Thursday, 6 July 2017

Camel Trail (Millstream Chichester National Park)


One of Trails WA's Top Trails, the Camel Trail traverses a section of the Chichester Range in Millstream Chichester National Park. Linking the stunning Python Pool to the lookout at Mt Herbert, the historic trail follows part of an old cameleer's route to the waterhole at McKenzie Spring. Relatively gentle, this trail is a perfect introduction to walking in the Australian Outback. 



Distance: 8 km (return)
Gradient: Alternates between relatively easy, gentle gradients with some sections of moderately steep ascending
Quality of Path: Clear and well defined trail, with some less distinct sections
Quality of Signage: Generally well signed and clear
Experience Required: Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time:  2.5 Hours
Steps: A few, particularly in the last three kilometres to Mt Herbert
Best Time to Visit: Winter
Entry Fee: No.
Getting There: The trail starts at the either Python Pool or Mt Herbert car parks. Both car parks can be reached via Roeburn-Wittenoom Rd. 


While our trip to the Pilbara was largely centred around Karijini National Park and its many gorges, a side trip to Millstream Chichester National Park was always a key component of our itinerary. Named by Australian Traveller as the #1 most underrated national park in the country and #15 on their list of Incredible Travel Secrets, Millstream Chichester protects two distinct landscapes in the one park. The Millstream section of the park is basically an oasis, with massive, spring-fed pools seemingly defying the arid climate.



The flowing waterfalls and pools in Karijini could no prepare us for the aptly named Deep Reach Pool on the Fortescue River. To drive through a dry landscape of Spinifex and come upon an area like this teeming with birds and aquatic life is astounding. The Yindjibarndi people consider Deep Reach one of their most sacred places as it is home to the Warlu serpent, and its not hard to see why they consider this such a special place. 



Wide access steps leading to the water make Deep Reach the perfect place for a swim, and I can imagine an early morning paddle would be sublime. The people of Karratha are so lucky to have such a beautiful national park only a few hours away.



Another of the Millstream area's major attractions is Jirndawurrunha Pool. Although the Water Lilies are an introduced species, their presence in the pool makes it look like a Renoir painting brought to life.



Jirndawurrunha Pool is only a short distance away from the Miliyanha Campgrounds. Although not quite as luxe as the Karijini Eco Retreat, the outdoor kitchen impressively featured hot water, a barbecue and even gas hot plates!



As beautiful as the Millstream section of the park is, it was the Chichester Range section that initially caught my attention as a hiker, as it is home to one of Trails WA's Top Trails - the Camel Trail. Considering it is a Top Trail, I was surprised by how little information about the walk was available online. Apart from some brief blurbs on tourism pages and the odd mention in a general purpose travel blog, no one seems to have written a detailed account of their experience walking the Camel Trail. Even without the wonderful Millstream section, the enigma of the Camel Trail was such a draw that I would have been prepared to make the drive just to see what this walk was all about!

The Camel Trail is a one way 8 kilometre trail connecting Python Pool to Mt Herbert, however it can be walked as a 16 kilometre return walk if a car shuffle cannot be arranged. With Alissa and I only having a limited time before having to drive back to Karijini for a second visit to Hamersley Gorge in the late afternoon, we had made an arrangement specifically for this trail - Alissa and I brought our bicycles with us so we could drop them off at one end and then cycle back to the car after the walk. Although Parks and Wildlife suggest starting at Mt Herbert if doing the trail one way, we decided to start at Python Pool so that we could cycle downhill most of the way back to the car. Unfortunately, Alissa's tyre had been popped by a stone the flew up on our drive to Millstream, so we ended up just leaving my bike at Mt Herbert for a solo downhill cycle. 



The Camel Trail trailhead is located in the Python Pool car park, with a short side trail leading to the pool itself. A permanent waterhole surrounded but sheer cliffs of orangey-red, Python Pool is a rather spectacular Outback pool. The geology is strikingly different to the banded layers of Karijini's gorges, giving the area a character all its own. The split in the middle of the rocks is actually an ephemeral waterfall that flows during the wet Summer season, and I've seen photos on Instagram showing that the particularly wet start to 2017 made for quite the impressive sight. 



After checking out Python Pool, Alissa and I returned to the Camel Trail itself. During the wet season, Python Pool's flowing water spills out into a rocky creek, and the track crosses this dry creek bed. Along this stretch, walkers can clearly see one of the trail's first camel-emblazoned markers. Although most of the walk is fairly straightforward, there are a few unclear moments when these markers are helpful in confirming that you've taken the right path.



One of these unclear sections is less than a kilometre into the walk. In spite of Python Pool being the major attraction of the Chichester Range part of the park, Alissa and I were surprised by a section that was filled with various different goat trails around the Spinifex. Thankfully, we could see a trail heading up a nearby hill so used that as a guide for the general direction. Seeing a Camel Trail marker was definitely reassuring, and we were soon walking along a very clear and obvious path. 



Although geographically close to Karijini, the geology of the Chichester Range is noticeably different, with rounded jumbles of rocks replacing the sedimentary iron banded formations. Even at this early stage of the walk, Alissa and I were impressed by how beautiful this harsh landscape was. I annoyed Alissa by repeatedly saying 'I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains!' in as broad an Australian accent as possible. Although the accent gave my words a facetious tone, I was serious about loving it. 



While looking for the Camel Trail markers, Alissa and I stumbled upon something very interesting - an information plaque bearing the symbol of the Australia Bicentenary (of European settlement, that is)! As part of the 1988 celebrations, funding was made available for a series of trails throughout the country. Although the Cape to Cape Track and the 1988 alignment of the Bibbulmun Track are indebted to Bicentennial grants, the vast majority of the trails funded in Western Australia were shorter, heritage-oriented trails like the Mason & Bird Heritage Trail in the Perth Hills and the Baie Des Deux Peuples Heritage Trail at Two Peoples Bay. So prevalent were these trails that it looks like anything that stuck the word 'heritage' in its name got some funding, however the Camel Trail does actually hold some serious historical value, as it follows part of an old route used by cameleers to lead their camels to reliable water sources. 



The plaque provides information about an old stone culvert that the trail crosses, and notes the construction quality. Considering another 20 years has past since the sign was put in place, I would have to concur. 



After crossing the culvert, the track ascends a track cut into the hillside. Further along the hill, Alissa and I would stumble upon a second Bicentennial sign pointing out that parts of the trail were constructed with dynamite to blow up some of the bigger chunks of rock!



The ascent is probably one of the reasons that Parks and Wildlife suggest starting at Mt Herbert, however we did not find it overly difficult - there are considerably harder ascents in the Perth Hills, and when the landscape is so breathtaking you don't really mind being a bit out of breath. 



Although smaller than the mountains of the Hamersley Range, the smaller peaks of the Chichester Range are nevertheless a beautiful sight. Although we've visited other parts of Western Australia with flat top mesas such as Lesueur National Park, the Chichester Range is much more substantial, stretching out to the south as far as the eye can see. 



A bench is located at the top of the ascent, providing an excellent vantage point from which to view the landscape. The bow in the seat suggested this was the original 1988 wood, which is doing quite well all things considered!



From the bench, the trail levels off considerably, and becomes a somewhat easy, pleasant walk through the Spinifex. Although the arid landscape is very different from Tasmania, the hummock shape of the Spinifex reminded us a lot of walking through Button-Grass plains on the Overland Track



The next major feature of the walk is a section of rocky track that heads along a well constructed retaining wall.



From this section, Alissa and I assumed that the peak in the distance was Mt Herbert, however we would soon overshoot the peak, with the trail following the valley instead as it led us to McKenzie Spring. 



Following the retaining wall as it curves northward along the hills, a second bench provides another lookout point to take in the view of the peaks and sweeping plains. 



The trail descends into a valley, following a watercourse to McKenzie Spring. This same watercourse apparently runs all the way to Python Pool, bringing the Summer rain that makes the falls flow. 



A large pool is located at the bottom of what would be a small but roaring waterfall during the wet season. Having walked the trail in July, the water flow was a mere trickle. As a result the water in the pool was highly algal and not particularly attractive as a place for a swim. 



Being the dry season, the trail easily traverses the rocks across the top of the falls. The location of the spring is indicated by a larger tree-lined pool further upstream. 



After crossing the waterfall, the trail runs along the other side of the watercourse before branching off along a dry tributary. 



The last two kilometres of the walk are dominated by stunning views looking down into many gullies crisscrossing the landscape. As with the waterfalls encountered earlier, I imagine this section would be even more spectacular during the wet season, however I'm sure the heat would be more than Alissa and I could bear. Walking in July, the tropical Sun still had a cutting edge, however a cool breeze helped take the edge off the occasionally warm conditions. 



After following a gully for some distance, the trail walks along a dried riverbed. At the time of our walk, the riverbed led to an area that had been burnt fairly recently. As a result of the burns, track becomes a bit indistinct so you'll need to pay close attention to the landscape and for obvious signs of the trail continuing further along to guide you to the right path. 



Ascending out of the riverbed, the trail heads along a ridge that passes by several more gullies filled with much taller and healthier trees than the surrounding plains. In the distance, Mt Herbert can be seen to the left. 



Just before reaching Mt Herbert, a sign indicates that the summit is reached via a 300 metre loop. Although not officially on the Camel Trail, I convinced Alissa that the Long Way was indeed Better, and that we should climb Mt Herbert to finish it 'properly'. 



Mt Herbert is not much of a mountain, and its summit can be conquered in mere minutes. The views from the top is nevertheless excellent, and shows the way that the Roeburn-Wittenoom Rd winds through the countryside as its heads towards Python Pool. 



From the summit, a rough trail runs off to the west and steeply descends to the Mt Herbert car park. 



At the Mt Herbert trailhead was my bicycle and helmet, ready for the descent to Python Pool. My plan had been to film the downhill cycle with a Go Pro attached to a chest mount, however I was disappointed to discover that the battery had run completely flat even though I charged it before leaving! Alissa came up with the idea of putting her iPhone in my shirt pocket as a decent backup plan, however we would later find out that she inadvertently turned the camera off putting it in place. Its a shame that I can't show any footage to you, as riding down the winding road was one of my favourite moments of the whole trip. It is rare to have a road cut into the mountainside like that in Western Australia, and the fact its downhill almost all the way means its a fun, thrilling and easy ride all the way to Python Pool. As much as I would have loved to have had footage of the ride, its perhaps for the better that it just remains as a fond memory in my head - I share so many of our adventures online that its nice to have something that I can cherish as mine and mine alone. You'll just have to bring a bike yourself to experience it.


The Camel Trail was an excellent walk, featuring stunning Outback scenery over its entire length. Even walking in the more difficult direction up to Mt Herbert, I was surprised by how relatively gentle the Camel Trail is, and I would consider it a perfect introduction to walking in an Outback landscape during the cooler Winter months. Additionally, I thoroughly recommend bring a bicycle and cycling down the hill at the end of the walk if you're a confident road cyclist, as it was one of the best things I did over the entire trip. If you're in the area of Karijini or Karratha, Millstream Chichester is definitely worth the side trip - its a truly magical place. 

3 comments:

  1. Millstream is a beauty, haven't been along the extent of the camel trail but took Dad up to Mt Herbert for that sensational view. I can just imagine how much fun cycling down was!! The drive along the road is one of the highlights with the landscape ahead.

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    1. Millstream Chichester is definitely something of a hidden gem. I'm amazed it is so rarely spoken when WA's best national parks are brought up. If you do do the Camel Trail make sure you do the downhill cycle - it is sooooo good and the view is stunning!

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