Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Loop Walk (Kalbarri National Park)

One of Trails WA's Top Trails, the Loop Walk follows a natural loop in the Murchison River near the iconic Nature's Window. Initially walking along the cliff top, the trail descends for a rugged and adventurous section along narrow ledges through the gorge before easing off along a sandy stretch back up to Nature's Window. A stunning walk in one of Western Australia's best national parks, this is a must do experience in the Mid-West.

Distance: 9 km (loop)
Gradient: Fairly even for the first few kilometres, then a steep descent down into the gorge. Relatively even with some small climbs before a moderately steep ascent back up. 
Quality of Path: Relatively clear and straightforward, though much of the trail is along unmodified rocky surfaces. Some scrambling may be required.
Quality of Signage: Good and informative trailhead, with waypoint signs along the way and some information panels at key points. 
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Recommended. 
Time: 3 Hours
Steps: Several formal and informal steps
Best Time to Visit: Winter-Spring. Best to avoid during the wet autumn due to high river levels and during the dangerously hot Summer months. 
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees apply
Getting There: Access to the the trail is via Murchison Gorge access road off Kalbarri-Ajana Rd.

With our plans to visit the Kalbarri gorges thwarted by rain-related closures during our last trip to Kalbarri in August, Alissa and I vowed to return later in the Springtime to complete two of the gorge walks in the park. Our timing in August had been unfortunate as the gorges were open the day before we arrived and opened again the day or two after, and our timing in October was again unfortunate due to a forecast 38°C in the gorges on the Saturday! Such temperatures are not just uncomfortable but potentially dangerous. As such, Alissa and I decided to beat the heat by heading out for our walks at sunrise, with the longer Loop Walk (also known as the Loop Trail) tackled first on the Saturday.

The car park features highly informative signs and a map indicating where to head to start the trail. The trail is initially along well formed bitumen - a rare luxury that shows that this section of the walk is geared to more casual tourists as well.

Nearing Nature's Window, the bitumen path gives way to a well marked route over unmodified terrain.

This brief, rocky section is a good test for those unsure about tackling the Loop Walk, as much of the walking once the trail descends into the gorge is of a similar rugged character.

Even if not completing the full Loop, it is really worth checking out Nature's Window when visiting Kalbarri National Park.

Easily one of Western Australia's most iconic natural features, Nature's Window perfectly frames a section of the Murchison River. Our decision to start at sunrise was mostly to do with avoiding unbearable temperatures later in the day, however it also meant we were able to see Nature's Window at its best, with the early morning sunlight bathing the frame in a beautiful orange glow.

From Nature's Window, the trail descends briefly along the western side of the ridge before rising up to The Loop Walk's official trailhead.

The trailhead is very informative, and gives walkers a clear indication of what to expect over the different sections of the walk. The trailhead makes a big point about the Heat Risk doing this walk, and it is a real danger that should not be ignored. People had died being unprepared for the fact the gorges can be up to 10°C hotter than in town, and I have read of one hiker walking the Loop having his shoes melt on him from the heat! As such, I would definitely advise anyone to reconsider doing this walk in the baking heat of Summer and save it for the cooler times of the day and year.

From the trailhead, the Loop Walk follows a ridge along the gorge rim with white marker posts providing easy to follow navigational information. One of the first markers features the Top Trails logo, indicating that this is unsurprisingly one of Trails WA's Top Trails.

The downside about walking the Loop Walk at sunrise is that the first section walking along the gorge's rim heads in the direction of the Sun. It can be bright and headache-inducing, and was no good for taking photos. That said, the trail did offer excellent view back upstream with the Murchison River coloured by the glow of Golden Hour.

Although the Tumblagooda Sandstone of Kalbarri's gorge and coastal landscape has a very red Outback appearance, Kalbarri is still technically within the wetter South West Land Division and contributes to the regions biodiversity. Being Spring, many of the wildflowers were in bloom at the time we walked the trail and we were impressed to see many species we had not encountered along Kalbarri's coastal walks (the Bigurda Trail and Mushroom Rock Nature Trail).

The walk along the rim covers the first three kilometres of the walk before the trail descends down into the gorge itself.

This where the more adventurous section of the trail begins; the natural, unmodified terrain signifies a increase in ruggedness and an immersion in the gorge's signature sandstone landscape.

Immediately upon reaching a sandy beach at the bottom of the gorge, walkers are treated to the sight of a spectacular, sheer and banded gorge wall and the still, calm waters of the Murchison River. Although it was still early, the temperatures were already beginning to warm up and we appreciated being in the cool shade during this section.

The next section of the walk is the most challenging part of the Loop Walk, as it follows the river downstream along a rugged path. Although Kalbarri is largely treeless, the Murchison's more dependable wetness supports several large Eucalypts, with White Gums growing along the river's banks.

The sandy beach encountered at the bottom of the descent retreats as the trail continues downstream. Walkers then follow a narrow ledge that runs alongside the river.

This was easily the best part of the walk, with the ruggedness and rock overhangs giving the trail an intrepid feel that is a fairly rare experience in the southern half of Western Australia.

This ledge is relatively straightforward for the most part, except for the pinch point pictured above. At this point walkers will have to choose between scrambling up through a narrow passage and over to the wider ledge beyond, or to walk around on a very thin ledge and climb up on the other side.

We decided to test both methods out. I climbed through the narrow passageway and made it across to the wider ledge beyond first. This is probably the easier option, however the very cramped space and sloping nature of the ledge means you are more susceptible to falling into the river. Alissa tried walking along the lower ledge, and while she had more control getting around, it did mean a much harder scramble up to the ledge on the other side. Both options have their merits, and I appreciate a walk trail that has these kinds of simple problem solving challenges.

Beyond, the trail continues along the riverside ledge. For the most part, the ledge is fairly wide and easy going, however there are a few other pinch points along the way. None of these are particularly difficult however, and should be easy enough to negotiate.

There are a few sections where the ledge disappears or the riverside becomes impassable. At these points, the trail markers provide clear navigational information that leads walkers up and around. While on unmodified terrain, this is relatively straightforward walking, with the worn down sedimentary layers creating natural steps.

As we continued walking, Alissa and I were amazed by a most unexpected sight and sound - Black Swans! Our state emblem, it had never crossed my mind that these regal birds would be found so far north of the Swan River, but seeing them along the Murchison's brackish waters made perfect sense in hindsight given this is the kind of environment they prefer.

The narrow ledge widens near the walk's halfway point, with wide sandy sections becoming more prevalent.

Nevertheless, the trail does not yet fully transition away from rugged walking for another kilometre, with the trail alternating between hard, rocky sections and soft sandy beaches.

A section along the gorge wall features similar honeycomb shapes to the rocks found along the Kalbarri coast's Mushroom Rock Nature Trail. Intriguingly, many of these natural holes have been repurposed by spiders with many setting up home in these mini-caves.

After the honeycomb formations, the walk follows a sandy river bank for the last three kilometres of the walk back to Nature's Window. By this stage the temperature was already in the high 20s/low 30s, and with little cover it was starting to become warmer than I'd prefer for bushwalking. The heat also brought another unfortunate side effect as we were being followed by a very unpleasant horde of flies from here until the end of the walk.

Given the fact the Murchison River floods every year, it was interesting to see how the trees growing along the sandy bank were often twisted in gnarled shapes. We also noticed for the first time that the Murchison River is so dry by this time of the year that it is actually a series of very large pools rather than flowing out all the way to the ocean.

The trail runs along the river bank for some time before it leads back up to Nature's Window.

Again, the sedimentary layers creates a naturally stepped walking surface, with very clear markers making it very easy to follow.

Along the ascent, I was surprised and delighted to see a Sand Goanna basking in the Sun, clearly enjoying the heat much more than I was. While Sand Goannas are known to be fairly brave hunters and foragers that are willing to take on venomous snakes, they are harmless to humans and the lizard warily walked away once I came too close for its comfort.

Continuing up the ascent, the higher vantage point provides an excellent view of the last sandy stretch of the track.

From here, the trail passes the first few markers of the trail with their reverse side featuring different arrows to direct walkers completing the Loop back to Nature's Window.

From here walkers get one final glimpse of Nature's Window before returning to the car park via the bitumen path. As we passed Nature's Window, we saw two groups just starting the hike, which would have seen them finishing the Loop Walk after midday and in the high 30s! This would have been a much less enjoyable experience; Alissa and I agreed that the early morning wake up was definitely worth it.

All in all, the Loop Walk was a very enjoyable and spectacular bush walk through beautiful, rugged terrain that followed a logical, well thought out route from the iconic Nature's Window through the stunning gorge system. The red sandstone formations of the area are fairly unique for the South West Land Division, and gives walkers a taste for rugged Outback-style walking without having to travel too far from Perth. 

Although a lot of it was on natural, unmodified surfaces, most moderately experienced walkers will probably find this a fairly easy trail, with the small scramble section being the only real challenge.Compared to the nearby Z-Bend River Trail, Alissa and I preferred the Z-Bend's more rugged terrain, and I suspect an even better loop walk could be created by linking the Z-Bend Trail and the Four Ways Trail via the Murchison River. Those walks are considerably more challenging however, and while I think experienced hikers will find the Z-Bend walks more interesting, the accessible Loop Walk is a hike I can more easily recommend to a wider audience as a must do experience while in Kalbarri National Park. 

1 comment:

  1. the lizard is a Perentie, the largest in Australia and second largest in the world. Great shot