For just a moment the breeze stops and there is perfect silence. Not a single rustling palm frond. No squawking crows. No chirping finches. No helicopters overhead. Even that pesky fly stops buzzing for just a moment. Piccaninny Gorge is quiet at the best of times but this early in the season – on a hot, still day – the silence is deafening.
I set off yesterday afternoon for the 25km return hike into the heart of the Bungle Bungle Range. Early in the walk the classic beehive domes are perfectly reflected in the pools of Piccanniny Creek and again at sunrise, as the sun breaks the horizon, painting these ancient forms in red, orange and gold. It is otherworldly.
Painted finches make a brief appearance in all their colourful splendour. And a couple of golden tree snakes, warming themselves in the sun, stop to say hello. It is these brief moments of overlap with Kimberley wildlife that brings these places to life. The domes and the greater massif itself are not a dormant geological relic but a living, breathing home for the Kimberley’s often elusive wildlife. A pair of emus greet me at the car park as I arrive. A Jabiru sits proud and silhouetted against the setting sun. And a curious Children’s Python slithers by my sleeping mat after dark. A labyrinth of unspoiled natural habitat sits nestled here amongst the domes.
At times Purnululu can seem harsh and unforgiving, being only a stone’s throw from the edge of the Tanami Desert and averaging temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s at the beginning and end of the tourist season. But at other times it is a place of magic – spiritual almost. And at the end of each day a perfect night sky greets us once the sun has set. No one can look at the Kimberley’s night sky and not be moved – not be humbled.
The following morning sees me rounding The Elbow where Piccaninny Creek breaks west and Piccaninny Gorge officially begins. Sheer rock faces tower on either side, offering welcome relief from the sun, and the hidden gem of an oasis that is Black Rock Pool sits silent and still as glass. For the local Kija traditional owners who have lived in the area for 40,000 years this place is evidence of the Wandjina creator beings and ancestral spirits who carved up the landscape and are now an inseparable part what we see here today. For visitors and locals alike it is a spiritual place.
The hike further up is a good test of how much you really want to be here. A solid footing quickly gives way to soft sand and loose cobblestones. But that soft sand also becomes the perfect place to catch your breath after a refreshing dip in one of the creek’s many pools. In fact, despite the Bungles Bungles reputation for a distinct lack of water during the tourist season, in April the abundance of water adds to the challenge of the walk, often forcing you off the ‘path’ and up and into the surrounding spinifex grass, with its onslaught of needle-sharp points.
Despite the sand and the sun and the spinifex, 10km into the walk you are rewarded with Piccaninny’s five side gorges – or five ‘Fingers’ – for your efforts. These are a bush-walkers – or nature lovers – wonderland. A place seen by very few who come to the Bungles. Understandably not many people are interested in lugging their food and gear in for a multi-day – or overnight – hike when the comfort and convenience of a campground or luxury lodge and cold beer is within reach. For the second year running I’ve been fortunate enough to get in here before even the national park rangers have had time to walk the gorge, which means walking on untouched sand and leaving the very first footprints of the season.
People occasionally ask what I do all day when I’m out here. I tell them I walk. I swim. I take photos. But more importantly I take the time to slow down. To experience these places for what they really are. A place of nature, a place of silence, a place to lose yourself in a timeless landscape. A place far removed from the 21st century.
During the Wet season Piccininny Gorge’s Five Fingers are the beating heart of the Bungle Bungle Range, otherwise known as the Bungles Massif. Most of the water that falls on the western half of the massif drains into one of these 5 gorges, then into Picaninny Creek and ultimately into the 2nd biggest river in the Kimberley – The Ord. And it all starts here, 10km – and what feels like a million miles – from the nearest car park. Red sandstone stained black by successive rainfall tells a story far removed from what is visible today – a much larger range that has been carved up and deeply incised. Sandstone boulders reduced to the finest white sand one raindrop at a time. And as the water makes it way west, then east around The Elbow, the gorge it leaves behind is a thing of rugged beauty.
Somewhere between the 5th and 2nd Finger, the power of nature is further revealed. As the gorge walls narrow the creek is filled with towering boulders – an obstacle course not for the faint hearted. It is a further reminder that this is not a dormant relic, but a landscape that is evolving and being shaped one Wet Season at a time. A young Kija man from Halls Creek, Jacob, once told me he went to seek advice from an Aboriginal elder when offered a job working in the National Park. The wise old man told him “Don’t forget to look up. The ancestors like to drop boulders to remind you they are still here”. A spiritual place indeed.
Two days into my hike I near the very end of Picaninny Gorge. Fingers 3 and 4 break off just up ahead as I turn left into side gorge 2. As I turn the bend I am greeted by a triangular cave opening where the flowing water has undercut the sandstone, creating a long narrow passage. It is dark inside, the water is black, bats flutter overhead and only a glimmer of light can be seen at the other end of the tunnel. A dot on the map indicates this is officially the end of the walk. With a sigh of “Well, I’ve come this far”, I set my camera and valuables to one side. The water is crisp and the sandy bottom quickly drops away. There is a brief moment where I think “What the f”*k am I doing?”. Followed immediately by the recognition that I’m swimming through The Bungles very own equivalent of Tunnel Creek!
On my third morning the rising sun paints the top of the gorge walls a vibrant gold and orange. Falcons fly overhead. Fish swim in the shallows. It is another beautiful day in Australia’s north-west. Another day of magic in the Kimberley.