Start - Thomas Carter Lookout, off Charles Knife Rd
Length - 7.9km (Loop)
Grade - Orange
Terrain - Single Track, Rocky Ground
Vertical Climb - 163m
Time - 2-3 Hours
Signed - Yes
Cost - National Park Fees Apply
Date Hiked - 6th August 2021
Best Time - Dry Season (April to September)
Traditional Custodians - Thalanyji People
Directions - Located about 35km from Exmouth, head south out of town on Minilya-Exmouth Road and take a right on Charles Knife Road. Follow the signs for Cape Range National Park and keeping driving up into the range until you see the right turn for the Thomas Carter Lookout. Continue along this road until you reach another right turn that leads to the car park. The information board and start of the trail are on the eastern side of the car park.
The Hike - With three marked trails within Cape Range National Park providing some nice activities to enjoy when holidaying in Exmouth, I only had one left on my to-do list. Saving the longest trail until last, only Hal was keen on joining me on this one so we made plans to have an early start before the heat of the day kicked in. Having completed the Yardie Gorge Trail and Mandu Mandu Gorge, this hike would be starting on the opposite side of Cape Range and I was looking forward to seeing it from a different perspective.
After a quick breakfast and coffee, Hal and I loaded up in the CH-R and headed south out of town towards the Charles Knife Canyon turnoff. The eastern side of the cape provides access to the deeper gorges and canyons with some stunning lookouts and vehicle tracks to explore. Climbing up into the range along Charles Knife Road, both Hal and I were impressed with the sheer drop-offs on either side of the unsealed road and made a point of saying we would stop on the way back. Keen to get out to the start of the trail and take advantage of the cooler conditions, we negotiated the maze of tracks to reach the Thomas Carter Lookout where the Badjirrajirra Trail begins. There were already a few cars here, something I love to see as it means people are out enjoying the trail, so we got our packs on with minimal faffing before climbing the small hill to the official lookout. Being the longest official trail within Cape Range National Park, the Badjirrajirra Trail offers more of a challenge than Yardie and Mandu Mandu and one I was excited to experience.
The good thing about starting at the highest point you'll reach on the 8km loop is that you can trace where you will be going from the lookout. With an open landscape ahead of us stretching all the way to the waters of the Exmouth Gulf, you could be excused for thinking the trail won't be very interesting based on the broader vistas being somewhat flat. I knew what was coming a bit later and was keen to see what the flatter parts looked like, so we headed down the hill and off on our final hiking adventure for the trip. Hal stormed off into the distance as he likes to do while I hung back and photographed everything that caught my eye, as I like to do. I was happy to see some light clouds hanging around the horizon as they always make the wide shots look much prettier. Descending down towards the spinifex plains that dominate this area, I found a few wildflowers to photograph and there was a lot more here than what it looks like from the Thomas Carter Lookout. Passing over a few dry creek beds, Hal went to follow the rocky valley instead of the trail and I had to call out to him to make a course correction.
With beautiful weather and cool temperatures for now, this was turning out to be a lovely hike as we reached the decision point for the loop. After a bit of a short uphill we reached the wooden sign pointing you either the direct route to Shothole Canyon (have to be careful when typing that one) or the longer way heading anti-clockwise on the loop trail. Wanting to get the great views overlooking the canyon while the sun was still in a decent position for photography, I suggested to Hal we keep going straight and he agreed. While Hal shot off into the distance, I continued my slower approach and this stretch was really enjoyable with the undulating terrain hiding some excellent wildflowers. While it looked quite flat and exposed from the Thomas Carter Lookout, the reality down here was that there was enough shade in parts and lots of up and down walking to enjoy. While scanning the flora lining the trail, I noticed a clumping of dead eucalyptus leaves that didn't look like they formed that way naturally.
We had seen something similar while hiking Mandu Mandu Gorge and our assumption then was this was some kind of formation built by insects to protect their nests/young. Taking a photo and moving on, I would come across more insect life as I found a stunning looking Cape Range Grevillea that was playing home to an army of ants, the unheralded pollinators of the insect world. Enjoying seeing plenty of Cassia varieties and some beautiful Eremophilias, I looked back at one point and saw a few fully formed spider webs that luckily contained a couple of spiders. Although the sun was shining directly on them and thus the photos were horribly overexposed, it was cool to see them in the morning just hanging out and waiting for a meal to fly by. A wildflower I was very taken by on this trip that I came to call the Cape Range Orchid (not its real name) was a pink, red and orange star-shaped flower called Leptosema macrocarpum (unable to find a common name for it online).
Rising over one of the small hills, I got a little excited as I had my first glimpse of the canyon system that makes this trail so enjoyable. Also spotting Hal in the distance, he was waiting for me at the wooden sign letting you know that Shothole Lookout was up ahead. The image I most associate with this trail and one of the reasons I was excited to hike it was from my podcast partner Donovan of his wife Alissa standing on the edge of the canyon looking out over the remarkable scene. I wouldn't make Hal pose for the same photo, although imagining the look on his face if I asked is pretty funny, so I instead went about exploring the first of the two jutty out bits that provide excellent views over the canyon. After a pretty subdued but enjoyable start to the hike, this was all amount smacking you in the face with epic scenery and vistas as far as the eye could see. Hal had already ventured out towards the end of the first lookout spot so I started exploring the western side that looks over what is a super impressive landscape that is difficult to comprehend the timescale that was needed to create it.
This is where my 18-140mm lens came in handy with the option to capture both the wide shots and zoom in to focus on the details below including some interesting scarring on the sides of the canyon. Meeting up with Hal overlooking the eastern side, we both agreed this was pretty spectacular and well worth the hike out. I continued to explore the ridge, noticing a sign saying a walk trail was closed due to dangerous conditions. I thought it was odd they would stop people hiking the Badjirrajirra Trail from continuing further along the wide ridge as it seemed perfectly safe. I headed out towards the end and it soon became apparent that there is a linking trail between this ridge and the carpark at the bottom of Shothole Canyon. I could trace the route from some sketchy looking rocks all the way down the narrow ridge of the hill leading down and thought that would make a great side trail or extension of this hike if you could somehow loop back up the other section that sticks out.
From this vantage point I could see all the way down the canyon towards Exmouth Gulf and it was an awe-inspiring sight to behold. The vehicle track snaking along the valley floor creates a natural guide for your eyes as you follow the deep crevices created by water and time. After taking a lot of photos, I joined Hal once again and we set off to find the trail as it continued on the loop around the edge of the canyon. We checked out the other ridge that provides yet another fantastic viewing opportunity and this one was just as good as the first. It's hard not to be amazed at the views here and I found myself stopping every few steps and just soaking it all in. With plenty of photos in the bag and the buzz of such a special place taking hold, we reluctantly moved on and started the remainder of the loop back to the trail intersection. Hal stormed off ahead as I continued at my usual pace, photographing the wide vistas ahead of me and taking the opportunity to capture the blue shimmer of the Exmouth Gulf in the distance.
Expecting much of the same kind of terrain as the journey out to Shothole Canyon, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across some rockier trail. The dips and climbs were of a similar size but this area felt much different thanks to the trail following the edge of some seasonal creeks that provide a nicer place for the taller vegetation to grow. Continuing to follow the white marker poles that keep you on track when the trail disappears in a sea of orange rock, I was enjoying that there was a lot more to this trail than the epic canyon views. At the tops of some of the hills you can see smaller gorges that have been cut into the landscape and this was just a taste of what was to come. Reaching a rocky platform that was part of a creek system, I noticed a dark patch to my left that turned out to be a hollow in the rocks that a fig tree has sent roots down in search of water. It was a pretty cool sight to see how nature adapts and survives in an area that doesn't receive a lot of rainfall.