Purnululu National Park – highlights of the Bungle-Bungle Range
August 6, 2019 • Toby Ley
6 min read
The rugged, bee-hive like domes of the Bungle-Bungle Range is an image you’ll find plastered across tourism advertisements throughout north Western Australia. They’re one of the Kimberley’s more iconic destinations, and despite lying far enough off the beaten track to retain a sense of remoteness, they might just be one of the region’s more easily accessible treasures.
So close and yet so far away; while these days it's a mere 80km from a major highway, Purnululu remained hidden and inaccessible right up until the end of the twentieth century. It was one of the last places in Australia to be “discovered” in the modern age, despite the fact that it’s been an important place for Aboriginal tribes for millennia.
Deeply cut valleys, rugged gorges, and spectacular sandstone karst formations of bulbous tors and honey-combed domes rise from sweeping savannah grasslands. The range is largely Devonian-age quartz sandstone, placing it roughly in the 20 million year old range. Weathered and eroded over the millennia into the striking formations they take today, the landscape only exists due to a unique series of geological, biological and climatic conditions, forming a place unlike any other in the world.
After visiting for a few days in May, how would I sum it up?
Well, it was dry, remote, uncomfortably hot and the flies were absolutely horrendous, but hey, if you’re that bothered by those things you really have no business exploring outback Australia. To be fair, I probably didn’t pick the best time to visit, as walking really is the only way to properly explore this place. Having said that, the deep chasms and dry gorges are great for escaping the heat. There’s nowhere to swim, except just after heavy wet seasons when you might find some lovely pools to have a dip in.
Photography, though, is one of the highlights. The vivid colours and unique rock formations make Purnululu one of the best places in the country to photograph. The park can be reached from Broome or Kununurra, and it’s an 80km drive in along a road that can vary wildly. I’ve heard some people say it’s terrible and took almost three hours, whereas we hit it not long after grading, so found it just fine.
Either way, it’s a beautifully scenic drive, so there’s no reason not to take your time. Rolling hills and rugged ranges painted in an array of ochre tones, splashed with spinifex and gnarled ghost gums – it’s some distinctly and iconic Australian scenery, and all before you even get there.
After dropping into the info centre, you can head left or right to explore the two different sections of the park. We opted for left first, heading towards Echidna chasm. There’s a lookout on your left after a few kilometre, which I’d recommend you come back to late afternoon, because there’s a great view of the range. The imposing sandstone massif and limestone ridge picks up some stunning colours around sunset.
The two campgrounds within the park are nothing special, especially not for $26 a night when all you're getting is drop toilets. The surrounding location, however, is pretty hard to fault, and the closest camping options otherwise are the caravan parks back on the highway.
The problem with deeply incised gorge and chasm country in heat like this, as a photography enthusiast, is that you’ll always face a bit of a conundrum. Very early morning and equally late afternoon is the best time for walking, when it's still reasonably cool and the flies haven’t seemed to realise its daytime yet. On the downside, the canyons will be a labyrinth of shadow and poor lighting until the middle of the day.
Echidna Chasm is best walked from about 10:30 to 11am. This is when the light hits the long, deep and narrow chasm just right, setting off a deep amber glow throughout the twisting confines.
There’s two other gorge walks out here, Mini Palms and Homestead Valley, which we squeezed in before Echidna. Mini Palms has some rock scrambling and exposed creek walking, and while the titular palms are nothing more than a couple of young palm trees, the gorge itself is pretty tremendous. Homestead Valley is similar, with high cliffs of bulbous, conglomerate rock, where Livingstonia palms cling precariously to tiny gaps in the rock.
The next afternoon, we headed to the other end of the park, where you’ll find the beehive-like domes Purnululu is known for. Variegating bands of orange and black paint the domes, a crust of algae and silica, more specifically known as Cyanobacteria. These are single celled photosynthetic organisms, and it’s their presence and stability that protect the ancient formations.
On the drive out, there’s loads of places to stop and admire the stunning geological architecture, and once you’re there you’ll find a good selection of walking trails. Hidden within the dome-field is Cathedral Gorge, a natural amphitheatre and huge rounded chasm with a pool of dark water in its centre. Again, it’s one of those places that seems like it was created for the sake of spectacular photography.
Lastly, there’s the 20km walk into the heart of the ranges that explores some of the remote gorges further afield. I went in expecting to get a good few kilometres done, but the heat was unbearable by 9am and the flies were getting biblical, so I gave up and settled for the nearby domes instead, leaving it as one more place that begs further exploration some day down the track.
Another way to experience this bizarre and beautiful landscape is from the air. There’s a handful of companies that offer scenic flights, some from within the park and some from further afield, offering an unparalleled view of the country.
To fully experience a place like this, though, you really need to hit it on foot. It’s a rugged, wild and untouched corner of the country, yet still reasonably accessible – the type of place of which there seems to be fewer and fewer remaining. Give it another ten years and the roads might be paved and someone will probably build a big 'ol resort just down the road, although whether that’s a downside or an upside is up to you.