The Bungle Bungles – or Purnululu National Park, to give the park its official title – is one of those places that is not only totally unique in the world, it's also breathtakingly weird and completely inexplicable. Access to the park is off Highway One at Turkey Creek, south of Kununurra, but it's not for the fainthearted: it's definitely only for four-wheel drive vehicles, and even they find it tough. From the highway to the park is just 53km (33 miles) away, but it takes over two hours to do that stretch, so I took a tour as it was the only practical way to get there.
I'm glad I did, too, though at A$390 for a three-day tour it wasn't cheap. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and taking a tour does make it rather luxurious. Luckily the group I went with – just ten of us, plus the guide – was full of interesting people, with me being the youngest by a serious gap (most of the group were retired), as well as the only non-Australian. Compared to the irritating people on the large backpacker tour bus that we bumped into out there, this was high culture indeed...
We stayed in little huts with comfortable beds – a novelty for me after all this camping – with all meals provided; this felt like real decadence after cooking up rice in my billy for the last few months. We drove into the park on Monday and spent the afternoon visiting Cathedral Gorge, a huge pool in the famous beehives of the Bungle Bungle mountain range. The whole area is made up of a raised range of sedimentary sandstone that has been worn into huge beehive-shaped mounds, with horizontal stripes alternating black and red across them all. It's hard to explain, but walking through these superbly odd formations as the sun highlights the reds, greens and blacks and casts eerie shadows, is just... well, I'm lost for words. There's a two-day 18km walk through the area up the Picaninny River, and one day I hope to do it. It might be only a two-day walk, but it's hard going and there's no water anywhere; because the area is all rock, when it rains in the wet season the creeks run hard and fast, but as soon as the rain stops, the water runs away and the area dries up very quickly, leaving very few permanent pools.
That night we had an excellent meal, with billy tea round the fire (a recipe for billy tea: boil up a billy on the fire, chuck in a handful of tea leaves, bring back to the boil and pour a cup of cold water in to make the leaves sink – beautiful!). I also had the immense pleasure of christening my first-ever stubby holder, which I'd bought a few days before. A stubby holder, an essential part of every Australian beer drinker's life, is a hollow cylinder of foam with only one open end, into which you stuff your can to keep it cold as you drink it. Stubby holders have all sorts of things printed on them – they're the beer drinker's equivalent of car bumper stickers – and mine says 'North West Australia: Best Bloody Place in the World' on it, along with all the places you should visit there (most of which I've visited). My stubby holder and my hat: I'll take them wherever I travel.
The Northern Bungles
On the second day in the park we went on three walks in the northern end of the Bungles. The first was along Mini Palm Gorge, a scramble up a gorge to a sheltered, sandy area that was full of tiny, squat palm trees; it looks for all the world like a palm nursery. Climbing gorges in the Bungles is an experience, with a lot of scrambling over what looks like pebble-dash and concrete blocks; the area is made up of conglomerate rock, a strange mixture of sandstone and pebbles, washed there by prehistoric rivers. All along the gorges grow luscious palms, with some trees growing in the most amazingly unfriendly spots, like halfway up cliffs. Although they're gorges, they're not like the others I've seen, they're more like river-beds that flow steeply down from the top of the range, and you climb up the fissure created by the flow. It's like another world.
At the end of Mini Palm Gorge is a narrow crack in the rock, and John, our guide, took us all in there and got us to feel our way along the wall in the pitch black; we couldn't see a thing, but he made us go on. After about five minutes our eyes started to adjust, and you wouldn't believe how much we could see in this huge crack in the mountains. The hues cast by the very small amount of light coming from the entrance lit up the walls, and although we were totally in the dark when we went in, after a bit we could see really quite well. It was spooky, but well worth doing.
Froghole Gorge is another beautiful walk, with a permanent rock pool at the end. The view up from the pool is amazing; you can see where the water flows in during the wet season, and it's quite obvious why the park is closed during the rains, as the amount of water rushing around must be tremendous. Finally, we walked up Echidna Chasm, a massive and very deep crack in the range, which you can walk down for a considerable distance before reaching the end. You can see the sky above you all the way, and the reflected light that comes down is truly strange.
When we got back to camp we immediately headed down the road to watch the sunset, or rather the view as the sun set behind us, shining onto the Bungles range in front of us. As the sun set and the red hues changed every few minutes, the full moon came up over the range, probably the most amazing sight of the lot. As I sat on the roof of the large Oka truck we'd been travelling in, beer in hand, I really thought I'd found heaven. The full moon was also the first blue moon I've knowingly seen, which just added to the magic (a blue moon being the second full moon in the same month, something that only happens up every two or three years). We rounded off the evening with a bloody good barbecue, and more yarns and idle chat round the fire.
The following morning those who wanted could go on a A$120 helicopter flight over the range, something I couldn't afford – though I vowed to come back one day and fly over the Bungles before walking through Picaninny Gorge – and we spent the rest of the day driving back to Kununurra. I slept incredibly well that night; it was an excellent tour.