Story and photographs by Carolyn Beasley
Nov 26, 2021
THE UNSEALED ROAD IS BUMPY, providing a rough ride for the passengers of the four-wheel drive vehicle. It’s dusty, too. I can see that from my comfy seat up here in the light plane.
From the northern hub of Western Australia, Kununurra (3,200 kilometers northeast of Perth), I’ve boarded an Aviair aircraft for what you might best describe as an air safari. I’m on an overnight adventure to the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is famous for its beehive-shaped rock domes, 350-million-year-old geological marvels.
A propeller plane primes you for exploring
Looking down, I sympathize with those drivers. Years ago, I drove that track with its diabolical creek wash-outs and crater-like potholes. It took 5½ hours.
These days, there’s an easier way through the Kimberley (this rugged region spread over WA’s northwestern corner), and that starts with a one-hour flight. I’m hanging up my sleeping bag and eschewing blown tires, visiting on a two-day tour including guided walks and hot showers.
Out the window of my propeller plane, I see the desert plains, glowing in the sunset and morphing into the orange domes of ‘the bungles.’ It’s a mesmerizing, alien landscape.
From the airstrip, guide Pete Ragland drives us to Bungle Bungle Savannah Lodge, where en suite cabins of corrugated iron nestle beside a shady riverbed. As the light fades, dinner is served on the deck beside a crackling firepit, under the brightest stars.
After breakfast, Pete drives us to the start of the Cathedral Gorge hike, and we follow him into a surreal maze of striped orange and black domes. I inhale the sweet smell of yellow wattle flowers and duck under tunnels of bright red grevillea.
Pete points out Indigenous stencil art, a hand print and two boomerangs. He says these are recent, the nearby Warmun community continuing their culture. “A hand on the rock means connection to country,” Pete says. “You need permission to do it, but then you have an obligation to protect it.”
Along the way we meet three Indigenous rangers, caring for their country. They’re removing a destructive feral species, the cane toad, from a small rocky waterhole. The toads are poisonous to native wildlife, and today alone 60 toads have been removed.
Reaching the circular cavern of Cathedral Gorge, a landmark of the Kimberley landscape, we see how eons of swirling wet-season waters carved out this amphitheater. We stare up at stained cliffs, a waterfall now dry, a mirror-like pool at its base.
It’s a place of startling acoustics, and I delight in the bell-like tones of a butcher bird. Pete says these acoustics make the gorge famous, with the occasional orchestra and opera performance here.
Back in the bus, we continue to the north of the park for our second hike. Pete points out rare Livistona palms and we picnic inside the sheer, conglomerate walls of Echidna Chasm.
A tiny passageway snakes off the main chamber, and I follow the chasm up ladders, over boulders, and below rocks wedged overhead. The vertical cliffs are 180 meters high, and barely shoulder width apart. I realize why Pete brought us here at midday. As the sun passes overhead the illuminated cliffs glow an eerie orange.
After delighting in the Bungles, I’ve decided on a second remote Kimberley air safari from Kununurra (if you’re trying to orient yourself, think of the deep V at the top of the country where Western Australia meets the Northern Territory). This time I’m visiting Mitchell Falls, known as Punamii-Uunpuu to the Indigenous Traditional Owners, the Wunambal Gaambera people.
Landing at the tiny Mitchell Plateau airstrip, it’s out of the plane and into a waiting helicopter. Hats are removed, headphones donned, and with no doors, it’s a windy, five-minute hop to the Mitchell Falls campground.
Here we’re met by naturalist guide, Lisa Mason, and we begin our 4½-kilometer hike to the mighty Mitchell Falls.
Down a steep track and through a rocky tunnel, we emerge behind the spray of Little Mertens Falls. This natural amphitheater is known to the Wunambal Gaambera as ‘the classroom,’ and we’re shown ancient rock art depicting spirit figures called Gwion Gwion.
On a second cave wall, we see food items, like red-claw crayfish and eels.
“It’s like a grocery list,” Lisa says. I’m staggered to hear these pictures are maybe 20,000 to 30,000 years old.
We continue on, using stepping stones to cross the river above Big Mertens Falls, the river plunging dramatically off a high cliff and into a gorge.
Above Mitchell Falls itself, the river is flowing strongly after wet season rains. Following Lisa’s lead, we remove our shoes and slosh across in our socks, which she says help to grip the rocks. Once across, we change into bathing suits for a cooling dip in this pristine, crocodile-free waterhole.
Finally, we reach the Mitchell Falls lookout. We’re silenced by sight of the 80-meter, four-tiered waterfall thundering through a series of pools, through blocky sandstone cliffs of orange and black.
Thankfully, this hike has a lazy return leg — lazy and luxe. Perched on the rocky escarpment, our nimble chopper awaits. Rising above Mitchell and Big Merten’s Falls, I snap photos of the big Kimberley beyond from the doorless aircraft, grinning from ear to ear.
Transferring to our returning plane, I consider these incredible few days.
I’d chosen this “air safari” mostly to avoid long dusty days of driving and camping through these huge sections of less-visited Australia. But aside from convenience, I’ve had immersive experiences I didn’t anticipate. Bee-hive domes with killer acoustics. A tall, skinny chasm that glows. Ancient rock art behind a waterfall veil. And as I stare out the window at the tropical savannah and rivers below, I realize it’s only from the air that we can appreciate the scale of the vast and wild East Kimberley.
HOW TO TAKE AN AIR SAFARI IN NORTHWESTERN AUSTRALIA
Fly to Kununurra via Perth with Virgin Australia or via Darwin with Qantas and Air North.
Tours depart Kununurra with Aviair and partner with sister companies Helispirit, Bunge Bungle Savannah Lodge and Bungle Bungle Guided Tours. www.aviair.com.au; 61-8/9166-9300
Bungle Bungle Wanderer (including Cathedral Gorge guided hike) + Echinda Chasm hike and overnight stay at Bungle Bungle Savannah Lodge from A$1,516 per person twin share, all inclusive of meals (excluding alcohol). Departures April to September. aviair.com.au/scenic-air-tours/tour-packages/bungle-bungle-wanderer-echidna-chasm-overnight
Mitchell Falls Discoverer day trip from A$1,495 per person, including fixed wing plane to and from Mitchell Plateau, helicopter to start of hike, guided hike, lunch, scenic helicopter over the falls and back to the Mitchell Plateau airstrip. Includes Wunambal Gaambera entry fee. Departures May to August. aviair.com.au/scenic-air-tours/mitchell-falls-discoverer
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE KIMBERLEY AND SURROUNDS: