This is the fourth entry covering my ten-day outback adventure around Western Australia’s Gibb River Road and the remote Kimberley region. Catch up with the first three installments of the greatest road trip you’ve never heard of here, here and here!
DAYS 7 & 8: PURNULULU NATIONAL PARK
Have you ever been underwhelmed by a place in the moment, only to find yourself later thinking back to it again and again?
That was the Bungle Bungles for me.
I was not, at first sight, blown away by the Bungle Bungles. Maybe it was because I had been so completely dazzled by Emma Gorge the day before, the perfect grand finale to six days of exploring one staggering gorge after another on the Gibb River Road. Maybe it was because that day was my hottest yet in Australia, my fatigue worsened by a headache, or because for all that I’d heard about these famous beehive-shaped ranges, the Bungle Bungles simply didn’t look like what I’d imagined.
It’s not that I was disappointed; I just wasn’t awestruck.
Whatever the reason, I have hard time believing it when I look back through these photos. Since the end of our big Kimberley road trip three months ago, the Bungle Bungles have been one of the places my mind wanders back to most. Our day exploring Purnululu National Park resonated with me in a big way, and I didn’t even see it coming.
Like everything else in the Kimberley, the Bungles are remote and four-wheel drive is essential. After enjoying 200 kilometers of smooth cruising down the Great Northern Highway, we settled in for a bumpy ride along the last 50 kilometers of heavily corrugated unsealed road into the park. This was even rougher than the Gibb, which meant twice the fun for me and Woody (and twice the anxiety for Jadine). The drive was gorgeous as usual, the landscape that afternoon almost luminescent in the afterglow of a soft rain.
Today the Bungle Bungles are listed as a World Heritage site, but until about 35 years ago, most of the world didn’t know they existed. At 350 million years old, the Bungles have been looked after by their Aboriginal caretakers, the Djaru and Kija, for tens of thousands of years. Outside of these local Aboriginal groups, only a handful of ranchers knew about the ranges. It was in 1982 that a film crew making a documentary about the Kimberley region finally brought footage of the area to the outside world. Named Purnululu National Park in 1987, the region was awarded a World Heritage listing in 2003.
The Bungle Bungles are famed for their distinct shape — the result of tens of millions of years of erosion — and for their iconic charcoal and orange bands. The charcoal bands actually result from the presence of cyanobacteria that form a protective shell over the soft, fragile sandstone encased inside. The orange stripes, on the other hand, are composed of less clay and can’t support the growth of cyanobacteria. Instead, the iron in this exposed sandstone oxididizes to produce a vibrant shade of orange that seems to change throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. It is for these exceptional and unrivaled sandstone karst formations that the park earned its World Heritage listing.
We arrived at the park so early that morning that only one other car was parked in the southern parking lot. Until we ran into a noisy just-arrived tour group on our way out (a meeting that made us all the more grateful for our early start!), we didn’t see a single other person. I felt lucky to be able to experience the beauty of these ancient karsts in such solitude.
I also felt a nagging sense of guilt.
Part of me couldn’t help but wish that the Bungles had remained undiscovered by the outside world. I kept thinking that for all of the lands and traditional homes that Aboriginal peoples lost to the colonization of the country, couldn’t there be a few secrets? Couldn’t some of these places simply remain treasured and protected by their traditional caretakers? Isn’t there a kind of magic in a place like this staying unknown? Even though today Purnululu (which means “sandstone”) is jointly managed by both the Western Australian government and traditional representatives of the Djaru and Kija peoples, I just couldn’t shake the idea that the glory of the Bungle Bungles simply wasn’t meant to be mine.
Regardless of my bittersweet feelings on Purnululu’s being open to the world, I enjoyed every minute we spent exploring the Bungle Bungles. The range — Purnululu’s biggest draw — occupies the southern part of the national park, which is also home to Cathedral Gorge (pictured in the three photos above) and the Window (our walk to which is pictured below). Cathedral Gorge is a stunning natural ampitheater, and we badly wished that one of us had a good enough voice to do the setting justice. The walk to the Window was actually my favorite part of this portion of the park, although the Window itself is really just a hole in a face of rock — evidence of some very impressive erosion, yes, but not nearly so remarkable as everything else here.
While we didn’t have the time, the Piccaninny Gorge walk is also in this region of the park. Walking to the gorge entrance and back takes a full day, while exploring the gorge system itself requires camping overnight. If you’re the outdoorsey type, definitely check it out! Just know that you’ll have to register with the park’s visitor center and be well-prepared with lots of water and warm clothes for nighttime if you choose to do the hike. I know that if I ever make it back to the Bungle Bungles, this will be the first thing I do!
The northern part of Purnululu National Park feels completely different than the semi-arid grasslands of the Bungles half. Here, the Ord River yields better soil. Tall Livistona fan palms fringe the rock formations, the most spectacular of which is Echidna Chasm. This spectacularly narrow gorge was formed along a joint in the sandstone rock and weathered down by water. The walls tower 200 meters high, and the shafts of sunlight that bounce against the rock create a spectrum of every shade of red. We all agreed that of everything we saw in Purnululu that day, Echidna was our favorite. Walking through that glowing canyon was nothing short of otherworldly.
Our last stop in Purnululu National Park was Mini Palms Gorge. The walk there was hot and red and even lush, one last example in a week’s worth of varied landscapes that shattered everything I’d ever imagined the outback to be before I arrived in Australia.
That afternoon we drove to Fitzroy Crossing. The air was heavy with eucalyptus, the campgrounds populated by wallabies. After setting up camp, we treated ourselves to a round of beers in the local pub. It was a perfect last day in the outback. The next morning, we hit the road bound for the Indian Ocean.