The forest is on fire, the air searing hot, the entire valley glowing bright yellow save for the blackened tree trunks – and me. I expected a few wildflowers but nothing like the vision before me, an entire hillside densely covered in puffy, round wattle blooms as far as the eye can see. Every day the forest has offered a new species – white clematis, deep purple native wisteria, or coral vine spread like an enormous pink and orange camo net – and, hidden everywhere, orchids in flamboyant shapes and colours.
To hike the 1,003km Bibbulmun Track in Australia’s southwest is to walk through a natural history museum. The land is ancient even by geological standards, with existing rock estimated to be around 3.3 billion years old. It’s a biodiversity hotspot with around 8,000 plant species growing in just this corner of Western Australia alone, compared to around 3,000 in the entire UK, and almost 80 per cent of them are found nowhere else in the world.
But none of these impressive stats were on my mind when I set out to hike the trail solo in spring. I was looking forward to escaping civilisation, stretching my legs, maybe seeing a couple of the flowers that everyone always talked about along the way. Walking allows time to soak up so much more than you can experience through any other mode of transport and on a long journey you never know what you’re going to come across.
The trail stretches between Kalamunda, east of the state’s capital Perth, and Albany on the south coast, with the first 200km winding through the Darling Range. Immediately the terrain appears as though landscaped – a perfect arrangement of boulders, grasstrees, red scoria paths and clumps of wildflowers in yellow, white, blue, pink and purple. Punctuating the range are sprawling granite-domed peaks that have eroded over millennia. Mt Cooke is the tallest at 582m, but despite its modest height, the expansive views below are impressive.
I look forward to these peaks, to lazing on sun-warmed slabs of granite and watching the clouds sail past overhead. Low elevations and generally well-graded tracks mean that the main challenge of this walk lies in the distance that it covers. It takes a good week to find my feet, to learn to ignore the inevitable pain of hiking 20-30km every day. I relish pulling my shoes off at any possible opportunity.
Though I walk solo, I am far from alone. Flocks of black cockatoos follow me in the treetops, feeding on nuts, and the silent soaring of a wedgetail eagle is only given away by its shadow passing across my track. Wallabies, kangaroos and the odd emu flit through the trees, one trailing a brood of striped chicks behind him. At night I try to ignore the rustle of branches and thud of footfalls in the darkness, reassuring myself they are just my animal friends.
Camping is relatively straightforward on the Bibbulmun. Three-sided shelters spaced roughly a day apart offer sleeping platforms, water tanks and bush toilets. Rolling out a mattress al fresco has its benefits – within minutes of arrival you can be reclining in bed, gazing at parrots flitting through the treetops – but mostly I opt for my tent, for its warmth and to keep the creepy-crawlies at bay.
With 200km – the longest section of the Bibbulmun – under my belt I walk into the small country town of Dwellingup to replenish food stocks before heading back out into forests bulging with blooms, the pungent fragrance tickling my nose. It is unexpectedly overwhelming, as though I am drowning in flowers.
But it is the orchids that really capture my attention. Spider orchids trail long and delicate petals surrounding elaborate labellums. There is the green bird orchid with a beak and tail resembling a hummingbird, then the rabbit orchid sporting two fat ‘cheeks’ and two long ‘ears’. Enamel orchids shimmer like glossy purple nail polish, snail orchids look like snails and fairy orchids simply look pretty in pink. Around 350 species can be found in this southwest region.
Isolation and a harsh environment have driven this biodiversity. Surrounded by ocean and desert, plants have been left to their own devices with little in the way of volcanic or glacial activity to disrupt the evolutionary process. They’ve been forced to find adaptations to cope with the hot dry summers and cool wet winters, and the abundance of bird and mammal pollinators ensure pollen is distributed further and more indiscriminately than with insect-pollinators, contributing to an interesting evolutionary path.
Around 350km south of Perth, the dry woodland and banksia of the north gives way to damp moss-covered forest cut by rivers. Marri, jarrah and karri trees, all endemic to the region, reach for the sky, crowding out the sun. Temperatures plummet, dipping to freezing or below overnight, and for several weeks I am warm only when I hike. The karri is one of the tallest species in the world, growing up to 90m tall. With pale trunks, they rise like ghosts from the darkened forest.
Weeks pass before I emerge onto sun-warmed golden grassland dotted with low scrub. The Pingerup Plains are noted on the map as being ‘seasonally inundated’ and I spend a good three days wading long stretches of knee-deep, dark tannin stained water wriggling with tadpoles. At night the call of frogs is a constant roar.
Snakes like to eat frogs. They can swim too. I ponder these facts somewhat nervously as I bash a way through the flooded grass. The further south I’ve travelled the more snakes I’ve started seeing and for every one sighted there are ten more unidentified rustles along the trail edge. I make the decision not to listen to music at all – I will need all of my senses to avoid them. Most common here are tiger snakes and dugites and, though highly variable colour schemes make them difficult to identity, all are highly venomous.
Most are sleepy in the cool spring air, but one is not and I round a corner to discover it in the middle of the trail, body twisted and taut, head raised, mouth stretched wide open. I beat a hasty retreat, sheltering behind a corner, and it takes five minutes before the snake relaxes its aggressive stance and finally disappears into the bushes, leaving me to tiptoe past with my heart in my mouth.
After 40 days of walking, my landscape expands to encompass the vast Southern Ocean, rewarding the senses with a new salty aroma and dazzling colour scheme. No place seems to do beaches quite as well as Western Australia – the fine whiteness of its sand, the glassy clarity of its water, a dark ink fading to baby blue. Beaches of this calibre in any other part of the world would be plastered over postcards, drawing busloads of visitors, but in WA they’re a dime a dozen and I share them with just a handful of surfers.
I head east, following the coast for the final 250km along beaches and cliff tops, regularly scanning the ocean for the misty exhalation of a blowhole or the flash of a tail fluke. Between June and October humpbacks, southern rights and the occasional blue whale cruise these waters as part of their migration.
In the Valley of the Giants I discover another ancient rarity found only in the southern forests, the red tingle tree, with shallow root systems and enormous buttressed bases up to 24m in circumference.
The final kilometres follow a rugged, windswept coastline facing the Southern Ocean – next stop Antarctica. I stagger an exposed path beneath a string of wind turbines to finally arrive into the historic town of Albany, and after 55 days of walking, my 1,000km journey is complete. My feet are sore, my stomach yearning for a decent feed, but regardless I will miss trail life. Walking is addictive. It’s a life of simplicity, of having only one job to do, of using your body as it was intended. It’s a life with just one outfit, no mirrors, no advertising and none of the ‘noise’ of modern life. It’s how we used to live
Thousands of years ago the Bibbulmun people roamed this land, a sub-group of the indigenous Noongar who first inhabited this southwest corner of the state. They walked long distances for ceremonial gatherings, inspiring creators of the trail to name this modern pilgrimage after them. Walking in their footsteps it’s hard not to feel a connection with this ancient land, to slow down the mind, tune in to nature and to appreciate the myriad other species we share the planet with.
This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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