ADVENTURES AROUND THE WORLD

© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike I5. Tunnel Creek National Park

Characteristics

Tunnel Creek cave in Tunnel Creek National Park, is famous as a hideout used in the 1890s by the aboriginal leader, Jandamarra. Situated in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, the Tunnel Creek cave runs right through the Napier Range, the rugged 350-million-year-old limestone remains of a Devonian reef that protrudes up precipitiously from the surrounding flat plains of the Fitzroy River basin. Though not particularly high (less than 200m) and quite narrow in breadth (less than 2km), the Napier Range and its southern cliffs present an almost impregnable barrier to passage especially for those unfamiliar with the region. The Tunnel Creek cave is but 750m long yet runs the breadth of the range. It is one of the oldest cave systems in Western Australia. The reef was first exposed around 250 million years ago when the first cave systems began to form; Tunnel Creek cave was formed about 20 million years ago. Its entrance and exit are well hidden by fallen rock and foliage and so would be quite difficult for the uninitiated to find.

  
Approaching Tunnel Creek entrance   Tunnel Creek entrance from outside

The cave is 750m in length and reaches from the southern side of the Napier Range to the northern side. It has a maximum height of 12m (39ft) and a maximum width of 15m (49ft). It was once known as ``The Cave of the Bats'' with at least five species of bat inhabiting the cavern, including ghost bats and fruit bats. Stalactites descend from the roof in many places. The floor of the cave is mostly flat and sandy since it gets washed through during the rainy season. There are large pools of water on the floor in which freshwater crocodiles reside. Freshwater crocodiles are smaller and not as aggressive as saltwater crocodiles; they are only a danger if you happen to step on one. The pools indicate that the water table is only just below the present floor surface and water only flows through the area after heavy rainfall. Halfway through the cave the roof has collapsed providing another entrance/exit to the cave.

History

Many aboriginal rock paintings and speleothems decorate the walls of Tunnel Creek cave and provide a record of the extensive use of the cave particularly by the local aboriginal people, the Bunuba. The cave is famous as a hideout used in the 1890s by the aboriginal leader Jandamarra. Jandamarra led the Bunuba resistance against the ravages of the white stockmen during the period 1893-1897. He grew up in the area around Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek in the Napier Range. He was therefore intimately aquainted with this unusual wall of rock that rises so precipitously from the surrounding flat plain and used the Tunnel Creek cave as a refuge throughout his life. The entrance and exit from the cave are well hidden by fallen rock and foliage and so would be quite difficult for the uninitiated to find.

Jandamarra used this cave as a hideout during his revolt against the white incursions. In particular he and his family took refuge there for an extended period in 1895 when he was recuperating from gunshot wounds suffered in a battle with the West Australian police. On a later occasion it is said that he evaded a pursuing police hunting party by diving into the tunnel; the police staked out both ends believing they had him cornered only to later realize that he had escaped by a third, midway exit that was unknown to them. His final and lone battle with the police took place some miles away on the south side of the range. Badly wounded again he struggled to get back to his tunnel refuge and fawled into his sanctuary under cover of darkness. As the sun rose the next morning, April 1, 1897, he collected his Winchester and few remaining bullets and walked out to face his adversary. He climbed to the top of a limestone pillar in front of the Tunnel Creek entrance and stood there defiantly. The bullet that killed him toppled him over the side and he fell 30m to his death. His resistance against grievous wrongs and overwhelming odds was heroic and made him a legend among the aboriginal people and among repressed native peoples everywhere.

Trailhead

The Tunnel Creek cave in Tunnel Creek National Park is accessed from a trailhead (at 17o36.36'S 125o8.70'E) just off the Fairfield-Leopold Downs road, northwest of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. The Fairfield-Leopold Downs road is a dirt road that connects the paved Great Northern Highway at a point 43km west of Fitzroy Crossing to a partially paved section of the Gibbs River Road at a point 124km east of the start of the Gibbs River Road just south of Derby. The Tunnel Creek turn-off is 55km south of the Gibbs River Road and 69km north of the Great Northern Highway. The Fairfield-Leopold Downs road and parts of the Gibbs River Road are therefore only passable during the dry season (April 1 to November 1), consequently Tunnel Creek and its cave are inaccessible during the wet season.

Hike

The entrance to Tunnel Creek cave at 17o36.48'S 125o8.70'E is just a short walk from the parking area at 17o36.36'S 125o8.70'E. The entrance is obscured and almost blocked by large boulders but these are the only real obstacle that presents any impediment in the hike. It is necessary to clamber over and around these boulders and to wade through several pools of water to make it into the cave where the hiking becomes much easier due to the sandy bottom.

  
Looking back at the entrance   Midway tunnel exit/entrance

Once in the cave proper the cave opens up to well above head height but you will need a headlamp or flashlight to find your way. There are extensive shallow pools to wade through. Freshwater crocodiles live in these pools but present little danger provided you make sure not to step on one. After several hundred meters you will see the light from the entrance/exit midway through the cave and once you reach this point it is a serene place to sit and rest. Resuming your hike it is just a few hundred meters before you will see the light at the exit from the tunnel on the north side of the Napier Range. You should reach this exit at 17o36.72'S 125o8.52'E about 30min from the start.

Tunnel Creek exit

This is another lovely place to sit and enjoy the wooded glade into which you have emerged. It is said that Jandamarra was buried here. There is a lovely, shaded pool just downstream of the exit where you can enjoy a swim if you are willing to forget the freshwater crocodiles.


Last updated 3/21/16.
Christopher E. Brennen