I thought I had seen the best of the Kimberley when I drove the Gibb River Road, but once I set foot in the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park, I learned better.
The previous 2-weeks we’d been on an off-road trip with a 4-wheel drive and camper along the Gibb River Road that brought us through the very heart of Western Australia’s Kimberley Region. It turned out to be one of the most incredible journeys of my life. This huge and remote outback region is rife with gorges, waterfalls, waterholes, crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, euros, and a subterranean river.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end; after about 660 km/410 mi (which turned into about 2,200 km/1,400 mi with all our side trips) we hit civilization again in Kununurra and were facing a 1,000 km/620 mi boring drive back on the main highway to our starting point in Broome.
Luckily, Micha had planned one more highlight, The Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park, that took us off the highway and back on the crazy corrugated dirt roads that make up most of this region. Fondly known as Bungle Bungles or simply Bungles, this iconic range makes up most of this park and is at the end of a slow, hilly, winding 4-wheel drive track that’s roughly 50 km/30 mi from paved Highway Number One.
Oddly, Purnululu National Park was for the most part undiscovered until 1982 when a film crew produced a documentary and put this wondrous site on the tourist map. Five years later it was declared a national park, and in 2003 it became a UNESCO world heritage area.
The area is quite large, and not all of it is accessible to tourist. That’s because the region holds high significance to the Aboriginal people. Today, only two regions, one in the south and one in the north, are open for exploration.
Walks in Southern Purnululu National Park
To reach the Southern part of the Bungle Bungles, we had to drive 27 km/17 mi from the fork at the Park’s entrance and visitor center. The road was better than what we had encountered coming in from the highway, but still required slow driving and a proper vehicle.
The first place we visited in the Southern part were the Domes. The Domes are THE iconic sight that most people come to Purnululu National Park to see, even though these beehive-shaped peaks are scattered over only a couple of square kilometers in the south of the Bungle Bungle Range. It’s their odd shape, but also their color that makes them so unique.
They look orange and gray banded because of two different materials: clay and sandstone (by the way: Purnululu, the Aboriginal and official name of the Park, means sandstone). The former holds moisture, which allows cyanobacteria to grow on it, turning it black. The latter has iron ore in it, which rusts and turns the rock orange.
The loop walk took a circuitous route through these mythical giants and led us to the entrance of the southern part of Purnululu National Park.
Cathedral Gorge, our next stop, was a magical, shady, natural amphitheater with small lake inside. During the wet season, waterfalls cascade from the top of the gorge high above, but we were there early in the dry season, so the pool was stagnant and not inviting for a dip. Along the back of the arena were some small rock ledges that make perfect natural benches for sitting, musing and enjoying the amazing acoustics off of the surrounding rock walls.
Piccaninny Creek Lookout and Whip Snake Gorge
Many of the tourists we encountered stopped their tour of Southern Purnululu National Park at Cathedral Gorge. We had some time and energy left, and enough water with us to beat the glaring sun and heat, so we soldiered on deeper into the Bungle Bungles.
The trail took us along the vast, wide and dry Piccaninny Creek bed. Both sides of the river bed were framed with domes as far as you could see, standing high against intense blue sky. Here and there we passed pools of water left behind from the last rainy season. Some of these pools had hundreds of tiny fish; one could only wonder what happened to them when the pools finally dried up.
A quick side trip brought us to Piccaninny Creek Lookout, which was one of the most amazing views we had of the Domes.
Farther along, we came to the trail to Whip Snake Gorge. As we entered the gorge, its tall walls provided a welcome break from the blazing sun.
We could see the black trails left behind by waterfalls that had cascaded down the rock wall only a few months ago; like with the dome’s stripes, the black marks are where cyanobacteria grows on the damp rock.
We would have loved to swim, but the small pool in the gorge was stagnant, like most of the water we encountered here. Still, the views and hike were so remarkable, we had no complaints.
Piccaninny Gorge was the only regret we had in Purnululu National Park. The regret being we did not have time to hike it all. It’s a 7 km / 4 mi day hike to the entrance to the gorge and a 30 km/19 mi long, 2-7 day trek if you want to explore the intricate trail system that leads deep into the gorge.
All reports say it’s an amazing adventure. Just make sure you bring everything you need for the trip, as you might not see another soul. Also, be sure to register at the Purnululu National Park Visitor Center and bring warm clothing; it gets cold at night here.
If you have an entire day at your disposal, I recommend hiking to a place called Black Rock Pool, at the beginning of Piccaninny Gorge. This ice cold, big and deep waterhole is said to be the only place in the entire park with water clear enough to swim in.
Walks in Northern Purnululu National Park
The Northern part of Purnululu Park is quite far (45 km/28 mi from the southern parking lot and 19 km/12 mi from the visitor center), so we devoted an entire day to exploring that section as well. There are no domes here, which might turn some tourists away, but the scenery is no less spectacular and well worth the extra trip.
Our first stop in the Northern part of the Bungle Bungles was Echidna Chasm. It was an easy and rather short hike that took us though a small forest of Livistona Palms that is protected from the harsh hot sun by the steep walls of the gorge on both sides.
The deeper we entered the gorge, the narrower the trail got. Eventually, it opened up into a natural amphitheater with a small bench where we could relax in the shade and look up at the blue sky streaking across the top of the canyon.
The trail continued deeper into the chasm, getting increasingly narrower until the gorge walls were so close we could touch them on both sides at the same time. Along the way, we often had to clamor over some boulders (with and without with the help of fixed ladders).
Looking up, I saw a huge round rock hanging just above me pinned between the walls of the chasm. Apparently it had been there for some time and hopefully was not about to come tumbling down.
The trail eventually took us to a dead-end. Huge vertical red rock walls rose around us 200 m/600 ft high. On top, Livistona Palms waved at us in the sunlight.
Given how tall and narrow Echidna Chasm is, light does not penetrate into the bottom of the crack except at midday. So, if you want to get some mystical photos, you’ll want to be there at high noon. I’ve heard that the sun does magical things with the red rock here. We were there in the afternoon and missed this spectacle, but the gorge still provided a welcome, cool refuge from the glaring Kimberley sun.
Mini Palms Gorge
Our next hike into Mini Palms Gorge was both fantastic and a bit disappointing. The trail took us along a dry riverbed into a narrow gorge filled with Livistona Palms, eucalypt trees and other vegetation. As we continued, the track narrowed and the walls closed in on us, which meant we had to do a bit of clambering and squeezing. Eventually we reached a viewing platform that overlooked the famed Mini Palms Gorge. Only the palms were all gone. In fact, everything was gone except for rocks and gravel.
Apparently, it used to be filled with a magical variety of mini Livistona Palms, eucalypt trees and other lush vegetation feeding off of the precious water that is stored underground during the dry season.
However, a few years back, one of the Kimberly’s classic cyclone flash floods literally washed every leaf and stick of vegetation away; today there’s nothing left.
The valley is surrounded by cliffs towering 150 m/500 ft above our heads; at the end is a cave, however the signs clearly tell you not to explore. I assume those signs were from the days when there was vegetation here. Now it’s nothing but rocks and sand, so I’m not sure why they still have restrictions. However, important to note, many areas of this park are off limits because they are Aboriginal holy sites (this particular one is a fertility cave.
If you’re not up for scrambling over rocks, I recommend a hike along a dry riverbed that leads to Homestead Valley. Just south of Mini Palms Gorge, this is the newest hike in Purnululu National Park. It’s relatively easy (though don’t underestimate the loose gravel of a dry river bed) and offers impressive vistas from start to finish. I’ve heard that it is most impressive in early season when the yellow acacias are in full bloom.
We ended our 2-day tour of the Bungle Bungles at one of the three lookouts in this northern part of Purnululu National Park. Here we relaxed, put our feet up and enjoyed an amazing sunset on the escarpment and with its ruby red rock and lush greenery. You don’t have to wait until late in the day; in the afternoon the range is already ablaze in a rusty, blood-like orange-red color.
If you do the Gibb River Road loop, make sure you add this little detour to your itinerary. And if you don’t have enough time to enjoy the gorgeous gorges along the Gibb, Purnululu National Park should be on your list for a side trip off of Highway Number One. Just keep in mind that the Bungle Bungles are a no-go during the wet season (November to April) when torrential rains hammer this region, flooding vast areas, swelling rivers and turning dirt roads to mush. In fact, the entire Kimberley outback is pretty much shut down in the wet season, but hey, if it weren’t for the rains, we wouldn’t have all this cool scenery, sculptured rocks and awesome oases!
Have you visited Purnululu National Park and hiked through the Bungle Bungles? What was your favorite part of the area?
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