Have you ever gone somewhere, and just felt an overwhelming feeling of awe? An overwhelming feeling of calmness? An overwhelming feeling of love?
For us, this feeling, this overwhelming sensation, this place, was Purnululu National Park.
Many years ago, my husband James and I (although he was my fiancé back then!) were travelling Australia and driving along the Great Northern Highway in our old kombi van. We took one look at the sign that said ‘4WD required for Purnululu National Park’ and (sadly) knew that the Bungles would have to be a place to return to one day. We never wrote it down, but it was very much on our ‘list’.
Over the years, we never stopped thinking about Purnululu. We never stopped thinking about what was past that 4WD sign. What was down that windy, gravel road. What was waiting for us.
Years later, when James and I got married, we were inundated with honeymoon recommendations. Our friends and family suggested the Maldives, Greece, Fiji and the Whitsundays (if we wanted to stay in Australia). And while every place looked and sounded utterly amazing, we felt they weren’t quite right for us. When we pictured our first few weeks of married life, we pictured sunsets, tents, the outdoors, mountains, hiking, picnics, adventures and lots and lots of sunshine. We realised, with a jolt of excitement, that the honeymoon we were picturing was in the beautifully rugged Kimberley, and more specifically, Purnululu National Park.
So, we packed our bags, got a 4WD and started the (long!) drive up from Perth. We spent hours in the car, eagerly discussing what the Bungles would look like, what sunset would feel like, what the hikes would be like. Anticipation is a truly wonderful thing. And when you mix that with excitement, the result is unequivocally thrilling.
But while James and I chatted away in the car for hours and hours, picturing the tiger-striped domes, all the adventures we would have, the camping we would experience, we both found ourselves falling silent as we finally approached that windy gravel road. That same road from all those years ago. In fact, we ended up driving the entire 53km into the Park, both silent, both speechless, both absolutely overwhelmed.
We didn’t know it then, but we were taken by Purnululu. It just had us. That first glimpse you get of the Bungle Bungle range is truly indescribable. It will take your breath, and your speech away.
We spent two nights in the Park, creating some of the most wonderful memories I think we will ever have. Watching the domes light up and become a fiery blaze at sunrise, sleeping under the brightest Milky Way we had ever seen, having our breakfast taken by a cheeky magpie, singing songs in Cathedral Gorge as we tested out the acoustics, marvelling at the towering height of Echidna Chasm, and eating lunch in Piccaninny Creek while chatting with a ranger. But every evening was my favourite. We would grab our picnic blanket and choose a spot to sit in and watch the sun go down. In silence. Just like our drive into the Park.
On our last night in the Park, as we were watching the Bungles transform from orange to red while the sky above transformed from pink to purple, I broke the silence and suddenly said to James “this feels like the heart of the Kimberley”. James simply nodded along (he’s not really much for words) and so, we sat there in silence once again, watching the beautiful display that was unfolding in front of us. When we got into our tent later that night, I felt frustrated I couldn’t explain the feelings that Purnululu had ignited in me. I turned to James, exasperated, and threw around words as quickly as I possibly could, but I got nowhere. James (I think wanting to get some shut-eye at that point), looked at me and simply said “there probably are no words, this place just has us”. As he went to sleep shortly after, I lay there. Awake. Thinking about those words. Those simple, small words. They were perfect.
The Park had us. The Heart of the Kimberley had us.
We loved our time in Purnululu so very much, the two of us decided to return the following year. On our second visit, we spent an entire week in the Park and to our delight, we discovered we were just as much taken by the heart of the Kimberley as we were the first time.
From fiery sunsets to unworldly hikes and sleeping under a star-filled sky, we hope you too, will find yourself taken by Purnululu. The heart of the Kimberley.
Drive in -> Visitor Centre -> Echidna Chasm -> Osmand Lookout -> Mini Palms Walk -> Set up at Walardi Campground -> Sunset at Piccaninny Creek -> Walardi Campground
- Drive into the Park as early as possible (allow yourself two to three hours to do this drive comfortably). Note, most people typically enter the Park around 8am-9am, and those departing usually leave around 10am. The road is narrow for the most part, so if you’re driving during these typically busier times, be sure to keep as far left as possible.
- Once you arrive in the Park, stop in at the Visitor Centre, have a chat with the staff and grab yourself a map.
- Using your map, head to the North side of the Park, aiming to get to Echidna Chasm carpark around 10-10:30am. An easy-moderate 2km (return) walk will take you into the 200m high chasm and you want to be there well before it’s halfway through the day (halfway through the day is not to be confused with midday!). Echidna Chasm is a truly spectacular narrow chasm and during the middle of the day, the sun beams onto the chasm walls, turning them into an incredible fiery display. The Chasm get a bit busy at this time (and rightly so!), so you will be grateful to get there early! For reference when we visited in the middle of July, the peak time to see the chasm light up was about 11am.
- After Echidna Chasm, head back to your car, pack yourself some lunch and walk to Osmand Lookout. There is a picnic bench at the end which provides a brilliant view of the rugged Osmand Range (although note – there is not much shade on offer). Alternatively (if it’s hot!), you can eat your lunch in the Echidna Chasm carpark as it boasts several benches and (very welcomed!) shade sails.
- If you are interested in seeing an Aboriginal fertility cave and flashes of vivid green against the bright orange Purnululu backdrop, the 5km return walk to Mini Palms Gorge is one you won’t want to miss. (You can start at the Echidna Chasm carpark, but if it’s too hot, you can also drive to the Bloodwoods carpark and start from there [as this makes it shorter]). The Livistona Palms create a uniquely tropical feeling in the Park – don’t forget to look up and spot them all!
- Once you’re all walked out, drive over to Walardi Campground where you will have booked a two-night stay online. This drive is approximately 27km (and can take longer than 30 minutes as you’re essentially driving from one side of the Park to the other). Once you have arrived at Walardi, set up camp and relax.
- Two hours before the sun is set to go down, pack a few snacks, and drive over to the Bungle Bungle Range (what you’ve been waiting for I’m sure!). Make sure you spot the Elephant Bungle on the way! Park at Piccaninny Creek carpark, and walk the 2.8km (return) walk to Piccaninny Creek Lookout. This is a beautiful spot to sit and watch the sun go down, and we suggest getting there well before the sun sets, as watching the last light hit the Bungles is truly breathtaking (you will most certainly want to pack your camera!!).
- After you have marvelled at the sunset, head back to Walardi Campground, have dinner and get yourself some shut-eye.
Optional – night-time activity
- As you walk back from your sunset expedition at Piccaninny Creek Lookout, stop and watch the stars rise along the creek bed. We love the set of Bungles on the south east side of Piccaninny Creek – you will see them just before you take the side track to Piccaninny Creek Lookout (when approaching from the carpark). We also think these Bungles are very ‘clean cut’ for astrophotography if you fancy getting some pictures of the striped domes and twinkling stars above.
Cathedral Gorge -> Piccaninny Creek -> Relax at Walardi Campground -> Sunset at Kungkalanayi -> Walardi Campground
- Wake up early and pack breakfast. Drive to Piccaninny Creek carpark again, but before you start heading to the lookout from yesterday, this time you want to take a different route, as you’re off to see the incredible Cathedral Gorge (a 3km return walk from the carpark). Cathedral Gorge is an amazing natural amphitheatre formed of red rock, and when you visit early in the morning, not only will you most likely have the place all to yourself, but you will also see it light up as the early morning sun hits the gorge walls. Ideally you want to be in Cathedral Gorge approximately an hour after the sun has risen. Sit here, take it all in, and eat your breakfast. No doubt you will want to test the acoustics too!
- After marvelling at Cathedral Gorge, walk along Piccaninny Creek while you still have a bit of the early morning breeze. This was our favourite walk in the entire Park – and it’s really one you can tailor to suit your own desires – simply walk down the creek bed as little or as long as you like. The walk is very open so you will want to make sure you are lathered up with sunscreen. You will pass ‘The Window’ on your way, and have the option of a side trip to Whip Snake Gorge, although we personally found the creek itself to be better in terms of scenery.
- Once your camera roll is full of pictures of the limestone domes, head back to Walardi and relax for a few hours. Keep your eyes and ears out, as there is an abundance of wildlife in the Park – the ranger told us there are 149 bird species, 81 different reptile types and even a rare Wallaroo (we’re still hoping to spot one of these!).
- After you have relaxed, pack yourself another picnic, and drive to Kungkalanayi (which means lookout in local Aboriginal language). This is near the Visitor Centre and offers a truly gorgeous spot to watch the sun go down. The lookout provides an exceptional view of the Bungle Bungle’s western face, and as the sun sets, the mountain face turns ablaze (which looks amazing against the backdrop of soft pinks and purples in the sky). Now, this spot does get quite busy at sunset, especially with tour buses, so again, leave a little earlier if you can so you’re able to secure yourself a nice quiet spot. We suggest bringing your own picnic blanket so you don’t need to rely on a bench being available. This is a relatively easy 500m walk (although uphill) and should only take 10-15 minutes (one way).
- After you have marvelled at another beautiful Purnululu sunset, head back to Walardi Campground.
Optional night-time activity
- If you enjoyed watching the stars rise above the Bungles in Piccaninny Creek last night, there are two other starry spots that we love - Cathedral Gorge (where you were this morning) or Osmand Lookout (where you may have had lunch on your first day!).
- If you decide on Osmand Lookout, go straight from sunset as you are almost half way there (30km from Walardi and 17km from Kungkalanayi).
Optional – for a third/fourth night
- Depending on how long you have in the Park (and how adventurous you are!!), there is a multi-day hike called the Piccaninny Gorge trek that is absolutely stunning. To do this walk, you follow the creek bed as far as it goes and then have the option of exploring the five “fingers”. We did this as a one-night hike but exploring the fingers and walking all the way back out with heavy packs (particularly on soft sand!) was rather tough on the legs (we walked over 25kms that day). We think two nights would allow for a more enjoyable pace! Given the number of rescues that have occurred here, you must register for this walk at the Visitor Centre first and hire a personal locator beacon (PLB) if you don’t have one. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an absolutely surreal experience. If you’re thinking of doing this trek, have a chat with the friendly Visitor Centre staff when you first arrive as they gave us some great tips before we set off!