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Published: September 26th 2021
River of Clouds
Reflections in the Collie River
Returning to the Bibbulmun Track after a relaxing couple of nights in Collie, it didn't take long for me to hit my stride - despite the presence of a pesky blister on one of my toes that I had picked up on my interminable water-logged trudge from Possum Springs to Harris Dam three days earlier. In fact the going was so easy that it took only four-and-a-half hours to complete the 20km section to Yabberup campsite, with just the two rest stops taken along the way. After crossing the Collie River and passing the artificial lake at Mungallup Dam, I finished the day with another emu encounter, before arriving at Yabberup campsite where I had just the one other hiker for company - a solo end-to-ender named Chris, who I had met the day before in Collie when he limped into the hotel complaining that his feet were killing him! Presumably his powers of recovery were better than mine...
As usual I'd not been up long the following morning by the time my companion hit the Track, allowing me to revel in the tranquility of the campsite while enjoying, as always, a leisurely breakfast. With only another twenty kilometres to
Trail alongside Glen Mervyn Dam
go to the next campsite I was again in no hurry, though this time there were plenty of scenic diversions along the way to ensure that I wouldn't just coast straight through as I had the day before. From the beautiful banks of the Collie River - where some enterprising locals had hung a rope from a tree overhanging the river, as well as nailing timber 'steps' all the way up the back of it - to the sheltered waters of the artificial lake at Glen Mervyn Dam, there was plenty to look at in addition to the usual forest trees and spring wildflowers.
And then halfway through the day I came across a true rarity on the trail, and a local legend amongst Bibbulmun Track walkers: the Mumballup Tavern. Unfortunately with it being a Monday when I passed by, the pub was closed! I tried staging a one man protest in the hopes they would open up for lunch, but noone was around to take any notice. So I slinked across the road to the local coach stop, where I commandeered the bus shelter and converted it into a makeshift kitchen. I'd like to say the oriental rice
I cooked up went down a treat, but in truth it was a poor substitute for a burger with chips and a cold beer! Still, I'd probably saved myself thirty bucks in the process.
Immediately after the 'Mumby Pub' the Track followed a disused railway line down the Preston River Valley, before reaching a curious collection of microwave oven letter boxes (!) at which point it turned onto a dirt road that led past dairy pastures and up into the forested hills of Preston NP, offering bucolic views of the countryside all the way along. The last few kilometres led me back into the bush, with the usual plethora of wildflowers scattered about on either side of the walking trail. Eventually I reached Noggerup campsite, where Chris had arrived a few hours earlier, and where previous hikers had reported seeing both a mother and young brushtail possum and a resident qenda (Southern brown bandicoot) - all of which had been recorded in the campsite comments book, which along with an official trail log book is kept at every campsite shelter on the Bibbulmun Track.
When I got up later in the night to investigate a noise I'd heard
Striding out along an old railway line in Mumballup
coming from the direction of the shelter's dining table - the first I had encountered with a large 'food storage' container provided - I couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, until I had a look around the corner of the shelter and found four eyes (illuminated by my torchlight) glaring back at me from about twenty metres away. Sure enough it was the mother brushtail possum with her juvenile youngster, who was about three-quarters of the mother's size and no longer welcome to ride on her back, but still learning the lessons necessary to become a wild possum from it's attentive mother. I wished them well before returning to the comfort of my tent.
Having managed to walk for two days without any great discomfort from the blister on my toe, I got a hell of a shock when I first turned up at Noggerup and removed my shoes and socks, to find that the band aid I had wrapped around my toe had come loose and my whole toe (the one next to my pinky toe) was bright red! It was an alarming sight indeed, and my instant reaction was "how the hell could I not have
A Potential Game-changer
My poor toe was sick of being fourth in line for everything
felt any pain from THAT?!?" So it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I set off from the campsite the next morning, knowing that I still had two 23km days to go before I reached the small town of Balingup, where I hoped to have my next rest day. Yet somehow I managed to get through another day without any problems - I could only assume the two pairs of socks I'd been wearing were doing an effective job of cushioning my toes; though how my blister would ever heal while being constantly buried under multiple layers I had no idea!
Apart from the usual fly-bys from a gang of red-tailed black cockatoos - which I often encounter on my way into or out of a campsite at the start or end of a day - and a brief sighting of another bobtail lizard, there wasn't much going on from a wildlife perspective on this section. Maybe I'd been spoilt up until now with all manner of animals crossing my path. But there was no such problem when it came to the profusion of wildflowers (including many different types of orchids) lining the trail, and this was
Keeping to the Straight and Narrow
Weaving between the Balgas on a section of old railway formation
exemplified when I reached the shelter at Grimwade campsite around four o'clock to be greeted by yellow, purple and orange/pink flowers all crowded in together beside the access trail. It seemed that from a wildflower point of view I had timed my journey on the Track perfectly - the only question was whether or not I would pay the price in terms of wet weather.
But as with the previous section between Dwellingup and Collie I had been blessed with three straight days of sunshine to start with, before the forecast called for increasing showers on Wednesday. Given that I was still nursing a nasty blister from my wet weather walk the previous week, I was in no mood to take any chances for the following 23km section into Balingup, resolving to set my alarm for 6am and be on the Track by 8am in an attempt to beat the rain into town. The incredulous reaction from Chris when he emerged from his tent to find me already preparing breakfast - a full half-hour before sunrise - spoke volumes for just how determined I was to avoid another soaking...
As it was, we both left the campsite just
Another day done and dusted
The shelter at Grimwade campsite
after 7:30am, but with my longer legs and quicker pace I soon pulled away - as a gang of about a dozen cockatoos did their best to ensure that anyone else within a 20km radius was also awake by this point! With almost the full spectrum of colours represented, the carpet of wildflowers on display was truly astonishing - most notably the yellow of prickly moses, the orange of coral vine and the purple of native wisteria. And it seemed the further I went the more rapidly new species would present themselves, with the three-petal yellow flags suddenly appearing as I topped a ridge just over halfway through the day's walk to Balingup. Having gotten used to the usual cast of characters over the preceeding days, the appearance of so many new wildflowers in rapid succession was quite staggering.
Unfortunately the descent towards the valley of Balingup Brook was both steep and relentless, and I feared that my injured toe would be directly bearing the brunt of the assault. But with dark clouds having finally coalesced above the town I wasn't prepared to allow myself the luxury of a prolonged break, so I soldiered on alongside the babbling brook
Timed to Perfection
Arriving in Balingup just as the rain starts to fall
(is there any other kind?) until eventually I crossed it for the final time and turned a corner to emerge beside Balingup's main street... at the very moment the first drops of rain began to fall! As I maneuvered my way towards the local Post Office (at the back of which was located a tiny but cosy three bedroom hostel) I couldn't believe my good fortune - though to be fair I had deliberately left camp far earlier than on previous days for specifically this reason.
Not everyone was quite so pleased with my timing however; as I opened the door to enter the hostel I was confronted by the sight of a female hiker (who had been a day ahead of me on the Track, but was enjoying a day off) getting a full-body massage - in the common room of all places! She had been told there were no new guests due to arrive that day, and had clearly not considered the possibility of walk-ins arriving unannounced! As she tried to cover herself up she demanded that I give her some privacy, to which I replied that I would be happy to as soon as I was
Small Town, Main Street
A rare sunny interval in Balingup
able to get to my bloody room to take my pack off! When I emerged ten minutes later she apologised profusely for speaking to me so rudely... though not profusely enough for me to be bothered letting her know that there would be another male hiker turning up not too far behind me. Far be it from me to spoil the surprise!
Sure enough, when I returned from lunch at the much-loved (by Bibbulmun Track walkers at least) Mushroom Cafe, Chris had just arrived looking sodden and bedraggled. As soon as he saw me he smiled and said "now I know why you got going so early today - you knew it was going to rain, you bastard!" He had only the day before boasted that he couldn't be bothered checking the weather forecast because as far as he was concerned it didn't matter whether it rained or not. I simply smiled and told him how delicious my Sichuan Ginger Beef Pie with chips and gravy had been, before breaking the news to him that the cafe had since closed for the day! He took it with an admiring smile. Smug satisfaction had never felt so good.
Best Lunch Ever
Sichuan Ginger Beef Pie with chips, gravy, coffee and mudcake at the Mushroom Cafe in Balingup
evening we were joined by two young men walking in the opposite direction (the first northbound hikers I had encountered in ten days on the Track) who said they had come all the way from Donnelly River Village, 58km away. Apparently they were on target to complete the whole Bibbulmun Track in just 21 days, at an average of almost 50km per day. Why anyone would subject themselves to that level of punishment I couldn't fathom - though between recording YouTube clips and giving interviews with local radio stations it became clear that publicity was one of the main reasons. There are many hikers on every trail who are motivated more by the physical challenge involved in completing their walk within a certain timeframe than by any aspirations to spend time in the wilderness, and surely there's no such thing as a bad reason to get outdoors and exert yourself. But I must admit to having more admiration for the 72-year-old woman who had walked the Track from end-to-end over 60 days last year than the young guys trying to finish as quickly as possible without having any time to actually stop and enjoy the experience. Each to their own,
Shelter from the Elements
The Post House in Balingup
With showers falling throughout the following day, I could sit back with satisfaction enjoying a leisurely rest day in Balingup, during which I managed to take advantage of a brief weather window to make it back over to the Mushroom Cafe for another pie, chips & gravy, slice of mudcake and coffee - though in an attempt to vary my diet I went for the Satay Chicken pie this time! With Chris having taken a rest day so he could get the coach to Bunbury and back to buy a new pair of shoes, we were joined by a couple of other young guys, Tyler and Stuart, both of whom were southbound end-to-enders. While Stuart had caught up with us from behind, Tyler had been a day in front of me all the way from Dwellingup to Collie (we had met in passing at the Colliefields) before taking three days off in Collie to rest a troublesome ankle. Both were excellent company, and with neither planning to have a rest day in Balingup it seemed that the four of us would be heading onwards towards Donnelly River Village together. The Band of Brothers was born.
Wandering through the Golden Valley Tree Park under a beautiful blue sky
off from Balingup early the next morning, the thick fog soon burned off to reveal a beautiful blue sky, and coupled with a delightful section of trail through the nearby Golden Valley Tree Park it was some of the most glorious walking I had experienced so far. It also offered a scenic counterpoint to the native jarrah/marri forests that the Track had passed through until now, as the carefully landscaped park with it's foreign species of pines, willows and birches - coupled with the low-angled light and lingering mist - reminded me of days out in England from a decade ago. After a day-and-a-half of rain, this was an unexpected gift; as was the company of Tyler, with whom I then tackled the long climb up out of the Balingup Brook Valley until we eventually emerged at a bench seat offering a panoramic view over rolling hills of pastureland. Not long after we arrived Chris turned up (we'd passed him on the way), and then as he and Tyler got going again Stuart arrived... after not having seen a single person on the Track in my previous ten days of walking - and having only met five different people in
View of farmlands from the trail to Blackwood campsite
the various campsites along the way - my walk on the Bibbulmun Track had suddenly become a social experience!
Aside from being swooped repeatedly by an overzealous pair of magpies and spooking a herd of curious cows, the rest of the morning passed by uneventfully; and though the rain eventually returned it at least waited until I was within a kilometre of the next shelter at Blackwood campsite, perched atop an exposed ridge overlooking the Blackwood River valley. The campsite had only recently been replanted with a mixture of native species, after having been stripped bare in a bushfire six years ago, which miraculously spared the shelter. As it was though, the official Bibbulmun Track webpage warned that there was a mouse problem at this particular campsite (traumatic memories of mouse-inflicted damage to property were still fresh in my mind from my recent time in the Outback), as well as alerting walkers to a Track maintenance group that would be working in the vicinity over the next three days.
So with time on our side and only another 18km to the next campsite, Stuart, Tyler and I all decided that we would press on through to the Gregory
Still waiting for the trees to grow
The recently replanted surrounds at Blackwood campsite
Brook campsite after lunch. Chris on the other hand had decided that it would be best not to christen his brand new shoes with a 35km day, much less one that featured almost a vertical kilometre of accumulated elevation gain. So we said our goodbyes and were sure that we would catch up again at some point up ahead. Then just as I was about to follow Tyler back out onto the Track the rain started up again, slowly building in intensity until the raindrops were hammering against the roof of the shelter, so I calmly sat back down and played the waiting game. Thirty minutes later I was back on the Track, though unfortunately I now had to negotiate the steep descent from 'Cardiac Hill' to the banks of the Blackwood River on a narrow trail the consistency of clay that was slick with rain! As I agonisingly inched my way down the slope, with each passing step I wondered 'will this be the step that sends me sliding onto my arse?'. Yet somehow, after an interminably slow descent where I often would creep no more than 30cm forward with each step in a desperate attempt to retain my
The Kindness of Strangers
Fruit left out for passing hikers to collect, down by the banks of the Blackwood River
balance, I actually managed to make it to the gravel road at the base of the hill unscathed!
Not long after this, as the route followed a vehicle track along the boundary of some private properties, I found a table with chairs set right by the edge of the Blackwood River, on top of which was an esky bearing a sign saying 'weary walkers - help yourself'. Inside was a bunch of bananas, a few mandarines and about a dozen small apples! This was my first experience of the kindness of 'Track angels' - some of whom have been known to set themselves up at campsite shelters during the day and cook up a barbecue; or dish out slices of cake to gleeful walkers at other points along the trail! (Only later did I find out that everyone else who had passed by that day had copped a fearful barrage of barking from an aggressive dog that lived on the neighbouring property, and I couldn't help imagining that it was the dog who was responsible for leaving the 'esky of treats' - perhaps using it as bait to lure a steady stream of unwitting hikers, at which point it
Southampton Bridge across the Blackwood River
could then unleash it's pent-up fury!)
Though I had no such encounter with the 'Hound from Hell', I did come across a tiger snake coiled up in a ball beside the trail a short distance further on - presumably waiting for the sun to break through the clouds - as well as a brightly-coloured western rosella feeding in a tree beside the trail. Then finally I crossed the Blackwood River on a road bridge and proceeded to climb steeply up the flanks of a ridge towards a water supply dam, before dropping down the other side and beginning a long, slightly mind-numbing walk through a dense understorey of soap bush on an old railway formation. Just when I was starting to fall into a trance, I dropped down into a lush valley to find the campsite shelter beside Gregory Brook, where Stuart and Tyler had joined a couple named Frank and Megan in the comfort of the shelter; while a woman named Peta (the one I had walked in on getting a massage in Balingup) had pitched her tent nearby.
Gladly taking the last available platform in the shelter - raised up bunk-style about two metres above the
A sight for sore eyes and sore feet
Finally reaching Gregory Brook campsite after a 35km day
ground - I somehow managed to get my inner tent set up and squeezed it in underneath the shelter's tin roof, convinced that the night would be a cold one. The social experience would continue that evening with stories being exchanged; and as Frank and Megan had walked every part of the Bibbulmun Track previously on various week-long trips over the past decade, the rest of us endeavoured to fill in the blanks of our understanding of what was still to come by peppering them with questions.
Of particular interest to us was an area known as the Pingerup Plains, where recent reports had suggested there were still extensive sections of trail covered in knee-deep water. A couple of end-to-end walkers had declared in a recent issue of the Bibbulmun Track newsletter that this section had been one of their favourite parts of the Track, with the chance to 'act like a kid again' by wading through the water providing days of unique and memorable walking. When we asked Frank and Megan what they had thought of the Pingerup Plains, their answer gave us reason for pause: "we hated every minute of it"! Call it compartmentalising if you want,
The shelter at Gregory Brook campsite
but sometimes you just have to put things like that out of your mind until the time comes that you have to face it. A common refrain on the Track had been "that's a problem for 'future me' to worry about", and it wasn't a bad way to look at it.
As usual I was the last to leave the campsite the following morning for the final 22km into Donnelly River Village, though on this occasion the serenity was shattered by the arrival of a guided group of fifteen hikers one hour into a two-day walk to Balingup! When I overheard one lady say to another "I think I'll just pop up to use the toilet" I suddenly realised what was at stake, so I immediately dropped what I was doing and raced to the toilet before anyone else figured out where it was! By the time I emerged there was a line-up five people deep awaiting their turn, and I breathed a sigh of relief at not having had to join the queue. Then I realised I still had to change out of my thermals into my hiking gear for the day, while about a dozen people all
Typical section of trail between Gregory Brook and Donnelly River Village
congregated around the shelter! It seemed the Track was becoming more crowded by the hour...
Ultimately this would turn out to be least of my worries, as the rain soon settled in and refused to stop for the next couple of hours. As with my ill-fated wet-weather walk of the previous week I found myself negotiating a narrow walking trail encroached upon by sopping wet foliage on either side, though this wasn't just any kind of foliage - it was water bush, so-named because of it's ability to retain enormous amounts of water, which it then disgorges on passing hikers with reckless abandon! To make matters worse, the first ten kilometres of track out of Gregory Brook campsite was littered with low-hanging branches and fallen trees - it was more like an obstacle course than a walking trail! Many was the time I would duck down as far as I could to pass underneath an overhanging branch only for the top of my backpack to snag on the branch, releasing a deluge upon myself and my temporarily-snagged backpack. Needless to say, many expletives were hurled into the forest at full volume, only to be met with the sound of
The first karri tree on the Track... or something like it!
steadily falling rain and, before long, the next major dowsing.
It was during this waterlogged section that I reached a milestone I had been looking forward to for days: the first karri tree on the trail. As big and burly as some of the jarrah, marri and yarri had been up until this point, it was always going to be the karri that stole the show. The second-tallest flowering plants on earth (behind only the mountain ash/swamp gum that grow in southeastern Australia) karris not only impress with their sheer size, but also with their beautiful, gunbarrel-straight trunks covered in smooth white-grey bark - as opposed to the rough, brown-grey bark of the other main species. They really are a sight to behold, and I had been eagerly anticipating my first glimpse of one of these regal giants... until the moment came in the midst of a torrential downpour, at which point my digital camera (which has proven itself to be a fickle beast at the best of times) decided that under no circumstances would it be taking any pictures, despite being held safely under the protective cover of my rain jacket! Fortune was clearly not smiling on me
Shelter from the rain (which had just stopped) at Willow Springs
at this point, though I consoled myself with the fact that as long as I got a picture of a karri at some point in the next couple of hundred kilometres, I could always pass it off as 'the first karri on the Track'! Simple things, simple minds.
Ten kilometres into the day I reached a car-based campsite with a sheltered picnic table, at which point I was able to change out of my wet clothes (there's only so much protection a rain jacket can offer in the face of ceaseless rain and a water bush ambush) and into dry clothes, and when I got going again I was delighted to find that the trail was by now a wide vehicle track... only to discover that the first 500m of track consisted of ankle-deep mud! Cue more expletives and wild, totally pointless gesticulating. As far as I was concerned this was the last straw - I was done with the Bibbulmun Track. No way was I going to put up with another 500km+ of fallen trees, overhanging branches, water bushes, rain and mud - not to mention temperamental cameras - just to get to the far end. The visitor
Part School, Part Hostel, Part Zoo
Passing emu in front of the Bunkhouse at Donnelly River Village
centres in Northcliffe and Walpole could hold onto my food drop boxes for as long as they liked, I wouldn't be needing them any more! And as for the food drop box awaiting me in Donnelly River Village, I might just light a bonfire with it when I arrived - rehydrated food and all.
But then just when I was at the end of my tether, the Track issued a peace offering - in the form of a proper forestry (vehicle) track that was neither narrow, nor muddy or blocked with fallen debris. Hell, the rain had even stopped by this point! It was as if the Track had deliberately pushed me to breaking point, and then held out an olive branch, as if to say "but we're still friends, right?!?" For the next two hours I strode freely down one forestry track after another, crossing the partly-flooded Donnelly River in the process, before emerging at the tiny forest hideaway of Donnelly River Village - which unlike the other 'Track towns' is really nothing more than an abandoned timber milling town that has been converted into a sort of off-grid holiday park, with a general store and various forms
Emus and wallabies outside the general store at Donnelly River Village
of accommodation catering to everyone from well-heeled urbanites in search of a rural retreat; to young families eager to introduce their kids to the incredibly tame wildlife; to disgruntled bushwalkers teetering on the brink of insanity while praying that the kitchen will still be taking orders for hot meals!
As I entered the general store and slumped down on the nearest chair, I was joined by Tyler who had arrived half-an-hour earlier. "Can you believe those first 13km of track this morning?" I pointedly enquired. "Yeah, that was pretty beautiful, huh?" he replied! Part of me wanted to cry, part of me wanted to laugh, and part of me wanted to punch Tyler in the face. So instead I tried a different approach: "yeah, but how about all the bloody branches and trees lying across the trail - it was like a bloody obstacle course, wasn't it!?". "Oh yeah, that was pretty bad" he replied, in his typically laconic manner. But that was good enough for me. Tyler had proven himself to be quick with a laugh whenever I'd spoken to him previously, and as I regaled him with my version of events over a delicious beef burger, he
The adorable little wallaby that insisted on having his neck scratched
was soon nodding away in agreement... while laughing his arse off at our collective misfortune! And as with the outpouring of anger and disbelief (mixed with a fair degree of good humour) that I'd shared with three companions on the third day of the Larapinta Trail, by the time we'd finished our beef burgers I had decided that maybe, just maybe, I'd be prepared to give the Bibbulmun Track one more chance...
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