A GUIDED DAY TOUR BY AIR from KUNUNURRA
JUNE 6, 2018
'Of all paths you take in life,
make sure some of them are dirt.'
- John Muir -
The water in the lake is still and the vegetation on the opposite bank reflects clearly in the water as the pinkish-mauve sky is awakening. Birds are stirring from their night's slumber, calling to each other, until there is a full orchestra of high and low calls in 'sensurround'. Campers and caravanners are pulling up stumps. Some emerge from their overnight accommodation, bleary-eyed and stumbling to the nearest ablutions block. Others appear to have been awake for ages as they sit in the early morning light taking in the glorious spectacle nature has to offer.
We quickly walk to the park reception office, where a small minivan is waiting. Nick, the driver, checks our ticket and welcomes us aboard. Within minutes, we arrive at the airport, where our plane and pilot is waiting. Nick, a fully qualified pilot and certified trainer, takes the role of co-pilot today, whilst Tim takes the controls. I feel a little jittery when I realise that Tim is 'in training', but those anxious moments soon pass.
Following the routine safety instructions, we strap ourselves into the eight-seater Gippsaero GA8 Airvan and take off. It is not yet 7am. I don't really like small aircraft, but sometimes I have to put my fears behind me in order to see places and things I wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Each time I have taken to the air as a passenger in a small aircraft, after the usual feelings of anxiety, I have been been exhilarated by the experience. I have flown around the peak of Mt. Denali in Alaska, into The Grand Canyon by helicopter, and more recently, the Nazca Lines in Peru. I do have high expectations for today's flight.
The plane bumps along the shared runway, stopping briefly to gain permission from air-traffic control to take off. After a brief wait, the little plane gathers momentum and before I realise it, we are airborne. My seat behind the copilot gives me a view of everything that is happening in the front seat, and I am briefly alarmed when our pilot flips through a list of instructions before flipping a couple of switches. I hope he doesn't need to refer to his notes for the whole journey.
Adjusting the sound controls on the headphones, I look down at the the flat farmland we are quickly leaving behind us. I make myself divert my attention from the pilot to concentrate on the commentary and the views below.
We follow the Ord River for approximately 50 kilometres to the enormous Lake Argyle, a man-made lake, which captures and stores the enormous amount of water that falls in the wet season in the northern region of Western Australia. Through clever damming, a small proportion of the water is redirected into irrigation channels, providing enough water for the huge tracts of land given over to crops. Only 15% of this water is used for irrigation, which is far more than what is required by the farmers. The remaining 85% of the water is released into the Timor Sea. For us Melbournians, who constantly monitor our water usage, the idea of allowing that much fresh water flow out to sea seems ludicrous. It appears that this water is not even used for general consumption in Kununurra and surrounding areas; their water is sourced from bores tapping into the underground artesian basin.
Leaving the turquoise waters of Lake Argyle behind us, the terrain becomes flat. We fly over the Argyle mine, where the famous pink diamonds are found. Tim promises to give us a better look at the mine on the way back. There is a shift in the landscape, as we fly over more rugged terrain. There are long rocky ridges that look like the knobbly backbones of some long-dead dinosaurs, and others that look like waves, curled and frozen time. From the air, it is easy to see where of the tectonic plates shifted millions of years ago. Our pilots, Nick and Tim explain the geology of the area, pointing out the layers of rock and the unique formations.
We pass over a plateau; flat and still green from the last wet season, dotted with trees and spinifex. A huge crack splits the area in two. The flat plateau gives way to a lumpy, bumpy ridge. As we approach, we can see rounded beehive-shaped domes rising from the earth. The orange and black stripes make them look like some weird confection created by Willy Wonka. I can almost imagine ancient Oompah-Loompahs feverishly adding layer upon layer of orange and chocolate to make these mounds.
We have arrived at the Bungle Bungles, or Purnululu National Park, which lies between the arid desert environments of central Australia to the south and the monsoon savannah regions of northern Australia. It is thought that about 20 million years of erosion has produced the sandstone towers and banded beehive structures of the ranges. The dark bands are formed by cyanobacteria, winding horizontally around the domes, which contrast with the lighter orange sandstone. Cyanobacterium are single-celled organisms that represent some of the oldest life-forms on earth. These bands are several metres in width, but few centimetres thick. We fly over Cathedral Gorge, where the towering cliffs open up into a natural-occurring amphitheatre with amazing acoustics. From our vantage point in the air, we can clearly see the Livistona fan palm trees, which seemingly sprout from the banded rocks. According to Nick, the view of the waterfalls, which occur during the wet season is amazing. They must evaporate quickly after the wet season, as there are nothing to see today.
While sandstone cliffs and towers occur throughout the world, the features of the Bungle Bungles are unique in their scale and diversity of forms. They owe their existence and uniqueness to several interacting geological, biological, erosional and climatic phenomena. The 600 kilometre round-trip is almost done, and as we turn back toward Kununurra, Nick tells us that despite all advances in satellite and aerial photographic technology over the years, the Purnululu National Park and the Bungle Bungle rock formations were photographed from the air for the first time in 1983 by a channel 9 documentary film crew. The Purnululu National Park, into which the Bungle Bungles belong, became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003.
We circle over the amazing sight once more, and as we gain a higher altitude for the flight home, I see the little 'pimples' on the landscape for the last time. I cannot compare seeing the Bungle Bungles from the air with visiting it from the ground. I am glad we have taken this flight this morning, because we have a view of the immense extent of this unique landscape that one cannot possibly appreciate from the ground level.
Our pilots give us a break from the commentary as we head towards Kununurra again. Before long, Nick points out a large scar upon the ground. This is the world-famous Argyle mine, which is one of the largest diamond-producing mines in the world, and home to the Argyle pink, mauve, and champagne diamonds.
Geologists looking for deposits of uranium in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia in the 1970s found something more valuable when they brought back samples of alluvial diamonds. This led to the discovery of some of the highest quality diamonds ever found in Australia. The Argyle mine, now controlled by Rio Tinto produces industrial as well as high grade gems, all of which are polished in Perth, Western Australia.
Flying over the mine and the little manufactured town for the mine workers is interesting, and I cannot but wonder what else lies below this remote and extraordinarily beautiful landscape.
We are almost above Kununurra, when Nick points out the Ivanhoe Crossing, which is a concrete causeway, which was once part of the main highway to Wyndham prior to the Ord irrigation project in the 1960s. I make a mental note to check this out before we leave for Katherine tomorrow.
We land, say goodbye to Tim, whilst Nick drives us back to our accommodation. It is 10:30am.
Click here to read about our road trip from Broome to Darwin, June 2018
Tour: Kimberley Air Tours/Bungle Bungle Air Adventure
Two-hour flight overlooking the Ord Irrigation area, Ord River, Spillway Creek, the Durack family homestead, Lake Argyle dam, Bungle Bungle range, including Cathedral Gorge and Piccaninny Gorge, Argyle diamond mine
Rating: ***** Excellent tour
Accommodation: Discovery Parks Kununurra - Lakeview Dr, Kununurra WA 6743