Far north in Western Australia, almost on the border of the Northern Territory is Purnululu National Park. The park is known for the Bungle Bungle Range, a remarkable sandstone mountain range that is on UNESCO’s prestigious list of World Heritage-sites since 2003. This landmark is synonymous with the Kimberley. The Aboriginal people of Kija have lived here for over 20,000 years and named the place Purnululu, which means sandstone. The dome-shaped mountains have stood for millions of years and the rain has sculpted them into their present unique shape that resembles gigantic beehives. But it wasn’t until as late as 1983 that the area was put on the map, thanks to an Australian TV team visiting the area. When the film from the mountains was broadcasted to the world, the interest took speed. A few years later, Purnululu became a national park and shortly World Heritage-listed. Bungle Bungle and its horizontal stripes that shift in dark grey and a glowing orange, form an unusual mountain range. The sandstone domes get its streaks because of the different layers’ soil-composition and their porosity. The orange colour is rust coming from iron oxide while the grey shade is a result of bacteria forming a type of crust on the sandstone.
The national park is only open during the dry season, which usually falls between April and November. Coming here is an adventure. The Purnululu is really secluded. Just to get here, a four-wheel drive is an absolute must. The way in is a challenge even for the experienced. Surely, the Spring Creek Track is an extraordinary bumpy road full of holes, but don’t miss the chance to experience the journey. You are soon struck by the smell, the warmth and the sight. Bungle Bungle makes an impression, to say the least. The orange colours stand in big contrast to the icy-blue sky. Once in place, you can wander around the mountains and discover small chilling waterholes to cool off in. To complete your trip in style, take a helicopter ride over the Bungles. It is one of the best ways to get an overview of the domes. This way, you can see the narrow ravines winding their way between the dome formations. Make sure to camp at least one night in the park to get a sense of what it is like to live in these distant lands. Purnululu is a piece of genuine Australia. A photogenic landscape without frills and trappings. It is a scenic place in a harsh climate. And thus, also an unforgettable place.
Sights and experiences
The national park is divided into two parts, one in the south and one in the north. To the south you will find the unique beehive-shaped domes. The hikes in the southern part of the park start from the parking area at Piccaninny. Get out early in the morning to avoid the crowds swarming in during the day. From the parking lot there is a short trail called Domes Walk where you can see some of the domes before you get to the start of the trail leading you to the Cathedral Gorge. It is the most popular one out of all the hikes. Cathedral Gorge is a massive natural amphitheatre. The mountain walls rise to the sky and the sound bounces between them and creates a special acoustics. During the beginning of the dry season, a lake is filled with cold water. The hike to Piccaninny Creek is the most beautiful in the park, but it is also one of the more challenging. The trail consists of high amounts of gravel and sand. And there is not much protection from the sun. You can make this into a longer hike by spending the night along the trail, but it is not necessary. Instead, you can just go as far as you want before turning back. Whatever you do, it is best to first talk to the park guard that you get into contact with via the information centre. Follow Picaninny Creek all the way to the Black Rock Pool, a large pool protected by the shading mountains, keeping the water cold.
In the northern part of the park, the landscape is different. The mountain gorges are narrower and reaches hundreds of meters up. The trek to the Mini Palms Gorge is one of the funnier ones. It is five kilometres long and takes about two hours to walk back and forth. At first you follow a riverbed, then you must squeeze through narrow passages and crawl over boulders. Finally, you arrive at a vantage point where you will see a ravine full of towering palm trees looking like fans. The trail starts from the Mini Palms car park. Another parking lot is located near the Echidna Chasm, 19 kilometres from the information centre. An easier two-kilometre trail takes you to the bottom of the mountain gorge. You begin the hike in a palm tree lined gorge that soon narrows off. With mountain walls in spectacular colours combined with the light playing in the narrow passages, it is a good place to get the camera out. For this, the best time to come here is in the middle of the day when the sunrays reach in all the way. The trail takes an hour to walk. If you choose to take a side-track, you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Osmand Range. Being at the Picaninny Lookout at the end of the day is to recommend. It is one of the best places to watch the sun descend over the area, getting a good view of the domes. Otherwise, the Walanginjdji Lookout in the Information Centre’s immediate vicinity is another option.
In addition to walking among stone boulders and spikey shrubs, you can join in on a helicopter ride. Seeing the mountains in Bungle Bungle from above is a must if you have time and money. There are several companies that take you up in the air, and some of them are based on Kununurra. Aviair, formerly Slingair (aviair.com.au) is one of the most well-known companies. But also the Kimberley Air Tours (kimberleyairtours.com.au/our-tours) offers many different options. The journeys take from fifteen minutes up to a few hours. Also Helispirit (helispirit.com.au/all-tours/bungle-bungle-helicopter-tours) flies over the mountains. Kookaburra Air (wotif.com/things-to-do/bungle-bungles-and-lake-argyle-scenic-flight.a577986.activity-details) and East Kimberley Tours (eastkimberleytours.com.au/tours) also combines air travel and guided tours across the area. It is possible to customize a trip.
Good to know
There is a Visitor Information Centre at the entrance to the park which is open daily between 08:00 to 16:30 but closed for lunch between 12:00 and 13:00 (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/purnululu). Here you can register and pay an entrance fee that is around twelve dollars per vehicle. You only pay one entrance, no matter how many people you are and how long you plan to stay for. The centre also sells souvenirs and cool drinks. There are brochures and books available here as well as a telephone.
Warnings and preparations
The national park is only open during the dry season, which usually falls between April and November each year. It can get extremely hot during the days, often up to 45 degrees Celsius. Plenty of water and sunscreen is a must. The park is most beautiful at the beginning of the dry season when the vegetation’s greenery is returning. May is a good month for a visit. If you are driving to the park, be sure to pack everything you might possible need for a stay. There is nowhere to shop for neither food, water nor fuel within the park. A good idea is to freeze the water before you come here, to keep it cool for as long as possible. Even if the days are hot, the nights are icy cold. Pack with warm clothes to avoid shivering throughout the night.
Only four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed within the park. The road into the park is rough and can be hard to navigate. After the rainy season there are several streams running across the road, which you must drive through. Take it gently. If you feel unsure, it may be better to book in on an arranged tour. From the Great Northern Highway, it is 53 km to the park entrance, a distance that takes a little over two hours to drive. From Kununurra it takes up to five hours getting here.
If you want to stay the night within Purnululu National Park, it is mainly camping that applies. There are two campsites, one in the south and one in the north. Kurrajong Campground is located seven kilometres north of the information centre and is closer to the Mini Palms Gorge and Echidna Chasm. Walardi Campground is located 12 km south of the information centre near the domes, the Cathedral Gorge and the helipad. Apart from being a bit apart, both campsites are very similar and simple. They both have compost toilets and water taps. If you want to use the water, you must boil it first. It is therefore easier to bring a great volume of drinking water into the park. The campsites costs about 13 dollars per person and night and is paid at the information centre. Since the Walardi Campground is closest to the domes, this is a good option if you are short on time. You can book a site in advance online (parkstay.dpaw.wa.gov.au).
If frugal camping does not sound particularly attractive, and your travel budget is healthy, you can choose to stay in style. Book in your stay at APT’s Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Bungle_Bungle_Wilderness_Lodge.htm) that has more luxurious tents to sleep in with large beds. Breakfast and three-course dinners are served in the nature. The area is south at Bellburn Creek. Another option is to stay with East Kimberley Tours (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/East_Kimberley_Tours_Cabins_Kununurra.htm), a tourism company that has been active for a long time within the national park. You can choose to have all meals included or to take care of your meals on your own at their barbecue grills. There is a toilet and a shower on site. Their accommodations are eco-certified.
A Saturday in Purnululu National Park
06:00 – Early rise
It may seem a little early, but it is worth getting up early to max out the day. Watch the sun slowly rise and warm up the national park. Since time is short, it is best to stick to the southern part of the park in order to not miss the sandstone formations. Park at the Picaninny car park. Follow the signs for Cathedral Gorge and then turn off towards Domes Walk to admire the beehive shaped mountains. Then continue towards the Cathedral Gorge.
08:00 – Amphitheatre and acoustics
As you walk to the mountain gorge, you will find yourself among massive mountain walls that lets plenty of light in. If you are here during the beginning of the season you can dip your feet in the water basin that is formed after the rainy fall. Sit down and enjoy the peace. And use your voice to test the acoustics. Then follow the same path back towards the parking lot.
10:00 – Ravines, gorges, palms
Start walking along Picaninny Creek towards the Picaninny Gorge, a seven kilometres long hike back and forth. It’s a challenging hike, so make sure you have enough supplies packed. Once you reach the entrance to the mountain gorge there is no signposted road, instead you get to navigate yourself over rocks and gravel. Along the way you walk between beautiful domes while the sun is baking.
13:00 – Cooling shade
If you manage to get to the Black Rock Pool you won’t get disappointed. Here awaits an icy cold lake that is protected by high mountain walls and shady palm trees. Take a dip in the water and enjoy your packed picnic. The water is drinkable if you boil it first. After a short break, it is time to return. The trail is tough and takes longer than you think.
18:00 – Last stop
From the Picaninny car park you walk for one and a half kilometre to Picaninny Creek Lookout. It is one of Purnululus most photogenic places. You stop here to see the sun go down. Now you get a chance to see the sandstone domes shift in colours while the light paints the sky in shades of soft pastel.