Martin Chambers

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The Bungle Bungle by bike

In Eric Newby’s book, ‘A short walk in the Hindu Kush’, he describes a time when, hopelessly ill-equipped in terms of both equipment and skills, he and his companion took turns at reading from a ‘how to climb mountains’ book, while the other carried out the instructions on the face of an unconquered peak. 

I was wishing we had have had similar forethought and brought a bicycle repair book, as we at under the sparse shade of a tree contemplating the mangled wheel of Johns bike. I realized how inadequate were our biking skills; and how, despite all the lists of tools and spares, cross checking under careful scrutiny, we came to have only nine spare spokes. W had just broken fifteen. 

We were 50 kilometres from the Great Northern Highway in Western Australia, about 250 kilometres south of Kununurra and Lake Argyle, en route to the Bungle Bungles where we hopes to spend three weeks exploring this remote and unique range.

The Bungle Bungles are a 50 million year old sandstone range, eroded into characteristic dome shapes over the millions of years. These domes rise from the surrounding flat spinifex plain like great striped bald heads, each more than 100 metres high. The sandstone was formed by the compression of layers of sand, to form rock; a soft white rock which soon becomes red when exposed to the dust blown across the spinifex plain. Successive layers differ in their ability to retain water; in wetter layers algae grows, black. So the domes have a mysterious red black red horizontal striping.

John, Tom and I prefer challenges that require planning and self reliance to the standard hotel or resort holiday. The challenge is not for survival, but with wit and inventiveness, to thrive. 

To covert the 80 kilometres from the main highway to the Bunglke Bungles we had chosen to ride pushbikes. Carrying the food and water in by foot would be a grind; and there is definitely a difference between a challenge and a grind. A challenge is fun to respond to. So we bought ourselves three mountain bikes, names Concorde, Bagh One, and Ned, taught ourselves to ride and then caught the bus from Perth to Halls Creek.

Mountain bikes are the pushbike equivalent of the four wheel drive, and riding them is immense fun. We became master at first-gear crawling the laden bikes up steep, rocky hills, reaching the top with legs burning like fire, then coasting down the other side, hanging on over sticks and rocks, a bouncing ride into the valley. As we became better, we went fast- until John flew off over the handlebars, a large stick caught in the front wheel. 

We laughed a lot- until we saw the mess the stick had made of the wheel. Slowly now, we pulled the mangles wheel back into shape, bashing it with sticks, bending over rocks and levering it with rope pulleys. One by one, we pulled the bent spokes back into the right holes.

After five hours, Ned was back on the track. We all felt the immense glow of success as the front wheel spun true in the dropouts. 

Food and gear for three weeks makes for a lot of weight, and along with eight litres of water each there was a lot on each bike. The water was enough to last us for three days, and by Murphy’s law (nothing is ever found unless you don’t need it) , we managed to camp and swim most nights by a water hole. At Osmond Creek, we found a 300 metre long waterhole that dispensed fresh catfish to the waiting pan. Breakfast of fresh catfish to the morning orchestra of birds… slowly digest the meal with a swim and a bask in the warm sun…perhaps a stroll In the afternoon or a bike ride out onto the river flats, followed by an evening parade of wildlife on the far bank. Yes, A challenge could be fun. 

Osmond Creek became our base camp. From there, we took a few days’ food at a time across the 12 kilometre sand plain to the Bungle Bungles. We let air from our tyres and in first gear only, set off like ships on a stormy sea. Just as the bike is beginning to flow, a spinifex wave rolls up, lifts the front wheel, then you surf down the other side into the next wave; all around, bloodwood scrub scratches at your hands and face. It is ahrd to maintain a sense of fun as the day wears on and the sun beats down. Flat tyre..and chain breaks… lets stop under this waiting friendly tree.

Nobody can appreciate the value and beauty of a tree more than the weary outback traveller who find a shady friend. 

After many days in the bush, we begin to be able to read the subtle signs of the wild leading us to shady waterholes. Our first camp at the Bungle bungles was at such a place; a cool. Rocky hollow, with fern lined waterhole and palms and vines shading the sides of a small gorge. We were not the first to appreciate the beauty of this place. For hundreds of metres on each side Aboriginal paintings, of birds, fish, crocodiles, stick men, hand prints, lizards and numerous shapes we could not identify. I sat under the over hang and gazed out at the same view that the artists had for thousands of years, and I felt a strange awe- a feeling it is impossible to describe- of being small and insignificant yet at the same time fantastic. 

Tom, who feels these moments with the sensitive organ of his stomach, cooked a commemorative meal. We ate in silence, and a stranger to our camp might have been bemused by this silence. As we became less significant, as trees, birds and rocks became more significant, it became hard not to think alike- or the differences between our thoughts become insignificant. We talk of stars, of life, and drift to sleep  to the flutter of bats who do not know that Sirius B is a binary star, and who exist in total ignorance or their origins. 

We spend days exploring the hidden valleys, creeks and crests of the Bungle Bungle, running like school children from one exciting find to the next.

There are many small rock pools, haven for fish and birds, heron, ibis and jabiru. At night we heard bats and in the mornings red tailed cockatoos and major Mitchell’s woke us with raucous cries. Finches of many species flutter from water’s edge to leafy tree, and top knot pigeons, doves, fantails- in fact more bird species than we could count- abounded everywhere.

On the river flats, scrub bulls, donkeys and even a couple of camels gave us an African Safari feeling. Osmond Station had mustering camps to the North or here, many years ago. These fell into disuse after a flood washed much of them away, and now all the animals are feral. 

In amongst the Bungle Bungle range, in the narrow valleys and at the tops of the hills, we saw many signs of kangaroos, wallabies and dingoes, but we rarely saw these animals themselves. It was very interesting to see how the native animals had adapted so well to the environment without causing damage, compared with the gross damage caused by the introduced species.

It was springtime in the Kimberleys while we were there and everywhere desert peas, vines, native fig, harsh prickly shrubs and spinifex were in flower in colours from yellow and red to blue and mauve; always, over everything, was the sickly sweet smell of spinifex.

Riding west, we followed the smooth sandstone bed of Buchanan creek which was a natural velodrome. Leaving the bikes, we followed steeper gorges deeper into the Bungles. One gorge became so steep and narrow that we had to walk sideways in it, with the top of the gorge 100 metres above us. Were rocks had fallen down, we had to chimney climb over them. For five kilometres we followed this gorge, through a tunnel and over truck-sized boulders, climbing up and up until we were at the very top.

An afternoon haze settled an unreality overt everything; we looked in every direction as far as the eye could see and saw nothing man-made. For 10 days we had met no-one, seen no fresh tracks, no litter, of anything at all made by mankind, and it was now that we realized it. How many places in the world are there left like this?

We climbed down on the late after noon, hoping to beat the sun back to camp as it would be easy to get lost in this maze of hills and gorges and we didn’t have a torch.

That night it was colder than ever. Each of the stars in the bight sky, and the pale moon, seemed to suck the warmth from the earth. From the rocks, the grass, the trees and from us. We built a roaring fire and crawled into our sleeping bags, each with an arm’s reach of wood behind. Scalding cups of coffee, soup, stew, were taken lying in our bags with little conversation. An occasional breeze wisped the smoke away and rustled the spinifex; otherwise it was still.

Replete from the meal, we lay back and watched the TV sky. In turn, we punctuated the main features with picturesque stories of our make-believe lives, while overhead the stars, moon, treetops and cold air of night continued with their show. Why we cannot reproduce these stories at home around the lounge room fire I do not know.