Western Australia: Nature's bungle

By Chris Pritchard

The Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park. A helicopter trip is a good way to view this geological oddity in Australia's East Kimberley region.
The Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park. A helicopter trip is a good way to view this geological oddity in Australia's East Kimberley region.

Like a series of giant punctuation marks, the East Kimberley region's most magnificent tourist attraction rises from an arid Outback.

This is the 350-million-year-old Bungle Bungles, one of the Australian hinterland's most celebrated sights: a cluster of enormous dome-shaped sandstone rocks plonked in the middle of nowhere and often described as resembling a scattering of oversized beehives.

Strangely smooth-looking fringes hide eerily silent gorges where splendid fan palms thrive near rock pools and waterfalls. The Bungle Bungles, a geological oddity that seems to have burst from beneath the red earth, are the most prominent feature of Purnululu National Park, which 10 years ago gained World Heritage status.

Cliffs plunge dramatically on rugged terrain beneath me as we skim at low altitude above this far-flung natural marvel. A passenger on a return visit excitedly tells his companion about wow-factor spots in the Bungle Bungles: Echidna Chasm, formed by millions of years' erosion, and the amphitheatre-like Cathedral Gorge.

Some tourists drive the 350km from Kununurra (taking up to five hours each way because of a corrugated section). But time-poor visitors take joy flights, which several operators offer from Kununurra.

The usual base for exploring the East Kimberley is Kununurra, a modern town established 53 years ago.

Just 37km from the Northern Territory border, it's closer to Darwin (820km) than to Broome (927km) or Karratha (1808km) - even though the last-mentioned two are, like Kununurra, in Western Australia's vast northwest.

Aside from the Bungle Bungles, attractions are many:

Kununurra: It's unusual to have a national park within walking distance of a town centre. Moments after a hotel breakfast, I'm trudging along a boardwalk between steep gorges at Mirima National Park (still commonly called Hidden Valley National Park).

Trails head between steep cliffs. The best view over town is from a lookout called Kelly's Knob. Scenic Ivanhoe Crossing is famed for barramundi fishing - but not for swimming because of saltwater crocodiles.

Lake Argyle: Australia's biggest artificial lake by water volume is classic away-from-it-all territory.

As Lake Argyle Resort owner Charlie Sharpe tells me: "Sometimes you feel this vast body of water is your private lake."

Fishing and jet-skiing are popular. Cruises allow croc-spotting and watching catfish feeding frenzies. Wallabies hop at the lake's edge. A shop and restaurant cater for day-trippers, many on motoring holidays. Accommodation is in serviced apartments or motel-style.

Argyle Diamond Mine: Producing 20 million carats a year, the world's largest diamond mine is best known for its pink diamonds. Visitors are admitted if they take day-trip tours from Kununurra. Commentary reveals much about mining and local Aboriginal history.

Wyndham: A lunch date at The Rusty Shed Cafe brings me 103km (negligible in these parts) from Kununurra to Wyndham, an old port that fell on hard times but now has renewed pep because of iron, nickel and beef exports as well as cruise ship visits.

A late-1800s gold rush fizzled but gave Wyndham, with its 18m Big Crocodile at the town entrance, a legacy of historic buildings, among them Lee Tong's shuttered store recalling a Chinese community's commercial importance.

Five Rivers Lookout has vistas of the King, Durack, Ord, Forrest and Pentecost rivers winding through wetlands to the sea. This area is famed for migratory birds arriving from as far as Siberia, best seen from hides and boardwalks at Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve.

Ord River Irrigation Area: The first slow-growing sandalwood crop will be harvested this year. Trees take a decade to mature and grow only if joined to parasite trees.

Sandalwood is used in perfumes and toiletries. Tours through the Ord River Irrigation Area - originally intended for cotton and sugar cane - pass large sandalwood plantations, tropical fruits such as mangos and bananas as well as sorghum and chickpeas. Tourists with cars often explore the area independently.

Ord River Cruises: I'm on a cruise run by Triple J Tours, clearly one of Kununurra's more popular diversions. We stop for tea in a clearing on a forested river bank after pausing to eyeball eagles soaring overhead and saltwater crocodiles basking on banks.

Visitors go by bus to Lake Argyle, 70km from Kununurra (stopping at the Durack family's former homestead), and then cruise down the Ord River - or travel in the opposite direction.

The Berkeley River Lodge: I've watched turtles on beaches but have never previously observed a turtle laying eggs by moonlight. Boat excursions (with optional fishing) head up rivers slicing between gorges. A helicopter whisks me to the tops of waterfalls - all from the lap of luxury at one of Australia's remotest resorts.

East Kimberley locals acknowledge mixed feelings about increasing numbers of tourists visiting their far-flung region. They want to share their rugged slice of paradise but, on the other hand, also quite like keeping it to themselves.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas flies direct from Auckland to Perth.

Accommodation: Three centrally-located options are Pinctada Kimberley Grande Hotel, Freshwater East Kimberley Apartments and, in the budget category, Ibis Styles.

Lake Argyle Resort is a midmarket family-oriented property with numerous outdoor activities.

Details: Ord River cruises are run by Triple J Tours. Ask at your accommodation about other tours and activities.

Further information: See australiasnorthwest.com and westernaustralia.com.

The writer travelled as a guest of Australia's Northwest Tourism.

- AAP

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