A Bungle in the Kimberley

by Tim Dawe

_igp8140“It’s not the Bungle Bungles,” snipped Steven, his vowels marking him as another Kiwi supporting the tourist industry here in the East Kimberley region of WA. It’s the Bungle Bungle Range, or just the Bungles.” Good luck changing that!

No one knows how this extraordinary domed rock formation got its name; possibly bundle-bundle, a Kimberley grass. Well known by Aboriginal people for millennia, it took a chance remark to a visiting TV crew in 1983 to introduce Australians, and the world, to these orange and black-banded beehives of rock, now a much publicised icon of Western Australia. In rapid succession the range was incorporated within Purnululu National Park (sandstone in Kija language) in 1987, then a Word Heritage Site in 2003.

Purnululu is a tourist magnet; a “must-see” for visitors to the East Kimberley. Some intrepid 4WD drivers pull off the North West Highway past Halls Creek through Mabel Downs station. Many others take in the sights from a round-trip flyover from Kununurra 300km north. We opt for the added experience of an overnight stay at a (luxury) bush camp. Excitement climbs as the ten-seat Cessna flies over grassy Lissadell and rocky Texas Downs cattle stations. The first sight of the Bungles is astonishing. A commentated flight is well worth it. But as with most sightseeing, it’s best up close and personal. I’m here for two days of exploring.

After ninety minutes of low-altitude flying filled with frantic photographing we’re on the ground at the tiny airstrip of Bellburn, south of the range. Tour guide Bruce is on hand to welcome us aboard his huge 4WD bus. An unexpected itinerary change sees us rush along the western escarpment to the range’s northern tip for two gorge walks “before the light fades” – leaving a slow start for tomorrow’s adventures. Mini Palms Gorge is an easy-to-hard 5km return walk with parts of its soaring sides glowing orangey-red in slanting sunlight. Large Livistona Palms shrink; it’s the lack of light causing these palms to be mini. Incredibly, palms trees survive sticking to the sheer rock face, splaying a network of roots looking for sustenance. The walk ends at steps to a high platform with backward views of our trek and no-go space beyond the barrier. “It’s not really sacred”, Bruce grumbles.

A little farther north is shorter Echidna Chasm. We enter rock-hopping, hands and feet, as the chasm lives up to its name narrowing to squeeze-through gaps separating perpendicular sides soaring 200m – with large boulders wedged overhead. It’s dark and claustrophobic yet rewarding with some open areas, cul de sacs, grand sweeps and gobs of conglomerate rock. There’s only one way out and we take it; inside dusk turns into outside day, that’s turning into dusk.

Our bus tracks the 30km-long western escarpment, racing the sunset. I marvel at nature’s colour palette from gold, orangey-red to mauve. It’s dark as the bus bumps into the bush camp alongside the wide Bellburn creek bed. I join other guests on the decking awaiting the dinner gong. Someone pokes the fire in the large metal pot; instantly flickering sparks join a host of stars. The guffaws of tipsy travellers fade as my thoughts turn to the little-known war waged near here; it’s the story of Aboriginal man, Jandamurra. Known as “Pigeon” to his masters, he was a skilled horseman, marksman and much-valued police tracker. His good mate, unusually, was an Englishman, named Richardson. “Outstanding” Pigeon was forced by his tribe to choose between the settlers and the Banuba culture. In killing Richardson he spectacularly sealed his fate, immediately becoming a legendary resistance fighter for his people. For three years as a “magical immortal” he led an armed guerilla insurgency against settlers and their police. Cruelly betrayed, he was shot dead in 1897, his head cut off as a trophy for a disbelieving and outraged colony. He was 23.

This crab-shaped range is a deeply dissected massif from the Devonian Period, 360 million years in the making through geological uplifts, the odd meteor and water erosion. And on everyone’s lips: how are these odd striped shapes formed? First, sand blown from the interior formed sand dunes, then successive deposits of gravel created a 7km-high sandstone plateau. Twenty million years of erosion left remnants as beehive-shaped karst of great beauty and cultural significance. Why the stripe banding? The dry red layer is iron oxide while the moist dark layer contains blue-green algae that provides a protective coating.

Late-starting day two is all about Cathedral Gorge. It’s the highlight. We walk along Piccaninny Creek’s smooth grey rock bed with its avenue of beehives, veering off to a sandy creek bed to enter the gorge. The winding passage is breathtakingly beautiful: towering walls of golden rock, glimpses of more behind, reflective water pools, ledges and potholes and giant slabs of broken-off rock marking huge waterfalls. Nothing prepares for the grandeur of this stupendous natural amphitheatre. Entering this cathedral today is akin to a thirteenth century peasant’s awe entering Chartres Cathedral. We sit at the far end under the rocky hood looking back to the nave over the altar of a small pool. All this; created by unimaginable torrents of water. From the light a group of ant-size people walk around the white sandy perimeter and start to sing – a joyous test of the acoustics. It’s a reminder that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will perform here soon. For most it’s a time for personal reflection on time, the awesome power of nature, and the smallness of man.

Our return via Domes Walk provides the best views of these beehive structures, whether it’s close up, in clumps, distant placements or angled vistas. There’re curious weathered shapes of heads and elephants. Whenever the hardened casing is broken, whatever colour the band, out pours pure white sand.

Low sweeps on our homeward flight reveal more of this tiger-striped massif adding scale and context to our walks within it. It’s sunset and it’s aglow. From the improbably ancient to the recent, we circle the man-made crater of Argyle Diamond Mine and cross the man-made sea of Lake Argyle before landing in Kununurra. The East Kimberley is a wild wilderness of great beauty yet to be discovered by the world’s tourists. And if you do discover it, you must visit the Bungles – it doesn’t matter what you call it.

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