ADVENTURES AROUND THE WORLD© Christopher Earls Brennen
Hike I7. Bungle Bungles
- Hiking time: Short hikes of about 1 hour each
- Estimated hiking distance: About 1.3 miles (2 kilometers)
- Elevation gain: Very small.
- Topo Map: Purnululu National Park, Western Australia
- Difficulties: Heat, dehydration
- Special equipment: None
- Permit: None. However, the park is administered by the Kitja people and contains many sites sacred to them. Visitors should stay on the established trails not only out of respect for the Kitja and sites but also to avoid damage to the fragile rock formations.
- ACA Rating: 1AI
The Aboriginal people of this region of the Kimberley in Western Australia, the Kitja people, called this place Purnululu or ``sandstone''. It is now the Purnululu National Park and is reknowned for the remarkable sandstone erosion patterns, an array of striped sandstone domes or beehives. It is the most extensive and impressive occurrence of this kind of sandstone tower (or cone) karst terrain in the world. The feature is known as the ``Bungle Bungles'' which may be a corruption of ``bundles'' referring to bundles of cordon grass. The park lies within the traditional homeland of the Kitja people.
Bungle Bungle domes at Piccaninny trailhead Bungle Bungle domes at Piccaninny trailhead
The unusual and striking sandstone domes are remarkable for their shape, number and size and for their striking alternate bands of orange and grey. The horizontal banding is due to differences in clay content and porosity of the sandstone layers: the orange bands consist of oxidised iron compounds in layers that dry out too quickly for cyanobacteria to multiply; the grey bands are composed of cyanobacteria growing on the surface of layers of sandstone where moisture accumulates. The surface of the domes is fragile but stabilized by crusts of iron oxide and bacteria. They provide an outstanding example of land formation by dissolutional weathering of sandstone.
The Bungle Bungles are a plateau of Devonian sandstone whose edges were carved into a mass of these beehive shapes. The erosion also extended further into the plateau resulting in a series of deep, sheer-sided gorges and slot canyons, some 100–200m (300-600ft) deep that penetrate the plateau. The hikes described below explore two of the most impressive of these canyons while the helicopter flight provides an impressive overview of the entire plateau.
The only vehicle access to Purnululu National Parkark is by way of a very rough, 53km (33mi) long dirt road known as the Spring Creek Track, which branches off from the paved Great Northern Highway approximately 107km (??mi) north of Halls Creek or 250km (160mi) south of Kununurra in Western Australia. The road is only passable by four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicles and only during the dry season (about April 1 to December 31). It takes about two hours to drive from the Great Northern Highway to the Visitor Center at the entrance to the park. However, helicopter and light aircraft tours are available from a number of surrounding airstrips including Kununurra and Warmun. The airstrip in the park is know as the Bellburn Airstrip and this is the base for the local helicopter tours.
Just beyond the Visitor Center (17o25.14'S 128o17.94'E) the park road forks at 17o25.50'S 128o18.24'E. The left fork proceeds northwards and passes the area of the campgrounds (17o22.98'S 128o20.16'E) before accessing the northern end of the plateau and the featured hike into the Echidna Chasm from the Echidna Chasm trailhead (17o19.38'S 128o24.72'E) about 19km from the Visitor Center. The right fork proceeds past the Bellburn Airstrip (17km from the Visitor Center) and around the southern end of the plateau before accessing the Cathedral Gorge trailhead at 17o29.34'S 128o22.50'E about 26km from the Visitor Center.
Cathedral Gorge Hike
Approaching Cathedral Gorge In Cathedral Gorge
To access the Cathedral Gorge and Piccaninny Creek trailhead, turn right at the fork just beyond the Visitor's Centre (17o25.14'S 128o17.94'E) and drive 26km around the southern end of the Bungle Bungles to the end of the road at the trailhead (17o29.34'S 128o22.50'E). The trails from here are all well described on the display boards. We recommend the Cathedral Gorge hike with an optional branch hike to the Piccaninny Creek Lookout. For the Cathedral Gorge follow the marked trail with an uneven surface down a dry creek bed exposed to the sun before forking left where the Piccaninny Creek forks right. You pass some of the marvellous sandstone domes as you enter the gorge and gain some welcome shade from the desert sun. The spectacular, red-walled sandstone gorge narrows and the trail negotiates some steep but short steps before culminating in an awesome, natural amphitheatre with a permanent pool at 17o28.80'S 128o22.38'E. The distance from the trailhead to the amphitheater is about 1km and the one-way hike takes about 25min.
If you choose to visit the Piccaninny Creek Lookout on the return from the Gorge then fork left at the aforementioned trail junction midway between the Gorge and the trailhead. The trail then follows the deeply eroded and rough Piccaninny Creek bed for about 200m before turning right and leaving the creek bed. The trail then gradually ascends through the brush and unexpectedly emerges at the elevated Piccaninny Creek lookout with views across the Piccaninny Creek as it winds south through spinifex hummocks towards the Ord River. It takes and additional 20min to hike from the trail fork to the lookout, an additional distance of about 0.4km.
Cathedral Gorge amphitheatre Echidna ''scratches''
Echidna Chasm Hike
To access the Echidna Chasm, turn left at the fork just beyond the Visitor's Centre (17o25.14'S 128o17.94'E) and drive 19km to the northern end of the Bungle Bungles and the Echidna Chasm trailhead at 17o19.38'S 128o24.72'E. The trail from there into the Chasm is well marked but hot and exposed along a very uneven, stony, dry creek bed. Because of the heat the hike is best in the early morning or late afternoon. The last 100m in the narrow, 1m wide, 180m deep chasm requires scrambling over boulders and climbing ladders. It takes about 25min to hike the roughly 0.7km distance to the end of the chasm at 17o19.80'S 128o24.96'E.
Echidna Chasm Echidna Chasm
The local helicopter tours are based at the Bellburn Airstrip about 17km south of the Visitor Center (17o25.14'S 128o17.94'E). There HeliSpirit offer a choice of three helicopter tours of the Bungle Bungles as shown in the attached map. The choices are a 18min, a 30min and a 42min tours.
Helicopter route (green, 30min tour) Take off!
We selected the 30min tour which gave a comprehensive tour of the main features of the Bungle Bungles. Not only do you gain a different perspective on the dome structures but you also get to see an overview of the deep gorges eroded into the Purnululu plateau, many of which are inaccessible to the hiker because they are private to the local aborigines who secrete the reamins of their dead in many of the crevices and caves in the gorges. The doors of the helicopters have been removed to enhance the view but this means the flights are not for the faint of heart. But the views are truly spectacular and the pilot provides a running commentary during the flight.
Bungle Bungles from the air
Bungle Bungles from the air
Last updated 3/21/16.
Christopher E. Brennen