Purnululu National Park

On the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2003, the magnificent beehive-resembling orange-and-black sandstone domes of the Bungle Bungle Range are the highlight of this Western Australia national park. Some reaching 250m in height, the domes themselves are made of sandstone, and were carved out of erosion from waterways. The distinctive striping is due to cyanobacteria, which require moisture. The darker stripes have their presence, while the orange bands indicate areas of dryness that can’t support the cyanobacteria. Europeans did not first sight them until 1983 – when a helicopter pilot spotted them and took a documentary crew there. They had been known, however, to the Aboriginal peoples who had lived here for at least 20,000 years.

Sometimes Bungle Bungle is used synonymously with Purnululu, but that is a mistake – Bungle Bungle is a range within Purnululu, and the park itself is several times larger. The park is split into two sections – northern and southern – and try to plan your itinerary so that you have ample time to explore both. However, if you have time to do only one side, then make it the southern section – where you can explore the dramatic Cathedral Gorge as well as the beehive domes. Like most things in the Kimberley, the park is subject to seasonal closures. Organised tours will often stop by the end of September because, even by that early on, the temperature in the gorges can be upwards of 50°C.

What to see and do in Purnululu National Park

Northern section

This is home to one of the real highlights of the park: the Echidna Chasm, accessed via a Class 4, 2km return walk from the car park. The chasm is very narrow, often just a few metres wide, but also very tall (up to roughly 180m in some places) – and the light that reflects off the walls makes for a variety of hues – noon is the best time to come for the best colour effect.

Bungle Bungle Range Purnululu National Park Western Australia
The Bungle Bungle Range is easily identified by its orange-and-black sandstone domes © Alex Couto, Shutterstock

The Mini Palms Trail is another glorious walk (Class 5; 4.4km return), leading to the centre of the Bungle Bungle Range, where Livistona palms grow from the cliffs and down in the gorge. You can access this walk from the Bloodwoods car park or combine it with the Escarpment Trail (Class 3; 7.2km return) from Echidna Chasm, through spinifex, woodland and across dry creek beds. There are lookouts near both the Echidna Chasm and the Bloodwoods car parks.

Southern section

The best place from which to explore the southern section is Piccaninny car park, 27km from the visitor centre. From here, the short Domes Walk (Class 3; 1km return) is a great introduction to the beehive domes, with close-up views of the differing layers of sediment. A longer, scenic walk (Class 4; 2km return) along the beehives leads to the spectacular Cathedral Gorge, a large natural amphitheatre known for its majestic beauty and fantastic acoustics. At the centre is a water pool, surrounded by white sand – the colours reflecting off the rock walls here are simply beautiful, and is one of the park’s highlights.

Cathedral Gorge Purnululu National Park Western Australia
Cathedral Gorge is a large natural amphitheatre known for its majestic beauty and fantastic acoustics © Australian Pacific Touring Pty Ltd

For a real challenge, the Piccaninny Gorge Trek (Class 5; 20km return) explores the park’s largest gorge, delving into the heart of the Bungle Bungle Range with beehive domes, cliffs, seasonal waterholes and wildlife en route, like spinifex pigeons, rock wallabies and skinks. The trail is unmarked and takes at least two days to complete; you must register at the visitor centre before undertaking this hike, and you also need to have a personal locator beacon or a satellite phone.

The southern side of the park also has a pair of good lookouts – Piccaninny Creek (Class 3; 3km return), just past the Cathedral Gorge track, gives a panoramic outlook towards the domes; and The Window (Class 4; 6km return), a striking circular hole in a sandstone dome.

Travel to Purnululu National Park

The park’s access road is a turn-off from the Great Northern Highway, 108km north of Halls Creek and 272km south of Kununurra. While distances within the park might seem quite manageable when looking on a map, this is misleading – the road is a terrible, rough, high-clearance 4×4-only track, causing a blowout in drive times. Though it’s only 53km from the turn-off to the visitor centre, you should allow a couple of hours of drive time. Don’t even think about trying this with a 2WD; you might even be refused entry to the park altogether. The closest petrol stations are both on the Great Northern Highway: one at Warmun, 53km north, and the other back in Halls Creek.

From the visitor centre, the road T-junctions at Gorge Road from where you can head either into the northern section, anchored by Echidna Chasm, or the southern section, with Piccaninny and Cathedral gorges.