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Published: September 12th 2021
Flowing Gently By
Reflections in the Murray River
Stretching for 1000km between Kalamunda in the Perth Hills and Albany on the Southern Ocean, the Bibbulmun Track is one of Australia's longest and most loved walking trails. It's not hard to see the appeal. Almost entirely contained within a string of National Parks and other protected conservation areas, it passes through the botanical wonderland of the South-West forests, before paralleling the Southern Ocean for much of the way between Walpole and Albany. At it's northern end the track runs for 210km (crossing two highways in the process) without encountering a single town. After that, a small town is passed through roughly every 4-8 days, allowing through-hikers to either stock up on whatever food might be available from the local grocery store, or collect food drop boxes that they have sent on ahead in the post - so that it is quite common for people to walk the full thousand kilometres without having to leave the Track at any stage (though invariably the odd rest day would be taken in some of the 'Track towns' along the way).
And spaced evenly along the way - never more than a day's walk apart - are close to fifty purpose-built campsites, each
Home in the Forest
My favourite campsite shelter from my previous Bibbulmun Track sojourns: Chadoora (from 2019)
featuring a three-sided timber shelter designed to accommodate between 10 and 15 people on sleeping platforms, with an extended table with bench seating for preparing meals; plus a composting toilet, rainwater tank and, for those who prefer the comfort of their tent, multiple tent sites scattered throughout the surrounding forest. All of which is completely free, with no booking required. It is, quite simply, the most walker-friendly long distance walking trail you could hope to find anywhere in the world. (Note: Bibbulmun is the name of the language group to which the various indigenous tribes whose traditional lands the Track passes through belong.)
I had first encountered the Bibbulmun Track in September 2018, when I unexpectedly found that I had four days off work in a row (I was living in Fremantle at the time) and tried to come up with some sort of mini-holiday with which to pass the time. After racing around Fremantle to buy a sleeping bag, portable cooking gear and some lightweight food, I managed to walk the first 70km of the Track in 4 days & 3 nights, before hitching a ride back to Perth along the Brookton Highway. A month later I scored
Every journey starts with a single step
A larger and less well-prepared version of me starting out from the Northern Terminus in Kalamunda in 2018
three days off work in a row, so back into the hills I went to knock off another 70km through to the Albany Highway. And then in November 2019 I took advantage of another 4 day window of opportunity to tackle the next 70km through to the town of Dwellingup, during which I only saw one other person in 72 hours on the Track.
So it was only natural that at some point on my present trip I would turn my attention to the Bibbulmun Track once more, with the chance to complete the remaining 800km from Dwellingup through to Albany in one go being simply too good to resist. The only problem was that I had to actually get into Western Australia first. It would be easier to get into the Pentagon. But after a never-ending sequence of events that involved various border closures, lockdowns, flight cancellations and a 22-hour coach ride, I somehow managed to make it into the Independent Kingdom of Mark McGowan (formerly known as Western Australia) without being subjected to 14 days in solitary confinement. Only then did I check the official Bibbulmun Track website, to discover that the wettest winter in 30 years
A hillside bursting with colour on my first trip in 2018
in South-Western WA had left stretches of the Track under water, with some campsites having been closed and detours put in place to avoid inundated sections of trail. The moral of the story: be careful what you wish for.
Undeterred, I spent the best part of a day in Perth dashing from outdoor store to supermarket to Bibbulmun Track office in between downpours - it was a wet, windy, wintery day that welcomed me back to the west - before spending a full hour in the central Post Office trying to divide twenty days worth of food into three separate boxes, which I then sent on ahead to three of the smaller towns that I would be passing through in the weeks to come. With that taken care of I was able to relocate to my former stomping ground of Fremantle for a couple of days of rest, relaxation, beers and (against all odds) sunshine, before the time came to head back into the city for my coach south to Pinjarra, from where a taxi drove me the remaining twenty kilometres to Dwellingup - where it seemed as though the entire population of south-western WA had descended upon the
High up in the Hills
Atop Mount Vincent in 2018
local Visitor Centre and attached cafe. I stayed long enough for lunch and a coffee, and then high-tailed it out of there.
Thankfully it was only 13km from Dwellingup to the first campsite, as I couldn't walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time without having to stop and admire the kaleidoscope of colourful wildflowers lining the Track. But eventually I rounded a corner to find the welcoming sight of the Swamp Oak campsite shelter, where two other men were in the process of rolling out their sleeping mats and preparing an early dinner. Both were walking End-to-End from Kalamunda to Albany, but while the slightly older Rob was planning to take around 50 days (pretty much the standard timeframe), Ian was determined to do it in just 30 days! While both of them were preparing to make use of the shelter, Rob kindly warned me that if I was planning to do likewise I should probably be aware that he was not only a loud snorer but also suffered from sleep apnoea! Having been a little uncertain as to whether or not I would be warm enough without the added insulation of my tent, I
1 day down; 40-odd to go...
The firepit and shelter at Swamp Oak campsite
took this as a sign that I should err on the side of caution (and a quiet night's sleep) by foregoing the convenience of the shelter and setting up my tent... which I did a full fifty metres away, just to be on the safe side!
It was a fortuitous decision. By the time I emerged from my tent at 7:30am the next morning - a full hour after sunrise - the air temperature was just 5°, and I had the feeling that if it had have gotten any colder overnight I would have been uncomfortable. Rob was already packing his things; Ian had apparently left while it was still dark, determined to make it all the way to Dookanelly campsite almost 40km away. So as had been the case on the Larapinta Trail, it seemed that I would once again be operating on a different time zone to everyone else on the Track! And as if to emphasise the point, it was a full three hours later that I finally donned the backpack and hit the trail - though to be fair it had taken an inordinate amount of time to get my tent dry, with the overnight
Home for the Night
My trusty tent at Swamp Oak campsite
humidity having been so high as to leave my tent soaking wet from the condensation of my breath.
The second day's walk was 19km, but with a few steep climbs along the way, as the Track would repeatedly drop down to a creek, cross it, then climb up and over the next ridge; before repeating the process all over again. And with nowhere particularly suitable to stop for lunch (there were a few bench seats along the way - a rarity on the Track - but they were all located within the first few kilometres) I ended up making use of one of the sturdy little footbridges, sitting with my legs dangling down over the waters of Tarragil Brook to enjoy my teriyaki rice and mashed potato. I also didn't see a single person on the Track until I reached the lovely Murray campsite shelter, set just back from the banks of the Murray River, where Rob had already gotten a fire going in the designated fire pit. (Only in it's northern reaches, and outside of the summer bushfire season, are fires allowed anywhere on the Bibbulmun Track).
Despite the raucous welcome that I received from a flock
Arriving at Murray campsite to find a welcome campfire already burning, courtesy of Rob
of screeching Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos on my descent to the campsite, the setting was overwhelmingly tranquil; and the sight of the wide, languid river flowing gently by was soothing for the soul. This was the first river more than five metres wide that I had encountered in the 240km of the Bibbulmun Track that I had walked so far; and when added to the 270km that I had just walked through the Outback where there were no flowing rivers at all, the serenity of the setting was almost overwhelming. And with Rob having decided to pitch his tent for the night, I was happy to make myself at home in the shelter - though just as I had done on the Larapinta Trail I decided to put my inner tent up, in the hope of keeping myself a couple of degrees warmer, as well as keeping the mosquitos at bay.
Waking to find the Murray River shrouded in fog the next morning, my suspicions that the temperature had dropped far below the forecast minimum of 10° were confirmed - it was a seriously chilly 4° instead! Thankfully I had been JUST warm enough wearing all of my clothes inside
Feeling the Chill
Enduring a cold and fog-bound morning at Murray campsite
my sleeping bag, but again I couldn't help wondering how I would fare if the temperature dropped any lower. I had also become convinced that due to a significant amount of weight loss in recent months (achieved despite my insatiable appetite having never wavered) I seemed to be feeling the cold more than usual, particularly at night. The way things were going I would either need to pile on the pounds or invest in a new sleeping bag - neither of which seemed feasible while I was on the Track! Lifting my spirits somewhat was a visit from a pair of Superb Fairy Wrens - the male of which sported a vivid blue coat of feathers from head to tail - which, added to the 28 Parrots (I didn't count them, that's actually their common name), Bobtail Lizard, small Western Brush Wallaby and aforementioned Cockatoos that I had previously seen, made it a pretty successful 24 hours!
If anything though the rest of the day would prove to be slightly disappointing, as despite running parallel to the Murray River for most of the day, the trail offered very little in the way of river views. It was almost as
Traversing the overgrown slopes above the Murray River on day 3
if having finally reached a significant river for the first time, the track makers had decided to ignore it thereafter. Admittedly this was probably the result of a fire that had swept through the area in 2015, leaving a thick undestorey of presumably five-year-old saplings where previously (according to the guidebook at least) there had been extensive river views to be had from a number of vantage points. Still, when combined with a significant number of fallen branches across the trail that had to be avoided, and an extended climb up and over a ridge right at the end of the day, it made for one of my less-enjoyable days on the Track so far.
On the bright side, however, by getting away almost an hour earlier than the day before AND not stopping for lunch along the way, I was able to reach Dookanelly campsite by mid-afternoon. This allowed me the luxury of drying my sweat-soaked clothes before the sun went down (whereas the previous day I'd left them hanging up overnight - only to find them just as wet by the time I woke up as they had been when I'd taken them off fifteen hours earlier)
Arriving at Dookanelly campsite, at the end of day 3
as well as giving me the chance to get some reading done. But rather than reading the next chapter(s) of the thick book that I had brought with me ('Horizons' by Barry Lopez) I chose instead to have a crack at the first 72 pages of a book named 'Enemy Of All Mankind' which another hiker had left behind at the shelter - with a promise to leave further chapters behind at the next campsite! I could only hope my mystery benefactor would be true to their word, as those first few chapters (describing one of the most daring pirate raids in history, and the chain of events that it would set off around the world) had me completely hooked!
With Rob having once again decided to pitch his tent, I was happy to make use of the shelter - though again I felt it necessary to at least pitch my inner tent to help keep the mosquitos out. Thankfully unlike the first two nights, this one would prove to be about five degrees warmer - so not only did I have a more comfortable night's sleep, but I was able to get up an hour earlier (6am) than
A giant, blackened Marri tree towering over the Track
I had on previous mornings. This was a most welcome change, since after enjoying three straight days of cloudless blue skies, the weather forecast had predicted increasing showers for Wednesday. In what can only be described as a miracle, I managed to enjoy a filling breakfast (minus coffee, which I had unfortunately left at my hostel in Fremantle four days earlier) and be packed up ready to go within two hours of my alarm going off, so that by 8am I was striding confidently forth. Curiously though, Rob had yet to emerge from his tent by this point. I wondered whether this had anything to do with him looking completely shattered the afternoon before, but wouldn't know for sure until I saw him again down the track... or not, as the case may be.
After getting off to a good start I noticed that it seemed to be taking longer than I had expected to reach the fancy new suspension bridge across the Murray River. I also noticed that I hadn't seen a waugul (the stylized Rainbow Serpent-type creature - a figure from Nyoongar Dreaming stories - used on all directional markers) for quite some time. Convinced that I
Suspended among the Treetops
Crossing the Bilya Djena Bidi footbridge over the Murray River
had somehow taken a wrong turn (or not taken a right turn) I backtracked for about ten minutes until I found a waugul that confirmed I was on the right track. But it was only when I headed back in the same direction from which I had just returned that I discovered the error of my ways: I had somehow managed to miss a left-hand turn off the vehicle track I had been following onto a walking trail, despite there being a waugul pointing left nailed to trees on BOTH sides of the road, as well as arrows spray-painted onto the trees just beneath the markers! Clearly I had been occupying a different planet when I passed them the first time around!! Less than a minute after taking the correct turn-off, I emerged from the bush at one end of the impressive (and presumably quite expensive) Bilya Djena Bidi suspension footbridge, where I could finally enjoy unimpeded views of the Murray River for the first time since I had left Murray campsite more than a day earlier.
Running parallel to the river on the other side, the route ahead followed a series of four-wheel-drive tracks, which harboured numerous large
The Brown Sea
Muddy puddles on a 4WD track above the river
muddy puddles that had to be skirted around. But an enjoyable diversion soon presented itself in the form of a large echidna who was so engrossed in it's search for ants and termites that it didn't hear me approaching, so that I was able to watch it from no more than two metres away! After another few kilometres I finally turned off the 4WD track onto a narrow walking trail, at which point I made a mental note to keep a closer eye out for snakes. Within thirty seconds I rounded a bend in the trail to see a beautiful 1.2m long Yellow-Bellied Black Snake slithering into the bush! Most amazing of all was that this was the first snake I had ever encountered on the Bibbulmun Track, after having walked over 270km of it! With Spring marking the time of year that snakes come out of hibernation and begin to become more active, I was quite certain it wouldn't be the last snake I came across. I could only hope the same would be the case for the echidna!
As the kilometres slowly ticked by it became apparent that any change in the weather would not be arriving
Echidna digging for ants
anytime soon, but in any case I decided to press on to the campsite at Possum Springs before enjoying a late lunch in the comfort of the shelter - where I was delighted to find another 84 pages of 'Enemy Of All Mankind' waiting for me! Clearly whoever had left these sections behind was a keen reader, but given that I had reached the campsite by 2:30pm I was confident that I could get through the lot before moving on the next day! By the time the sun had gone down there was no sign of the wet weather that was supposed to have arrived; though equally there was no sign of Rob either. I could only assume he had decided to either a) take a rest day at the Dookanelly campsite before continuing on, or b) call a premature end to his walk by arranging for someone to pick him up from the nearest vehicle-accessible point. Either way, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be seeing 'Rambling Rob' again.
Sometime around midnight I woke to the sound of rain on the shelter roof at Possum Springs. As the night wore on I woke several more times, and still
Shelter from the (overnight) rain
The 'rammed earth' shelter (a replacement for an earlier timber shelter that burned down) at Possum Springs
the rain continued to tumble. When I woke for the final time at 6am it was still raining, and the thermometer on my backpack read 12°. Neither of those things would change for the next nine hours. As I sat in sombre silence contemplating the 33km double stage that I was planning to walk - so that I would have just 22km remaining to Collie the next day - I couldn't help wondering just how much of an effect on the tracks up ahead all of this rain would have. I didn't need to wait long to find out. After waiting in vain for the rain to ease off I finally got going at 8:30am... only to reach the vehicle track just a hundred metres away and find a puddle at least fifty metres long and ankle deep that would be impossible to avoid! So I returned to the shelter and swapped my shoes and socks for bare feet in shandals. Only then did it occur to me that if I took the vehicle access track from the campground rather than the official walking trail, I could bypass the flooded section of track altogether. Still, I was pretty certain that
Singin' in the Rain... or not!
Geared up for my 33km stage between Possum Springs and Harris Dam.
there would be more flooded areas up ahead that couldn't be so easily avoided, so despite the protests coming from my cold feet I pressed on ahead.
My intuition proved to be correct. From flooded sections of walking trail that resembled miniature creeks, to shin-deep puddles on vehicle tracks that were surrounded by swamp on either side, my shandals had plenty of opportunities to prove their worth! The irony that I had made it through the officially-designated 'flooded section' of the previous two days without incident, only to now find myself traipsing through endless puddles, wasn't lost on me. But perhaps even worse than all of the water on the ground, was the fact that the walking trail was often so narrow and badly encroached upon by all manner of plants that even on the 'dry' sections of trail I was constantly brushing past sopping wet foliage, which in no time at all left me dripping wet as well.
But the piece de resistance was a ridiculous section of trail about fifty metres long that led straight through a grove of young saplings that arched over the Track from either side before joining in the middle about 1.5
Quaint creek crossing on the way from Yourdamung campsite to Harris Dam
metres above the ground! How the hell anyone of even average height - let alone someone who is almost 2 metres tall, with an equally tall backpack - is supposed to get through a tunnel like that in the first place I have no idea; but to do so when the 'walls' of that tunnel are soaking wet from ten hours worth of constant rain without getting completely drenched in the process?!? Impossible! As each sapling threatened to decapitate me, all I could do was charge through with both arms held up in front of my face whilst shouting profanities at the top of my lungs. It was as if someone had lined up a hundred shower heads above the trail, and then turned each one on to full flow as I walked past! Clearly no maintenance crews had been through this section for quite a while.
Thankfully there were some small victories to be had though. One particular flooded section of trail led through an area rather comically known as 'the Plonkhole' - where the name came from I have not the faintest idea; but it was like walking through a veritable Garden of Eden, with the standard
Grass Tree Guard of Honour
Impressive grove of Balgas in a woodland clearing
Jarrah/Marri forest being replaced by all manner of species, from Paperbarks and Banksias to Balgas (grass trees), Zamias and Sheoaks; with an equally-varied range of colourful wildflowers doing their best to decorate the scene. For someone who is a self-confessed 'fair weather hiker' to be able to appreciate such surroundings even as the rain continued to fall was a pleasant surprise indeed, especially given that my default mood for the rest of the day had been 'abject misery'. Further on I found myself tip-toeing down the narrowest of trails lined with tiny bright pink flowers on either side. When eventually, after four hours of slogging through the rain with only the occasional brief stop to swig some water, I made it to the shelter of Yourdamung campsite and removed my shandals, it looked as though someone had sprinkled pink confetti all over my feet!
It also gave me the chance to (temporarily) dry off and put on some warm clothes, whilst cooking up a hot feed on my portable stove. But in little over an hour it was back to the grind, with still another 14km to go to reach the Harris Dam campsite. Thankfully sometime around 3pm the
Massive three-headed Balga, not far from Harris Dam campsite
rain finally relented, eased off to a light drizzle, and then ceased altogether. Only then did the temperature begin to rise - from the overnight minimum of 12° to a positively balmy maximum temperature of 14° just an hour before sundown! But then just to end the day on a high note, only 2km from the end I came across a rather angry male emu, who was stalking back and forth and grunting in my general direction. Only after witnessing this peculiar behaviour (usually emus flee at the merest glimpse of a human) did I notice the three small chicks that he was chaperoning through the bush! And then barely five minutes later a pair of adult emus raced across the trail up ahead of me; combined with the multiple kangaroo and wallaby sightings I had been lucky enough to have throughout the day, it had been a satisfying day of wildlife-viewing indeed! Now if I could just get myself and everything I owned dry at some point...
Expecting more of the same wet weather for the final day's walk into Collie, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a vivid blue sky waiting patiently behind the blanket of
After the Deluge
The shelter at Harris Dam campsite, next morning
low-lying fog that greeted me in the morning; though in hindsight perhaps this promising start to the day lulled me into a false sense of security! After soaking up the unexpected sunshine (and laying out my still-wet clothes to do the same) it was almost 10am by the time I got moving... by which time the blue sky had been replaced by dark grey rain clouds! In fact I'd only made it 4km down the track to Harris Dam when it started raining - though much to my relief the shower lasted no more than a minute. Still, with another 18km left to go it was a timely reminder that I (literally) wasn't out of the woods just yet.
But though the rain did return on a couple of occasions (thank goodness I finally purchased a decent rain jacket before leaving Perth!) it never lasted for more than a minute, so that by the time I reached the Coalfields Highway and followed it for the final kilometre into Collie, both myself and most of my clothes from the previous day - which had been hanging from various points on the outside of my backpack all day - were more
Sunlight Breaking Through
A most unexpected but heartwarming sight after the incessant rain of the previous day
or less dry! Rarely have I felt as satisfied or relieved as I did when I finally reached the Colliefields Hotel and checked into my single room (a rare treat indeed) knowing that I would have the opportunity to enjoy a much-needed shower, wash all of my clothes, re-stock my provisions for the next stage of my journey, sleep in a proper bed AND watch the preliminary finals in the AFL over the next day-and-a-half... which after all was the reason I had pressed on for seven hours in the rain the previous day! And who knows? I might even have the opportunity to enjoy a sneaky beer or two while I was at it.
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