Purnululu National Park in Western Australia, had been on my bucket list for ages, and it should probably be on yours too. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, home of the “Bungle Bungles”, Cathedral Gorge, and Echidna Chasm. this national park was only “discovered” by the general public in the 1970’s and is now an icon of the Kimberly region.
Arriving at Purnululu
Even just getting into the park is an adventure. Our tour guide gave us three pieces of advice:
- buckle up tight,
- sit in the middle rows if you didn’t want to get tossed around,
- keep our faces away from the windows (a bit ominous).
Much of the Kimberly is covered by massive cattle stations – huge plots of land that are almost entirely untouched except a wire fence and a dirt road, brutally corrugated from decades of four-wheel-drive trucks bouncing down the track. These cattle stations are populated by massive, half-wild Brahmin cows and not much else. Not a drive meant for your everyday coupe.
Fortunately, Western Exposure/Kimberly Wild (our tour company) have purpose-built tour buses. They have four-wheel drive, a 45-degree tilt radius, and are amphibious enough to take it them through water up to the passenger windows. This is important.
We bounced and rocked down the red dirt road, the back row was happily coming right off the seats and nursing some wild whiplash. The bus itself tilted to the sides so far it felt like it was going to tip, the curtains hanging at crazy angles. More than once, someone would crane over to look out the window only to have a sharp smack of a window to the face as the bus righted itself back on flat ground. Up front, our fearless tour guide bounced around in his seat, he could have been at a rodeo, bucking around on the back of one of those monster bulls we had seen earlier. Everyone was loving it.
In the wet season (November to April), Purnululu National Park is inaccessible. The dry creek beds are soon filled to the bursting and the crossings are made impossible. At the start of October, most of the creek crossings were more like puddles or completely dry. One of these crossings was still deep enough to come completely over the tires. It was a quiet moment on the bus as it basically swam through the creek, still tilted on an angle.
Just up the other bank was a little white truck pulled over with three boys sitting around outside of it. The hood of the truck was popped open, and bits of the engine were strewn around the car. They had taken their rental car, which was not a four-wheel drive or even a full-sized SUV, through the crossing. The car had no snorkel, so the creek had flooded out the engine. They were hoping it would dry out and the car start again. Always stick to your rental agreement.
The Bungle Bungles
Walking into the park felt like entering the set of a movie based on a different planet.
The path we followed was along the dried bed of Piccany Creek. At the end of the dry season, the soil was parched, the stones bleached almost white at the end of the dry season, the path lined with blackened, burnt-out tree trunks. The black and orange-banded domes rose above us like giant beehives. So close to the end of the season, we had the place almost to ourselves, which only added to the surreal feeling.
I’ve never felt so lucky to have overcast weather. The previous week, the temperature had gotten to 37 degrees in the shade. Cloud cover saved us from cooking on the rocks and made it easier to take photos. Even as we scrambled to put away our cameras, we welcomed the light rain that began to fall. It didn’t last long and brought the heat down a little bit more.
The creek bed led us through a narrow gorge that opened up to one of the most special places tucked away in Purnululu – Cathedral Gorge.
I had seen photos in tourism brochures, but they didn’t compare to the scope of it. The “amphitheatre” is massive. It is a special place in the world. It was not a place for our tour group to chatter and joke around like usual, but to spread out and take a seat. Breathe, observe, and just be. Only the crunch of pebbles underfoot echoing around Cathedral Gorge broke the silence for about 20 minutes. No one wanted to leave.
Finally, our tour guide broke the spell and herded us all out to continue exploring Purnululu.
We took a short drive to the beginning of a hike in Purnululu called “The Bloodwoods”. It was self-guided hike so the bus could meet us at the other end. I stopped to tie my shoes and within minutes, I’d been left behind by the group who was ploughing through this gentle, easy hike.
It was perfect.
For the entire walk, I was mostly alone, in total silence. I took my time on the path as it meandered beside towering red cliffs, surrounded by yellow grass, white slender tree trunks, grey-green leaves, and overcast sky.
Eventually, the final straggler of our group caught up to me. We chose not to hurry to speed up, but to take our time, taking photos, not wanting to rush past the beauty of it. Before long, he fell behind again and I continued my solo walk.
If you ever find yourself in Purnululu (and I hope that you do), do not miss this gorgeous, peaceful hike.
In the parking lot, our tour group was waiting, and they got up to leave as soon as I emerged from the forest. By the time I had filled up my water bottle and used the washroom, they were gone again. My fellow straggler and I were once more left behind. As we were both avid photographers, this suited us fine but I do question the thought process of our tour guide in happily abandoning two of his charges in such a remote area.
This hike was straight into the heart of Purnululu: the Echidna Chasm. At first, it is a walk between great red cliffs and tall skinny palms across dry creek beds.
Given that we had no direction or guidance on the hike, we missed a turn and got lost (surprise!). Instead of heading between the cliffs we came up to the top of a rocky lookout view of the valley below. The lighting was perfect, and it took a few minutes of admiring the view before we began to wonder why we couldn’t see the rest of the group or why the path ended.
A bit of backtracking, and we met up with the proper path and turned into the walls of Echidna Chasm.
We eventually made it through the nest of cool red walls and hairpin turns to catch up with the rest of the tour. After getting a bit berated for “falling behind”, (more like getting left behind and then lost as a result), we all piled back to the bus.
Our tour group was one of the last of the season, so our planned bush camp was elevated to the ‘upmarket’ campsite – complete with sunset views of the Bungle Bungles. While we ate dinner, Purnululu National Park glowed like it was lit up inside.
That night, we slept on the back porch of the camp, ignoring the ‘luxury tents’ provided in favour of sleeping under the stars again. I fell asleep content, I had crossed something else off my Australian Bucket List, and it had been wonderful.