Tunnel Creek — a wet underground exploration with crocodiles

I had no idea what to expect when I heard Micha was keen on visiting a place called Tunnel Creek on our trek along the Gibb River Road in Western Australia’s Kimberley Region. The name suggested a creek in a tunnel, but that only brought up gloomy memories of the dark, dank, smelly caves I had visited as a boy on school field trips in my home state of New York. Not really something I was looking forward to, especially when I heard there were crocodiles involved.

The hidden entrance to Tunnel Creek

When we arrived at Tunnel Creek National Park, about 35 km/22 mi from Windjana Gorge, I didn’t see anything that remotely looked like a creek; what I did see were the sheer cliff walls of the 400-million-year-old Napier Range. However, I knew that hidden somewhere around or beneath of all this rock was a river.

According to Bunuba elder and our Aboriginal guide Dillon Andrews from Bungoolee Tours, the reason we couldn’t see a river is that it is only really flowing during the wet season (November to April), and we were there during the dry season (the only possible time to visit the Kimberley, as the roads turn to mush when the rains come). Also, a good section of the river is in a cave (hence the name Tunnel Creek), the entrance of which is now blocked by a huge bolder that recently dropped from the cliffs above, leaving only a narrow gap to squeeze through.

Tunnel Creek entrance

The well hidden entrance to Tunnel Creek’s cave system

Getting smoked at the sacred site of Tunnel Creek

We normally like to explore on our own. However, the reason we decided to use an Aboriginal guide for Tunnel Creek is it has a high level of cultural and religious significance to the indigenous people of the area. Even today, they still bring young men to the cave as a spiritual rite of passage into manhood. As such, we wanted to get a full understanding of its importance for the Aboriginals of the area. Also, knowing there were crocodiles inside the cave, it gave us a peace of mind having someone with us who knows this place like the back of his hand.

In the world of Aboriginals, pretty much all unusual rock formations are holy. And there is always a story behind it, which they call Dreamtime or Dreaming Story. According to the legend of Tunnel Creek, a big snake went into the rock, lost orientation, pushed its head out of the mountain (in order to see where it was) and then continued . By doing that, it created a 750 m/2,460 ft long tunnel with a huge opening in the center.

According to Aboriginal cultural beliefs, you can’t just simply walk into sacred places like Tunnel Creek. You must be “smoked”. So, Dillon put us through this ancient custom (actually called a “smoking ceremony”). Essentially, you have to walk through the vapors of burning eucalyptus in order to be “cleansed” and to ward off any bad spirits. (It also clears your sinuses.)

Tunnel Creek Smoking Ceremony

What you need for a traditional smoking ceremony (I imagine they used a different kind of pot in the old days).

Inside the cool sanctum of Tunnel Creek

Having been smoked, the midday sun beating down mercilessly on us, we were ready to finally get into Tunnel Creek. We scrambled over some rocks, squeezed through the narrow gap and entered the cool and dark sanctuary. In this cathedral-like cave, a few scattered rays of sun danced across the still surface of a large pool. All we could hear — aside of the echo of our sloshing feet — was the far away sound of natural springs gurgling along sleepy, ancient rock walls.

After stopping for a while and taking it all in, we turned on our headlamps and headed into the darkness.

Tunnel Creek cave entrance

Looking back to the entrance cave before heading into the darkness

Luckily, the tunnel was bigger than we expected. It reaches a height of up to 12 m/39 ft and a width of up to 15 m/ 49 ft, so no need to fear claustrophobia.

We also weren’t only walking in water, as the trail also followed a sandy bank and scrambled over some rocks. Only a few times the water reached our thighs, although we heard that it can sometimes get as high as your chest if there were some recent rains.

Red eyes in the darkness of Tunnel Creek

While we waded through the tunnel, Dillon showed us some of the resident bats that also live in the cave. There are allegedly five species living here, although the numbers must be low, as there was no heavy bat guano smell (thank god).

Micha, however, had her own agenda. She knew there were supposed to be freshwater crocodiles (the little, harmless cousins of the potentially deadly saltwater crocodiles) at Tunnel Creek and was scanning the water with her flashlight looking for their tell-tale reflective eyes.

Suddenly she shouted the word “croc” and we all followed her flashlight’s beam. Sure enough, we could plainly see a red glowing eye that belonged to a freshie on the other side of the pool. We couldn’t tell how big it was (these masters of camouflage only show you their nose and eyes when in the water) and didn’t want to corner it (that’s how you get bitten; they won’t kill you but they have razor sharp teeth), so we kept our distance and marched on.

tunnel creek crocodile red eyes

A red glowing eye in the darkness of Tunnel Creek means crocodile ahead

A while ago, this would have probably freaked me out, especially in the dark. But after being eye to eye with an entire bask of crocodiles at Windjana Gorge, I was OK with sharing Tunnel Creek with one.

Once upon a time … when Tunnel Creek served as an Aboriginal outlaw’s hide-out

Halfway through our trek, Dillon invited us to rest and relax on a natural sandy beach near the huge hole in the roof of the cave that the legendary serpent created when looking outside to get its bearings right. Sunlight poured into the otherwise dark tunnel, illuminating the cave and providing a contrasted view outside of rich, green pandanus, fig and eucalyptus trees and clear blue sky.

Tunnel Creek cave opening

According to local legend, the cave opening halfway into Tunnel Creek was made by a serpent that lost orientation while digging its way through the Napier Range

Dillon started to tell us a story of the much-more-recent past, when a famous Aboriginal leader and “outlaw” named Jandamarra (also known as “Pigeon”) used Tunnel Creek as his hideout at the end of the 19th century.

Jandamarra was from the same Bunuba tribe as Dillon and worked with the police force as a tracker. One day, he captured some men from his tribe that had been spearing stock, and was forced by his tribe’s leader to decide whether he wants to kill his fellow lawman and let his tribesmen go, or be an outcast of the tribe for good. He chose to stay with his tribe and thus became a wanted man.

With nothing left to lose, he joined with some other men of his tribe and led the first armed war against the cattle ranchers who had invaded their tribal land. This made him “public enemy number one” and he was forced to hide. Apparently his pursuers did not know about the intricate cave system at Tunnel Creek, so it made a great, successful hideout for quite a while.

Dillon showed us the intricate web of side tunnels and caves tucked in the walls that Jandamarra used to evade the law. No surprise the police forces never found him (though another Aboriginal from a different tribe did and took him down).

After thrilling us with this outlaw story, Dillon enchanted us with a number of traditional songs that he accompanied with two sticks that served as his Aboriginal drum. These haunting melodies and rhythms combined magically and hauntingly with the gentle sparkle of the winter Kimberley sun gleaming through the nearby hole in the cave.

Light at the end of Tunnel Creek

We still had about half of the distance in front of us, and were eager to explore the second half of the tunnel. On the way there, we saw beautiful stalactites hanging from the cave’s ceilings and stalagmites growing from the bottom. Every now and then, when we listened closely, we could hear the springs and find the springs that fed the pools of water we were wading through.

Tunnel Creek stalactites stalagmites

When you look closely you might find some of the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites inside the cave of Tunnel Creek

Finally, we could see a mystical sparkle of bits of reflected light coming from the tunnel’s ends. Truth be told, we were actually never in the dark for long on this hike; however, it was good to see light again.

Tunnel Creek cave exit

Approaching the exit of Tunnel Creek

The green oasis that opened up in front of us was a sanctum of tranquility. Tunnel Creek’s water flowed slowly out of the tunnel and through a river bed covered in low eucalyptus trees, while a local monitor lizard relaxed in the sun.

Tunnel Creek river outside

Tunnel Creek slowly winds its way into the Australian savanna.

Look closely to find Aboriginal rock art at Tunnel Creek

As we waded back through the tunnel on our return journey, Dillon shinned his flashlight on the ceiling and walls of the cave, highlighting various examples of Aboriginal rock art that date back thousands of years.

Once outside again, Dillon showed us likely the most spectacular example of these historic depictions on a trail along the Napier Range near the parking lot. Here you can find the story of the snake that made Tunnel Creek, illustrated in an ancient pictogram.

Dillon also pointed out numerous bowl-like holes in the rock that his ancestors used to grind the ochre to make pigment for the paintings. We learned that this is a pretty good way to know if there is rock art nearby. And this actually helped as a few times later on the trip, as its easy to miss rock art, especially if it is very faded.

Tunnel Creek ochre grinding rock bowl

A bowl-like shaped part of a rock that was used to grind the ochre for the rock art

Tunnel Creek repaired some of the damage made by those boring and disgusting caves of my youth, especially as they have so much to offer in terms of history, wildlife and art. Hiking in the darkness with crocodiles was definitely a highlight of our Gibb River Road Trip through the Kimberley, and provided an interesting variation to the already spectacular gorges, waterfalls and swimming holes we found along the way.

Have you ever waded in an underground river? Tell us all about it in the comment section below!

Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.
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About Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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