There is nothing like walking into a landscape and spending the night. The slow arrival on foot gives time to appreciate the small details that can’t be seen by car or plane. Drifting off to sleep with the sounds of the bush, and getting up and down with the sun gives a sense of place that you can’t get from driving in.
We had been planning a trip to the Bungle Bungles for years, well before my knee started playing up. Naturally, we planned lots of bushwalks to fully appreciate the landscape, and overnighting in Piccaninny Gorge would be the highlight. A little knee pain was not going to get in the way of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I was prepared to tough it out.
Landmarks are used for navigation on this signage-free walk, and it would be difficult (though not impossible) to get lost. The walk to the start of the Gorge is around 13km, and it’s flat, following the creek bed in. There is a natural water collection point at the start of the gorge, so we wouldn’t have to carry two days’ worth. Simple enough.
I felt comfortable walking, despite the meagre amount of training I was able to do in the lead-up. The heat and the terrain didn’t bother me much at first, and we had some pretty amazing surroundings to keep us interested.
Regardless of the lack of hills, though, this walk is quite tough. In fact, it’s the most gruelling flat walking I’ve done. The combination of sand, river stone, and weathered rock is very testing. Adding to that, the intense heat of the day radiates back from all that rock, whether it’s under your feet or towering beside you. I am born and bred in the dry tropics, and am well accustomed to heat, but I was hot, and it was the middle of winter. And despite their beauty, the beehives don’t change a lot in the section before the Elbow, bringing on a kind of guilty monotony. I should be enjoying this, right? By the time we stopped for lunch, I was a bit over it.
Normally, I would be in full support of no signs being present, but I would have really appreciated some this time, notably kilometre markers which would have helped keep me motivated on that long walk in. A sign at the Elbow, which is a lot more difficult to identify from the bottom of the gorge than you would expect, also would have stopped me worrying that we’d missed the waterhole. Eventually, we did reach the Elbow and the start of the gorge proper. Of course. I worried for nothing.
Once inside the gorge, the temperature became a little more comfortable, and there was more shade. It wasn’t long before we found the dry waterfall mark, and our water source. Instant relief. We dropped our packs and made our way into the side gorge, hoping there was still clean water to be found in this pool.
The rock hopping to get in was a welcome change to trudging through sand and river stones. The change in scenery and terrain buoyed my spirits and I started to enjoy myself again. After maybe ten minutes, the water hole appeared. Totally shaded by the high rock walls, the temperature was markedly lower in here than outside. It was silent and cool, and we had it completely to ourselves. This is why we walked. Solitude from the throngs of tourists in this glorious timeless place.
We stayed there for maybe an hour, cooling off and enjoying the quiet. There was strictly no swimming and we carefully ate our lunch without dropping anything to avoid contaminating the water. After filling our Camelbaks, it was time to get moving. We still had the gorge to explore.
We chose a campsite close to the waterhole for convenience and left everything but a daypack so we could explore. The gorge is very beautiful; so much colour contrast with blue sky, red rock and white sand, dotted with cabbage palms and spinifex. Sandy creek beds blend with scoured rock chasms and the force of the wet season water is evident. It’s hard to comprehend the parched landscape with that much moisture.
Back at camp, we again found ourselves alone. Apart from one other solo hiker, we were the only ones in the gorge that night, and we had this entire stretch completely to ourselves. Even when hiking, that’s a rare treat. For the second time that day, we agreed the heat and toil had been worth it. Lying in my bed that night with the moonlight reflected on the pale river bed and the milky way smudged above me, I was extremely content. (I was also occasionally worried about spiders crawling on me, but that’s because I’m silly. Let’s just focus on the contentment part right now).
There is so much to explore in the gorge you could really spend several days here, and I would recommend at least two nights if you have the time. We didn’t, and had to head back out the next day.
Fortunately, the walk out didn’t seem as endless as the one in, and a smorgasbord of tasty snacks made for happy hikers. Several other groups passed us on their way in, some stopping to chat, keen to hear how our experience had been. We joked to each other about how busy it was in the gorge that night.
The carpark was a welcome sight, and even more so, our truck with its promise of cold water straight from the fridge. We had made good time and there was still plenty of sunlight to make camp and get cleaned up. Ah, a wash in a basin of water never felt so good, not to mention a crisp, cold beer.