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. A skin of alternate horizontal bands of black lichen (green in the wet season) and orange silica helps protect the sandstone hills and gives them their tiger-striped appearance. Much of Purnululu, though, consists of plains of dark red and yellow sandstone with spinifex and other grasses, acacia and grevillia shrubs and some eucalyptus trees.

It is a very fragile landscape and walking on the domes is absolutely forbidden - if the protective skin is damaged erosion would be rapid. The tracks lie along the bottoms of the gorges and, in the dry season, the creek beds themselves. Walking on those rounded, unconsolidated stones of all sizes is tough going, but this is invariably more than compensated for by the amazing features at the head of each chasm.

Cathedral Gorge, for example, is a massive awe-inspiring cave entered by a narrow slit through which sunlight can just penetrate. A trickle of water falls from the roof at the back of this amphitheatre forming a natural shower for any who bathe in the pool. Although it seemed sacrilegious to speak above a whisper, the acoustics are superb - as Ben demonstrated.

Echidna Chasm is equally awesome: a narrow twisting defile through spectacular red rock, barely wide enough to squeeze through in places and with walls that towered over us as we scrambled over massive boulders deposited when the roof fell in.

Near the entrance to Frog Hole a small stream cascaded over the side of the gorge, its crystal droplets sparkling and rainbow-coloured in the sunshine forming a lacy waterfall. At its head is a shady pool inhabited by the frogs that account for its name. Another name - Minipalms Gorge - also gave a clue to what was in store; but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of hundreds of miniature Livistona fan palms (a species unique to the Bungles) coming into view as we rounded a bend in the track high above the head of the gorge.

Although it is possible to visit Purnululu on self-guided tours my stay was definitely enhanced by the guide's knowledge. EKT is a small family firm which has been operating in the Bungles for some 40 years; Ben and his mother - an acknowledged authority on aborigine art - are writing a book on the area.

By myself I doubt if I would have identified the bush turkey, or found the Australian frog (lurid lime green with yellow spots) snoozing in a crack of the rock, or noticed the nest tucked underneath the bushes that a male bower-bird had so elaborately decorated to attract the attention of a mate, or grasped the significance of plants like bush tomatoes and other aborigine 'tucker'. Though the 5 foot high termite mounds looking more like snowmen - or Lot's wife turned into a pillar of stone - needed no pointing out.

Without a guide it would be all too easy to become lost once off the track as the Bungles seem to have magical powers to confuse all sense of direction. Ben tested us during the first walk by asking the way back to the minibus. Tony and I each pointed in a different direction - and both were wrong!

Furthermore, as access is only allowed to a small number of sites, local knowledge is invaluable. An individual visitor could, quite unwittingly, stray onto sacred sites to which access has not been granted, thereby giving offence. Aborigines have a deep spiritual relationship with their territory, which they believe is still inhabited by the immortal souls of their ancestors and the mythical beings which created it in the long-ago Dreamtime. They therefore feel a strong sense of responsibility to protect the land; traditional punishments for any who neglect their duties or who desecrate the natural environment are severe - and may still be imposed.

From several perspectives this landscape is fragile and valuable. Protection and conservation, however, present problems, many of which are similar to those faced by other remote rural areas. Ironically, as Western society becomes increasingly urbanised and materialistic, more people are seeking an antidote in a return to nature and the challenge of adventure travel. But this pushes out the boundaries of conventional tourist areas, resulting in further development. Yet visitors bring money into such areas which can then be spent on conservation projects and improving conditions for local inhabitants. So there is no desire to ban visitors or to deprive anyone of experiencing a wilderness area, but only to control numbers within the capacity of that area to absorb them satisfactorily and provide and a good experience. Establishing and maintaining an optimum number involves striking a delicate balance between several different - and often conflicting - viewpoints.

One approach is to encourage visitors to understand and respect the environment, and here the guides have an important role. Small parking areas have been provided at the designated sites in Purnululu, often with a picnic table and toilet, but no litter bins. All rubbish must be taken out of the Park by those who produce it. Nevertheless, increased pressure on these sites may, in time, give cause for concern; it might become necessary, for instance, to set up a rotation system, closing some sites for a while to allow the landscape to re-generate and substituting others.

Controlling visitor numbers is another well-established conservation measure. All visitors to Purnululu must obtain a permit, currently costing $A8(just over [pounds]3) per person, allowing a seven day stay, plus a $A7 per night camping fee. These charges are unlikely to deter, but compulsory registration allows the authorities to limit the number of permits issued. There are no hotels, motels, restaurants or similar facilities and the three camp sites are small. EKT's site provides a few two-person cabins and tents, discreetly placed among the trees, hot showers, toilets and an enclosed eating area; it is serviced by Grant, the cook, and his wife, Janelle. Those showers, however, were somewhat of a mixed blessing on our first evening due to a plague of flying insects, the result of previous heavy overnight rain - they stuck to wet skin in droves. Food was excellent, and also plentiful, no mean feat when supplies only come in once a week in the high season and fortnightly for the rest of the year.

In addition to the permit system and the scarcity and type of accommodation, difficulty of access inhibits visitors at present. The airstrip can only take small planes and drivers are advised to allow two-and-a-half to three hours to travel the 35 miles from the Great Northern Highway, a warning which may well act as a deterrent. So proposals to construct a sealed road into Purnululu are controversial and have met with considerable local opposition. Such a road would enable large coaches to cover the distance in about half an hour. Their passengers would, inevitably, make greater demands on the environment and set in motion an upward spiral of tourist development. If uncontrolled this would ultimately destroy the very features and atmosphere which make Purnululu unique and which constitute its chief attraction.

Another controversial matter in Purnululu is bush firing. A few bush fires are started spontaneously by lightning or carelessness, but aborigines have always carried out selective, periodic burning of undergrowth and dead grass. This encouraged new growth, which in turn attracted game, and prevented the build-up of flammable material - thus reducing the risk of more damaging major fires - and made hunting easier. Carried out on a small scale this has generally been considered beneficial, although very recent research suggests that such firing may have been responsible for the extinction of more than 85 per cent of Australia's large animals, whose disappearance approximately coincided with the aborigines arrival on the continent. There is only circumstantial evidence for this, but CALM's burning-off policy has attracted local criticism: it is said to be carried out too frequently, on too large a scale and without adequate supervision. When a fairly newly appointed ranger lights a bush fire and goes away for the Easter long weekend leaving it to rage uncontrolled, there seems justification for some criticism.

It was only the alertness and valiant efforts of EKT's small staff in bucketing water onto it that prevented that fire from wiping out their campsite. Equally serious was the destruction of many acres of bush and, with this, the insects that feed on the grasses and shrubs. Deprived of a food supply, small mammals and birds that survive the blaze migrate. The landscape lies blackened and barren, a whole ecosystem destroyed.

Given sufficient time it will re-generate however. Ben was delighted to find several hand-bush plants (a low-growing shrub with a blue flower shaped like the fingers of a hand) just coming into flower and, on one, a particular species of hairy caterpillar. 'Where there is one of these there will be others,' he said with satisfaction and relief. Eventually the caterpillars' predators will return. Ben's only anxiety was that another fire would be started before this area of bush had had time to come to life again.

This land management problem, like that of controlling visitor numbers, is mainly one of scale. CALM is based in Perth, some 2,000 miles away and although it has some locally-based rangers it is debatable whether such an organisation has greater expertise than aborigines who have been caring for their environment for millennia. There are cases where aborigine customs and prohibitions have been denigrated by educated white Australians, only for the former to eventually be proved to be correctly founded.

Aborigines live in close physical and spiritual contact with the land, its plants and animals. My first evening in the Bungles brought me into closer contact with one creature than I would ever have dreamed possible.

After watching the sun go down as we sipped wine (me) and beer (the men) we had returned to camp for dinner. Then came a shout from Ben. 'Hey you two. Bring your cameras. We have a visitor.' There he stood with a 5-6 foot black-headed python draped around his shoulders, grasping it firmly behind its head. At first Tony and I stayed at a respectful camera-distance from that darting tongue until, encouraged by Ben, we plucked up courage to stroke Monty (well, what else would I call a python?). Surprisingly, he was not the cold slimy creature I had always supposed snakes to be; his skin had a quite rough texture and was not particularly clammy.

Was this a return to the Garden of Eden? Earlier in the day it could well have been. I had opted out of the 'walk' up Picaninny Creek to see an example of aborigine rock painting as recent rain had resulted in water deep enough to reach the men s armpits, so my 5 foot 3 inches would have been submerged. Instead I sat in the soporific afternoon sunshine, with not a breath of wind disturbing the perfect mirror images of the tiger-striped domes in the water and only the occasional croak of a frog breaking the silence.

I had an uncanny sensation I could be the last person left alive in this primeval landscape. Yet, such is the magic of the place, that there was no feeling of trepidation; just complete and utter tranquillity. The last wilderness - or Paradise regained?

Irene Waters is a freelance researcher and writer. East Kimberley Tours offer safaris of from one to seven days, which are bookable in Britain through Quest Worldwide, Quebec House, 10 Richmond Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, KT2 5HL.