Worried about social distancing? Australia’s far north-west should suit you perfectly. Hardly anyone lives there, and nobody lives at the place I’m writing about, at all. There are only a few destinations on Earth that deserve to be called “otherworldly”. Western Australia’s remote Bungle Bungle Range is one of them. But let’s start at the beginning.
Say “thank you” to the humble cyanobacterium. Without it, you would not be here today, or if you were you would not be breathing oxygen. Which is just another way of saying that you would not be here; it takes an oxygen atmosphere to allow efficient aerobic respiration to take place, which is vital for the evolution of relatively complex life forms such as talk-back radio hosts. I did say “relatively”.
Cyanobacteria were kind enough to produce oxygen gas as a by-product of photosynthesis. Without aerobic respiration, the most complex life form likely to evolve would just about be smart enough to be elected to federal parliament.
Sorry, that’s a cheap shot, isn’t it? State parliament.
Cyanobacteria converted the early reducing atmosphere into an oxidizing one, which dramatically changed the composition of life forms on Earth by stimulating biodiversity. According to endosymbiotic theory, the chloroplasts found in plants and eukaryotic algae evolved from cyanobacterial ancestors via endosymbiosis, in other words the cyanobacteria crawled into plants and made themselves at home.
Everyplant was happy for a few million years until mammals evolved and eventually produced those talk-back radio hosts, but that’s the way it goes.
Cyanobacteria did a couple of other things apart from making possible the existence of shock jocks and politicians, and these others are rather more attractive. These things are stromatolites – check them out on your way to shake flippers with the dolphins at Shark Bay, also in Western Australia – and the stripes on the Bungle Bungles.
The Bungle Bungles are in Purnululu National Park in northern Western Australia. The park’s name comes from the Kija or Kitja Aboriginal language and means either “sandstone” or “bunches of grass” (don’t you just love ethnolinguistics?) or possibly “fantastic tourist attraction”. No, I made that last one up.
These towers of rock, carved from a small plateau by the Ord River and its tributaries, have horizontal stripes a bit like beehives. Well, actually nothing at all like beehives but that is the closest familiar image that anyone’s come up with.
The alternating layers of rock either have a lot of clay in them, in which case they retain water and cyanobacteria grow on them – making them greyish green – or they are covered by a patina of iron and manganese, and nothing grows on them in which case they are orange-red. The effect is quite otherworldly, as if someone with a spray gun, a really big straight-edged ruler and a linear bent had created this landscape as a theatrical backdrop.
The Bungles were “discovered” by non-natives only in the mid-1980s, either by a camera team or by a local squatter – stories vary. We can only say “thank heavens” for that, because they have been looked after since then and left in a reasonably natural state. Local Aboriginal people, who of course knew about them all along, are their guardians.
The Bungles are truly one of the wonders of the natural world and worth seeing, or rather experiencing. They’re a magic place, even more so at night and with a full moon. The surface of the rock towers is extremely fragile, by the way. No climbing – even a little bit. What you destroy can never be replaced.
Purnululu National Park was created to formalise their protection in 1987. Road access is by way of Spring Creek Track, which is signposted on the Great Northern Highway some 250 km south of Kununurra. The 53km track ends at the visitor centre. It is usable only in the dry season (roughly the beginning of April to the end of December), and supposedly only by 4WD vehicles. An adventure bike will get you in there easily if you don’t mind a bit of sand. There are two campsites near the Bungles themselves, but you need to take in all of your supplies – and I do mean all, except for water and firewood.
That in turn means stocking up either all the way back in Kununurra or in Warmun, also known as Turkey Creek, but this is an Aboriginal settlement so don’t expect to buy full strength beer. They do have light beer – and fuel.
Once you’ve set up camp in Purnululu you can go for walks – there are several posted ones, including the Piccaninny Creek walk which is quite long but well worth doing. If you’re there at the right time you can also take a helicopter ride over the range, which is impressive but not cheap – or ride down to Echidna Chasm and have a wander through that. It’s a bit of a worry; I couldn’t help feeling that it might suddenly snap shut and leave me as a thin smear of blood and crushed bone between the rock surfaces… all right for cyanobacteria, but not for bears.
Let me leave you with this thought: if you have the opportunity to see the Bungle Bungles, take it. There is nowhere else on Earth that’s quite the same. And usually there’s hardly anyone there.
(Photos The Bear / WA Tourism)