The Purnululu Bungle Bungle and the Gibb River Road

The Gibb River Road is a 670 km long road which was constructed for cattle road trains. It is only accessible during the dry season (April – October). To drive on this road, a high clearance four wheel drive (4WD) is required. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any other tourists undertaking the same trip. So I had no possibility to get a lift or to share the cost of a rental 4WD. Nevertheless, I decided to rent a Nissan Patrol and go for the four day journey on my own – including the Bungle Bungle Ranges, if time permits.

Entering the Gibb River Road near Kununurra, Western Australia

When the lady at the rental agency asked me whether I had driven a four wheel drive car before, I became aware that this was actually a first for me. Funnily, I had driven all the crazy vehicles in my life – such as motorbikes, trucks and tanks. But never a 4WD. But I wasn’t really afraid of having this experience. However, since I stated that I’d wanted to do the Gibb River Road, the lady at the car rental agency automatically reserved a second spare tire. As it turns out, everyone is doing this road with two spare tires. Most people are very well prepared, carrying safety beacons, ham radio, extra fuel tanks and tons of food and water along. But here I am, renting a car for four days. Obviously, this puts constraints to which kind of safety investment I can do. I opted for the water (enough for four days) and food (enough for two days).

The first day of the trip, my scenic drive would take me through several creeks filled with water – but other than that, the dirt track was for the most part in good condition. I managed to drive 400km’s – my optimistic target for that day. The stopover at Ellenbrae roadhouse was entertaining. Hubert, the station ranger, migrated 1970 from Germany to Australia. He was keen on speaking German with me and full of stories about the Kimberley region and the days of settlement in Australia. Since I finally had finished reading my book “Die Vermessung der Welt (D. Kehlmann)(English) on board the flight to Darwin, I decided to give this as a gift to Hubert. The book tells the story about two German explorers and mapmakers – and Hubert definitely seems to absorb this sort of novels.

Campground near Mt Barnett Roadhouse, Western Australia

Later that day I arrived at the beautiful Gorges near Mount Barnett, where a campsite with a quiet lake greeted me for sunset. On the second day, I visited various sites along the route, such as Tunnel Gorge, Imintji Aboriginal Camp, Lillimilura Police Station and more. The drive was much easier than anticipated, the gravel road was for the most part in good to excellent condition.

Drivers in the outback greet each other, much like drivers do on motorbikes back home. Traffic was kind of dense, since every five minutes a car would pass in either direction. This makes me wonder, why carrying a radio transmitter is advised on this track. Maybe the Aussies start to become overly obsessed with safety, like the Americans? In fact, after returning to the Great Northern Highway, the number of cars encountered dropped dramatically: Sometimes I would stop on this major bitumen road for half an hour to make a rest – with no other cars in sight.

On the third morning, I left the campground near Halls Creek early – about sunrise time. The road to the turn off for Purnululu National Park was a bit depressing: Every couple of kilometers, there were dead animals lying on the road. For the 200km I drove that morning on the Great Northern Highway, I did count at least five kangaroos or wallabies, one cow, several birds and other small animals – all probably overrun by traffic the night before. Although modern vehicles are at the cause of the killing, a lot of crows and other animals were busy having a breakfast by feeding themselves off these dead animals – which is somehow the natural life cycle.

Imintji Store and Roadhouse, Western Australia

After the┬áturn off to the National Park, omnipresent signs warned about the 52km access road not being suitable for vans, 2WD and trailers. Another sign instructed me to switch to 4WD now – which I did. It takes about two hours to do this track and – as much as the Gibb River Road was a disappointment in terms of difficulty – it was a joyride from the start to the end: This road is why car makers build these vehicles. There are stretches over pebble stones, sand dunes, through river creeks and steep crests. Driving this road was definitely both fun and challenging.

After arriving at the park’s visitor center and registering for the day, I immediately drove another 30km to the rocky domes of the Bungle Bungle Range. Although the drive into this range was already quite scenic, the subsequent hikes I undertook right after getting out of the car, were absolutely awesome. I spent most of the day walking in 40+ degrees around Piccaninny Creek and the Cathedral Gorge – all places with abundant views of the famous domes.

Both Aborigines and locals tried to keep this place secret for a long time. It was only in 1983 that word about the Bungle Bungle Ranges got out – through a national television documentary. In 1987, the Western Australian government established there the Purnululu National Park and in 2003, the 300’000 hectare area was declared a World Heritage Area. To become listed as such, a site must meet one of UNESCO’s ten natural and cultural criteria. Bungle Bungle was granted a listing based on two criteria: Is contains a superlative natural phenomena and is an outstanding example representing significant geomorphic features of the Earth’s history.

Before heading off to the campground, I visited Echidna Chasm, which consists of narrow passages, colorful light variations and fan palm trees. On the fourth morning, I drove back to Kununurra to return the rental car. Upon arrival, the first tropical rainstorm in the wet season greeted me. This reminded me how lucky I have been by being able to drive 1000km of dirt road, plus 600km of sealed road in perfect weather conditions.