Pilgrimage to Punamii-unpuu: Western Australia's best-kept secret

Pilgrimage to Punamii-unpuu: Western Australia’s best-kept secret

Planning your next adventure? Mitchell Falls, or Punamii-unpuu as it’s known to the local Wunambal people, is located at the tip of Western Australia, and is about as far as you can go without your passport.

Downstream of Mertens Falls where a shady patch of rainforest cools the trail, rock art glimpsed by chance lures us unexpectedly off track. We wade and rockhop with backpacks and boots held overhead to come face to face with a long-extinct thylacine, etched in vibrant red and yellow ochre on hidden, overhung rock.

A vibrant battle scene colours the rock face too, and its intricate, 30,000-year-old details mesmerise us as we float in the perfect plunge pool at its base, gazing upwards in the most surreal of art galleries.

We’re on the trail to Mitchell Falls, a magical, four-tiered beauty which is quite literally the high point for all dusty road trippers who ride the rugged Gibb River Road to reach this remote bastion of wilderness in the Kimberley’s far northwest.

… romantic safari tents, four-course dinners, champagne at sunset, guided hikes and helicopter rides.

The experience, whether you fly or drive in from Broome, is as bucket-list as it comes, and days around Mitchell Falls are routinely spent bathing atop diamond-studded waterfalls in lofty spa pools, exploring outcrops etched with some of the finest rock art in Australia, and discovering rare Indigenous burial sites too.

There are luxurious wilderness retreats and a dozen idyllic Kimberley bush camps to enjoy en route, and when all paths converge, they do so on the trek to Punamii-unpuu, the Mitchell Plateau’s utterly majestic falls. I’d call it the best flow of water in the country, but you won’t meet a crowd this far away.

Long wet-season closures and lots and lots of bone-shaking corrugations keep visitor numbers in check. Perhaps not for too much longer though. Touted as the most significant conservation achievement in Western Australian history, the Mitchell Plateau is set to become the centrepiece of the country’s biggest national park, encompassing an expected 5-million-hectare slice of pristine wilderness and rugged, inaccessible Kimberley coastline.

It may take another decade of negotiation and planning, but when it happens, the creation of this new Kimberley “mega-park” will blow the lid on a faraway destination that adventurers still love to call secluded. For now, Mitchell River National Park is untrampled and pristine, and its 115,300 hectares of wilderness rates as one of the most species-rich destinations in all of Western Australia.

Bounded by the largely inaccessible gorges and valleys of the Mitchell and Lawley Rivers, the Mitchell Plateau is something of a sanctuary for native species endangered elsewhere in the country, and the birdlife is prolific.

Populations of endangered red goshawks and golden-backed tree rats are growing here, and the first ever sighting of a Kimberley sugar glider in neighbouring Prince Regent National Park gives hope that new Australian species could still await discovery. In short, if you dream of truly getting away from it all, this is about as far as you can go without your passport.

The Adventure to Ngauwudu

Rising high above a sandstone wonderland and sculpted by more rain than falls anywhere else in the Kimberley, Ngauwudu — the dramatic slab of laterite that caps the Mitchell Plateau — is a long drive from anywhere. By road, the 890km-long journey from Broome takes five days or more, and the rugged tracks, the heat and the bush camping quickly turn tourists into adventurers en route.

The soft access options are equally thrilling: multi-day helicopter safaris that showcase rarely seen country, fly-in overnight transfers to luxury accommodation on the edge of Mitchell Falls, and fully catered off-road coach tours that won’t demand you do the washing up. Think romantic safari tents, four-course dinners, champagne at sunset, guided hikes and helicopter rides: all too tempting for those keen to see the Kimberley slowly, and in style.

Close to the action, Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge accommodates the fly-in, package-deal travellers who arrive by air from Kununurra and nearby Drysdale River Station, or chopper in from luxury cruise boats sailing the Kimberley coastline. More guests arrive on small group 4WD bus tours that loop from Broome to the Bungle Bungles and back again.

But the majority of visitors to the Mitchell Plateau arrive in their own 4WDs, rattling 425km out of Derby and fording the King Edward River to reach its beautiful but primitive bush camp.

Exploring Munurru

The big attraction at King Edward River is its astounding collection of art galleries known as Munurru that record a 40,000-year-old history on weathered sandstone walls. We take a hike from our grassy riverside camp to a rock art site known as Bundjamanumanu where a great tribal battle dominates the storytelling and giant boulders carried by ancient Wandjina spirits lie scattered all about.

Round, mouthless deities painted on the rock stare back at us with mysterious, vacant, all-seeing eyes; the same intriguing spirits made famous by Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games when an image of the Wandjina (or Gulingi) appeared in the opening ceremony.

… overwhelmed by layers of ancient storytelling and the rituals that must surely have accompanied the creation of such canvases, it’s hard not to feel privileged to have access to such sacred ground.

A few kilometres away on the other side of camp, we stroll in search of rock art and discover, by complete chance, burial chambers of human skulls and bones tucked beneath massively overhung rock faces. It’s a surprising find that instantly transforms this outdoor gallery into something much more sacred, and we move on reverently to stand beneath walls of the intricate Gwion Gwion art that makes Munurru famous.

Exploring at sunset, overwhelmed by layers of ancient storytelling and the rituals that must surely have accompanied the creation of such canvases, it’s hard not to feel privileged to have access to such sacred ground. This rock art is easily viewed on foot — no guides required — putting the onus for its protection on the shoulders of every visitor.

The King Edward’s riverside bush camp may be basic — even for our band of well-practised off-roaders — but the setting is five-star. We float in a paperbark-fringed waterhole at dawn, watching wallabies grazing and corellas screeching noisily from the treetops, and downstream where the river slips and slides over polished rock, King Edward Falls fills a picturesque rock amphitheatre that glows amber and gold as the sun dips low.

Climbing the plateau

The King Edward River is a difficult spot to leave, but when we do, a single stony track lures us up onto the Mitchell Plateau through woodlands of woollybutt and stringybark and remarkable 280-year-old forests of towering Livistona eastonii fan palms. We pull over part way into our rugged three-hour-long drive at a clifftop known as Miyalay to take in the expansive views over the Lawley River far below, glimpsing rainforests and wetlands that drain away to the sea.

Finally, we rumble into the Mitchell Plateau’s national park camp, joining nomads from all points of the compass around the campfire, swapping tales and itineraries. The low-key set-up limits facilities to toilets and a water tank, but after long days on the Gibb River Road, our self-sufficient neighbours are all dab hands at campfire cooking, pitching tents and drinking their Emu beers “Kimberley cool”. Besides, everyone’s here for exactly one thing: to wake at dawn and get trekking.

The trek to Punamii-unpuu

Just 15 minutes from the trailhead, almost before the hike has begun, we shake off our packs, abandon our boots and peel off clothes to float and splash in the glorious pools that gather on the lofty edge of Mertens Falls. With the rising sun warming the creek’s smooth rock slabs, it’s an idyllic, early morning spot that’s too good to move on from, but what lies beneath is equally bewitching.

Over Mertens’ sheer rock face the creek drops swiftly away, filling an arcing amphitheatre with its broad, glistening veil and hiding 40,000-year-old rock art canvases crowded with animal totems and stunning Gwion Gwion art in brilliant red haematite scenes.

This truly stunning collection would be enough to lure me to this spot, but it’s just the beginning. We follow the spinifex-fringed trail downstream, rockhopping and swimming and detouring to scale outcrops for more and more extravagant views. We peer over the precarious edge of Mertens Gorge and finally reach the big falls themselves to discover that, while there are a dozen superlatives to describe Mitchell Falls, none do it justice.

The scene blows me away, easily eclipsing any I’ve witnessed in the Kimberley so far. As the sacred dwelling place for all living things waiting to be born, the spirits of children passed and Wunggurr, the Kimberley’s creation snakes, Punamii-unpuu is hallowed ground for the Wunambal people who live close by.

Even before I know all this, the powerful energy is palpable, and sitting silently on a rock ledge watching the falls, I understand why so many travellers endure the corrugations just to reach this immensely spiritual place.

We stretch our time at Mitchell Falls, climbing around for better and better views, and finding the perfect place to picnic in solitude. There are cool pools upstream to splash in, and while we contemplate hitching a helicopter ride back to camp, we’re so impressed with our hike that we retrace our steps just so we can do it all again.

Lingering at Little Mertens

In all we clock up five hours on the trail, which, despite its intimidating class 5 rating, is easily conquered (our plucky daughter first tackled it aged three years with just a few short stints in her carrier). Those irresistible pools above Mertens Falls waylay us again on the return journey, but we still manage to reach camp in time for a champagne sunset, joining the travellers stoking campfires and relishing their now shorter bucket lists.

The next day we return to Mertens Falls at dawn, nursing mugs of tea to sip with our bodies neck-deep in the water. Hikers trek past on their own journeys to Mitchell Falls and we smile, knowing what awaits them. Returning to camp along the River View Walk, we make our own discovery of the day, leaping among the rocks.

It’s a monjon, Australia’s smallest rock wallaby, and a creature so rare that it was photographed for the first time as recently as 1985. This sighting seals the deal, convincing us of the huge rewards that await when we set our sights just a little further away on the map.

As yet, the Mitchell Plateau hasn’t been carved up for the convenience of visitors, and it’s a pleasing, amazing thought that parts of it remain genuinely untouched and off limits to all but the wild things thriving happily in our absence. While getting to the Mitchell Plateau demands a great deal of determination and planning, this one-in-a-million adventure has left us forever smitten with the Kimberley.

Escape Routes

Getting there: Mitchell River National Park is located about 890km from Broome via the Gibb River and Kalumburu Roads.
Track conditions: The Gibb River Road is graded and usually opens to travellers in April each year. Kalumburu Road is far more rugged and corrugated and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required to cross the King Edward River and reach Mitchell Plateau. Pack spares, tools, water, fuel and know-how.
Camping: Mitchell River’s free-range campground provides composting toilets, water and fire places ($11/adult, $7/concession or $3/child, plus a $13/vehicle entry fee).
Glamping: Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge has peak season rates of around $690/couple, with breakfast and dinner. For fully inclusive packages, including flights in and out of the park, visit aptouring.com. Outback Horizons is just one company that offers luxury tours of the Kimberley priced from $8945 for 11 days (outbackhorizons.com.au).
Permits: All visitors to the Mitchell Plateau are required to purchase a Uunguu Visitor Pass online ($45 per person, kids free, wunambalgaambera.org.au).
Helicopter Flights: Helispirit transfers to the top of Mitchell Falls start from $160 per person (one-way) and 18-minute scenic flights start from $269 per person (helispirit.com.au).
Best time to visit: Conditions are best in the cool, dry winter months (May to July).
Contact: parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au, australiasnorthwest.com.

Catherine Lawson

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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