Deep inside Purnululu National Park, wild and uncharted, Piccaninny Gorge harbours a secret rock world that’s seldom seen, scoured deep into the head of the Bungle Bungle Range. Five spectacular sandstone chasms known as the ‘Five Fingers’ rate as the national park’s longest and most remote. And, the only way to explore them is on foot, following the fluted bedrock of Piccaninny Creek as far and as deep as you dare.
There’s no designated track, and at around 30km return, it’s one for hardy explorers, but the scenes that await will blow your mind. Shimmying through slender rock chasms, walking and wading, disappearing into caves where bats shift restlessly overhead, and past frogs staking out fern-fringed pools, Piccaninny’s dramatic rock landscape rivals anything you’ll ogle in Purnululu National Park — minus the crowds.
There are no facilities and you’ll have to haul camping gear and an excess of drinking water, but the good news is that half a day’s walk delivers you to the first ‘finger’ where you can throw down your backpack, set up a top waterhole camp and spend time exploring unencumbered upstream.
A decade ago, all you needed was a sense of adventure to tackle this trip, but today’s checklist includes a personal locator beacon — I carry a Garmin Inreach — which Purnululu National Park staff insist upon. Along with a tent, sleeping gear, food and a camp stove, as no campfires are allowed, you’ll also need to carry plenty of drinking water. Park guidelines recommend five to eight litres per person, per day, but that’s one hell of a burden to carry if you intend to stay three or more days. Carry what you can, pack a compact water treatment device like the Steripen, and talk to hikers exiting the gorge for the best advice on water availability.
The most comfortable time to hike the gorge is June to August when nights are cool (around 10 degrees) days are warm (between 25 and 35 degrees), and water is more abundant. I’ve tackled the walk in September and still found enough water in ponds along Piccaninny Creek to treat well and hydrate with, but it pays to check with staff at Purnululu’s visitor centre when you pay your camping fees — $8/adult and $3/child per night.
LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN
Set out from the Piccaninny Creek trailhead as early as you can to avoid the worst of the midday heat. The entrance to the ‘First Finger’ is about 4–5 walking hours away, and this spot, beside a seasonal pool, makes a great base camp for adventures upstream.
Where the signposted interpretive trail ends, the bedrock begins: long parallel flutes, beautifully sculpted by the rocks that roll down the gorge during summer’s flash floods. Slippery pebbles and hot sand present a bit of a challenge, but around each bend you’ll be amply rewarded by new views of the Bungle Bungle’s tiger-striped ‘beehives’. World Heritage-Listed and world-famous, this is the geological phenomenon that woos the crowds, rising 300m above Purnululu’s scorched spinifex plains in one of the most impressive panorama’s in the entire north-west.
Most people think you need to board a helicopter to capture the Bungle Bungle’s best views, but getting up close and personal with them in Piccaninny Gorge is pretty hard to beat. You’ll ogle them for the first 7km until you reach ‘The Elbow’, about 3–4 hours from the trailhead. Here, where ever-steepening gorge walls merge to form towering, multi-hued cliffs, stagnant rockpools provide obstacles to hike around and ribbons of deep sand swallow your boots.
Within an hour you’ll reach Black Rock Pool, the most promising water source on the hike. Named for its sheer, black lichen walls, you can’t see it from the creekbed, so follow the short path on your right to fill your bottles, and as irresistible as it appears, don’t swim here to preserve the water integrity for other hikers. There’s always the possibility that Black Rock Pool could be dry, so check this before setting out and carry additional water if that’s the case.
Just 3.5km further on you’ll reach a stunning, sand-fringed waterhole at the point where the first of many narrow chasms splits from Piccaninny Gorge. This ‘First Finger’ makes a picturesque camp and, as darkness falls, there’s little to disturb the sound of frog calls and cicadas. Catching a full moon overhead here is the stuff of dreams!
From here the adventures are your own: rockhopping, climbing and shimmying into side chasms all the way to Piccaninny’s ‘Fifth Finger’. It’s slow going but there’s no hurry and lots to observe en route: double-barred finches rising in vast flocks from the spinifex, gaping chimney climbs that challenge you to new heights and pools full of tiny copper frogs that jump and leap as you try to sneak a water bottle beneath them.
With so much to explore you could easily spend a week, providing you can carry the water, food and camp fuel to get you through, and book enough time on your camping permit. A fair compromise is four to five days, three at an absolute minimum, because for experienced walkers, Piccaninny Gorge is as untouched a playground you can find anywhere in the north-west.
HELI-HIKING AND MORE
While I’ll take the views inside Piccaninny Gorge over helicopter scenes any day, why decide when you can have them both? Piccaninny Gorge Heli-hike takes the sting out of this hiking adventure, elevating you for unbelievable aerial views before landing in the gorge and guiding you deep into the Five Fingers. It’s Indigenous-led and fully catered, and though you still need to be fit to negotiate all that rockhopping and hiking, you get to skip the exposed access hike and the heavy pack.
Best yet, your memories of the adventure will be infused with lots of Indigenous storytelling and history, and because you can tackle the trip in a day, you won’t have to sleep rough. This all-day affair (7am–3.30pm) takes off from Bellburn Airstrip inside the national park and costs $997 per person. Visit bunglebungleguidedtours.com.au for more information.
For other short walking adventures, don’t miss a midday stop at Echidna Chasm when the blazing Kimberley sun appears overhead to ignite flaring rock walls with dazzling, shimmering light (2km, 1hr). Allow time to hike into cavernous Cathedral Gorge for neck-craning views and startling acoustics (3km, 1.5hrs), and for quiet moments at dusk or dawn, discover the hidden amphitheatre on the less-hiked Mini Palms Walk (5km, 2hrs).
While Walanginjdji Lookout is a much-touted sunset spot, this is what they don’t tell you: those who tackle the walking trail to Piccaninny Creek Lookout will get the best photos — just be sure to pack a torch for the post-sunset return journey.
HOW DID THE BUNGLES FORM?
Step back 360 million years to a time when great ancient rivers flowed through the Kimberley, carrying weathered rock sediments to the region we now call the Bungles. All this river-borne rock settled on the landscape in distinctive layers of sandstone and conglomerate. But it took some major uplifting before the Bungles could begin to take shape, sculpted by the same floodwaters that built their foundations. Slowly, water carved out the gorges and beehive domes into the remarkable shapes we see today.
The Bungle Bungles’ colourful bands were predetermined long ago too, depending upon how much water was contained in the rock when it was laid down: black bands, from growing cyanobacteria, where there was moisture in the rock layer, and orange, oxidised iron-hued bands where the rock dried quickly.
NEED TO KNOW
Get There: Head 250km south of Kununurra on the Great Northern Highway, take the signposted turn-off and continue 53km into Purnululu National Park. Park access is rugged and suitable only for high-clearance vehicles, offroad camper trailers and single-axle caravans (allow 2hrs).
Visit: Expect cool, dry conditions May–September.
Camping: Two campgrounds — Kurrajong and Walardi — charge $13/adult, $10/concession and $3/child (picnic tables, toilets). Park entry costs $13/vehicle. Camping in Piccaninny Gorge costs $8/adult and $3/child per night.
Piccaninny Gorge Walk: Graded class 5, this moderate-to-difficult hike covers a minimum of 30km return (allow 3-7 days). No facilities are provided and you’ll need to book at Purnululu’s visitor centre which is open 8am-12pm and 1pm-4pm daily.
Pack: A Personal Locator Beacon is required on this walk. Pack a tent, sleeping gear, camp stove, first aid kit, food and a compact water treatment system (eg. SteriPen) and carry a minimum of 5 litres of water/person/day.
Supplies: The park offers no fuel, food or mechanical assistance, so arrive prepared. You can buy cold drinks and souvenirs at the visitor centre.
Powered sites: Outside the national park, 1km off the highway, Bungle Bungle Caravan Park has powered sites from $50/night, plus a bar and restaurant. Visit bunglebunglecaravanpark.com.au.
Contact: plan your stay at parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au or phone the visitors centre on (08) 9168 7300.