Bibbulmun Track

Walkabout 2 : Back to the Bibbulmun

7 years ago I wrote about a 10 day /200km hike we’d done in the forests of Western Australia on a wonderful track that goes all the way from Perth to the south coast. We had walked from Kalamunda, at the start, to the next trail town of Dwellingup and had loved the experience. Back in Oz we were determined to do another stretch of the 960km Bibbulmun Track but after completing the Cape to Cape time available was running short.

We decided to do a shorter stage of 4 days / 3 nights from Collie to Balingup missing out a 7 day section. There is usually no food available on the stages/sections, you’re way out in the bush miles from “civilization”, so you have to carry everything with you- which needs careful planning. On this leg we were going to cross a road after a day and a half where there was a tavern serving food so we scheduled a slap up feed around that. Even so our packs were heavy setting off from Collie.

Collie was and is a coal mining town, unlike many in the area that were founded on the logging industry, and had a couple of facilities we enjoyed- a swimming pool to cool off in and a cutting edge art gallery, where we were invited to an opening of a show of portraits.

Nice people, nice wine, nice nibbles.

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An early self service breakfast at our historic old hotel of well faded grandeur allowed us to get on the way soon after 6, passing both the fire danger level sign and a notice saying that it is not recommended to be on the track at all between December and end of March and if you are, to leave it in the event of a fire risk of “high” or above.

We were “severe”. Slightly worrying. We’d been watching the infernos in NSW on the news with 1000’s of hectares of bush and 100’s of houses burning and Sydney an impenetrable smog. A lot of talk and denial of the increased severity being connected to climate change and also the need to manage prescribed or controlled fires better.

We were soon enveloped within the forest, the sights and sounds and scents taking us back years to our last Bibbulmun immersion, as we followed the yellow ” Waugal” symbol deeper into the immensity of Western Australian bush. We had enjoyed the Karri forest section on the Cape to Cape but the feeling of being a tiny dot making your slow way through mile upon mile upon mile of mixed Jarrah,Wandoo, Marri and a host of other tree and scrub species is special.

The easy path and flat ground made for a good rhythm of fast walking and we made good time to Collie river where it was too early for a swim and a 4×4 access track had allowed messers to travel down and defile the place with their fast food crap. Always a shocking jolt of a sight in deep country we hurried on past the cartons and bags to where the ethos of “leave no trace” was important to the people passing through.

As the temperature built we passed Mungalup Dam, where unfortunately no swimming was allowed as it was a drinking water supply. Other dams were for agricultural use and allowed not only swimming but all kinds of boating including with outboard motors. A web of old logging tracks crisscrossed our path through the forest with the scattered trunks and stumps witnesses to a huge industry that started with the arrival of Europeans and peaked around the First World War, although continuing to a lesser degree into the 1980’s.

The regenerative powers of the Jarrah were good to see. Areas that had been clear felled were returning to high forest again.

It was difficult to imagine the track in winter or spring when rains made stepping logs necessary and the creek systems were full of flowing water. There was however a little shower forecast and a couple of drops did manage to hit the ground without evaporating before we got to Yabberup camp after 20km.

These shelters, erected about every 20km, are a wonderful resource. They offer sleeping platforms, fire pits (in season), long drop dunny( always with toilet paper!), tables and benches and most importantly, water. They also have cleared and level tent pitches although there’s a very good chance that in summer you’ll have plenty of hut sleeping space and can avoid having to carry a tent and the less you have to carry the better. As luck would have it there were a couple of showers once we were safe under cover and we spent the afternoon reading the entries in the camp log book and listening to the bird song.

After a much more comfortable night on a new leakfree sleeping mat we set off again through the much burned landscape.

I’d been reading a bit on the use of fire in landscape or country ” management” by the Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years. A vital tool for their survival and wellbeing, it was part of a complex and very sophisticated system of rotational “gardening” on a massive scale that allowed for a sustainable and biodiverse existence that helped to ensure the health of all species of fauna and flora. A lot could be learned from them.

With the vast majority of the 1000km track going through eucalyptus forest it would be easy to assume it is boringly similar. On the surface perhaps so but once attuned to the subtle changes in vegetation, geology and the history of land use, it becomes everchanging. Just by watching where your feet fall you discover a wealth of variation over a short distance.

Some surfaces, like the pea gravel and the hard round gum nuts, could be easy to slip on, especially down hill, but mostly the track is easy going. We had encountered the biggest accents and descents of the whole trail on our previous trip, when we had to scale Mt Cuthbert, Vincent and Cooke, the highest at 582 m, and the profiles of our current journey were a relief after the jagged peaks and troughs of the Kumano Kodo.

Fair play to the teams of volunteers and the rangers and workers from the Parks and Wildlife service who build and maintain infrastructure like the bridge above and the shelters, and keep the track clear and marked.

We stopped at Glen Mervyn Dam for a cooling swim after passing a number of campers on the shoreline with canoes, paddle boards, speedboats and water skis.

Another couple of hours in the shady forest and we descended on the slippy pea gravel to the tarmac road where the Forest Tavern or Mumby Pub promised a cold Coke, a coffee and for Sunday lunch a big cooked meal and pint of beer. A joy only spoilt by the necessity to leave in the early afternoon heat across open ground without the shady forest. We travelled beside farmland on an old railway track before climbing a steep hill, sweating and panting, to rest gratefully in the shade again, admiring the views and comforting a lost and lonely lamb.

Now in the Greater Preston National Park we continued to Noggerup Camp where we had a bottle shower to cool down and wash off the track dust and did a little clothes washing. Nearly all of the Bibbulmun travels through land in the care of the Parks and Wildlife service whether that is a nature reserve, a National Park, a conservation park or a state forest with only the latter allowing any ( sustainable) timber production. It’s heartening to be able to hike for days, weeks, even months through a landscape that will no longer be exploited, although it is debatable to what degree the management practices are “correct”.

Not long before sunset we were joined by a man who seemed to be struggling somewhat and was so overweight that he seemed an unlikely hiker. How wrong first impressions. Jens, originally from Denmark, had just walked from Collie- 40km. He had completed about 12 end to ends on the track – that’s 12000km. He usually headed south from Perth in December when there’s less people on the trail, and did a south to north migration March to May. And he did this with multiple heath problems- herniated discs, trapped nerve, knee and other injuries due to bad accident, diabetes, big weight problem that he had to sort out before he could have his liver transplant!

He started hiking to rehabilitate after his accident and initially it would take him 14 hours to walk 5km. He needed to stop every couple of hundred metres to recuperate. Now he said it takes him a couple of weeks when he first gets back on the track for his knees to loosen up, another couple for the rest of him to get in shape and then the last couple of weeks he’s flying it, eating up the distance by walking for 18hrs- resting for 6- walking for 18- resting for 6- and repeat!

Mind you when we met him- early in the process- he was chewing painkillers and anti inflammatories big time. He also planned to rest up in the shelter the next day and continue on the track by night when it was cooler.

Our strategy for dealing with the heat was to get as much of the stage done as possible before it got too hot. Which meant an early start to Sally’s birthday.

So I woke her at 4.30 with a cup of tea and some birthday candles ,(definitely bad in a total fire ban- we later learnt we weren’t even supposed to use our Jetboil camping gaz), and hiked hard for a couple of hours before stopping for a b’day brekkie of smoked salmon and jerky.

It was a beautiful mornings hike on old railway formations, cuttings and embankments, from the days of the logging camps and then into a large area of virgin Jarrah forest with immense trees whose towering trunks seemed unimaginably big for axe or handsaw. Some of the Marri trees exuded a red gum the Aboriginal people used as an antiseptic and to tan leather.

As usual the last few kms seemed to stretch a lot further than reasonable and with many more ups and downs than expected but by mid day we had travelled the 24km to Grimwade camp and after a quick bottle shower cooloff, relaxed with a b’day cuppa and packet of Tayto’s, the taste of home.

Other treats included the cans of G and T I’d secretly carried for the last 4 days that we enjoyed with our noodles, mushroom soup and dehydrated “shepherds pie”. Quite the feast. Jens by the way has one meal a day. Soaked ( not heated) couscous and a sachet of tuna. Everyday.

We’d been too hot for a finish so determined to start even earlier. Our last day on the Track started in the gloaming. Packing up as light first bled into the eastern sky, we were on our way by 4.30, reveling in the cool morning air.

We sent a few roos bouncing off through the bush and admired, and attempted to mimic, the varied birdsong, but didn’t see as much wildlife as we had on the Cape to Cape. We were told it was because the sand surface there stifled any vibration whereas here the animals heard and felt us coming. We did see quite a lot of wild pig scuffling and on our last morning, 3 adult and 1 baby emu ran across the land below us. And plenty of flies, ants and termites.

The forest was beautiful in all its various stages. Whether full growth virgin or coppiced regrowth. Whether thick, tangled and bushy or black and burned with vivid green shoots emerging. It was all a rich tapestry. One that was understood and nurtured by the First Nations People. One of the Nyungar people whose country was South Western WA and included the Bibbulmun group had written in the article on fire stick farming of the deep and overriding connection the Indigenous people feel for their ” country”.

It ended up being a long hike on that last day. 29 km till we emerged from the forest to the rich farmland on the approach to Balingup. It gave me time to ponder on the similarities between the spiritual connection with and import of “country” to the Aboriginal or First Australians and the sanctity of nature worshipped in the Shinto faith by those countless pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo as they journeyed through the cedar forests before us. And to the recent, and desperate, moves to give legal rights and protection to nature in jurisdictions around the globe. In a race to the finish ” new animism” attempts to recognize interdependence in the living world and afford rivers, mountains,forests, lakes and in the case of Ecuador, Mother Nature , now enshrined in its constitution, the same rights as humans. Doing away with an intrinsic spiritually towards nature and replacing it with legal protection might be necessary in this faithless and destructive era when time is nearly up but it is also clumsy and riddled with complexities the legal profession can earn money from while the planet burns.

We came out of the forest for the last time exhausted but also rejuvenated by the experiences of the past 6 weeks. A couple of km of baked grass and we were able to stock up with food and drink and retire to a little cabin and garden for rest, relaxation and reflection.