So close and yet so far away…
While the Bungle Bungle Range is only a mere 53-kilometres from the Great Northern Highway, surprisingly only the aboriginals and a few station owners knew of its existence up until quite recently.
Purnululu, meaning ‘sandstone’, has long been inhabited by local Kitja people.
The area around Purnululu was first settled by Patrick (Patsy) Durack in 1882 and today Mabel Downs station adjoins the park.
Having remained hidden and inaccessible right up to when it was exposed by local pilots in the 1980’s it was the last frontier in Australia to be revealed!
And now the whole world knows about it…
There’s the easy way and a hard way to access this park. You can take one of the many tours, fly over it… or you can drive from the main highway over 53-kilometres of incredibly rough and difficult road. We opted for the latter!
The road into this national park is almost directly opposite the Spring Creek Rest Area so having aired down our tyres the night before and packed up for an early start we headed toward the fabled Bungle Bungles, an often-photographed city of giant beehive rock formations that lie at the end of a dirt road.
This is a dirt road with a reputation that changes with every traveller’s telling of their story but we knew from a previous excursion this track is slow and hard on vehicles and could take at least a couple of hours – 53-kilometres of twists, turns, corrugations, rocks and water crossings to the waypoint on our Navman that marked Purnululu National Park Visitor Information Centre.
It is often referred to as the worst road in Australia… and it certainly lived up to its reputation – dusty, rocky, narrow, corrugated, hilly, lots of blind crests and bends, lots of cattle, bulldust, a couple of creek crossings just for good measure, and corrugations that were so deep and wide they rattled our bones… but like many of these remote and stunning sights of outback Oz, the reward at the end is not without some effort and perseverance to conquer.
The track travels through Mabel Downs Station and spectacular rugged mountain ranges typical of the Kimberley country so there was really no reason not to take our time – rolling hills and rugged ranges painted an array of ochre tones, splashed with spinifex and twisted ghost gums in this beautiful distinctly and iconic Australian scenery… and all before you even got to the best part.
History has it that ‘Mabel Downs’ was named after a young girl who began her life at Normanton and spent most of her early years on the road with her family carrying goods between the inland stations and towns of the Queensland gulf country.
She became so competent in handling horses, cattle, dogs, and other animals, that these tasks soon became second nature to her.
In 1895, her father, Joseph Bridge, decided to move to the Kimberley in north-west Western Australia – a very primitive and dangerous area where the pastoral industry was just being opened up.
Whilst on their journey their stockmen deserted them, and with her father away mustering horses, young Mabel, without hesitation, took over the reins and the responsibility of defending her mother, younger brother and sister and drove a covered wagon and four horses through country fraught with danger. Their epic journey covered over 1,300 miles and lasted more than a year. At the tender age of ten she knew no life other than the tough outback.
Later, when Joseph bought land in the Kimberley near Turkey Creek, he named the station Mabel Downs after his brave daughter and this name still lives on today.
As you travel through Mabel Downs Station spare a thought for one of our ‘legends of the north’. Mabel Cole was known to most people in the north and was affectionately known to a great many people as ‘Mum Cole. She lived a long and eventful life, most of it in the remote rugged outback, in conditions of extreme hardship and became one of the ‘Jewels of the Kimberley’!
Today, Mabel Downs, along with Springvale Station, Texas Downs and Alice Downs (all in the East Kimberley), is run by Yeeda Pastoral Company – and if your looking for somewhere other than the free camp at Spring Creek or the National Park to base yourself, pull into the caravan park at Mabel Downs Station. The Bungle Bungle Caravan Park is located close to the entrance of the park and offers safari tents and a campground. (See more about accommodation, tour and park camping options at the end of the blog)
Our first stop was the Visitor Information Centre to secure our passes and campsite then we were off 7-kilometres down the road to set up camp… the rough track in – now almost forgotten.
There are two campgrounds within the park – Kurrajong, which is north of the visitor centre in the direction of the Echidna Chasm, Mini Palms and Homestead Valley trails, and Walardi, which is located 12- kilometres south of the centre and closer to Cathedral and Piccaninny Gorges and the magnificent Domes.
Kurrajong was to be our base for the next two nights. It’s a lovely shaded campground with numerous bore water taps, long drop toilets scattered about and plenty of large sites far enough from each other to allow for privacy.
With the day still young when we arrived, we decided on an early lunch then hopping into Harry Hilux we headed to the furthest point of the northern section of the park.
To fully experience a place like this you really need to hit the tracks on foot so pulling on our walking boots and throwing our water packs and cameras over our shoulders we set off before the heat of the day!
We were told the Echidna Chasm walk is best undertaken between 10:30 to 11:00am and we had timed our walk just perfectly so we only had to wait a short time until the sun was directly overhead.
This is the time when the light penetrates the orange sandstone cliffs that tower 200-metres on either side of the chasm and creates a deep amber glow directly above the gap and throughout the twisting confines!
From the carpark we followed a path along a dry creek bed of pebbles and large river stones passing the path to Bloodwood Lookout (obviously named after the Bloodwoods that are a feature of the landscape) along the way.
The trail continued along an easy path that wound through rock formations and spinifex flats dotted with Bloodwood and Snappy Gums.
At the entrance beautiful Livistona Palms and dry rainforest flourished, providing a stark contrast to the towering orange cliffs and the surrounding dry plains.
Winding our way into the depths of the chasm we skirted huge boulders of amalgamated rock, squeezed between narrow rock splits less than a metre wide and passed under rocks the size of small cars wedged between rocks.
At times the reflected light had us gasping at the colours painted on this beautiful geological canvas… but nothing prepared for what we witnessed in the chasm itself where magnificent colours created a magical scene as the sun beams penetrated the gaps.
Back out in the light of day, the Mini-Palms Gorge walk was a bit longer at 4.4 kilometres. This walk again leads through a narrow chasm this time dotted with Livistona Palms, hence its name!
It was also a little more challenging and had us scrambling along the rocks of an exposed dry creek bed, negotiating a couple of steep slopes and squeezing our way through a narrow chasm to the final destination – two viewing platforms, which provided a stunning sight over vertical rock walls and a natural amphitheater of ferns.
Our last walk for the day was Homestead Valley along what we first thought to be an easy well marked track… and it was easy until we got to the dreaded creek walk where more slippery river rocks made for a hard slog along a very long dry creek bed. Eventually we found a dirt track that climbed up into the valley ending near where the original site of an old homestead once stood.
We could find no trace of the homestead that was believed to have once existed in this valley but the scenery was breathtaking offering some beautiful views of the rounded red rocks of the escarpment where Livistona palms clung precariously in the tiny gaps. I should imagine Purnululu National Park would be an absolute joy in the wet season when all the rivers run, the escarpments become waterfalls and the rockpools overflow!
With many kilometres completed over the day in the blazing sunshine and heat of the Kimberley we returned to camp late in the afternoon… just in time for a refreshing shower under the open, outback sky and a cuppa before heading out once again!
The short drive from the campground to Kungkalanay Lookout is certainly the place to go for a 360-degree panoramic view of the spinifex-covered ridges…
… and an ideal spot to sip a glass of red as the glows of deep rose red, purples then pinks light up the escarpments as the sun sets in the distant sky!
Slowly as the small crowd of fellow travellers dispersed, we were left to admire the night sky in all its glory with our backpacker friends, Guilia and Markus.
We had met this couple back at Spring Creek Rest Area when they asked our advice on driving the rough track. Both were travelling from the east coast of Australia to Broome where they intended on going their seperate ways in search of work.
A simple hello and before we knew it, we were camped next to each and enjoying the sights of Purnululu together.
That night as we settled in for our first night in this ancient country, dingoes could be heard howling in the distance. In that moment, I felt so tiny but there was something comforting in the fact I felt nothing but calmness in this remote Kimberley land.
Day two saw us head into the southern section of the park, home of the beehive like domes that Purnululu is known for.
The Bungle Bungle range is made up of the iconic shapes and colours you may have seen in the advertising brochures that look like a city of giant black and red beehives!
The towers are made up of sandstone with rocks that began to take form more than 350 million years ago, eventually evolving into the spectacular domes we see today.
These amazing sandstone towers coated in bands of iron oxide (orange bands) and the grey-black bands of cyanobacteria are really quite fragile with outer coatings that are very thin and once removed by erosion or human intervention the inner sandstone structure crumbles very quickly… hence the Elephant Rock structures!
The road into the southern sights offers spectacular vistas of the Bungle Bungle Range and there are many stops for photos along the way, including Elephant Rock… and we were lucky to see the colourful beauty as the morning sun shone on the incredible rock formations.
All the walks in the southern section start at Piccaninny Creek car park and our first walk on the map was the longest trail of the park – the 10-kilometre return trail to Whip Snake Gorge via Piccaninny Creek.
We had no sooner pulled into the carpark and our backpacker friends pulled in beside us!
One of the things I love about travelling is the ease of making new friends on the road… and as we tend to be very open-minded and welcoming to almost anyone friendly enough to interact with us it wasn’t long before we became unofficial parents to Guilia and Markus!
With backpacks and cameras slung over our shoulder and drink bottles in hand we headed off with our first stop just over 2-kilometre down the track.
Cathedral Gorge is a naturally formed Amphitheatre that featured in the Qantas ad with the choir singing ‘I am Australian’.
This unique geological rock formation has amazing acoustics, carrying sounds throughout the gorge… and made for an ideal spot to escape the sun and admire the overhanging rock walls and the almost dry dark water pool in the middle.
A bit further on ‘The Window’, a natural hole that has been eroded through one of the domes and frames some of the most beautiful views of the Bungle Bungle Range was certainly worthy of a photo or two… as were a few portrait photos – that is after we managed the rather dubious rock climb to the opening!
This viewing point is approximately 20 minutes from the Piccaninny Creek Lookout so continuing from here we followed the path up Picaninny Creek along a beautifully sculptured creek bed… however, the walking surface wasn’t always firm and lots of sandy sections and river rocks slowed us down somewhat. Once arriving at the lookout we were privy to impressive overall views…
… more so for Markus who decided to climb a cliff face on the opposite side!
Back out on the main track we were privy to beautiful views and an expanse of the beehive domes that rose steeply from the dry riverbed and surrounding plains. This walk is one of the best treks in the Bungle Bungles and probably the most difficult and adventurous walk.
It was very open and sunny as our trek continued along the creek, sometimes stepping from rock slab to rock slab and sometimes working our way through deep, loose gravel.
The further we went the fewer the slabs and more gravel marked our path as it wound its way through more beautiful, jaw-droppingly scenery of domes, cliffs, chasms and rock pools.
Finally after following a signposted trail that led away from the creek bed we came to a small shady gorge filled with ferns, figs, brittle gums and a small rockpool – at the end Whipsnake Gorge.
To continue from here the track follows the creek on the Piccaninny Gorge Walk but if you’re going that far you need to register with the visitor centre and have the right gear for overnight camping.
Finally, on our way back to the carpark we looped in and out and around the Domes along a trail that meandered its way through the red and black striped ancient formations, all the time enjoying the lovely cool space and seeing Mother Nature at her best!
This walk is connected to the Cathedral Gorge Walk and is just a detour or a couple of sidetracks with more beehives, creek beds, gaps and crevices!
When we finally made it back to the car, we were thankful that we had left early enough to have this wonderful sight of domes, rock pools, cliffs, and chasms to ourselves as the carpark was now filling with cars and tour buses.
Heading back to camp we bid our backpacker friends goodbye at the crossroads then continued on to our camp where we finished the day washing a few clothes, reading, snoozing and capturing the moment with a glass of red as the sun set.
As the starry night appeared in outback sky, we enjoyed our last night in this rugged, wild, untouched corner of the world.
After two amazing days we bungled our way back over the rough road we had come in on, then as we bid Purnululu National Park good-bye we made tracks for Halls Creek, our final stop before tackling the famous Tanami Track.
Purnululu National Park really is a beautiful part of the world and a place you really must see for yourself to appreciate. It’s sacred, special and beautiful… and the perfect destination for those looking to get off the beaten track in Australia.
WHAT FACILITIES ARE AVAILABLE IN AND AROUND THE PARK?
For those who can’t handle the stress of the long drive in…
4WD tours leave from Kununurra, Halls Creek and the Bungle Bungle Caravan Park and some offer safari camp stays within the park, giving you the chance to see just that little bit more.
… or camping out !
Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge offers accommodation in the form of safari tent cabins and an onsite licensed restaurant.
And if you really can’t face the bone jarring corrugations –
There are 4 companies that offer scenic flights over Purnululu National Park, which is the ultimate way to see the beehive domes if you can’t face the road in at all!
Park Camping –
As mentioned earlier, there are 2 different national parks campsites within Purnululu – Kurrajong and Walardi and bookings must be done online
Both have toilets, bore water and spacious campsites but there are no rubbish facilities, so all trash must be taken out with you.
When you first arrive at the Visitor Centre you will also need to pay an entrance fee – that is if you haven’t already purchased a WA Parks Pass which allows you to visit 11 national parks in WA.
DON’T FORGET TO BRING THE IMPORTANT THINGS…
If your anything like me, you will be pretty much snapping non-stop on your Aussie adventure so you will need a good camera to capture those gorgeous memories…
… and as always, I can’t stress enough the need for good walking shoes. They are a must – you will be doing a lot of walking on your travels.
A good Sun Hat to protect you from that scorching Aussie heat is also an essential…
… and last but not least – travelling anywhere in this scorching Aussie heat can certainly be thirsty work, so make sure you have a good water bottle – we use a hydration back pack each, it’s easier to carry, and easy to take a sip when you most need one!
Enjoy your trip!