Lost in Space: Australia's Kimberley

The Bungle Bungles

Aug 9, 2001
Outside Magazine

Australians have always felt that the Kimberley was capable of hiding just about anyone or anything. And in 1982, we got our proof when a documentary film crew flying south of Kununurra (pronounced languidly, Kah-nah-NAH-ruh) stumbled across a hallucinatory set of geologic formations. Appearing, from a distance, to be hundreds of beehive-shaped domes, these tiger-striped mounds rose from the surrounding desert like savage blisters. They soon became famous as the Bungle Bungles. (Bungle is a mispronunciation of the "bundle bundle" grass common here.) Needless to say, Aboriginal people had known about the place for millennia and called it Purnululu. But as far as the outside world was concerned, this bizarre rock massif was a revelation. The Bungles quickly became the symbol of the Kimberley, ubiquitous on brochures, T-shirts, and postcards.
Go anyway. The Bungles may be inevitable, but they're also unforgettable, one of the most surreal sights in this already otherworldly landscape. To view them at their most memorable, fly. If you merely drive to them, they can appear to be big ruddy hillocks and nothing special. From above, however, they become an immense, nubby wonderland, empty of all visible life except for the occasional shy pretty-faced wallaby.

Flights from Kununurra to the Bungles are offered by Paul's Creek and Bungle Bungle Tours. The two-day trips include one night at a tent camp ($470; 011-61-8-91-686-217). You can also, during the dry season, make the five-hour drive from Kununurra on the Great Northern Highway. Once you've reached the Bungles, arrange a helicopter flight over the outcropping. Slingair and Heliwork (011-61-8-91-681-811) fly every half hour, weather permitting, for $115 per person.
Then, if the rains aren't relentless or the heat too suffocating, spend several more days hiking in Purnululu National Park, which encompasses the Bungles. You can only walk in designated areas; footsteps on parts of the area's soft, cork-like crust can cause permanent damage. (For more information, call the Purnululu park office at 011-61-8-91-687-300.) Luckily the permissible hikes are spectacular, especially the Echidna Chasm and Cathedral Gorge routes, which penetrate deep into the glowing sandstone. These routes are short, however, only a few miles. Another permitted walk, to Picaninny Gorge, is a more challenging, two-day project. Leave early in the morning; the trail's first four miles are in direct sun. Once you reach the gorge itself, the trail enters a blissfully cool, sand-floored crevice. Six miles farther on lies Byers Base. Throw a blanket on the sand to make camp, then spend the afternoon exploring the narrow slot canyons that shoot off from the main gorge. Later, curl up on your blanket beneath the sheer dark cliffs and watch the stars rise in some of the clearest air on earth.

Filed To: Nature, Australia

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