August 28, Part 2

We finally stopped at a remote spot where incredible rock formations surrounded us. We were here to explore Wanjina rock art. The Wanjina are mythical ancestral beings, elemental spirit beings that originated in the sea and sky. It is believed the older paintings are at least 4,000 years old, though some paintings in this region are made or renewed even today. The figures are alien-looking beings, with large eyes and no mouths.

Wanjina Spirit Figures

Wanjina Spirit Figures


After spending a fair bit of time examining and learning about the paintings, we continued exploring the area. The rocks are astonishingly shattered and worn, with roots prying open cracks and trees perching on ledges. One rock looked to me like a huge face. We saw a gigantic spider–bigger than my hand, even with fingers spread—and gave it wide berth. (We were later told that it was not a type we needed to worry about.) Everything else was fascinating and quite wonderful.
mitchell-rocks-1-lighter mitchell-rocks-2
Then on to our campsite, which was not far beyond, at a site on the King Edward River. Here, rocks jut up at one end of camp, and the river runs along one side of the small bit of flat area where our tents are to be put up. Pandanus and huge paperbarks cluster along the riverbanks, and rock slabs rise up from or slope into the water in various places. Large numbers of ducks sat on the far shore, watching us was we set up camp.
King Edward River

King Edward River


With camp up, it was time for a dip in the clear water. The submerged parts of the rocks along the water’s edge were covered with some sort of moss or algae that made them unbelievably slippery. If a rock was at a slant, you couldn’t stand, or even sit in one place—you’d just keep sliding. It made getting into and especially getting out of the water a bit challenging–though it was definitely worth the effort.

As the sun began to approach the horizon, more birds began to arrive and/or began singing. Butcherbirds, whistling kites, cockatoos, and myriad unknowns joined us in camp. Other than the heat and flies, this could be paradise.

The sunset was beautiful. The moon was the tiniest sliver in the darkening sky. The cockatoos have squawked good night. Mim is preparing damper for us to enjoy after dinner.
king-edward-river-sunest
The heat from our cooking fire drove a big spider out into the open, and it disappeared in the dark. Then a grasshopper jumped down the back of my neck. These generated a half hour of bug and spider stories. But then conversation returned to adventures in Australia–those we’d all had and those we anticipated in the morning. Nice evening.

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Trip 3:Monday, August 28 Part 1

Dawn on the Durack. We were camped at the water’s edge, so the scene was spectacular. Flocks of black and white cockatoos circled overhead. The light crept down the red cliffs and reflected on the water. Glorious morning.

After packing up camp, we had a leisurely morning, hiking up and down the river, admiring the birds and the view, sitting in the shade and chatting. John had to change a tire, which is the activity to which we owed our leisure time.

The spot was of such beauty that it was hard to leave. The river was clear, with a few waterlilies along the shore. The birds were astonishing: hundreds of white cockatoos, plus butcherbirds, kites, willy wagtails, and others I don’t know, including tiny brown and white shore birds, little yellow flower eaters, and more. I startled little lizard, who then posed for a photo. Some of cockatoos dropped in for a visit. The paperbark trees were in bloom. All quite wonderful.

Durack River

Durack River

cockatoos-durackriver
As we departed, hundreds of cockatoos burst into the air and accompanied us for the first half mile. It was another spectacular day.

Off again across the vast green and gold emptiness. Gusts of wind kicked up puffs of dust from time to time, but it was otherwise a still, cloudless, blazing day.

Forded the Gibb River–the river that gave its name to the road we have been following–then stopped to take photographs and stretch our legs. Then onward again.

Gibb River

Gibb River


Into Drysdale Station at King Edward River, for fuel and soft drinks. A rather grim, utilitarian place carved out of the bush: broad, dusty yard surrounded by utes, jeeps, steel drums, water tanks, trailers, and corrugated-iron shacks. A few decorative trees seemed to be afterthoughts–a scattering of mango trees and sausage trees, all rather dusty and tired looking. But then, it is the end of the dry season. I suspect much in this area is a bit dusty and tired. Then back on the road.

We had lunch at the edge of the Drysdale River. Gorgeous spot. Paperbark trees and pandanus surrounded us. Red dirt, green water, blue sky. A black ibis and a white-faced heron waded nearby, no doubt with eyes focused on the tiny fish we could see darting about in the clear river. Dragon flies danced among the plants growing around us.

Drysdale River

Drysdale River

White-faced Heron

White-faced Heron


Continuing on, we crossed an area that seemed more like parkland, or a back paddock, than wild bushland. Taller trees were wildly spaced across a region of shorter grass (anywhere from ankle- to knee-deep, as opposed to the 7 foot-tall spear grass we’d seen earlier).

Many areas are blackened by the annual burn off, but new growth is evident in all but the most recently burned (or currently burning) places. Did see a few fires, as well as a lot of sand palms and 5 or 6 brumbies (wild horses).

Burn Off

Burn Off


The road became not simply worse by unbelievably worse. However, the wilder the road, the more spectacularly primitive and exotic the scenery became.

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Trip 3:Sunday, August 27

Beautiful sunrise. Flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos and caroling butcherbirds greeted us. The rising sun painted the pale-trunked ghost gums and curving humps of spinifex in changing pastels.

Bush brekkie, bush loo, then back on the track. I am endlessly impressed by the skill with which John handles the seemingly impossible (and sometimes undiscernible) “roads” that we are traversing.

After a couple of hours, we rejoined the highway, turning north again, retracing our route toward Kununurra. The boabs reappeared as we neared the coast. There were none farther inland. It’s a trade-off: the spinifex that was so abundant inland has now disappeared. However, there are always eucalypts and termite mounds.

Approaching Kununurra, we passed Lake Kununurra, which is in fact a huge reservoir created by the damming of the Ord River. Having previously seen it in the dark, it was nice to see it in daylight. Easy to see why it’s a popular holiday destination.
Lake Kununurra
We had a couple of hours free in Kununurra, while Kate shopped for food and John had some work done on the truck. A few people did laundry. I wrote all my postcards and got them into the mail. And we all had lunch. I had a meat pie—my first this trip. Delightful.

I took a few photos of “downtown” Kununurra and of some of the local flowers (including the insanely fragrant plumeria-frangipani pictured below). Then it was time to hit the road again, headed for the legendarily rough car-wrecker, the Gibb River Road and the remote and still largely untouched Kimberley region.
Plumeria-Frangipani-lighter
Fork-tailed kites, whistling kites, and sulphur-crested cockatoos became more common as we got farther from town. We passed the entrance to El Questro Wilderness Park, which is home to everything from campsites to an incredibly posh resort, where you can sleep in luxury and still wake to the rugged beauty of the Kimberley. But we’d be going far deeper into the region than this.

The scenery remained utterly spectacular as we continued along the Gibb River Road. The remains of huge, ancient plateaus towered above the increasingly arid, hilly landscape. We stopped at the Pentecost River crossing, which cuts across the road. This is one of those places that reminds you why you want to have a good guide and driver—because it’s not entirely clear that there is a way across. Rocks and water and no sign of a road. It is, however, a beautiful spot, with egrets wading nearby. After a few photos, we continued on, with John skillfully negotiating the crossing—and, happily, making it, since this is a tidal river, which means saltwater crocodiles, so we wouldn’t want to wade.

Pentecost River crossing

Pentecost River crossing


As we continued on, a few clouds appeared, making shadows on the landscape. Next stop was the lookout over Home Valley, facing the Cockburn Range. Incredible. Like looking at the ruined fortress of an ancient civilization, only more wonderful.
Home Valley-Cockurn Range Cockurn Range
A few more stops along the way, and then on to the Durack River. What a beautiful spot. The sun was setting beyond the hills, and the clouds and water were dusted with pink and violet. I managed to get a couple of photos while the light lasted, then we set up camp.
Durach River Sunset
The campsite at which we had stopped had showers, though no lights and only cold water. But it was running water, and we enjoyed cleaning up after a couple of days of being hot and grubby.

The stars were incredible, and the frogs, night birds, and river supplied calming music. Bats were delighted with the insects drawn to our camp light (there is one lantern on the 4WD), and we could see them swooping through the edges of its beams. A gentle breeze made the evening more perfect still.

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August 26, Part 2

Back at the 4WD, we drank lots of water, then “mounted up” and drove a few miles to the local heliport, where we had a quick lunch while we waited for the helicopter to arrive. I also popped some medicine for airsickness, just in case. It proved to have been a wise move.
Bungles -chopper arives
I had never been in a helicopter before, and this was an astonishing introduction. The doors of the helicopter had been removed, to offer unrestricted views as we flew. When Athena and Belinda saw that there were no doors, they asked to sit in the back seat, which left the seat next to the pilot for me. I couldn’t have been happier. The front window curved up overhead and down under my feet, so I could see straight down between my feet. There was no “wall” next to me, so my view was truly unimpeded. When we were well strapped in, we took off like a bullet. It was a bit windy, and we danced a little in the wind as we raced across the plain and swooped up and over the edge of the Bungle Bungles.

We hovered, swooped, went sideways up one long gorge, and tilted from side to side, to make sure the three of us saw everything. At one spot, the pilot simply turned us around 360˚ over the center of the range. Below us, the unbelievable, grotesquely beautiful Bungles opened up in gorges and chasms and hidden places that are off limits from the ground.
Bungles -chopper ride 1 Bungles -chopper ride 2 Bungles -chopper ride 3
The dodging and dipping did cause a bit of queasiness, but I was still absolutely delighted with the ride. With the doors removed, I could lean out of the helicopter and get astonishing shots. I had on headphones, with a mouthpiece for speaking and a switch, in case I wanted to communicate with the pilot or with Belinda and Athena in the back. Despite the earphones, I could here the steady wup, wup, wup of the chopper blades. It was really exciting.

After we were back and a second group had had a ride, it was time to continue our journey. We returned back up the shattered track out of Purnululu and into the eerie, lunar-looking Osmond Range.

We stopped for a short time to collect firewood, and then headed on to a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. Ghost gums and spinifex dotted the rolling red ground. After a beautiful sunset, the profound darkness of the bush made the stars appear even more spectacular.

In camp, we discovered that a cut Kate had gotten on her foot was showing signs of infection, which sent John off to get the first aid kit. John is a tall, wiry, amiable, but no-nonsense man. There was something wonderful about watching him hunched over Kate’s cut food, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, a cottonball in his very big hand, treating the wound with great skill and tenderness, at the same time explaining a little impatiently to the hovering women that he’d been treating tropical infections for years.

The night is brilliant, and we are settled once more into an amiable evening of conversation, much of it about what we have seen in the last few days.

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Trip 3:Saturday, August 26 Part 1

Sunrise, cool breeze, butcher birds, cockatoos, quail, kookaburras, crows, gum trees, pack camp, eat breakfast, and back to the ruinous road. We were headed around to the east side of the range. We stopped several times during our drive, to view (and photograph) the miles of unbelievable, layered, worn, red and black, Devonian-era rock. The shapes were like beehives, domes, pyramids, and hundreds of strange alien creatures crowded together.
Bungles-D2-Domes-Spinifex Bungles-D2-Domes Cluster
Also a delight, to my eyes at least, where the rounded pillows of spinifex that spread across the surrounding plains. I still think they look (as I had noted on my first visit) likes herds of golden hedgehogs.

Among the prickly humps of spinifex, spinifix pigeons hunted, pecked, and occasionally dashed for cover. They are lovely birds, but they become quite comical when they run, as they then look like wind-up toys.

When we reached the far side of the range, we parked the 4WD and began the hour hike into Cathedral Gorge. This was less strenuous than yesterday’s hike, so I was able to keep up–and was delighted that I could, as it was remarkable.
Bungles - D2-Hike to Cath Gorge
The red rocks rose around us and closed in. The weirdness and beauty of the place was almost overwhelming. There were pools of water that, because of the shade, lingered despite the heat. All rocks were worn, but some were eroded more strangely than others. It was all wonderful. We scrambled and climbed over the rocks of the sometime riverbed, heading deeper and deeper into the gorge.
Bungles - D2-In Cath Gorge-lighter Bungles - D2Cath Gorge-WeirdRocks
We paused occasionally to catch our breaths and drink from our water bottles, then we would continue on. Finally, the gorge widened out at the base, though the rocks overhead stayed close together. The water that only occasionally races through the gorge has, over the millennia, carved out a huge, over-hung, half-cave that echoed like the inside of a cathedral (hence the name of the gorge). The water we saw was just a green crescent in the pale sand in front of the cave. The temperature in this natural amphitheater was maybe 20˚F cooler than outside in the sun. It was wonderfully subduing, standing amid the towering red walls, inside the cool, sounding hollows.
Bungles - D2-Cathedral-lighter
We remained there for a long enough time to thoroughly explore and enjoy the spot. The acoustics were astonishing. John had told us it what to expect, but it was still amazing to experience it. No matter where you were in the huge formation, you could clearly hear everyone else speaking, as if they were right next to you, even if they were at the far side of the gorge. A perfect “whispering wall.” Then it was time to hike back out.

At the head of the gorge, we turned up Piccaninny Creek and hiked over an amazingly weird, craved stretch of rock that looked as though we were walking over the back of a giant granite crocodile.
Bungles - D2-Granite Croc-lighter
After a couple of miles, we diverted a short way off the track to visit a bat cave, which was absolutely fascinating. The cave was split in half, with the crack in the rock weirdly worn in graceful curves up toward the light. Because of the curving, the light was filtered and dim, but there was enough light to create a path on the floor of the cave that just drew me forward. Little bats would flutter before me and disappear up the curving crevice. It was magic. I turned and photographed the entrance of the cave, because it made the split rock more visible than it was from outside.
Bungles - D2-Bat Cave
During the hike back out, John led a few of us up a slightly steeper but amazingly beautiful path among the red domes. But it was all beautiful.

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August 25, Part 2

We disembarked at the beginning of the hike into Mini Palm Gorge. The temperature is approaching 110˚F, and I think that is contributing to my difficulties, but mainly it was my aching ribs that were slowing me down. I couldn’t take a deep breath without pain. I kept up with the group for about half of the hike, but I could tell I wasn’t going to make it for the whole two-and-a-half-hour trip in. Also, squeezing between rocks as we got farther in was not comfortable. So at a shady spot about half way into the gorge, I told the others I’d see them on the way back.
Bungles-MiniPalmGorge-enter light Bungles-MiniPalmG-rocks-palm
The spot where I rested was so beautiful that it was impossible to feel at all sorry for myself. Red rocks, palm trees, and other vegetation rose up on either side of the spot. The air was scented with spinifex and other grasses and shrubs that covered the ground. Butterflies wove deliriously through the air. The path, actually the dry bed of a seasonal river, was made up of thousands of fist-sized rocks. I lay down on the warm rocks and just listened to the wind and the birds.
Bungles-MiniPalmG-palm fronds Bungles-MiniPalmG-rocky bed
When the others returned, we hiked back to the 4WD, stopping frequently to stand in awe of the weird rocks.
Clouds were gathering, and I asked if it might rain. I was told it might–in another month. This is just the “build up” before the Wet (the rainy season)–like the clouds are practicing.
Bungles-PM-Clouds Rocks
Back in camp, we enjoyed seeing quail, willy wagtails, spinifex pigeons, and crows dash or flutter in and out. It was quite a show.

There was a cold-water tap, and we used it to rinse off the heat and dust of the day. Then we settled down to a cup of tea and munchies to begin another delightful evening.

As I sat, happy and slightly cooler from the splash of water, it crossed my mind that, in the right circumstances, it doesn’t take much to satisfy one’s needs. We have running water here, though cold only, and a clean dunny (outhouse), and I’m quite comfortable. Tomorrow, we’ll have neither.
Bungles-PM-Late Light
The sun is now setting in a blaze of glory, the air is warm and soft, the flies are gone for the night. It is such a magic moment that it is almost heartbreaking. \

Dinner is about to be served, we have clean clothes from our stop in Kununurra, and our surroundings are beautiful. All seems right with the world at this moment, and I thank God for the serenity and the opportunity to be here.

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Trip 3:Friday, August 25 Part 1

Up at 5am–Northern Territory time. That’s 3:30am in the time zone we’re in. Hence, not only was it dark when we arose, it was still dark when we departed. The morning was delightfully cool and still, and as the stars faded, wonderful bird song started up.

We crossed the Ord Diversion Dam and headed out of town as the first light blushed across the horizon behind us. It was a beautiful dawn, offering another crystalline sky.

The scenery was spectacular, with red mountains rising on all sides, approaching and receding as we sped along. The mountains were higher than many we passed yesterday, but were still banded, worn, layered, undulating, and touched here and there with a haze of green foliage.

The gum tree savannah spread toward the mountains. The Victoria Highway turned south, and we followed it. Before long, we could see the sun rising over Lake Argyle, off to our left. Seeing a sign with the name Durack on it made me smile. Having read the classic book Kings in Grass Castles by Mary Durack, about the pioneering Durack family that settled this region, I was pleased to know that I was passing so close to this slice of Australian history.

Then out into the broad, ancient land. By 8:30, the brilliant day was already becoming uncomfortably hot. A few massive road trains passed us. They are so connected to Australia in my mind that even these pleased me. Morning break at the Turkey Creek Roadhouse in the community of Warmun, which offers a “last chance” of food, gas, and directions for those headed into Purnululu National Park—which was where we were going. A bit farther down the road, we turned east off the highway and headed across Mabel Downs Station, toward the park and the Bungle Bungle Range.

The sign at the turnoff said “Rough Road,” but that’s probably just because “Tortuous, rutted, rock-strewn gash in the hilly wilderness” wouldn’t fit on the sign. Weaving, dodging, jouncing, rocking, climbing, dropping, and fording streams made up the next two hours.

At last, the Bungle Bungles came into view. There were moments during the pounding, lurching drive that I wondered if it was worth the effort. Now I think it most definitely is.

And into Kurrajong camp.
Kurrajong Camp-lighter
We set up camp, had lunch, and then headed for the Bungles. We drove around the west side of the massive formation. The Bungle Bungles, which are the highlight of Purnululu National Park, cover about 173 square miles. The remoteness and difficulty of reaching the area are underscored by the fact that this formation was only discovered by Westerners in 1983. The area was named a national park in 1987 and was made a World Heritage site in 2003. Even now, there are extensive areas that are closed to visitors, as not everything has been explored.

The towering (600 to 900 feet tall), bizarrely eroded, banded range of rocks are made of sandstone, and Purnululu is the word for “sandstone” in the language of one of the region’s Aboriginal groups (Kija).
Bungles-Approach 1 Bungles-Approach 2

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