The Bungle Bungle range, the jewel of the Kimberley

As pilot Jake Schipp flies our 14-seater Aviair Cessna Grand Caravan south from Kununurra over some of the most ancient mountains in the world, I'm struck by the fallacy of "white man's history".

Our destination is the Bungle Bungle range – "the jewel of the Kimberley", the most "remote" part of continental Australia (although, the Kimberley is actually far closer to Indonesia, south-east Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe than our three most populous cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane).

The unique sandstone, tri-coloured (orange/white/black) layer-cake of "beehive" formations we see on postcards today are the result of 350 million years of erosion.

Yet, the first the wider world ever knew of this wondrous geographical landscape came just 54 years ago. In 1983 an Australian TV crew was in Kununurra to film the wonders of the Kimberley when members of the crew shared a beer or three with an friendly local pilot who offered to show them a strange rock formation he'd often seen from the air while servicing the enormous cattle stations down south.

Somehow the film crew was convinced enough of his sobriety to take a flight with him the next day. And so, the Bungle Bungle range was "discovered" by the TV age, although generations of indigenous Australians (and probably a few hundred white drovers) had known of it long before.

Today, Purnululu National Park (which includes the Bungle Bungles) is World Heritage-listed – a geography so alien it seems to have come from a CGI-generated space movie.

Shipp's flight takes us around the eastern and southern edges of the Bungle Bungles (the name, apparently is a corruption: either of the original Aboriginal name for the area, or their name for the bundle bundle grasses found here). "Purnululu" itself is said to mean "fretting sands" in the local Gija language. 

Those of us on the right side of the Cessna have a view of a "rock" that is 99 times larger than Uluru (the others get the best view on the way back). 

At this height, the range resembles a sprawling Lilliputian sand castle made by a team of overly competitive preschool kids armed with U-shaped buckets and a couple of plastic spades issued to "the naughty boys" who have smashed a kind of plateau in the middle. 

Advertisement

Those on the left side of the plane see the Purnululu plain, which ultimately disappears into the Tanami Desert. Those fierce desert winds that have lashed the sandstone cliffs for millennia have shaped these sculptural forms.

This epic flight has already taken us over Lake Argyle, a man-made lake so vast that, from space, it looks like a blue seahorse swimming through a brown ocean.

However, before Schipp lands at the airstrip south-west of the Bungles, let me tell you why this tour is different. Our party is going to see the Bungles three ways: by plane, by helicopter, by foot. Call it a Bungle Bungle bundle if you like  – yet each perspective adds more richness and texture to the adventure.

No sooner have we landed at the quintessential "outback airport" (one runway and a wooden shed), than we've divided into mini-groups and are taking off again. 

This time we're in a three-passenger-plus-pilot Robinson R44 helicopter that has the side doors removed for better photographic access. 

Our HeliSpirit heli-pilot Aaron Picker has given us strict instructions to leave sunglasses and all other loose items behind the "airline counter"; to keep our cameras or mobile phones tethered to our persons; and not to risk sticking an arm or a head into the slipstream for fear of injury or  – worse  – a Chewbacca hairstyle.

Why take the helicopter flight if you have already seen the Bungle Bungles from a plane? Well, it's a completely different experience; more intimate, even more awe-inspiring. 

Before we even get to the main range of the Bungle Bungles, we have to soar over an outpost, a lone mountain known as The Coalition. This, Picker tells us, is roughly the same footprint as Uluru but is no longer as high. 

Our 30-minute heli-adventure shows us secrets we could barely imagine from the plane: incredible gorges, trickling waterfalls that in the wet season (from November to April)  – when the entire National Park is closed  – are torrents of rainfall, long-distance hiking paths incorporating challenges such as Five Fingers Chasm, Whipsnake Gorge and Piccaninny Creek. Plus a plateau populated only by snakes and birds.

We're astonished by the diversity and sheer beauty of a truly world-class landscape. However, we're still only two-thirds into our exploration.

Once the helicopter lands, we're off again, This time in a four-wheel-drive "bus" along the dirt track road most grey nomads and international backpackers use to get to the most accessible walking trails  – in the Bungle Bungles. There are several camping and accommodation options a few kms kilometres from the airstrip.

Our lead guide, Jen Sealth, points out things of interest: "See that plant on the right?" she says. "That's called a 'bachelor's button'. It was worn by an unmarried man looking for a suitable bride. Apparently it turned colour when he met the right one."

Sealth is training an indigenous guide, Daisy Croker. Croker was raised in Kununurra  – "another mob", she explains  – so is understandably reticent to tell us the stories from the Gija "clan" without having its permission first. 

Even so, it's wonderful listening to her explain the six seasons  – which make far more sense here in the Kimberley than the four seasons imposed by European occupation. Or which plants are edible and which are poisonous. 

Our (very) leisurely two-hour return walk (including packed lunch) takes us through a  marvellous chapter of pre-European history, culminating in Cathedral Gorge, a natural amphitheatre. 

Its base is a small lake, with a dirty crust of sandstone granules formed by the ever-changing contest between water and rock. It's no secret the gorge has long been a ceremonial site for the Gija.

When we are standing under the cave, on the other side of the lake, Sealth points out a couple of rock formations to the right. "We call that one The Sentinel and the other one Darth Vader," she says. 

Sure enough, the resemblance is uncanny. Perhaps that's how myths are born. 

However, in the 21st century, classical orchestras can now be heard performing every so often at Cathedral Gorge. They come here, carting their double basses, embracing the natural acoustics and the unbeatable setting with the full blessing of the indigenous elders. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/western-australia

westernaustralia.com

VISIT

Aviair (formerly Slingair) has been operating since 1984. See aviair.com.au 
HeliSpirit runs several trips throughout the Kimberley. See  helispirit.com.au

TREK

Bungle Bungle Guided Tours. See bunglebungleguidedtours.com.au

FLY

Airnorth, a subsidiary of Qantas, flies from Broome, Darwin and Perth to East Kimberley Airport (Kununurra). Virgin Australia Regional Airlines (formerly Skywest) flies from Perth. See airnorth.com.au and virginaustralia.com/au/en/

DRIVE

Allow six hours minimum if you're driving from Kununurra, including three hours on the 4WD-only access track. From Halls Creek, it's 100 kilometres on highway, followed by the same 53 kilometres of corrugated dirt track.

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia.

Comments