Put it this way: go to your calendar and write under September, Going to see the wildflowers, Bibbulmun Track, Western Australia.
It’s not often that things live up to the hype, but WA’s spring flowers left us grinning and shaking our heads in disbelief. Boughs of native wisteria, their deep purple flowers clustered as thickly as grapes, the neon oranges and pinks of flame peas, the bright yellow splashes of Guinea flowers, all joined by the sprawling nets of scarlet runner covering the ground.
We had set out that morning from Balingup, 240 kilometres south of Perth, to walk the Bibbulmun Track to Pemberton, eight days and 157 kilometres further south. But since we had entered this spectacular section of forest – Greenbushes, about seven kilometres from Balingup – we had barely walked 100 metres in an hour.
Our pace picked up as we followed the trail markers out of the forest into lush green farmland. The track is well marked with yellow triangles featuring the black ‘Waugal’ symbol – a representation of the rainbow serpent designed by a Nyoongar elder. The Nyoongar, the traditional owners of southwest WA, are divided into about 14 sub-groups, one of whom is the Bibbulmun, whose practice of walking long distances for ceremonial gatherings is recognised in the track’s name.
Blackwood, the first night’s campsite, was up a steep hill and through a pine plantation – hauntingly sterile after the earlier profusion of flowers. The hut was on the ridge above the Blackwood River, aligned to catch the late afternoon sun and give superb views over the rolling, forest-covered hills.
The huts along the Bibbulmun are one of the delights of the trip, each a lesson in simple, functional design. The three-sided constructions are carefully crafted from deep red jarrah, the sleeping platforms, tables and benches worn smooth with use. The huts can sleep about ten, although in early September we had the huts to ourselves every night. Each hut has a plaque with the name of the volunteers who constructed it: at Blackwood we had the 2 troop 13 Field Squadron Royal Australian Engineers to thank. The campsites also have tent spaces, a pit toilet and – a feature that we particularly appreciated – a rain water tank, which freed us from having to lug heavy loads of water. Many of the huts along this section of the trail (although not Blackwood) have an outside fireplace – and even a woodshed!
As we settled down to sleep with the wind sighing through the pines, we were happy we still had a week’s worth of hiking before us.
We breakfasted watching the fog in the valley being harried by the morning sun while flocks of Baudin’s Black-cockatoos flew past kreeking like disgruntled commuters. With the sun burning through the fog, we descended into the valley and followed the Blackwood River south. Colourful parrots in the flooded gums showered us with half-eaten blossoms. Leaving the river, a hillside of tree hovea flowered an intense, almost ultraviolet, purple.
While there were still many superb flowers, their diversity began to wane as we moved into the taller forests of the south, although other attractions more than made up for the change.
The broad track became lined with water bush, which was starting to come into bright yellow flower. It was somewhere among these thick screens of shrubs that we were startled by Dwaine.
Dwaine was, to use the shorthand of the track, on an ‘E to E’, an ‘End to End’ from Kalamunda, near Perth, the full 965 kilometre length of the Bibbulmun to Albany on the south coast.
‘I live in Kalamunda’, he said cheerily, sitting beside the path brewing up a cup of tea. ‘I always used to drive past the start of the track and wonder to myself, “Where does that go?” One day I decided to find out. And I just kept walkin’, ended up doing the whole bloody thing.’
Dwaine had progressed from doing his first E to E in steel-capped boots with an old hessian school-backpack, to be a five-time E to E veteran with all the requisite kit. When he had reached Albany this time, he had decided he liked the walk so much he turned around and started hiking back – a double E to E.
‘The track always changes. The same section can look completely different at different times of the year. There’s always somethin’ to see’. He dangled his teabag meditatively. ‘It can become a way of life.’
He looked up and saw us looking, well, maybe slightly dubious. He smiled and waved us on our way. ‘You’ll see.’
We continued on, passing stands of grass trees, only to be soon brought to a halt by a massive one – four or five metres tall. Then we noticed the antennae-like flowers emerging from its shaggy crown and realised it wasn’t a grass tree, but a very similar plant, Kingia australis. Deciding it was a good spot for lunch we ate our sandwiches under the Kingia, watched by a pair of wary red-tailed black cockatoos. The cockatoos were sitting in the branches of a marri tree, biting through the marri’s thick woody fruits with their bolt-cutter-like beaks. While marris resemble eucalypts, they’re actually in the Corymbia genus along with their famous cousins, the Red-flowering gums. Their chunky round fruits (commonly known in WA as ‘honky nuts’) roll nicely underfoot – one of the few hazards of the track.
Gregory Brook was another spectacular campsite, beside a small burbling stream among massive jarrah and gnarled marri. Although it had been a mild day, it was a surprisingly cold night so we cooked on the open fire, listening to the crack of the flames and the creaky conversation of the frogs.
Red-winged fairy-wrens, with their iridescent turquoise caps, flittered around the picnic table as we ate breakfast the next day. Reluctantly leaving this beautiful campsite we entered the Dalgarup nature reserve where we soon saw our first karri tree. You could hardly miss it: 40 metres high, massive straight trunk glowing sliver and pewter in the morning sun.
Crossing the Brockman Highway we passed the division between the north and south of the track, and into recently burnt forest, where the fire had killed the water bush bordering the path, but left the grass trees rejuvenated and bursting with bright new growth. The path was broad and level, easy walking through dappled light, slivers of karri bark underfoot like strips of beef jerky. This section of the track, like many others, followed a former train line built to take logs to timber towns like Donnelly River and Pemberton, the giant stumps beside the path a reminder of this era.
In the afternoon, a new type of trail marker appeared in addition to the Waugals. These were large and round and soft and appeared in the middle of the trail at regular intervals. Scats of some kind – but what kind of animal leaves a scat like a half a cow poo?
The bird-life was amazing: purple-crowned lorikeets feasted on the flowers at the tops of the karris, pairs of white-browed scrubwrens tittered as they chased each other through the low bush and grey fantails flashed their tails like packs of cards.
A gust of wind carried the smell of the sweetest perfume. We soon traced its source: a grove of scented boronia, their unassuming brownish flowers issuing a scent like warm, buttered honey.
Arriving at Donnelley River Village we found a kangaroo idly scratching itself in front of a dilapidated timber mill. Following an emu up the main road led us to the general store (and explained the origin of the mysterious scats), where more semi-tame kangaroos were sprawled out like blokes watching the cricket.
Inside the store smelt of sweets and scented soaps. The counter was lined with every imaginable kind of lolly. Above a blazing Coonara, souvenir tea towels hung beside black and white photos of moustached men with axes.
We decided on Devonshire tea. The store is also a good place to stock up on hiking provisions, as the owners sell zip-lock bags of staples like powered milk, oats and rice at reasonable prices.
Instead of staying in the official Bibbulmun hut in Donnelly (the former school shelter shed), we decided to pay $20 each for a bunk in the school itself. While it was far from flash, there was a basic kitchen, a hot shower and a coffee table with Banksia cone legs. We had the feeling of being on an overnight detention as we were sleeping in the principal’s office, which still had a school desk and a pegboard labelled ‘staff room, junior room and office’. We also solved the mystery of why the town had a ‘Village’ in its name: after the mill closed in 1978 the entire town, 150 acres, was sold and turned into a ‘holiday village’ where you can rent one of the former mill workers cottages and enjoy the emu, kangaroo and lolly-rich serenity.
The next day was relatively short – 15 k’s to Tom Road Hut. We followed the Yanmah Brook east through karri, marri, blackbutt and bull Banksia and then joined the Donnelly River, which was to be our regular companion for the next few days. We ate lunch where the track crossed the river at Twin Bridges. Many of the bridges along the track are marvels of bush engineering – cut on site with a chainsaw, the felled logs roughly dressed then elegantly arranged to span the banks.
As we ate, a golden whistler hunted for insects in the riverside shrubs, while a marron – a kind of giant freshwater crayfish, a native of the southwest – plodded along the riverbed below.
Tom Road Hut was arguably the most picturesque campsite yet. Set beside a wide, still pool on the Donnelly River, it was surrounded by granite boulders, purple swathes of hovea and stands of river Banksia.
A part of the enjoyment of arriving at a hut on the Bibbulmun is reading the entries of previous hikers, philosophers, poets and, er…characters in each hut’s comments book. Inevitably it became a soap opera, as we hastened to find the entries of our favourite walkers to discover how they had coped with their blisters/insights/madness since their previous entry. Surprisingly, the books revealed very few hiker on the track – only nine in the last three weeks according to the ‘Tracks and Trails Log Book’ at Tom Road Hut. The oldest hiker we found was 73, the youngest 7. Our favourite correspondent was the indomitable ‘Pacca’, a 13-year-old girl with no self-esteem problems: G’day, I’m Pacca and I’m fully sick, who also had some top tips: Every time you go up a hill, sing your own version of the ‘Rocky’ theme song, and when you get to the top strike the Rocky pose.
Day five started with a white-breasted robin keenly observing our breakfast preparations from its sideways perch on the rough bark of a karri. Back on the trail dozens of helmet orchids dotted the mossy path-side, their thumb-sized purple caps like delicate seashells.
We followed the Donnelly River nearly all day, finally crossing it at the hamlet of One Tree Bridge, where we viewed the giant log that gave the town its name. The old single-log bridge has now been retired, dragged 100 metres up the slope and fenced off as a tourist attraction, making the ‘bridge closed’ signs a little redundant.
We continued beside the Donnelly – now a wide, furious river tumbling over granite boulders – through avenues of tall, straight karris to the real one tree bridge – a single massive moss-covered karri the Army Reserve Field Engineers had converted to a bridge with the addition of decking and handrails. Crossing the bridge to the Boarding House Campsite, we were tired after our longest day so far, 23 kilometres, and slept well to the mournful calls of a boobook.
The next morning, we were slightly apprehensive setting off as hikers in the comments book had referred to today’s walk to Beavis Hut as the ‘Hills of Death’. Entering the Greater Beedelup National Park we followed another rail-cutting, narrow, straight and cool among the understory of karri hazel. Then, shortly before lunch, came the killer climb out of the valley. Fortunately I recalled Pacca’s advice and powered up the hill to the tune of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, arriving at the top heaving for breath and covered in sweat but still able to strike the Rocky-victor pose.
The crest of the hill was drier and more gravelly, supporting groves of peppermint trees humming with insects, the smell of honey lacing in the air.
Sitting by the glowing coals of a fire that evening at Beavis Hut, the half-moon silvered the massive karris above, as frogs filled the long, serene gaps in conversation.
Kookaburras announced the start of the dawn chorus then the rest of the birds joined in, their twittering and piping guiding us awake. Today the entire 19.6 km hike to Beedelup Hut was within the Beedelup and Greater Beedelup national parks.
We finally said goodbye to the Donnelly as it snaked off west and we continued south, through dense karri forest with karri hazel and water bush forming tunnels over the trail. Arriving near Beedelup Falls we were startled to hear voices drifting across a lake from the enormous Karri Valley resort, a sense of incongruousness heightened by the boardwalks and interpretive signs leading to the falls. The falls themselves, ringed by rails and decking, seemed diminished somehow, tamed. We were relieved to leave the asphalt behind and plunge back into the bush to Beedelup campsite, another five star lodging in the heart of the forest.
Our last breakfast on the trail was shared with a cheeky thornbill ducking about the table as we ate our porridge. A hill climb beneath the magnificent pale columns of the karri burned off the last of the morning chill, before we briefly left the shelter of the trees for vividly green paddocks. We returned once more to the forest, now dominated by groves of karri sheoak, their fallen needles creating a soft, springy track. We startled a small, native mouse digging beside the path – possibly a mardo – whose attempt at flight consisted of running in a few tight circles, scurrying across my foot then hunching at the side of the path in the hope we couldn’t see it.
We passed through a feral arboretum dominated by radiata pine and then hit more asphalt paths beside Big Brook Dam. Approaching Pemberton there were postcard views of Lefroy Brook and we knew we were getting close when we heard the 4 pm whistle of the wood mill.
It was in Pemberton, walking up the main street with the smell of wood smoke rising from the crooked little mill houses, that I realised, although my walk was over this time, I would be back to experience more of the Bibbulmun way.
This article was originally published in Wild magazine.