Saturday, 2 September 2017

9 Ways the Bibbulmun Track could be Better

There are a lot of things to love about the Bibbulmun Track, and I've highlighted its major user friendliness when I outlined 10 Ways the Bibbulmun Track is the Best Beginners Trail. It was the trail that gave me the hiking bug in the first place, and I don't know if The Long Way's Better would even exist without it.

Long time readers will know I'm all about keeping it 100, and while my opinion of the track is largely positive I would be lying if I said it was an absolutely perfect walk with no room for improvement. Furthermore, I don't see the value in overpraising the track given that considered critique has been an important part of the Bibbulmun Track story. The current Bibbulmun Track came about because a hiker named Jesse Brampton pointed out that the 1988 alignment was not perfect and that he had a vision for a much more enjoyable experience modelled on the Appalachian Trail. His critique lead to the Building a Better Bibbulmun Track Project which realigned the track and extended it to Albany in 1998, resulting in the modern Bibb known and enjoyed ever since. Almost 20 years have past since then, and I have to wonder if its time to think about Building an Even Better Bibbulmun Track. In the interests of continuous improvement, here are nine ways the Bibbulmun Track could be a better walk.

The horrible Marron Rd - a broad 9.7 kilometre that is part of a continuous 18.2 kilometre road bash

1. Less road bashes

When building a long trail, road bashes can be something of a necessary evil. They help expedite the construction process by utilising preexisting infrastructure and are thus attractive from an economic and deadline meeting perspective. While some road bashes can provide a pleasant walking experience, many are far from enjoyable and take away from providing the wilderness experience sought but hikers. The worst example would be the 18.2 kilometre road bash from Dog Road to Pingerup Rd along the Northcliffe to Walpole stretch of the track. The absolute nadir of this stretch is the broad, sandy two lane Marron Rd which continues without respite for 9.7 kilometres. Considering Northcliffe to Walpole is promoted as the 'the remotest section of the southern part of the Track, with few roads and almost no signs of civilisation for eight days!' this is a real let down, especially when a perusal of the map shows that there are a series of rapids along the nearby Gardner River that would have provided a much more scenic option. Realigning the track away from these extremely long stretches of endless road would make for a much more enjoyable walking experience - particularly important on day when the road bash takes up more than half of the day's kilometres.

Nullaki to West Cape Howe stays inland for longer than it could

2. Less inland walking along the coastal sections

Although the Bibbulmun Track is largely a forest walk, the coastal sections from Mandalay Beach to Albany provide some of the most memorable and stunningly beautiful landscapes to be found along the entire track. While the alignment here is mostly excellent, there are some points where the route seems to bizarrely avoid coastal views altogether by positioning hikers to instead walk through a tunnel of heath and peppermint trees with little in the way of views. The track immediately east of Rame Head is one such section, with 5 kilometres passing through unremarkable heathlands instead of providing coastal views. Worse still is the first half of the day from Nullaki to West Cape Howe, which is under the misguided impression that the chance to see the Porongurups and the Stirling Range far away in the distance is far better than actually enjoying views of the spectacular coastline right nearby. This is not the Overland Track where the trail casually passes very close to an endless parade of tall peaks; the Bibbulmun should instead play to its coastal strengths along this stretch as the mountains are too far away to be a noteworthy feature of the track. To illustrate the point, the Mamang Trail is a fine example a coastal walk that successfully makes use of nearby peaks to provide stunning and engaging walking.

Rocky Pool - mere minutes off the Bibbulmun Track but lacking side track signage

3. More (or at least better signed) side trips

One aspect of the Overland Track that the Bibbulmun could really embrace is plentiful side trail options. To be fair, the Bibbulmun does offer a few of these, with the Cascades in Gloucester National Park and Mt Pingerup being two that immediately come to mind. There are however plenty more; Rocky Pool is mere minutes off the Bibbulmun Track between Kalamunda and Hewitt's Hill but is not signed as such, and Mt Randall is in very close proximity to Monadnocks campsite without being offered as a side trip option. Side trips can really make a day of walking, and providing walkers with clear information about sights nearby would be greatly appreciated by those who are keen to explore a bit more. 

A one day hike off the Bibbulmun Track to West Cape Howe would be a great spur trail project

4. More spur trails

Beyond mere side trips, overnight/multi-day spurs would make excellent additions to the Bibbulmun Track's flexibility. The Wellington Spur is a great idea for an alternative to the main track due to being a three day walk from Collie to Wellington Dam with its own campsites. While the Wellington Spur was designed for school and scout groups, other spurs could simply serve to create alternative overnight or multi-day walks that branch off the main trail and provide new and exciting opportunities for hiking in the South West. A ready-made option would be to make the currently obscure Nuyts Wilderness Trail a more obvious side trip option than it currently is given that Nuyts and Bibbulmun already run concurrently for several kilometres. Other great options would be an overnight spur trail option that takes walkers to West Cape Howe itself, or a section that branches off the Bibbulmun from near Sandpatch and takes walkers to some of the wonders of Torndirrup National Park.

The Greenbushes Loop incorporates part of the Bibbulmun Track to create a day walk loop

5. More Loop Walks

While the modern Bibbulmun Track is a significant improvement on the 1988 alignment, one aspect of the old Bibb that was not carried over was the provision of loop walks blazed with different coloured Waugals. While it makes sense that these were de-emphasised to put the focus on making the Bibbulmun a true long distance walk, the reality is that many walkers only do day walks on the track and would be best served by loop walks. A few loop walks current incorporate sections of the Bibbulmun Track - The Greebushes Loop, The Dell to South Ledge and the shorter Rocky Pool Walk version of the Piesse Gully Loop immediately come to mind - however there are plenty more areas with strong potential for further loop walk development.

Tall trees in virgin Jarrah felled after a Prescribed Burn

6. Better effort made to protect taller trees in the Jarrah forest

An unavoidable weakness of the Bibbulmun Track is that the landscape between the granite valleys and peaks of the Kalamunda to Dwellingup section of the track and the beginnings of the Karri forest before Donnelly River Village consists largely of endless Jarrah forest. Given how much of the Jarrah forest is scrappy regrowth or severely burnt by recent fires, taller trees in the Jarrah forest should be prized and protected as it will take a century before the regrowth trees resemble the mature appearance of virgin Jarrah forest. While I undertand the necessary evil that is controlled burns, a particularly disheartening side effect of such burns is the fact that you often see mature trees collapsed over the track after such operations, either from the roots having been burnt out or the trees being pulled over for safety reasons. It would be great if efforts could be made to identify tall trees during a controlled burn and avoid burning them if the burn is likely to cause them to be structurally unsound. Mature Jarrah can be a beautiful tree, but it so rarely gets a chance to be more than the thin and scrappy variety common to the track's Northern Half. 

The unsatisfactory Eden Rd gate - the drop off point on the other side of the Wilson Inlet

7. A more satisfying way around the Wilson Inlet

When you think of the term 'thru-hike', getting into a car to get to the other side of an inlet seems antithetical to the whole endeavour. And yet, this is how the majority of Bibbulmun Track thru-hikers find themselves on the other side of the Wilson Inlet. It is obvious that a ferry crossing was the grand idea of the Bibbulmun Track designers, and while the idea is very nice in practice, the ferry operation in Denmark has changed hands many times and is very expensive unless you have a large group. An on-foot option used to be provided by crossing the sandbar over the Wilson Inlet when the sandbar was closed, however the grass along the Nullaki Peninsula walk trail had become dangerously overgrown and snake infested by the time it was withdrawn as an option endorsed by the Bibbulmun Track Foundation and the Parks and Wildlife Service. The best option would be to see the track along the Nullaki Peninsula cleared and reinstated as an attractive option for walkers, however it would nice if a simple campsite (ie tent sites and no hut) could be provided on the Denmark-Nornalup Heritage Trail to make it a more attractive option for people who want to stay 'pure' and avoid using motorised transport for any section of the track. 

Boot cleaning stations along the track are not always working

8. Better maintenance of Dieback cleaning stations

I take the risk of spreading Dieback pretty seriously, and I commend the fact that the Bibbulmun Track has boot cleaning stations at regular intervals along the track in areas of high risk. Unfortunately, quite a number of these are not in the best condition for a number of reasons. A few years Alissa and I came across one near Canning campsite that had been carelessly driven over by a four wheel drive that shouldn't have even been on the track, and earlier this year we found the one south of Boonerring Hill had been burnt out in a bushfire and was unusable. These are unfortunate situations that can't be helped, however topping up the spray in the pump action boot cleaning stations or replacing boot brushes that have been worn down should be managed and taken care of more regularly.

Dirt Bike riders often ignore signage as they are likely to get away with it

9. Better deterrents against dirt bikers and car campers using track facilities

Long time readers will know that dirt bikes and cars using the Bibbulmun Track are amongst my biggest pet hates. During our sectional End to End we've witnessed a car parked up at Mt Cooke campsite, a 4WD on the track near Canning campsite, a broken boot cleaning station that had been clearly driven over, heard the sound of dirt bikes ripping up the track near Collie (and obvious tyre tracks as signs of their handiwork), seen dirt bike tracks all over a granite slab near Waalegh (with leftover food and garbage just dumped into the bushes), and saw a still smoldering fire at Dookanelly after a car camper decided to drive all the way to the hut. The fact of the matter is none of these people should have been on the track and some of them know full well that they shouldn't be. The attitude is that they just don't care, can't see why they shouldn't be allowed to be there and, most importantly, can get away with it. I would love to see more work done to deter people from riding vehicles on the track and punish those who do so, ranging from making it more difficult for vehicles to access the track, putting up temporary security cameras in hot spots to catch people in the act and ensuring that offenders are fined. There is no current cure for Dieback, and people who blatantly put our biodiversity at risk should be punished accordingly. 


  1. Continuing from Albany northwards through Prrongurup NP and then joining up to Stirling Range Ridge Walk (with suitable improvements and a bypass for bad weather). Then East to Bremer, Fitzgerald River NP and on to Esperance. Disclaimer: no detailed thought has gone into this whatsoever.

    1. Hahaha, that would be incredible but I imagine there being a lot of private properties to traverse to link them all up. Would love to see an overnight trail in the Porongurups though.

  2. All these things are possible. Most of them also require significantly more resources to see them realised. What ideas do you have to find new and/or innovative ways to direct more resources to manage and maintain the trail?

    1. Hi Rod,
      It is good to know that these things are all possible.

      Before addressing the funding shortfall I feel like we need to understand the underlying issue - what has changed from the late 90s/early 2000s in Western Australia when there seemed to be both political will and an appetite to build/radically improve new trails (eg Eagle View Walk Trail, Cape to Cape Track, the Building a New Bibbulmun Track Project) that does not exist today in spite of the worldwide growth in hiking as a major worldwide activity, and what conditions have resulted in other states like Victoria investing heavily in creating ambitious projects like Great Ocean Walk or the Grampians Peak Trail?

      I think a problem specific to the Bibbulmun Track is that it is so regularly promoted as 'world class', and while it is true in many respects (arguably the greatest facilities on any long distance trail anywhere in the world, and Walpole to Denmark/DRV to Pemberton are especially excellent) it is also a poisoned chalice for additional funding as many outside the hiking community probably see it as a finished project rather than one that is very good but still has room for improvement.

      In terms of funding, it is obvious that many in WA see a user pays model as unpalatable based on what recently happened to the pay machines in Torndirrup and the response on Facebook (I'm not against park entry fees btw). I think a user pays model would work for a week-long trail like the Cape to Cape Track (with some 'value added' work on the campsites) but may be impractical and drive down demand for a long distance trail like the Bibbulmun. Instead, I feel like an 'abuser pays' model is a reasonable revenue stream that Parks and Wildlife haven't fully monetized, whether it being infringements for those who do not pay for park access and especially for trespassers driving their dirt bikes and cars on the Bibbulmun. They're the people costing the department money in having to build barricades and repair damage, so they should be the ones to pay. One project I can immediately think of is a security camera on Mt Wells to catch people in the act. This must have the follow through of the individuals being fined rather than getting a slap on the wrist.

      Fines are probably not enough of a revenue stream, but perhaps crowdfunding could also be explored?

  3. Hi Don,
    Interesting reading and perfect timing as the BTF is in the process of developing a survey for members and volunteers regarding the long-term vision for the Track and the Foundation's role. Some of the issues you have raised have been on the agenda for some time - or will be raised for the first time in this vision discussion. A workshop will be held at 6pm on the 26 October and will be promoted soon.
    Unfortunately, things are not always as 'simple' as they seem and there are many factors which impact on decision making. It will be good to have your input into the survey and workshop.

    1. Hi Linda,
      I know that some of my 9 points are more achievable than others and some would be quite expensive, however I see what I've written as a primer identifying the track's weaknesses as I've experienced them while walking. The fact is that these issues can be fixed, it is whether or not there is the political or social will to make it happen that is the question.

      I'm more than happy to participate in the survey and workshop. I'll keep my eye out for updates on this front.