Purnululu National Park Encompasses A Landscape So Culturally Rich And geologically unique that protecting it is considered a national priority. Although the Australian government closely controls tourist access, the stark beauty of the Bungle Bungle Mountains has attracted more visitors every year to this pristine wilderness area, which puts the fragile environment at risk. When you go, tread lightly.
Rising out of the vast and lonely landscape of the Kimberly, the Bungle Bungle Mountains are so stunning, it’s a wonder that they aren’t on everybody’s must-see list. Yet their very existence wasn’t even known until the early 1980s—that’s how rarely people travel to this sparsely inhabited, forgotten corner of Western Australia.
But perhaps that’s why these fragile sandstone marvels have held up so well. Soon after they were discovered, this national park was created to protect them. It’s promptly closed every year during the January to March rainy season, known here simply as the Wet, and in the dry season, the only access is by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The park has a rich repository of Aboriginal art and burial sites, but they’re kept off limits to casual visitors. Purnululu’s park management—a joint effort by white Australians and the local Aboriginal people—has evidently benefited from the mistakes other, older parks have made in managing their natural wonders. Let’s hope they got it right this time.
Geologists get excited talking about this unique range of sandstone domes (purnululu means “sandstone” in the local language). They’re rare examples of cone karst formations made of sandstone rather than limestone, heaved up from the floor of an ancient sea. Etched by erosion into filigreed beehives, they’re also vividly striped in contrasting orange and gray bands by ancient algae trapped inside the permeable stone. (Layers of sandstone containing more clay attracted bacteria that colored that stone orange.) The domes rise 200 to 300m (650–1,000 ft.) high, and cover an area of 45,000 hectares (111,150 acres), punctuated by knifelike gorges and palm-draped pools.
The domes look spectacular from the air—that’s the way most people see them, on 2-hour sightseeing flights from Kununurra. In fact, during the Wet, a plane is your only option. Once the waters subside, however, hikers take over the park, heading for spectacular Cathedral Gorge, the rock pool at Frog Hole Gorge, and palm-filled Echidna Chasm. Stark as the landscape looks from the air, on foot you’ll find it’s full of wildlife, particularly birds (rainbow bee-eaters, budgerigars), the rare nail-tailed wallaby, and a kangaroo cousin known as the euro. For all the effort it takes to get here, the rewards are spectacular.