The Bungle Bungle

Getting There

After three days of paddling down the Ord river, our deltoids were rippling as we headed westward out of Kunnunurra. Our upper bodies had had their workout and now it was time for a bit of legwork. At the highway junction we turned south - we were off to the Purnululu National Park to do a bit of walking. Purnululu is home to the Bungle Bungle, an area of strangely eroded rocky ranges that was virtually unknown until 1983, but World Heritage listed twenty years later. It is, arguably, the jewel in the crown of the Kimberley.

All went smoothly until 5 minutes after we left the highway onto the 52km dirt access road to the National Park. Some serious scraping noises were emanating from beneath the HiLux every time the road became slightly uneven. We stopped to investigate and discovered the sump guard bent back and only a few centimetres off the ground.

While we were inspecting the problem, a ute pulled up and John, a silver-haired bush character and part-time good samaritan, got out. With his large toolkit, he found the right socket (which we didn't have) and we ran the front wheels of the vehicle up onto the verge to give him access to remove the sump guard. A close look showed that one of the mounting brackets and its bolt were missing and there was an old tear in the metal - clearly the sump had been damaged during a prior rental and had been replaced without being properly fixed!!

We kept it to show the rental company and gave John a cold beer for his troubles - like all good samaritans of the bush he refused anything else; the pleasure of being able to help someone in need was enough. There should be more people like him in the world - thanks, John!!

Classic Bungle Bungle scenery

The road to Purnululu

Apart from that incident, the infamous 52km drive into Purnululu passed uneventfully, which was a mild surprise. We had been led to believe that this road was a sump-busting, sand-bogging tiger, but found it more of a feral cat. Yes, there are corrugations, creek crossings and a roller-coaster section with blind crests and bends through the hilly country, but it required nothing more than commonsense and your undivided attention to negotiate. I suspect we were fortunate that the grader had only passed by a few weeks earlier when the road was opened after the wet season, so perhaps with heavy traffic in peak tourist time it becomes a more formidable challenge. The moral is "come early".

View of the western Bungle Bungle from Kungkalanayi Lookout


The texture of spinifex

Looking north over the termite mounds from Kungkalanayi

That said, it passes through the very interesting countryside of Mabel Downs cattle station before entering the National Park. Upon arrival, we registered, then made a quick detour to Kungkalanayi Lookout to get our first good look at the Bungle Bungle Range in the low afternoon light and set up camp beneath a shady tree in Kurrajong Campground.

Campsite at Kurrajong

Sunset over the western Bungle Bungle

After a bit of "sunset on mountain" watching and star-gazing by night, we retired. For the first time on our trip, we needed more than a sheet to keep warm - it was very pleasant to have a cool night to dream about exploring the Bungle Bungle.

Short Walks of the Bungle Bungle

Mini-Palms Gorge (5km)

Our plan was to look at the northern end of the range first, so we drove the 13km to the start of the Mini-Palms Walk for our first view. Driving up the stony creekbed cum road, we were greeted by the rich orange-red and black rock cliffs for which this region is famous. The track itself led us across a flat area of tall flowering spinifex, dotted with eucalypts and wattles, from whose golden flower spikes wafted a subtle sweet scent. Half a kilometre further on the track joined up with the creek flowing out of Mini-Palms Gorge and we crunched up its stony bed. We could feel the heat of the Kimberley sun, even this early in the morning, as we passed a landscape of spinifex, young eucalypts and outlying rocky outcrops.

On the stony creek bed leading into Mini-Palms Gorge

Soon we reached the mouth of the gorge, guarded by 200m high red cliffs and the first fan palms. Entry to the gorge was negotiated by passing a jumble of large conglomerate boulders, then wending our way along a narrow path that wound upward and emerged into a broad circular opening. Here we were surrounded by tall orange cliffs and a lush almost rainforest vegetation. It was a spectacular sight, but the best lay ahead.

The entry to Mini-Palms Gorge

Squeezing by the conglomerate boulders

Livistona palms in the gorge

Looking back out of Mini-Palms Gorge

The cave at the end of the gorge

A bit more climbing, aided by the odd steel steps, took us up into the narrow higher section of the gorge to reveal a magnificent amphitheatre at its far end. The grey floor of the amphitheatre lay beneath us, bare apart from a scattering of low shrubs and the dwarfed palms for which this place is named, while at its far end was a shallow cave. All around, the sheer red vaulted walls soared upwards for some 150m to the sky above. It was easy to see why this is a sacred place for the local aboriginal people. We stopped for a while to absorb the atmosphere of this silent chamber, then retraced our steps.

Returning across the flowering spinifex flats

Echidna Chasm (3km)

A few kilometres further on from Mini-Palms is a second short walk that is de rigeur for anyone visiting Purnululu; the Echidna Chasm Walk. Echidna Chasm is not named for any animal currently found there, but for a legend of the dreamtime. We arrived in time to brew a cuppa and take in the view from the car park - it was enough to the whet our appetite, but we were waiting for a special time to go.

Entry to Echidna Chasm

Beneath the palms at the chasm entrance ...

.... which suddenly narrows to a 180m high cleft

Re-caffeinated, we checked our watches and set off, up the rocky creek bed to the narrow entry of the chasm, fringed with more fan palms and lush vegetation. This rapidly disappeared, however, as we pushed on into the chasm; the walls narrowed dramatically to created a dark shadowy corridor deep in the Bungle Bungle Range. Ahead a bright slit of light appeared, guiding us on. We followed the narrow corridor on into a wider chamber lit by sunlight reflected off the rock walls, where we joined a small group of people waiting for the sun. This was the point of our timing - we all sat transfixed in a pale pink light watching a small band of sunlight appear, then move until it filled the narrow floor of the chasm at 11.30am, 180m below the opening above. It was celestial noon! To fully appreciate Echidna Chasm, timing is everything.

They say that when the sun reaches the chasm
floor at celestial noon, spirits may appear

Sometimes it is good that the chasm walls are so close

the superb interplay of light and shade at midday
in Echidna Gorge

From this chamber, an even narrower section of the gorge peeled off and we followed the dark passage past large blocks of conglomerate rock, climbing steadily up a section of chasm that was at its widest only two metres and at its narrowest, less than one metre wide. Above us, boulders that had fallen were wedged between the two walls of the dark chasm.

The green tree frog who came for lunch

Climbing slightly, we emerged into a second small sunlit chamber, home to dark-winged butterflies flitting from wall to wall and a bright green Kimberley tree frog - what an incongruous colour in this world of orange and black. Apparently the frog is well-known and regularly climbs down the cliff face from above to feast on the butterflies.

As the sun moved across the sky, the play of light in the chasm changed and, what was a dark corridor when we entered, became a curious mixture of shade and pale pinkish-orange light when we left. Echidna Chasm is a very special place and the owl that watched us leave from its craggy hollow high in the cliff wall seemed to know that only too well.

The 1.6 billion year old Osmand Range

The owl who called the chasm home

Exiting the chasm, we made a slight but well worthwhile detour to a lookout on a rocky knob - it looked back at the opening of Echidna Chasm, but more interestingly, presented a superb panorama across the tree cover valley of Red Rock Creek to the Osmand Ranges in the north. The rocks of this range are over 1.6 billion years old, some of the oldest exposed rocks on the planet and five times older than the Bungle Bungle. If you really want to put our civilisation in perspective, take a long hard look at the Osmand Range.

Panorama of the northern Bungle Bungle with the Osmand Range in the background

The Domes and Cathedral Gorge (3km)

To complete our quick introduction to the Bungle Bungle, we headed to the southern end of the range, location of the famous beehive structures, a karst landscape of eroded rock domes, where the white sandstone has been transformed to black and orange layers, by cyanobacteria and iron leaching, respectively.

We arrived late in the day when most people were leaving and followed the short Domes Walk in and around these amazing beehive rocks, their colours almost glowing in the late afternoon sun. Soon we joined the Cathedral Gorge track, leading deeper into the range alongside or in a riverbed of eroded pale sandstone and soft white sand. A couple of pools in the creekbed provided reflections of the domes in their still waters.

Start of the Cathedral Gorge Track

Wandering around the beehive domes

Late afternoon shadows on the Bungle Bungle

Rock pool in Cathedral Creek

The track into Cathedral Gorge

The track led us into an incredible circular amphitheatre, its base a white sandy floor around a dark pool. At the back, a deep rock overhang curved around providing some fine acoustics, while above were the impressively sheer red walls of the sandstone cliffs.

Alone in the amphitheatre

Evening reflections in the Cathedral Pool

In the late afternoon, we were the only people there and it was a special moment to be able to sit at the back of the pool beneath the vaulted rock ceiling and take in the impelling silence of this magnificent place - much more a cathedral than any man-made structure.

Shadows creeping over the waterhole


Evening falls over the layered domes of the Bungle Bungle

Even though it was pleasant to sit there in the cool shade, the sun was getting very low, so we headed back to set up camp at Walardi, the southern campground of Purnululu, for another pleasant, cool night beneath the stars - and an early one. Tomorrow, we would be up early so that we could get as far up Picaninny Creek as possible before the heat of the day set in.

Picanniny Gorge day-walk (20km)

The only option for an overnight walk in the Bungle Bungle is to camp high up in Picaninny Gorge and explore the side gorges heading out from it. We hadn't brought our camping gear and I had promised the fair Nello that this would be a more relaxing trip than normal. What better way to do that than a 20km day walk in 30°C plus degree temperatures! But Picaninny Gorge reveals the beating heart of the Bungle Bungle - we couldn't have come here and not have walked it! Hence the early start to the day and the fact that our packs contained mainly water.

Beehive domes lining the bed of Picaninny Creek

The eroded sandstone bed of the creek

Looking back down Picaninny Creek

Setting out from the carpark, we retraced our steps of yesterday for a kilometre up the Cathedral Gorge track, before heading off up the bed of Picaninny Creek, a wide dry watercourse that only flows during the wet season. The bed of the creek was an uneven pale sandstone slab, shaped by the flash floods and flows of the wet season rains. Around us, in all directions, lay the classic bichromic domes of the Bungle Bungle, as we headed eastward up this sandstone road. A cool breeze blew down the creek and the early morning light was superb.

As we wandered along, we could see in the soft white sand the tracks of the creatures that had passed before; birds of varying sizes, small and large reptiles, a snake, the tiny scurryings of insects and erratic paths of ant-lions wandering between the inverse volcanic cones of their pit traps, the prints of a large kangaroo or of a small hopping marsupial or desert mouse, a dingo - fascinating stuff, sand! The region may appear barren, but it clearly teems with life. We followed a goanna track for several hundred metres before it veered off into the surrounding spinifex.

Bungle Bungle reflections

Goanna tracks in the sand

An isolated waterhole in the creek bed

A larger waterhole

One of many curiously shaped termite mounds

Picaninny Creek is so named because in aboriginal mythology the eroded domes are the "babies" of the mountains. All along its course we wandered by these curiously shaped orange/black "babies", as we followed the creek upstream. The river bed itself was curiously eroded into sinkholes, tables, deep channels and furrows. In places, a few waterholes still lingered, home to populations of small fish (but for how long?) and a source of brilliantly reflected colour from the all-pervasive domes on either bank. Pale green spinifex covered the flatter areas of the creek banks and the occasional splash of brighter green signalled the presence of a small soak.

Picaninny waterhole fish

Dome formations and spinifex

A touch of lush green near a seep

Entering the series of horseshoe bends in the creek

Occasionally, high on the beehives or in a nook on their eroded sides, we could see tall statuesque shapes. In Asia, these would be buddhas, in Latin America, they would be statues of the virgin - here they were the mounds of termites, those magnificent architects and builders of the Australian outback.

Thus we continued for several kilometres until the creek butted up against the southern edge of the Bungle Bungle Range, forcing it into a series of horseshoe bends as it deflected its way between the large rock outcrops.

Domes lining the creek

Erosion had carved deep circular cuttings to produce sheer-walled red cliffs at each bend with deep pale grey channels at their bases - magnificent! At one bend, we passed a particularly inviting rockpool - long, clear, sandy and in the shade - and made a mental note of it for the return journey.

Not buddha ...not The Virgin ... just termites

The blackened chute of a dry waterfall

Nice shady place for a swim .... later

Water-eroded bedrock in Picanniny Creek

The riverbed now began to change, with increasingly long sections of deep gravel and rounded river stones or soft white sand. Our progress slowed considerable as we crunched or trudged through them. A couple of times, we stayed high on the bank, following a faint path across the spinifex flats to avoid them.

Crossing the spinifex slopes

Sandy section of Picaninny Creek

At The Elbow
- entry point to Picaninny Gorge

Penetrating deeper into the range, we came across a group of walkers who had just spent three nights camping in and exploring the higher part of the gorge - they looked, tired, hot, sweaty and very, very content! Another stretch of gravel and sand brought us to The Elbow, a place where the creek makes a sharp dogleg to the north and the true Picaninny Gorge begins. We followed the creekbed up the gorge for half a kilometre, enough to look into its depths and appreciate its sheer-sided walls and richly vegetated floor.

Picaninny Gorge - where eroded domes change to sheer-walled cliffs

Looking deeper up Picaninny Gorge

The contrasting red cliffs and black boulders
of Black Rock Pool

But this was not our destination - at a small dry cascade on right bank, we climbed up to follow a jumble of sharp-edged boulders up to a large cirque on the eastern side of the gorge. Here, hidden behind a jumble of blackened boulders, in the deep shade of the sheer, slick-red rock walls lay the dark, icy waters of the superb Black Rock Pool. It was the ideal spot to have an hour's break and appreciate the atmosphere of the gorge.

Black Rock silhouette

Reflections in the still icy water of
Black Rock Pool

We left at 11.30am - celestial noon - to return, and the day was quickly heating up. However, we had a particular stop in mind and the passage along the hot, gravelly creekbed passed quickly until we reached our waterhole with its small and private sandy beach beneath a rock ledge. For us sand was beginning to mean siesta. So, after an invigorating dip in the glacial waters of the pool, we lay on the sand and dozed, listening to the sweet haunting melody of a pied butcherbird echo off the walls of the rock cirque above. Sometimes you wonder if it can get any better.

The best reflections were saved till last

Time for a swim beneath the red rock walls

In parts the walls shaded us from the hot sun

Orange and black banded domes

One last photo of the classic orange and black banding of the beehive domes

It can, however, always get worse and we finally had to push on for the remaining 7 km in the hot afternoon sun of the Kimberley, seeking out the rare shade of south-facing rockwalls or scurrying, like the ants beneath us, along the baking sandstone of the exposed riverbed.

The sight of our campervan at the track's end was a welcome one indeed.

Almost at the end

Relaxing at Walardi Camp after the walk

Blue-winged kookaburra

The ubiquitous peewee

A pair of corellas

That evening as we sipped our beers while watching the passing parade of Purnululu birdlife, we began to appreciate more what an exhilarating walk it had been, technically easy but physically demanding in the energy-sapping heat of the Kimberley. Still, heading deep up the Picaninny Creek system made us really feel part of the landscape. The formula works - a few short walks to familiarise yourself with these superb ranges followed by a long walk to deepen the appreciation. Just don't forget the hat, sunscreen and water - lots of water!!!