The Last Wilderness?

Article excerpt

Our small plane flew low as it approached the extraordinary range of beehive-shaped domes rising some 1,000 feet above the plains of this north-western corner of Australia. A brief landing on Bellburn Creek airstrip was just long enough for two of us to jump out, the other four passengers seemingly too timid - or insufficiently foolhardy - to risk exploring this remote wilderness at ground level.

A beaming smile and hearty handshake from Ben, who was to be our guide, welcomed us to the Bungle Bungles. The very name stirs the imagination and carries an air of mystery: no-one is quite sure of its origin, though it may be a corruption of the common Kimberley grass, Bundle Bundle.

The Bungles lie at the eastern end of the Kimberley region, which the local guide book refers to as 'one of the world's last great wilderness areas . . . To explore the wild Kimberley is an adventure you will never forget.' Yes indeed. Population density here is among the lowest in the world (about ten per sq. mile) but what the area lacks in human beings it makes up for with an abundance of wild life - over 130 species of bird for instance.

After breakfast at the nearby East Kimberley Tours' (EKT) campsite we met our first example of that wild life. Fred the Frilly Lizard came to check over the new arrivals. He peered at us from part-way up a gum tree for a while before shinning down and waddling off - pausing obligingly for photographs - into the bush with a curious duck-like gait.

We set off into the bush in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. This is the only viable form of transport in the Bungles. Although a mere 35 miles off the Great Northern Highway there are no surfaced roads and the tracks are deeply corrugated. After rain, creeks have to be forded and muddy patches negotiated. During the wet season, from December to April, visitor access is generally not possible at all. Flying in is therefore the best approach to the Bungles, quite apart from the breath-taking views obtained.

But the magical atmosphere can only be properly appreciated on foot. My two days consisted of short, often bone-shattering, drives between walks through what must be unique scenery, almost unknown to the outside world until a documentary film was made in 1982. Even at the end of the 1980s books still referred to it as a place for hardened pioneers, cattlemen and prospectors, and ten years later it rarely merits more than a few paragraphs.

Small groups of aborigines, though, have lived here for at least 20,000 years, remaining undisturbed until Alexander Forest (brother of the first premier of Western Australia) came searching for cattle pasture in 1876-79. This resulted in the establishment of large cattle stations on the plains: Argyle Downs, for instance, dating from 1894/5 and comprising seven million acres, and Texas Downs with some two and a half million acres. Several thousand head of Brahmin (high quality beef) cattle moved in but few humans.

In 1987, 200,000 hectares (over 77 sq. miles) was declared a National Park and conservation reserve. This is managed by Western Australia's Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) jointly with the local aborigine people. The latter live on a leased area and some have been trained as rangers; they have a major say in determining access since there are many sacred sites. Each Australian state defines and runs its own National Parks - non-urban areas of environmental or natural importance - though the principle is the same throughout the country: public access is encouraged provided safety and conservation regulations are observed.

The name chosen for the Bungle Bungles National Park was, appropriately, the aborigine word for sandstone: Purnululu. The Bungles are made of sandstone and conglomerate, deposited at the bottom of a huge lake some 350 million years ago. This was compacted, uplifted by earth movements and then eroded by the heavy rains of the wet season into the characteristic dome-shaped hills with deep gorges and steep-sided chasms. …