After seeing the Bungle Bungles Range in Purnululu National Park, Rough Guides writer Helen Ochyra had to return to explore this awe-inspiring rock formation on foot.
Nothing is as good when seen through a window. A city view from the top of a sealed building, a passing landscape from a moving car, even a World Heritage site seen from the open door of a helicopter.
The last time I visited the Bungle Bungles, part of Purnululu National Park, time was short. My husband and I stayed in Kununurra, some 300km from the park, and boarded a helicopter flight over the Bungle Bungles massif. We were only up there an hour. We saw the thousands of beehive-like orange and black banded domes stretching away across the Outback, casting deep shadows into the gorges between them – gorges that I could see people in. It was one of those views that stays with you. A view for which for no superlative would ever fit, a view that had me itching for more. Specifically, it had me itching to be one of those people in those gorges below.
Eight years later and we are back in Kununurra. But this time we are not boarding a helicopter. This time we pick up a 4WD and head out into the landscape – down the highway and off onto the dirt road into the national park. It is 65km of corrugated, winding red dust, passing through creeks and across cattle stations. But it is no more than our Mitsubishi Pajero can handle and we start to wonder why we were so reticent to do this before.
Just a few hours after leaving Kununurra we pull in to the Kimberley Wild Expeditions campsite. We have timed our journey to make it in time for sunset and after dumping the bags inside our tent we head straight back out to the Kungkalanayi lookout. Here we stand atop a ridge with just a handful of other dust-covered travellers and watch the sun slowly sink behind the Bungle Bungles massif. The sandstone lights up, turning first from orange to brick and then to a flaming red. We stand in awe until every last furrow fades into shadow and are silent for several minutes. It is stunning – but it is still too far away.
The next morning I am desperate to get out among those domes so we head for Echidna Chasm, where a two-kilometre trail leads along a creek bed and into the gorge. It is already heating up but we are out of the sun within minutes, passing under bloodwoods, snappy gums and palm trees and then into the narrow chasm. At first it is fairly wide but soon we can reach both walls with arms outstretched. There are ladders to ease our route up over the rocks, many of which are boulders that have fallen in from above, and the gap between the walls gets ever narrower as we push on deeper into the chasm.
We are now 180 metres below the surface, with ever-more-precarious boulders lodged above our heads. I wonder at the power of the water that has carved this spectacular landscape over some 360 million years of erosion. On a dry June day it is hard to imagine enough water to leave even a puddle but during the wet season (roughly December to March) the creeks here turn into torrents, altering the landscape once more and keeping us humans away.
But today there isn’t a cloud in the sky and at the end of the gorge we reach an open area into which the sun is pouring. Late morning is the time to be here, when the sun turns the dark red walls a brilliant orange.
After waiting out the midday sun, we head to the south of the park, where a trio of walks promises to finally get me among those domes. We park at Piccaninny and strike off along another dry creek bed, this one full of soft white sand and dotted with small pools of water left over from the wet season’s rains. We pick our way through the spinifex and after about 20 minutes reach Cathedral Gorge where the creek has combined with a waterfall to carve out a large amphitheatre in the rock. It is jaw-dropping and we spend a long time just exploring it, skimming stones into the placid lake at its centre and photographing the walls with their honeycomb-like holes.
But still I itch to feel dwarfed by those domes and so we head out and onto the looped “Domes” trail which runs 700 metres through an area densely packed with them. We round the first corner and I am instantly silent, my camera hanging uselessly around my neck. I have never seen anything like it – a totally unique landscape of cone-shaped mounds striped orange and black surrounds me. The domes are orange where the oxidized iron compound has dried out and black where moisture has accumulated, causing cyanobacteria to grow. But – if I am honest – the science doesn’t interest me much. It is the domes’ rugged beauty that has me floored. Not to mention their size, dwarfing me, making me feel insignificant.
We stand there for ages, taking it in. I can feel the heat of the sun. I can smell the fragrance of the wildflowers. And I can hear the chirp of the finches. No, nothing is as good when seen through a window. There is simply no substitute for being there.