Article and photos by Donovan de Souza from The Long Way's Better
Images in this article cannot be reproduced without written permission from the photographer.
While the majority of Western Australia’s hiking trails are centred around Perth and the forests of the South-West, there is a real sense of adventure that can be found in the vast rugged landscapes to the north of Perth. Whether exploring the gorges in Kalbarri, Karijini, Kennedy Range or Cape Range National Parks or reaching the summits of Mt Bruce or Mt Augustus, hiking in the north can be a truly magical experience, and one that feels a world away from the lush forests and granite coastline of the South-West.
As rewarding as these landscapes can be, arid climate hiking does require some special considerations. While many of these national parks provide world class experiences that can be enjoyed by the whole family, they can also be potentially deadly due to the extreme heat that can be experienced in the hotter months. In the last decade, deaths from dehydration, heat stress and severe heatstroke have occurred in Kalbarri, Cape Range and Mt Augustus, and sadly many of these deaths could have been avoided if safety precautions had been taken.
Below are some safety tips to consider when undertaking hikes north of Perth from Kalbarri onwards.
Hike in the cooler months
While the long Summer holidays make it an ideal time for longer road trips for families, consider saving arid climate hikes from the cooler times of the year. While maximum temperatures can range from the high 30s to reaching over 50°C in the baking hot gorges in Summer, winter maximum temperatures in the 20s to mid 30s can provide conditions that are both safer and more comfortable
Hike early in the day
While hiking long trails with little to no shade should be completely avoided in the Summer months (including March), consider starting walks early in the day if undertaking a trail in Spring or Autumn day, which can still be dangerously hot. Far too often, tourists visiting national parks don’t get out to the trails until 10 am at the earliest, which means they end up walking during the hottest time of the day. Starting a trail closer to sunrise will allow for more time in the cooler hours and with the potential for more shade; as an example, an early start to summiting Mt Augustus means doing most of the strenuous ascent in the shadow of the mountain given the trail starts in the south-western corner of the mountain.
Hike shorter trails in the hotter months
Perhaps you’ve decided to add a short side trip to Kennedy Range or Kalbarri on the way back from ticking swimming with whale sharks at Exmouth off your bucket list during the Easter school holidays, and it means arriving at the national park during the hottest time of the day. While the adventure of undertaking one of the longer trails may be more enticing, consider undertaking one of the shorter trails instead. Kennedy Range offers the short but spectacular Honeycomb Gorge as a worthwhile alternative, and while not a ‘walk’ per se, the Kalbarri Skywalk provides an excellent visitor experience that is worth checking out.
Hike in groups
While solo hiking can often be a safely enjoyed activity, solo hiking in arid conditions runs the risk of collapsing from heat stroke and not having anyone around to call for assistance. Hiking in groups (preferably three or more if possible) means you can watch out for each other’s wellbeing, and call for help if anyone loses consciousness.
With dehydration being a leading cause of death on arid climate hikes, it would seem to be common sense that carrying water is essential however a common mistake can be not carrying enough water. Small 600ml water bottles are insufficient; depending on the trail length 3-4 litres may be required – more in hotter conditions.
Beyond dehydration, water can also help providing some cooling relief. On walks with natural water holes, stopping in for a dip can help regulate body temperature and provide relief from the scorching heat. On walks without swimming holes, an idea might be to freeze one or two of your litres of water that will melt into ice cold water, or to have enough water on top of your drinking supply to pour over yourself or to wet a cloth that can be applied to the skin.
Slip, slop, slap
On trails without any tree cover, a hat may be the only shade you can rely on for the entire trail and are essential for arid climate hikes. When choosing a hat, make sure to select one that has a broad brim. Highly recommended are the hats that are a combination of a broad brim hat but with legionnaires style neck protection – they may look super daggy, but they are the most effective for sun protection. While sunscreen is generally seen as being a preventative measure against skin cancer, its use can prevent sunburn can affect your body’s ability to cool itself. A loose, long sleeve shirt can provide eve better protection to both your neck and arms, so in other words don’t forget to slip, slop, slap!
Know the signs of heat stress, heat stroke and dehydration
While most of the safety tips are preventative, it is also important to know the signs of heat stress, heat stroke and dehydration. Signs, symptoms and definitions for heat stroke and stress can be found on the Healthy WA website, as well as first aid treatments.
Carry a PLB
With many arid trails located in remote areas, one cannot rely on phone reception to contact emergency services. For this reason it is always advised that hikers carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and know how to use it. Only slightly larger than a mobile phone, a PLB will send out a distress signal and provide rescue services with your location. While they can be expensive, PLBs last for many years, providing that extra peace of mind in almost all hiking applications.
Consider your road trip safety
Beyond the trail experience, it is important that safety extends to driving on the back roads to many of these national parks. While Kalbarri can now be explored on sealed roads, travelling to areas like the Kennedy Range and Mt Augustus remain remote journeys along hundreds of kilometres of unsealed road. Before heading out, it is best to check road conditions on local shire websites – particularly if there has been recent severe weather in the area that may have damaged roads or made them impassable. Additionally, be prepared for having to change tyres, and consider carrying a second spare if heading into particularly remote areas.