x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Unspoilt for good reason

Into the wild A 10-day wait and a bone-cracking, soggy journey were reassuring in a way. As long as the route to Bungle Bungles remains wild and unpredictable, the destination will remain wild as well.

It was the dry season and it was raining. Not just raining - it was as if the sky were leaking. In most places such showers are not particularly disruptive, but in Kimberley - a remote tropical region of north-western Australia - they can be paralysing. This huge, sparsely populated area has more than 2,400km of roads, but only one-third of them are sealed. The rest are made of sand, gravel or claypans. When it rains, these dirt tracks turn into a soupy stew and the normally dry riverbeds that criss-cross the land turn into impassable torrents.

We were hunkered down in a rest area on the side of the Great Northern Highway. Perth was 3,000km in one direction and Darwin was 1,100km in the other. The entrance to the Purnululu National Park - home to the geological marvel of the Bungle Bungle mountain range - was nearby but the park was closed. My travelling companion and I were willing to do almost anything to walk amid these distinctive orange and grey striped domes in this strange and wondrous place. The grey bands are permeable rock on which cyanobacteria grow, while the orange bands are less porous rock stained by iron and manganese oxide.

According to radio reports the park would only open a few days after the rain stopped, but nobody knew when that would be. We could have moved, but there was nowhere to go. The nearest town was Halls Creek, where letters had languished in the postbox for years because the postman had lost the key. Fitzroy Crossing, on average the hottest inhabited place on Earth, was further down the road. We decided to stay put.

Waiting is part of modern travel. Bus stops, train platforms, airport check-ins: the wait is often carefully managed, guided by a continual drip of information, directed by estimates of when the waiting will end. Even delayed journeys have a provisional timetable. But waiting for nature, without any schedule, is frustrating for modern sensibilities. You just have to sit and on stand by. Fortunately entertainment was on hand. Hundreds of people were crammed in to the rest areas dotted along the motorway. The highlight of the day was watching people build fires under the cover of ramshackle, corrugated iron shelters. Scores of gruff and burly men took part in this elemental competition. It began with the hunt for fuel. One man drove off and came back an hour later with an entire ecosystem strapped to his roof as if his vehicle had sprouted limbs and branches - a Toyota Landcruiser hideously dressed in nature's garb. Another man, fed up with foraging in the undergrowth, started lassoing trees and tearing them down. By mid-morning swathes of the rest area were ablaze. At one point, the flames were so big that, despite the rain, groups of men sat bare-chested around their massive pyres.

The Bungles stakeout went on for 10 days. When the rain eventually stopped and the park reopened, we lurched over the holes and ruts and corrugations of the access road in a massive convoy. The first creek crossing was straightforward. We plunged into the water and drove up the bank on the other side. The second crossing was different. It was wide and deep, more of a river than a creek. I stood on the bank considering how to cross, while four-wheel drives hurtled past me into the water. The river lapped around their doors and at times threatened to engulf the vehicles. Yet all of them made it safely to the other side.

In the film Man on Wire, the daredevil tightrope walker Philippe Petit talks about the moment he took his first step on the rope stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. It was a moment of faith, he said, faith in himself and his abilities. He says in the movie that everybody should have these type of experiences to confirm they are truly alive. As my vehicle wheezed and spluttered and tilted and pitched through the deep water, I felt I was experiencing a humbler version of what Petit described.

The Bungle Bungles formations that lay ahead in our journey had only been known to the local people until the 1980s when a television crew spotted them from a helicopter while filming a documentary about the region. Since then, the area has become a World Heritage Site and independent travellers and tour groups drive or occasionally fly in. Unlike Uluru, that other great and ancient Australian rock formation, Purnululu's remoteness and inaccessibility have so far saved it from an overwhelming influx of tourists. Inasmuch as it had frustrated us to endure our 10-day wait and now this bone-cracking, soggy journey, it was reassuring in a way too. As long as the route to Bungle Bungles remains wild and unpredictable, the destination will remain wild as well.


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