This is a story of how our travels nearly came to an abrupt end in the Pilbara region of North West Australia. We’ve waited until the end of our year-long Australian adventure to publish this because it’s a tale that might’ve made many of our family and friends worry while we were still on the road. Even now, it might make our readers doubt my sanity, and that’s fine now that you know we’re home and dry.
The Pilbara, in north western Australia, is a vast desert land where very few venture, and even fewer go for pleasure. You could say it’s the place where people who live in the Outback go when they really want to get away from it all. Covering 500,000 km2 (twice the area of the UK), it’s a sparsely populated land of huge treeless plains, wide open skies and long rolling ranges of red hued hills and valleys, stretching into infinity.Here the summer daytime temperatures frequently hit 50C, and even in winter, regularly reach 35C. With a total population of 50,000 people, it’s also one of the least populated places on the planet, outside of Antarctica. Over huge swathes of this vast land, virtually the only thing growing is spinifex, a vicious prickly grass that can pierce skin and clothes, leaving the ends of its needle-sharp leaves embedded in your skin. Yet, huge fortunes have been made in the Pilbara, because its red rocks are one of the richest sources of iron ore in the world. More than 20 vast iron ore mines dot the landscape, each of which houses a small town of migrant workers from all across Australia and indeed the globe.
These same ancient rocks, which have created the vast fortunes of Gina Rhinehart and others, have, over eons, been carved into some of the most amazing landscapes on the planet. Rivers that have not changed paths in millions of years have etched out extraordinary gorges and valleys, and it was this hauntingly beautiful landscape that inspired us to visit.
We’d taken a detour inland from Exmouth to visit a National Park called Karijini, famous for its spectacular Pilbara scenery. We’d been looking forward to it for ages, and wanted to start our visit as soon as we arrived in the area. In fact, we set off extra early so that we could visit Hamersley Gorge, which is only accessible from a dirt road outside the main park.
While Hamersley Gorge isn’t the biggest or deepest in the park, it’s a beautiful spot, with a cascade of pools at the bottom of steep sided cliffs. With a narrow winding gorge and only a small amount available to explore by foot, it seemed like an ideal spot to try using our new drone (nicknamed Bumble), which we’d only owned for a couple of weeks. Up to that point, most of the landscapes we’d only flown Bumble over the sand dunes and deserts of the West Coast, so we were excited to try it in a completely different environment.
Hamersley Gorge runs north-east to south-west on the very edge of Karijini National Park, with a single dirt access road and a small car park perched on its north-eastern side. This track is the only way to access the gorge – there are no hiking trails nor any other means of getting to the gorge except by road and down a steep, rocky staircase to a beautiful green pool at the bottom.
After climbing down and taking a few photos, I decided it’d be better to launch our drone from the top and try to fly above and then through the gorge. So, heading back up to the car, I found what looked like the ideal vantage point: a hill just above the car park which gave me good views over and into the gorge. I launched Bumble into the air and set him off to explore the gorge.
Despite my inexperience, I thought I was getting the hang of how to control and navigate our drone – it has a lot of clever features to avoid collisions, so I wasn’t too worried about crashing it. However, I hadn’t realised at that stage that trying to view the screen on my iPhone (which provides a preview from the camera on the drone) in bright sunshine is near impossible – and while I’d been squinting at the screen trying to line the drone up to fly up the gorge, I lost track of where Bumble had gone. All I could see on the screen was darkness, so with the bright sunshine dazzling me, I decided it would be sensible to start again from a shadier spot.
I pushed the joystick to turn him back to home (or so I thought) when suddenly the remote control started flashing warnings and beeping alarmingly. Then as the display suddenly came into focus all I could see was some branches gently waving in front of the camera. My heart sank as it became clear what had happened – I’d flown our new drone into a tree.
It turns out that the collision sensor might stop you crashing into a rock wall, but it’s not so good at detecting gently wafting twigs at the top of a tree. But if that wasn’t bad enough, when I tracked his position on the map, I could see it wasn’t just any tree – it was a tree on the other side of the 30 meter deep gorge. I’d completely misjudged where the drone was, and now it was totally unreachable. The distance to the drone was no more than 200m as the crow flies (or as the drone buzzes) – but it may have as well been on the far side of the moon. With a steep precipice on the opposite side of the gorge, there seemed to be no way to get to the other side of the gorge and no roads or any means to access the other side – even with a long detour.
Last Flight of the Bumble! What happens when you fly a drone blind
I was intensely embarrassed and frustrated. I trudged back down to the car to tell Tanya that I’d lost our new (and expensive) toy in a tree on the other side of an impassable chasm and discuss our next move.
After calming down a bit, I decided to do a bit more exploring further up the gorge, but after 30 minutes or so of scrambling through spinifex and over rocks, and with darkness approaching, we decided we couldn’t risk getting lost or stuck as night fell, and headed back to where we were staying, some 45 minutes away in Tom Price, the nearest town.
As we drove away, we weren’t sure if we’d ever see our beloved new toy again, or if it would spend eternity hanging from a tree in the remote Pilbara.
That night, refusing to give up, I had another look at the satellite photos and terrain of the area, and concluded that it might be possible to get across the gorge about 1 km further up from where I’d lost the drone, as there was a gully that seemed to slope more gently into the gorge with a possible exit on the south-western side. The route I was proposing was heading well away from the road and into the trackless wilderness on the other side of the gorge, where it was clear no one ever ventured. However, the land looked fairly flat, and other than the ubiquitous spinifex, the landscape looked reasonably easy to traverse. After a brief discussion, and some misgivings from Tanya, I resolved to give it another go before giving up. With my mind focused on the journey ahead, and confident that my planning was sufficient to ensure a trouble-free drone recovery, we went to bed. If we’d known what the next day held in store, neither of us would’ve slept a wink.