Karijini National Park in the Hamersley Range, about 1400 kms north of Perth, lies at the heart of the Pilbara and boasts some of Western Australia’s most iconic photography locations: think russet red rock, rugged escarpments, plunging gorges, fern-fringed pools and stunning waterfalls.  As a keen amateur landscape photographer, I’d had Karijini on my bucket list for a long time. But covering an area of over 600,000 hectares, with a limited network of dirt roads, it is not the easiest place to visit. A photographic tour with Blue Tongue Photo Tours, bringing together my love of being in the middle of nowhere with my photography journey, was the perfect way to see this isolated region and, hopefully, bring my photography skills up a notch. The trip was to be led by Blue Tongue’s owner operator, Martial Fatton, a Perth based professional photographer with close to [forty] years’ experience in commercial photography and many years leading photo tours across Western Australia. With just myself and my friend Kerry on the tour, we were assured of one-to-one tuition whenever we wanted it.

After flying into Newman airport, where Martial picked us up, Karijini was our first destination. Martial’s in-depth knowledge of this remote landscape, gained on many previous trips, was invaluable, ensuring that we were where we needed to be, on time and at the right time of day.  We began with the dreamy waterfall at Fern Pool, surrounded by paperbark trees and pretty ferns and the nearby Fortescue Falls which cascades down rocky shelves into Karijini’s only permanent waterhole.  From the plateau at Dales Gorge, in a light drizzle, we peered into the depths of Circular Pool, ringed by sheer, rock walls.  At Oxer Lookout, the meeting point of four impressive gorges – Red, Weano, Hancock and Joffre – a mix of spectacular light and gathering clouds created the perfect backdrop for our early morning shoot.

But for me, the real highlights of Karijini were hidden deep within the narrow gorges. None of our hikes was long but some are not for the faint-hearted, involving steep descents on gravel tracks, climbing up and down ladders and clinging to rock walls as we edged along narrow, sometimes slippery, ledges.  At Joffre Gorge, recently installed ladders made the descent to the natural amphitheatre straightforward. Martial took us there early in the day, allowing us to photograph the shimmering reflections and 50 metre waterfall before the crowds arrived.  In Hancock Gorge, a Class 5 hike culminated in the ‘spider walk’ which involved straddling the two narrow walls of the gorge – not easy when lugging a dry bag full of camera gear. But reaching Kermit’s Pool made it well worth the effort: an aqua blue pool encircled by walls of striated rocks and an Instagram favourite.   At the opposite end of the park, a cheeky 90 km drive from the Information Centre, we followed a stony staircase down to the base of Hamersley Gorge where coloured bands of contorted rocks are reflected in crystal-clear pools. A short Class 4 walk brought us to Spa Pool, a truly stunning natural swimming hole, fed by a small waterfall and a wonderful finale to our time in Karijini. 

From the dramatic gorges of Karijini, we made our way west to the Coral Coast. Two nights in each of Exmouth and Denham afforded opportunities for seascape photography, with Martial explaining wave sequences, techniques for shooting into the sunset and the all-important foreground interest.  In Denham, a last-minute scenic flight over Shark Bay turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Martial sat up front and directed the pilot while Kerry and I shot through the space where the door of the plane should have been. From the air, the Shark Bay salt mines form a geometric mosaic in shades of blue, and, further north, an estuary, with shifting sands and blue green waters, known as ‘the tree,’ both made for stunning abstract shots. 

Denham is also the gateway to Francois Peron National Park where red cliffs meet the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. We set off to the northern tip of the park, bumping along rutted sand roads in Martial’s four-wheel drive. Continuing our road trip south, we spent a night in the small town of Kalbarri, from where we set off early for a sunrise shoot through Nature’s Window, a fabulous rock formation that serves as a natural window, framing the Murchison River far below. Once again, Martial had us at the location in time to to capture the first rays of the sun striking the orange rocks. Our final photography stop of the trip was at Nambung National Park, also known as the Pinnacles Desert, about 17kms from Cervantes. Thousands of limestone pillars, some reaching over three metres tall, rise out of the desert, creating a moonscape unlike anything I had ever seen before.  A spectacular sunset on our last night more than made up for a washout on our drive back to Perth the following day.

Western Australia is the size of Western Europe. Much of it is wild and empty, with long driving distances and not a lot happening between destinations. Our road trip was broken up by many opportunities to pull over for an interesting shot, from wedge-tailed eagles fighting over a kangaroo carcass, to wildflowers, termite mounds and the bubble-gum pink waters of Hutt Lagoon.  We swerved to avoid a bustard standing in the middle of the road but sadly the wild emus of Exmouth proved more elusive.

Accommodation on the tour was a mix of camping, cabins and hotels. On our nights camping at Karijini and Cheela Plain Station, Kerry and I had a tent each with a comfortable stretcher bed, with camp meals prepared by Martial in the versatile kitchen of his camper trailer.

Shooting from sunrise to sunset and beyond, downtime was limited.  But in the short windows we had, Martial took time to critique our images and show us some new tricks in Lightroom. Martial’s approach to photography instruction is tailored to his guests’ needs. In our case, at a new location, he took a couple of shots himself, showed us the image on the back of the camera, explained the settings and checked that we were on the right track. With infinite patience, he answered constant questions about lenses, filters, composition and much more. Martial is an enthusiastic astro-photographer and, with the milky way season in full swing, was keen to share his knowledge with two novices. So, on our first clear night in Karijini, we embarked on a beginner’s guide to infinity focusing, astro apps, long exposures, the impact of white balance and light painting. By the time, we’d had a night under the stars at Cheela Plains station, where fighting off the mozzies was as much of a challenge as getting our tripods in the right spot, night shoots at Vlamingh Head lighthouse near Exmouth and at Wooramel Station, with an abandoned vintage car as the foreground interest, I’d nailed a new photography skill and captured some awesome shots of the milky way.

Throughout the tour, Martial’s enthusiasm, patience and good humour never faltered. With constant tuition from a master photographer, a photography tour with Blue Tongue Photo Tours provided an incredible, immersive learning experience. I will be back! 

Hearther Mcneice, Noosa, QLD