Purnululu National Park
Lying deep in the rugged east Kimberley region, Purnululu National Park protects one of the world’s natural wonders, the Bungle Bungle Range. Its remarkable tiger-striped, beehive-shaped rock domes have become, somewhat belatedly, one of the iconic images of the Australian outback, and are appreciated worldwide for their exceptional natural beauty.
Purnululu National Park was declared a World Heritage area in 2003, in recognition of it being ‘the most outstanding example of cone karst in sandstones anywhere in the world’ and for its ‘superlative natural beauty and aesthetic importance’. The dramatically sculptured structures are hailed as being unrivalled in their scale, extent, grandeur and diversity of form anywhere in the world, undergoing remarkable seasonal variation in appearance, including striking changes in colour following rain. The adjacent conservation area is a buffer zone established to protect the park’s World Heritage values.
May to September; park closed 1 January–31 March
DEC Kununurra (08) 9168 4200
239 723 ha
79 602 ha (Purnululu Conservation Zone)
Kununurra (08) 9168 1177
Featured Activities in the National Park
Enjoy the thrill of a scenic ﬂight over the Bungle Bungles and take in the magniﬁcent views
Photograph the orange-banded cliffs glowing in the late-afternoon sun
Experience the breathtaking magic of Cathedral Gorge
- Purnululu National Park, Eco-friendly activity
- The Bungle Bungles – Purnululu National Park, Natural Wonders, Natural Wonders
A look at the past
The ancient Bungle Bungle Range was the Kimberley’s best-kept secret until the early 1980s, known only to local Aboriginal people and a few pastoralists. In 1885 gold was discovered at Halls Creek and the subsequent gold rush brought miners to the region. European graziers followed in the 1880s, marking the beginning of a 150-year period of land erosion. In 1967, the government resumed the leases as part of an erosion-control program throughout the Ord River catchment area. However, it was not until the early 1980s when filmmaker Guy Baskin included aerial footage of the Bungle Bungles in his television series Wonders of Western Australia that Australians became aware of this 350-million year-old natural treasure in the outback. In 1987 the area was gazetted as a national park.
Purnululu has a rich Aboriginal cultural heritage spanning at least 20 000 years (Australia is pursuing an additional World Heritage listing of Purnululu for this remarkable cultural tradition, which has survived the impact of colonisation). The area is traditionally the land of the Kija people of the eastern Kimberley region, and their neighbours the Jaru, a group belonging to the Desert region. Both these groups still live in settlements in the eastern Kimberley. The Kija people put up fierce resistance to the pastoralists. They killed the cattle (livestock numbers on the Ord River grasslands had reached 50 000 by 1902) and in retaliation there were brutal massacres of local Aboriginal people and punitive police raids. At the height of the violence, many of the Kija took refuge in the Bungle Bungles. They used notched tree trunks to scale the cliffs and pulled these makeshift ladders up afterwards to prevent pursuit. To try and stop the livestock killing, the government provided some refuges and food, but did not stop the land and cultural dispossession, which continued into the 1970s.
Today, descendants of the park’s traditional owners live in population centres such as Halls Creek and Warmum. The people of Warmum have worked extensively on language and literacy programs for schools and have produced a large amount of teaching material. Some help manage the national park, with a number of Aboriginal people employed as rangers and guides. In the Kija language, ‘purnululu’ means ‘sandstone’.
The history of the Jaru following white settlement mirrored the history of the Kija described above. Most of the people lived and worked on pastoral properties in the area until 1968, when the introduction of award wages resulted in Aboriginal workers being forced to leave. They moved to Halls Creek and several town camps were set up to separate the Jaru and Kija peoples – to prevent friction between them.
Aboriginal rock art adorns some shelters, caves and gorges in the park, with depictions of crocodiles and fish, as well as hand stencils. There is no public access to these sites. There are also many Aboriginal burial sites but these, too, are closed to the public. Living Area leases in the national park for some traditional Aboriginal owners have been signed recently with the Purnululu Aboriginal Council.
The relationship of the Indigenous people to the land has been highlighted by the renowned paintings of the Warmun artists. This group emerged in the 1970s, painting ceremonial boards using natural ochres of brown, black and yellow defined by white and black dots. Warmun Art Centre was established in 1998 to represent the Warmun artists and market their work both in Australia and overseas. The most famous of the Warmun artists are Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie.
The national park has four major ecosystems: the Bungle Bungle Mountain Range, a plateau that dominates the centre of the park; wide sand plains surrounding this plateau; the Ord River valley to the east and south of the park; and limestone ridges and ranges to the west and north of the park.
The Bungle Bungle Range is a deeply fissured plateau that rises more than 200 to 300 metres above the surrounding plain. It is distinguished by great cliffs on its western edge that are cut by seasonal waterfalls and pools, numerous narrow gorges, deep gullies, and beehive-shaped domes of rock on its southern edge. Some 350 million years ago geological activity caused uplifts that formed the ranges to the north and west then erosion by creeks and rivers resulted in the transportation of sand and rocks. The rocks were strewn at the edge of the cliffs but the sands were carried further, gradually hardening over time to form sandstone channels.
Over the last 20 million years further uplift and erosion of the sandstone has created the range’s distinctive domes, some rising up to 300 metres high. The sandstone is so fine that it crumbles when touched. The dark bands are the more porous layers of rock, where the presence of moisture has encouraged the growth of dark-coloured algae. The less porous layers of the domes are coated with iron oxides that stain the surface orange. These thin layers of black lichen (Microthelia arterrina) and orange silica cover and protect the sandstone, giving the domes their distinctive horizontal black-and-orange banding. While sandstone towers are known in other parts of the world, the features of the Bungle Bungles are unrivalled.
Of the many gorges in the range, Cathedral Gorge is perhaps the most awe-inspiring. It is a natural amphitheatre, a quiet place surrounded by sheer rock walls, with a sliver of blue sky above and a still pool of water below.
The Ord River valley drains Bellburn and Piccaninny creeks from the south and Red Rock, Osmond and Buchanan creeks from the north. Between the plateau and the river, the flat sand plains are covered with spinifex grassland (one spinifex species, Triodia bunglensis, is endemic to the park), punctuated by eucalypts (silverleaf bloodwood, roughleaf range gum and snappy gum), hakeas, acacias and grevilleas; sandstone grevillea (Grevillea miniata) and rock grevillea (G. psilantha) are endemic to the region and found only in the national park. The limestone ridges to the west and Osmand Range to the north are more thickly timbered. Closed forests in the park’s valleys and gorges change to open forests and woodlands in drier areas.
Within the deep valleys and gorges various palms thrive, along with orchids and delicate ferns. A total of 653 plant species have been recorded in the national park, including 17 different types of fern.
Located in an area where the desert meets the tropics, Purnululu has animal species that typify both environments. There are 41 mammal, 149 bird, 81 reptile, 12 amphibian and 15 fish species. In the drier areas on the plateau reptiles are common, with monitors (including Gould’s goanna) and skinks blending in with the colours of their surroundings. Mammals include the short-eared rock-wallaby, which roams the grasslands and also ventures into the rocky hills and gorges searching for seeds. The northern nailtail wallaby inhabits the open woodlands, moving onto the grasslands at night to feed.
In the sheltered valleys and damper areas you may glimpse frogs, pale field-rats and the large-footed myotis, a species of bat that roosts close to water – it has exceptionally large feet, up to 14 millimetres long. The males are extremely territorial, forming harems in the breeding season but roosting alone at other times.
Of the large numbers of birds found in the park, many are migratory species, such as the very rare grey falcon, a beautiful white and grey raptor that nests in tall eucalypts overlooking watercourses. It moves to these northern climes in autumn–winter, preying on smaller birds such as pigeons, which it pursues through the treetops. More commonly seen in the park are the gorgeous blue and green rainbow bee-eaters and flocks of colourful budgerigars.
This remote wilderness offers quiet pleasures to those who make the journey. The only means of access into the gorges is by foot so walking is the main activity. You cannot climb the domes.
Cathedral Gorge walking trail (3 km return, 1–2 hours, easy–moderate) is mostly easy, but has a few short difﬁcult sections, with some rock ledges, waterholes and stony depressions to be negotiated. At the wide still pool at the end of the trail, look for animal tracks near the water’s edge. Piccaninny Gorge walking trail (30 km return, 2 days, moderate–difﬁcult) requires an overnight camp. Piccaninny Gorge is located at the point where Piccaninny Creek emerges from the plateau. You must register with the ranger before setting out and on your return. You must be self-sufﬁcient, carry plenty of water, and a fuel stove for cooking (no campﬁres allowed). From the Piccaninny Gorge carpark, the short Domes walk (1-km circuit, easy) leads through sandstone towers.
On the northern side of the park, Frog Hole trail (1.4 km return, 1–2 hours, moderate–difﬁcult) leads to a small seasonal pool at the base of the Bungle Bungle Range. After rain a waterfall drops over 100 metres into the palm-fringed pool, home to a number of frog species. Echidna Chasm trail (2 km return, 1–2 hours, easy–moderate) involves some rock scrambling and clambering over several large boulders. The chasm is narrow and is not for the claustrophobic; at its narrowest part the walls are over 100 metres high and barely an arms' width apart, and it ends at a sheer rock face. The challenging Mini Palms trail (5 km return, 3 hours, easy–difﬁcult), leading to a scenic amphitheatre of palms, begins easily then narrows and becomes closed in and walkers have to clamber over boulders and ‘squeeze’ between rocks.
The best times of the day for photography are early morning and late afternoon, when the rays of the fading sun cast a red glow across the landscape, producing a striking richness of colour in the sandstone.
A scenic flight from within the park, or from Halls Creek, Kununurra or Warmun, is the best way to gain a perspective of the massive size and spectacular scenery of the Bungle Bungle Range. Both helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft operate flights. Contact Heliwork WA (08) 9169 1300.
The Walanginjdji Lookout, a short walk from the ranger’s station (500 metres return, 30 minutes), provides panoramic views of the western side of the Bungle Bungles. Sunset is the best time for viewing, when the setting sun intensifies the vibrant colours of the range.
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