The landscape of Western Australia’s Kimberley region is big, bold and astonishingly beautiful, writes Sarah Pickette.
The awe-inspiring grandeur of WA’s Kimberley region.
Expectations are funny things. I’ve never been to the Bungle Bungle Range in the Kimberley before, but I assumed its rock forms would have a kind of postcard familiarity, etched into my consciousness as they are by movies and Qantas commercials. Yet as they loom into view through the plane window, I’m quite unprepared for their scale and magnificence. Stretched out before me are thousands of sandstone domes, rounded smooth by millions of years of desert winds and wetseason torrents. As our Cessna soars and turns, shaded peaks burst into a vibrant, fiery orange as they’re lit by the eastern sun. I take photo after photo and then fix my eyes on the scene, burning this beauty to memory. As spectacular as this flight is, it becomes apparent that all this visual splendour is really just a warm-up for what’s next. We land at Bellburn, one of Western Australia’s tiniest ‘airports’, where the terminal comprises a shed and two composting loos, then climb aboard an open-sided HeliSpirit chopper. Up we rise for a dazzling bird’s eye view of Purnululu National Park, then we swoop along the rims of gorges where Livistona fan palms line pristine, unreachable waterholes. Hovering close to the domes, we take in the distinctive black striations of the Bungle Bungles. They are formed by cyanobacteria, single-celled organisms that create a crust just a few millimetres thick. My mind is a bit blown when our pilot mentions that those microscopic algae date back 3500 million years.
A steady flow of aural tidbits is delivered through our headphones: for about 20,000 years the Bungle Bungles have been home to the Kija people, whose rock art and engravings
This place is so vast and so awesome – in the true sense of the word – I feel it’s quite unknowable.
adorn its shelters and overhangs. Such a rich and important history, yet this part of the world was virtually unknown to most Australians until 1982, when a crew making a documentary on a cattle station was taken on a detour by a local mustering pilot and captured the majesty of these formations on film for the first time. That footage led to the area being declared a national park in 1987 and added to the World Heritage List in 2003.
Its status as a hidden gem suits the Bungle Bungles; this place is so vast and so awesome – in the true sense of the word – I feel it’s quite unknowable. This impression is further compounded when I’m told that no one yet has mapped exactly how many individual domes there are in Purnululu National Park. This makes me smile. In an age of information overload, it’s nice to think that some places hold their secrets tightly.
Back on the ground, I set off on foot into Cathedral Gorge. The track follows the contours of the domes and I run my fingers over their ancientness, letting my mind wander to what this place would have meant to the countless people who’ve trod this path before me. Cathedral Gorge is sacred to the Kija people, my walking companion tells me, because it’s women’s country and a birthing place. Daisy Croker is a 22-year-old trainee guide with Bungle Bungle Guided Tours and a Miriwoong woman from “nearby” Kununurra (actually about 300km away). When we reach the gorge, we rest on rocks and Daisy tells me her own Dreaming stories. It would be an honour to hear them anywhere, but to have her share them in this place, where the rocks sing with history, is truly a privilege.
The flight from Bellburn back to Kununurra takes us over the massive open-cut Argyle diamond mine, soon to close down and spectacularly boost the rarity and value of Kimberley diamonds. Our plane follows the path of the mighty Ord River, which churns white peaks even though it’s the dry season. I can only imagine what it’s like in the wet season, when in a single day up to 2500 gigalitres of water (enough to supply Perth for 10 years) can flow out to the ocean as rocks and cliffs are transformed into impromptu waterfalls.
Everything is big in this corner of WA. The next day we board a seaplane in Kununurra and head out into the astonishing expanse that is Lake Argyle. It’s Australia’s second largest manmade lake and occupies roughly 1000km2. The crests of flooded hills have become islands and, after a smooth water landing, our plane skis up onto one of them. We hop out and are greeted with vast blue views from every vantage point. I swim out into the cool, fresh water as three sea eagles glide above and a sleepy, harmless freshwater crocodile suns itself just within view.
Our stay in Kununurra coincides with the Ord Valley Muster, which takes place in May every year, and the town is busy and buzzing. Among the many events that are on offer, we’re lucky enough to catch an alfresco cooking demonstration by celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge, who oozes Irish charm as he talks nose-to-tail eating but is upstaged by his backdrop – the glory of Lily Creek Lagoon at sunset. Across town, there’s a beautiful corroboree under the stars at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts centre, where some of the artists I had the pleasure of meeting earlier don their ochre and proudly share their sacred songs with a mesmerised audience.
We head out of town via the Ivanhoe Crossing, the enormous concrete causeway across the Ord, made famous by Baz Luhrmann’s movie Australia.
Our destination is the curiously named El Questro. Formerly a cattle station, it’s now 283,000ha of wilderness park. There, we stay at Emma Gorge Resort, in the most perfect eco cabins with comfortable beds and good showers and no television or mobile reception. I pull up a chair outside my cabin and spend an hour watching the sun lower itself over the iron-rich cliffs that shelter the resort. This is my idea of bliss.
Before the sun rises the next morning, I pull on my boots to walk into nearby Emma Gorge. It’s an easy hike to do before breakfast, with the reward of a swim beneath the waterfall in what must be one of Australia’s most beautiful waterholes. And there’s some stiff competition for that title around these parts. Later that morning I visit Zebedee Springs on El Questro, which had to relinquish its previous obscurity after Nicole Kidman called this spot her ‘fertility waters’.
I float in the naturally warmed waters, surrounded by mossy rocks and ferns. Looking up through a swathe of towering palms, I gaze upon yet more gloriously imposing red-rock walls and experience a sensation that makes me feel like my heart has leapt outside my body. It’s weird at first, but then I recognise this feeling for what it is: pure joy.
Getting up close and personal with the beehive formations of the Bungle Bungle Range is an unforgettable experience.