence as we took it all in.
After making our way across the vast gorge, we arrived at a small section of the rock that was raised above the water. We climbed out of our tubes and pulled out our lunch – fried rice. We each took turns hiding behind small bushes to go pee.
When we first arrived at the bottom, Josh pointed out a metal clip in the rock. He pointed to the gorge’s top, which seemed to be as high as the Eiffel Tower. If one of us needed a rescue, we’d have to be put on a stretcher, and they’d use that metal clip to hold a rope from the top of the gorge and then lift you up. That seemed insane, but it was the only way out.
Josh said their radios lost service when we got to the bottom and that Karijini National Park has worse cell service than Afghanistan. I can vouch for that. In general, Australia is horrible with cell reception and WiFi because the government hasn’t invested in towers. If someone needed a rescue, it would take at least 24 hours.
I felt so amazing. I made it the bottom of the gorge and had the chance to experience the oldest exposed rocks on the planet. I looked up at the rock wall surrounding us and wondered what it was like when the gorge was formed. I also wondered what it would be like if there were an earthquake.
It was time to get going, so we got back into our inner tubes and floated across the pool. We now had to climb our way out the way we came in. I was doing well, but couldn’t stop thinking about that rock wall we would have to climb up. Was I capable of it?
Our group had great chemistry, and we all got along well. The guides told us that they only do this tour in the winter because December-March is the monsoon season and very hot. They had been working for the last ten days, 14 hours each day. I thought it must be exhausting, but they seemed like they loved it, even if they were tired.
I mentioned to Sim that I didn’t use my phone for pictures because they had cameras, and I explained how my screen on my phone was cracked while doing a stargazing tour. Sim said, “Was it at Cheela Plains Station?” Surprised, I said, “Yes.” He responded, “That is my telescope! I bought it as an investment, and I’m loaning it to them so they can do tours, and I get a cut of it.” Wow, small world.
We arrived at the rock wall, and I told Josh, “I don’t think I’m strong enough to climb out. What happens if I can’t?” Josh said, “Most of the strength actually comes from your legs, not your arms. You’ll be fine. I know you can do it.” He was more confident in me than I was.
A few people climbed up while I watched, getting more and more nervous. The rock ledges were so small, maybe one to two inches, and my feet are 12 inches long. As I sat on a rock, I noticed some metal hooks in the rock to the side that was more like a staircase. It was a steep, crazy staircase, but it wasn’t straight up. I asked Josh if I could just climb over there. He said, “No, that is for people we don’t believe can do this. But I know you can, so you’re climbing this wall.”
It was my turn. Sim was at the top and assured me that he had me in case I slipped. I am a tall and heavy person, so I was afraid that he couldn’t support me. He explained that if he wanted, he could clip the rope, and it would hold me, without him having to physically hold me.
I started up the wall, following the path that others took. I made it halfway, and then there was nowhere to put my right foot. I held on, starting to panic. Josh was at the bottom, and calmly told me where I could step up. I looked down, and the ledge was too high up. I eventually got my right foot up the two feet, but I would have to pull my body up using just that foot and my arms. It was too much of a distance, and I was too weak. I put my foot back down.
I held on, thinking about how difficult this was in a full wetsuit, a life jacket, and a backpack on my back carrying my deflated innertube. I looked up at Sim, and he assured me that I wouldn’t fall. I just held on, not moving. The whole day when I’d say, “I can’t,” Josh would say, “If you say ‘can’t,’ I’m going to assume you’re saying cunt.” Australians say that word often.
I shouted out to Josh, “I can’t do it!!” He shouted back, “You’re calling me a cunt?!” Damn it. I shouted again, “There isn’t enough room for my foot, my feet are too big. I can’t pull myself up with just my toes!”
Josh wasn’t having it. He climbed up next to me on my left. He had me put my foot on the ledge two feet up. He said he’d give me a push and help me up that challenging section. I felt his hand on my butt, and we counted to three. “One, Two, Three!” I pulled myself up, and everyone cheered. I continued climbing up and made it to the top, exhausted.
I sat on the ledge with my body shaking and watched the last few people climb up. Andy and Kristi had gone before me and were near me on the ridge. They encouraged me and said “well done.” Once everyone was up, we climbed horizontally again, but I didn’t fall to the side this time.
We continued through the gorge, and I was so happy that the section was finished. I told Josh, “I couldn’t have done it without your boost.” He smiled, “I didn’t give you a boost.” Shocked, I said, “What are you talking about? I felt your hand.” Josh looked at others and said, “I rested my hand on your butt, but when we said ‘three’, I took my hand off. You did that all yourself.” The others shook their heads in agreement.
I was stunned. I really thought Josh gave me a boost. He paused and said, “I knew you could do it. But you kept doubting yourself. It was all in your head. I hope this is a life lesson for you. When you say you can’t do something, you are convincing yourself that you can’t. Stop saying you can’t, and believe in your abilities.” Wow. I have thought about what he told me that day many times since. He is a wise guide.
We arrived back at the staircase that would take us out of the gorge after climbing up the mountain. Josh and Sim told us that our group was easy and fun to guide. It made me feel good. The people on a tour like that – twelve hours and intense – makes a huge difference. I was grateful that they were the group I was with.
When we arrived back at West Oz’s headquarters, we changed back into our clothes while eating meat pies and cookies. The sun was starting to set, so we all said our goodbyes. It took an hour to get back to my room in Tom Price. I showered, ate, and turned on an Aziz Ansari comedy special on my iPad. I fell asleep during it from sheer exhaustion.
That day was in the top three of all of my travels. I couldn’t believe that I had actually accomplished it. It was a day of many “firsts,” and the gorge’s incredible scenery is something I had never seen before. The guides were terrific – safe, fun, and inspirational. The group was friendly and encouraging. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience at Karijini National Park, and I treasure the life lessons I learned that day.
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