Close Ranges

The land­scape of West­ern Aus­tralia’s Kim­ber­ley re­gion is big, bold and as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful, writes Sarah Pick­ette.

Australian House & Garden - - News -

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.

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