Exploring the Bungle Bungles, Western Australia on foot: Our most underrated attraction

Chances are your first glimpse of the Bungle Bungles will be from above. These startling rock formations are so remote – 100 kilometres from Halls Creek or 300 kilometres from Kununurra, which itself is a one-hour flight from Darwin – that few people are prepared to make the gruelling road trip. Instead, many visitors choose the more comfortable option, and hop on a small plane to approach the Bungles by air.

That's not a bad thing. Viewed from above, the Bungle Bungles are a remarkable sight. The beehive domes seem to bubble up from the ground; the bird's-eye view helps you appreciate the sheer scale of this rock massif, which stretches across a staggering 450 square kilometres.

To really get to grips with the Bungle Bungles, however, you need to get your feet dirty. A number of the canyons are open to visitors, and guided tours are available. Walking amid the domes is an unforgettable experience, and the best way to understand the peculiarities of this striking rock massif.

Take those red and black stripes that define the domes. Turns out, they are just a surface effect. Beneath a thin layer of colour lies pure white sandstone. You can see this for yourself when you get up close to a dome: white patches mark the spots where small outcrops have broken off, exposing the rock beneath.

How did the domes get their tiger stripes? It's all to do with the geological differences in the layers of rock. The darker layers have a high proportion of clay mixed into the rock, so they are better at retaining moisture. As a result, they make an inviting home for cyanobacteria, a type of algae, which gives the rock its dark colour.

By contrast, the red layers, which contain less clay, dry out more quickly. When the iron in the rock is exposed to the air, it oxidises, turning a rusty red.

Walking along the three-kilometre trail to Cathedral Gorge, one of the Bungle Bungles' signature sites, we learn about more than just geology; we get a biology lesson as well. Harsh as the environment is, an astonishing 200-odd plant species thrive here, including acacias, grevilleas and 13 species of spinifex. They sustain a surprising variety of wildlife, with more than 130 species of birds recorded, from flocks of budgerigars and rainbow bee-eaters all the way up to emus: we spot one large specimen loping through the scrub.

The trail winds its way past domes that soar above us, stretching 300 metres into the sky. Our sense of awe increases as we enter Cathedral Gorge. This astonishing circular space was formed over hundreds of thousands of years by a whirlpool that rages in here during the wet season. During the dry season, only a shallow pool of water remains, fed by gently trickling falls. Even in the heat of the day – which can be ferocious, as the sun is absorbed and then released by the rock walls – an overhang provides a welcome draping of shade.

Cathedral Gorge is a tranquil place to relax and enjoy a packed lunch. Feel free to linger a while; you are unlikely to encounter more than a handful of other visitors. Unlike other outback icons, the Bungles doesn't attract large number of tourists. The Red Centre, for instance, draws around 270,000 visitors a year. Kakadu National Park gets about 180,000 visits. Only around a quarter of that number – 47,000 people – make it to the Bungles.

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After Cathedral Gorge, Echidna Chasm provides a more adventurous experience; visitors need to be steady on their feet. A two-kilometre long trail leads into the chasm. As we walk into the fissure, the path becomes narrower, and the walls seem to grow higher. Before long, we find ourselves at the bottom of a 180-metre deep ravine, littered with boulders. Some we scramble over; in other spots, short ladders fixed into place make the going easier. At the end of the gorge we find ourselves in an open area surrounded by high walls. The sunlight pouring in turns the walls a blazing shade of orange. It's a surreal sensation – and knowing how few people have experienced it makes it even more special.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.westernaustralia.com

GETTING THERE

The Bungle Bungles are in Purnululu National Park, about 300 kilometres from Kununurra. A number of companies including APT offer specific Bungle Bungles itineraries, or you can visit the area as part of a broader Kimberley tour. See www.kimberleywilderness.com.au

STAYING THERE

Inside the park, the Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge has tented cabins with ensuite bathrooms. aptouring.com.au/travel-styles/wilderness-lodges/wa-kimberley. Alternatively, a range of accommodation is available at El Questro Station, a short flight away, from the five-star Homestead to the family-friendly tented cabins at Emma Gorge. elquestro.com.au

Ute Junker traveller courtesy of Delaware Resorts.

MORE KIMBERLEY HIGHLIGHTS

Covering more than 400,000 square kilometres, the Kimberley contains some of Australia's most spectacular sites, including waterfalls, gorges, and palm-fringed canyons.

Windjana Gorge: There is something slightly surreal about the sight of freshwater crocs sunning themselves in a gorge that was once part of an ancient coral reef, but it's all part of the beauty of Windjana Gorge, about 150 kilometres from Fitzroy Crossing.

Mitchell Plateau: One of the northern Kimberley's most famous attractions, the Mitchell Plateau is a photographer's dream, with its spectacular waterfalls and gorges.

Broome: From dinosaur footprints to the funky restaurants of Chinatown, from a sunset over Cable Beach to the moving Japanese cemetery, the coastal town of Broome is everyone's favourite Kimberley hub.

Dampier Peninsula: The communities of the Dampier Peninsula, several hours north of Broome, offer visitors the opportunity to interact with local indigenous people, by joining in a mud crab hunt or taking a tour to discover other forms of bush tucker.

Buccaneer Archipelago: Love the thought of your own private island? In the Buccaneer Archipelago, off the coast near Derby, there are more than 1000 to choose from, with verdant rainforests and sandy beaches lapped by aquamarine water.

See also: The Kimberley - simply gorges

See also: Australia's 10 weirdest outback experiences

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