Getting into the Bungle Bungle/Purnululu Range

By Gemma Black 2 December 2014
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Venture beyond the day-walk area of the Bungle Bungle Range to experience the splendour of Purnululu Gorge.

“WHICH WILL IT BE?” Steve, our lead guide, asked from the front of the group. “Left, or right?” Enjoying the extra spring in my step, having left my full pack – along with everyone else’s – back at camp, I was feeling bubbly and excited. Before us was a by-now familiar scene almost surreal in its beauty, like a technicolour film set.

Sky-scraping, rust-coloured walls contrasted against an emerald-green carpet of bush passionfruit vines and spinifex grass, punctured by pencil-straight livistona palms and tall, splayed eucalypts – all of which was frequently reflected in shaded, freshwater pools.

Sunshine illuminated the heights of the gorge walls forking to the left, so we all offered mock excuses to follow it. A triangular stone pointed that way; a coin-sized frog spotted in the sand seemed to jump in its direction. Someone made a joke about the psychic octopus of football World Cup fame, and we continued left, crunching light-heartedly through the gravel into the unknown.

Before long, one of the group found a small ochre rock with the words “Go get wet!” scratched into it by some anonymous past hiker. I quickened my pace with anticipation.

The 300m-high walls of Purnululu Gorge narrowed and seemed to swallow those ahead into darkness, leaving just their coos of awe and bursts of astonished laughter to bounce up and down the gorge behind them. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw the cave they were disappearing into, wading barefoot through water rippled with amber light.

I removed my boots and followed them into the frigid water. The ground had turned from gravel to soft sand, so we kept our boots off for a second waist-deep crossing below a rock impossibly wedged between the gorge walls at head height.

A short climb over boulders at the end took us to a point where the gorge converged to a shoulder-width water-filled canyon.

“It’s not like you can come back next week,” Steve reminded us as we scattered to change into our swimming costumes.

Preparing for Purnululu

A week earlier, nine strangers had sat around a long table next to the beer garden of the Kimberley Grande hotel in Kununurra. At the head of the table were our two guides, Kate Brown and Steve Trudgeon, making 11 in total.

Kate and Steve had arranged a neat assembly of goods before each of us: a stainless-steel plate and mug, three separate zip-lock bags containing trail mix, muesli bars and a roll of toilet paper, and another satchel of assorted food. Mine contained several bags of muesli and powdered yoghurt that, I admit, I thought, for one confused moment, would be my personal rations for the week.

To those coming and going from the beer garden, we must have looked oddly like the Mad Hatter’s tea party on an episode of Survivor. At our feet were more bits and pieces: a sheet of blue tarpaulin and a mosquito net, and sleeping mats and bags.

All of this was to be added to our pack for a week hiking the far reaches of Piccaninny Gorge, in the Bungle Bungle (Purnululu) Range of far-north Western Australia. As Kate and Steve briefed us on the trip, I tried not to think of the stuffed pack back in my hotel room, and resolved to reduce my supplies of T-shirts, socks and underwear accordingly.

The following morning, we took in the landscape of pale green savannah, carved to reveal vivid red earth as viewed through our tiny, scratched plane windows in quiet reverie.

We snapped photos that wouldn’t do the immensity of view justice and tried keenly to catch the pilot’s broken commentary over the engine noise. By taking this scenic flight over the Kimberley, we were avoiding an almost five-hour drive to the starting point of our hike.

None of us appreciated then how much the view would assume a whole new significance on our return trip a week later, having all shared such an extraordinary experience in its very depths – not to mention then sharing a plane filled with the musty communal body odour of a week in the wilderness.

Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park

The Bungle Bungles are a World Heritage listed range of sandstone rock formations within Purnululu National Park. Located adjacent to Mable Downs cattle station, the distinctive beehive domes were brought to popular attention with the filming of a documentary called Wonders of WA in 1983.

Purnululu was made a national park in 1987, and listed as a World Heritage site in just 2003. Today more than 20,000 tourists visit the unusual rock formations annually – the majority of those sticking to the day-walk area, where there are two campsites, a car park (four-wheel-drive-access only) and hand rails.

Of course, the area is popular for a reason – it features spectacular and unusual formations characteristic of the range, including Cathedral Gorge (catchphrase: “Better acoustics than the Sydney Opera House”) and the towering, narrow Echidna Chasm. But like almost anything else in life, those willing to put in the extra hard yards and explore beyond the beaten track are richly rewarded.

By about 9 o’clock that morning, I was more than ready to shoulder the 15kg weight of my pack, and looked forward to putting 12km between the busy day-walk area and our motley group of hikers, which ranged from this 24-year-old Sydney journalist to a 40-year-old public service employee from Canberra, and a 60-something wheat, barley and sheep farmer from Victoria.

The bed of Piccaninny Creek – and then Piccaninny Gorge, which the creek forged – makes up the track, and is eroded by the annual Wet to reveal in the Dry a network of deep gashes and gullies, or simply sand and gravel. In the heat of the day and with heavy boots and packs, the sand was often the most draining part of the track, and a switch to rock-hopping was welcomed with relief.

Our first physical and mental goal was the ‘elbow’, a notable bend in the geography of the creek which would, fittingly, take us to the fingers – divergent gorges that branch off the end of the creek like tributaries, and which we would spend the week exploring.

Steve was the only one of our group who had hiked this far into Purnululu before, when he led World Expeditions’ first Bungle Bungle trip the previous year with female bushwalking organisation Wild Women on Top. So he had a few surprises up his sleeve.

Deep into the Bungle Bungles

We’d only been hiking for a few hours on day one when he instructed us to drop our packs and follow him through a rocky side track. Following his lead, I was concentrating so closely on the destination of my boot with each step across the boulders that I heard the hush come over the group before I saw its source.

It’s difficult to judge the size of the waterhole Steve had led us to – as everything takes on a different scale in a place like this – but its immensity was enough to seat each of us at its edge in silent awe, muting our chatter as if on cue. Silence can sometimes be a rare and valuable commodity on group trips – one of the very few drawbacks of travelling in such a way – but faced with such constantly mesmerising natural grandeur is enough to induce quiet in a group often enough.

I crouched at the edge of the waterhole and scooped its sweet, fresh water onto my face, then sat back and let the silence overtake my senses like an opiate.

The week was filled with moments like these – almost impossible to describe or even evoke when faced once again with comparably bleak city life. The juicy, tart flavour of a bush passionfruit plucked from a vine at the trackside; the sweet, earthy smell of spinifex crushed beneath boots and the lingering sting that the spiky grass imparts at the end of the day – which was almost comforting in its familiarity as I drifted off to sleep each night, exhausted.

On our last night, however, I didn’t sleep very well. Despite by then being well accustomed to sleeping on a mat under the stars (the mosquito nets weren’t needed in the end), having spent our final evening outside the insulating gorge we experienced the full brunt of the outback’s temperature range: from the mid-30s during the day, to below 5˚C overnight.

What it meant, though, was that I was awake to see the sun rise behind a skyline of black and orange striped sandstone domes, painting the starry sky – and the nearby waterhole by reflection – with a wash of pale pink. Like an encore, it was Purnululu’s last chance to show off its colours.