Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Kennedy Range National Park

Just north of Gascoyne Junction, in the harsh and unforgiving interior of the State's north-west, lie the spectacular sandstone battlements of the Kennedy Range. This huge mesa, pushed up from an ancient sea bed, has dominated the surrounding plains for millions of years.

The Kennedy Range is an eroded plateau on the rim of the Gascoyne River catchment, about 150 kilometres east of Carnarvon. It extends for roughly 195 kilometres in a northerly direction from near Gascoyne Junction. The park offers spectacular scenery of gorges and precipitous faces, with a vast plateau of ancient dunefields on top of the range. The area still retains a wilderness feeling, and camping beneath the stark sandstone cliffs is an experience not to be missed.

Natural History

In Permian times, some 250 million years ago, the Gascoyne region was a shallow ocean basin off the edge of the ancient Australian continent. It filled with layer upon layer of sediment, which eventually became compressed by the weight of overlying layers. It was subsequently raised above sea level, where erosion has stripped away much of the rock. Today, marine fossils found in the range's sandstone strata reflect the park's early geological history. However, fossils from more recent times are just as significant. In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists collected a small number of fossilised plant specimens from the park's sandstones. These were formed in the Eocene era and represent the earliest known occurrence of Banksia in Australia.

The Kennedy Range is a remnant of an ancient land surface. This ancient plateau has been worn away elsewhere, but here forms a huge mesa. The southern and eastern sides of the range have eroded to form spectacular cliffs, rising up to 100 metres or so above the Lyons River valley. The cliffs are dissected by a maze of steep-sided canyons, through which streams run after rain. A few small pools remain for several months after rain, and the deepest may be permanent. A strong fault system runs along the western side of the range, and springs are common here along the base.

Seemingly endless rows of waterless red sand dunes, dominated by spinifex with scattered wattle, mallee and other small shrubs, are found on the mesa. The sands that form the dunefield have been weathered from the underlying sandstone, and the dunes themselves may have been formed about 15,000 years ago, during the last major arid period in Western Australia. Swales are 100 to 500 metres wide, occasionally up to a kilometre, and are stabilised by the vegetation. In places, the dunes rise up to 18 metres above the swale and have slopes up to 20 degrees. Most of the upper parts of the dunes are unstabilised, but movement appears to be confined to the wind swirling sand around the perennial woody shrubs. This huge mesa remains much the same today as it would have been when Aboriginal people first crossed it, thousands of years ago.

Aboriginal History

The Kennedy Range formed the boundary for two Aboriginal tribes: the Maia and the Malgaru. The Maia people occupied an area of about 12,000 square kilometres, which extended from just north of Carnarvon to the western slopes of the Kennedy Range. The freshwater springs on this side of the range support abundant wildlife and would have been a good source of food and water for the Maia. The Malgaru's tribal lands covered a similarly large area, stretching from the eastern escarpment of the range, across the Lyons River (which they call Mithering) and east to the boundary with the Wadjari tribe, which is near the Gascoyne River, around Mooloo Downs and Yinnetharra.

The Aboriginal history of the range itself is largely unrecorded, but there are occupation sites around and within the range. Outcrops of chert found in the area are ideal for making stone tools, and a large number of artefact scatters, near the freshwater springs on the western side, provide additional evidence of occupation by Aboriginal people in the 20,000 or so years before European settlement. Most of the 100 or so sites that have been recorded are archaeological sites, but a number of them have ceremonial or mythological importance. Such sites include a march fly talu site -- a site where special ceremonies are conducted to increase the numbers of a particular species -- and a mythological site in a most inaccessible part of the dunefield in the centre of the range. Engravings in the southernmost gorge of the visitor area are very old and faint, and the meanings of them have long since been lost.


Early European Exploration

The freshwater springs and permanent pools, that were so important to the local Aboriginal tribes, also attracted pastoralists in the late 1800s. In 1858, an expedition into the Gascoyne region, led by Francis Thomas Gregory, reached the Kennedy Range on May 12. Gregory also named the Lyons River, which runs along much of the eastern side of the range. He named the range in honour of the then Governor of Western Australia, Arthur Edward Kennedy. Gregory's expedition continued to Mount Augustus, before returning to Perth via Mount Gould, the Murchison and Irwin Rivers, Dandaragan and Toodyay.

Within 20 years of Gregory's expedition, pastoral leases were taken up along both the Gascoyne and Lyons rivers, and the region rapidly developed into a prosperous wool-producing area. In 1877, Charles Brockman established Boolatha Station, just north of the mouth of the Gascoyne River. Jimba Jimba Station, at the junction of the Gascoyne and Lyons Rivers south of Kennedy Range, was taken up in 1878. From then on, people began to venture further inland, and more stations sprang up along the Lyons River. High numbers of sheep grazed the area around the Kennedy Range until the late 1930s, when drought, depression and overgrazing caused many businesses to crash. Even now, much of the land surrounding the range has not fully recovered. In fact, the area has suffered some of the worst degradation to be caused by early pastoral activity in the State. Fortunately, due to being virtually waterless, the top of the range was only lightly grazed and, despite a reasonable level of mineral exploration, remains relatively unscathed.

The Kennedy Range National Park was gazetted on 8 January 1993. The area today is a semi-developed park that offers a wilderness-style experience to the more adventurous visitor. One of the best times to visit the range is in the months after good winter rains. At such times, the usually dusty red landscape changes to rich, verdant hues. Everlastings, mulla-mullas, rich herbfields of native cornflowers and other wildflowers flourish, carpeting large areas of the surrounding plains.

Though the 141,660-hectare Kennedy Range National Park is still in its infancy, it is fast becoming known for its wilderness value. And as you stand at the foot of its sandstone battlements, the Kennedy Range beckons you to explore and discover its natural attractions.


Where is it?
About 1120 km north of Perth and 150 km east of Carnarvon.


Travelling time:
1-2 days from Perth, allowing for frequent stops.

What to do:
Sightseeing, photography, picnicking, bush camping, hiking. After rain, the wildflowers are spectacular, with everlastings growing from horizon to horizon. This park offers a true outback experience that is within 100 km of 'civilisation'.

  • Walks:
    Do not go walking into the gorges alone and make sure you have plenty of water before setting off. Avoid walking in the hottest part of the day.
    • The trail from the northern visitor site runs into a gorge, where there is a sheer wall of honeycomb-like rock formations.
    • Another trail runs from the camping area, deep into the gorge.

Bush toilet. There is a bush camping area that has a single bush toilet. No water is available in the parks so make sure you carry plenty, especially if you go walking. Please take all rubbish with you.

Best season:
Late Autumn to early spring.

Sources & Further reading
Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading