6/24: Woke up feeling strangely normal in Kununurra. Maybe it was my meal of barramundi the previous night, plus just enough travel to be on some semblance of a normal sleep cycle. A wait at the airport produced our 4WD: a Mitsubishi Pajero. Downtown Kununurra provided food, ice, drinks, and other random supplies, and we were off south on Rt. 95 towards Purnululu National Park.
This is the first time I’ve driven a Pajero. It’s not a field vehicle like the Land Cruisers that I idolize, but a good, practical SUV with a big diesel, a gear ratio decent for highway and unsealed roads, and carpet. Not sure about the carpet, but we’re making do: glad I don’t have to clean it.
As I wrote earlier, Purnululu is the official name for the Bungle Bungle Range, or the Bungle Bungle. This is broad plateau of Paleozoic sandstone, shaped like a very fat “U”. It’s a national park, and a World Heritage site, for its remarkable erosional patterns. More on that later. No one seems to know where the name “Bungle Bungle” came from. There are several competing whimsical hypotheses, involving ranchers, aboriginals, and a variety of miscommunications. None of them are that compelling. I just like being someplace called the Bungle Bungle.
My guidebook stated a five hour drive from Kununurra: east on Rt. 1, the Victoria Highway, and south on Rt 95. The Pajero seemed happy, stable and safe at 120 kph. I enjoyed this initial run through new territory. The landscape of the East Kimberley seemed is a series of fault controlled linear hills and mountains, separated by valleys of various widths and lengths. A lot of the bedrock looked like highly deformed sediments, with occasional interruptions of granite or other crystalline rock. This terrain was covered by a variety of bush grasses, sprinkled with low density of somewhat familiar acacias and other trees that I don’t know. A startling addition to this biota were frequent boab trees. These are the same as the baobabs of Africa; my plant books states that the first boabs arrived from shipwrecks on the Kimberley coast. Boabs have fat grey elephantine trunks, all out of proportion to “normal trees”. This barrel is topped by an often symmetrical fan of branches. Some of the boabs we passed were leafy, some just bare branches, while a few had what looked like fruit. I haven’t a clue what this variety was about. The boabs made me smile; they were a sure sign of being in a new place.
As we drove along, I kept thinking, something looks different here. After enough gazing, I think this is due to the absence of bush-sized plants. A wide variety of bushes are a part of my Australian desert biota model from my time in the Pilbara and the Red Centre. Here, it’s the trees and grasses. This gives the landscape a park-like feel, especially in areas of recent burn.
After 245 kilometers, we reached the eastward turn-off to the Bungle Bungles. Bitumen ended; the washboard dirt road began. This fifty-three kilometers was supposed to take us two hours. It was 3:45 pm; ninety minutes to sunset. The track wound across hills and through many watercourses. The Pajero was no longer white. I drove rapidly well within safe limits; I was glad the sunset was behind us. We reached the park visitor center in eighty five minutes. It was closed. We went to the nearest campground, and groped around in the dark for enough space to camp. I was asleep by 8:15.
6/25: I was awake before dawn, at 5 am. The Bungle Bungle is at about 17oS; definitely subtropical. In spite of this, I’d read that since it was winter, it should be cold a night. I guess cold is a relative thing; according to the Pajero’s digital thermometer, the low was 15oC – around 60oF. No worries, I was happy to be up before the sun wearing only shorts and a shirt. I wandered away from camp, eventually climbing a nearby limestone ridge: smeared and discontinuous beds; clearly a fault zone. The Bungle Bungle massif was beginning to glow red in the morning light. On this, its west side, the Range is a steep north-south trending cliff, pierced by a number of narrow gorges or chasms, as they call them up here. I stood and watched this brighten in the increasing light. The Bungle Bungles is largely flat-laying sedimentary rocks; the coarsest scale of this bedding gave the range a striped appearance. I knew we’d be heading there to hike soon.
I wandered back to the campground. It’s appeal was limited to being the only legal place to stay on the west side of the park. Other than that, it was dusty and crowded with 4WDs and campers. A little too promiscuous, not the kind of camping that Paul and I prefer. As I walked back into camp, Paul stuck his head out of this tent, and shared his first brainwave of the day – let’s get out of here and eat breakfast at the trailhead. We were on the road by 6:15.
Fourteen kilometers of dirt road was followed by a quiet breakfast at Mini Palm Gorge and a pair of hikes: Mini Palm Gorge and Echidna Chasm. These walks, maybe a total of eight kilometers, wandered into a couple of the narrow canyons that knife into the west side of the range. These chasms follow major structural joints – vertical planes of weakness – in the bedrock.
As we headed out on the first hike, I felt strangely disoriented; how did I suddenly come to be walking along this hot sandy track in Western Australia? It was a particularly fast evolution this time; maybe being tired in advance contributed to this.
Well, I was here, healthy and awake, so I walked to see what the Bungle Bungle was really like. The hike into Mini Palm Gorge gently ascended into a blind canyon full of Livionsia palm trees; a species endemic to this area. It wasn’t clear which palms were dwarfs; there was enough evidence of flash floods that I wondered if the smaller ones weren’t just younger. Although it was 8 am, it was already hot and I was sweating. We turned a corner into the gorge per se; deep shadows and a breeze greeted us. The hike immediately seemed more tolerable. The trail climbed over and under large boulders of conglomerate, eventually ending above a grove of the maybe mini palms, in a blind canyon. It was totally quiet, except for the sound of birds and my heartbeat. The vertical walls of the gorge glowed red a the top. I thought, this is a good start.
Echidna Chasm proved this to be the case. This canyon, while an easy walk, pinched down until it was little more than hip wide, albeit 600 feet high. We passed under several large chockstones; boulders that had been trapped in their fall by the narrowing chasm. I hoped they were stable, at least for the rest of our hike. Like Mini Palm, the trail ended in a blind canyon; in this case defined by a waterfall chute fifty feet above the trail’s end. This would not be a good place to be in the wet. The chasm widened out a bit here, and many of our fellow hikers gathered here for a rest in the relatively cool shade. Most of the people were encountered were pensioners who were exploring the remoter parts of AustraliaThey were inevitably fun to talk to; for some reason most of them thought we were Canadian. . However, I was particularly struck by one family on holiday from Perth. They had three young boys, under ten at the oldest. Not only had they got them this far and up Echidna Chasm, but the eldest son was clearly mentally challenged. The father carried him the whole way, while patiently answering the middle son’s questions about spiders.
A quick stroll down the trail, and time for lunch. Geez, it was hotter. Riding in the truck with the AC on full seemed a good idea, so we went to the visitors centre for, in order: cold drinks, an excellent guide to Bungle Bungle geology, and reservations for a helicopter ride on Sunday. After sunset (talking to more pensioners, seeing the family again) it was time for dinner and sleep.