Monday, 25 June 2018

Early Bibbulmun Adventures 2003-2004 (Throwback Thursday Special)

A Throwback Thursday Special, this post recounts the early Bibbulmun Track Adventures and Hiking Origin Story of The Long Way's Better, starting with the first sectional hike in late 2003 (Walpole to Denmark) and the second from Brookton Hwy to Kalamunda - which in turn revealed an interesting mistake in this finally complete Origin Story

When Alissa and I completed our Bibbulmun Track End to End in 2017, I posted the above photo of the moment when I first decided I wanted to walk the Bibbulmun Track in 1999. While this trip to Pemberton included my first taste of the track around the lake of Karri Valley towards Beedelup Falls, it would be another four years before a group of friends and I headed out for a multi-day journey on the Bibbulmun Track between Walpole and Denmark in December 2003, and returned for our second sectional stretch from Brookton Hwy to Kalamunda in July the next year.

Inspired by the retro posts of my friend Kevin from Goin' Feral One Day at a Time, I've long wanted to tell the story of these formative adventures, however I've never had the photos to illustrate them properly. While I had brought a camera along for the first journey, this was back in the days of film and when the roll ran out, that was it! When I think about the thousands of photos I take these days, its hard to imagine just how limited we used to be!

This roll of film gained almost mythic proportions in the intervening years, as while I'd often thought about it, it had never been processed. Being 17 and poor was the initial excuse, and as my friends and I moved onto to other things the old roll of film became less and less important. While it was originally kept in a drawer, the roll ended up buried at the bottom of a box and remained forgotten until a decision to get rid of a lot of junk I've held onto over the years resulted in its rediscovery in June 2018.

Faded and limited to a smattering of images from our journey down to Walpole right through to our second night at Giants, it was incredible peering back into the past after all these years. But with only a handful of photos to show for it, it still didn't quite feel like it was enough - until I saw the photo above. My friend Cam, seen here with a camera in hand, had clearly taken photos too, and I hoped that maybe he still might having something from these trips. Now living in the UK, Cam nevertheless did have access to some photos from the 2003 and 2004 trips and was happy to share - enough to flesh out the story of these early journeys.

From the seed planted by my 1999 Pemberton visit, walking a section of the Bibbulmun Track grew into a major goal for the end of high school as I planned to walk part of the track for my Year 12 Leavers. Disinterested in the usual Leavers tradition of getting drunk in Dunsborough or Rottnest, being in touch with nature and walking a long distance held a lot more appeal to me, and I found to my surprise that many of my friends were like-minded enough to want to join me!

The photo above shows the four of us who did the complete 7 day walk. From left to right: Cam, myself, Daniel and Simon, pictured here playing pool at the Walpole YHA after catching the train to Bunbury and then getting the TransWA bus to Walpole. This was in the days before it was called the Tingle All Over YHA - an awesome if dubious name given the poor level of cleanliness often associated with budget accommodation (wrongly or rightly). 

Being young, poor and inexperienced, our gear for the hike was not all all the expensive high tech and ultra-light gear I use today. As an example, I carried a 90 litre backpack, a large camping gas stove, a camping tent and a cheap synthetic sleeping bag that was so big that I had it tied to the outside of my pack. At the time, I had no idea how anyone could or would manage with a smaller backpack, while I now would wonder how I would ever manage carrying such a large and heavy pack today!

After overnighting in Walpole, the four of us set off, being sure to head the right way out of town. Coalmine Beach and the Nornalup Inlet were the first leg of the journey, and while I now remember this stretch of the track for its fatiguing walking along the dual use trail, what I remember most about this stretch of the track was the four of us sighting a stingray in the waters of the inlet from the lookout pictured above.

While this first stretch it okay, I remember us getting very excited once we entered the mix of Tingle and Karri forest. These were the forests of my fondest childhood memories, and I was excited to be making more memories with friends as we made our way towards Frankland River. One such memory that is comical now but was more of a serious worry back then was that I lost one of my water bottles at the tree above. In an act of stupidity, I had succumbed to buying cool looking but impractical military style canteens that I hung from my waist belt, and when taking off my pack I had knocked one the canteens of the belt and hadn't realised until several kilometres later!

While having to ration my water was not ideal, the walking was fantastic, with the Giant Tingle being a major early highlight of this stretch of the walk. Being young and inexperienced, we were also probably walking at too cracking a pace on this first day, and I remember being right near the front of the pack only to have a severe muscle spasm in my leg that led to me collapsing in pain. I remember Daniel being really worried that we'd have to call it quits just a day into the walk, however I was able to recover and we continued at a slightly more relaxed pace.

Back in 2003, the Bibbulmun Track Foundation and the concept of getting key information online was still pretty new, and none of us thought to check if any large groups were on track. As we arrived at Frankland River, we discovered the hut filled with school children, and we were disappointed by the thought that we would not get to enjoy our first experience with a Bibbulmun Track hut. Knowing the rules regarding large groups, the teachers asked if we would like the hut to which we answered yes, and the students were the ones disappointed as they now had to set up tents instead! We offered to share the hut, but the teachers said it was fine and that the kids should learn the valuable lesson of setting up a tent for the night anyway. Being the first Bibbulmun hut I ever stayed it, Frankland River has special sentimental value to me. Being our first experience, we had not realised that Frankland River is one of the best huts of the whole track - especially with its unique raised wooden deck!

The next day from Frankland to Giants was another a bit of a gruelling day for us, and it showed us just how inexperienced we were. While the overall gradient was moderately undulating, it felt slowly uphill for the first several kilometres. Combined with muscle soreness from our first day and the heavy packs we were carrying, it definitely felt like more of a slog than we had expected. I don't know if we got lost of if there was a diversion in place at the time, but we took forever to get to Sappers Bridge. Being a hot day, I'd not rationed my water very well and ended up having to fill up some pretty tannic water from the Frankland River, which was quite possibly the worst water I've had to drink while out hiking to this day!

In spite of a slow start filled with rookie mistakes, we were able to make good time on what is a relatively short day for this stretch of the track, arriving at Valley of the Giants in the late afternoon.

The Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk was a worthwhile side trip, and it also meant access to better drinks that tannic river water!

After spending a fair bit of time at the Valley of the Giants, the four of us arrived at Giants campsite just before sunset. While I was keen to stay in the hut, the others wanted to alternate between hut nights and tents - especially as I don't think any of us had mattresses and the wooden floors were pretty hard. I was eventually convinced to stay in tents, and we probably had a better night's sleep as a result.

After taking photos of the hut, my roll of film ran out, and that was that for the rest of the trip! I remember the day from Giants to Rame Head being relatively easy apart from the Summer heat - until we reached the repeated ups and downs of the dunes towards Conspicuous Beach. I recall filling up my water from the creek that flows into the beach and that it was clear and tasted really delicious - especially after the horrible water the previous day from the Frankland River.

Having such a heavy pack, I remember being very keen to get to Rame Head (or Ram Head as we kept calling it) and I ended up powering ahead. Having told my friends I would blow my whistle when I got to the hut, they were horrified to hear the faint sound of the whistle far in the distance and knowing they had quite a bit further to go than they had expected! Rame Head was quite mosquito infested, with the hut's previous tenant writing in the red book that he had taken off his shirt and had a 'mosquito siesta' in the middle of the day!

The next day to Peaceful Bay was probably our easiest yet - I think we were finally getting into the swing of things, and the day was relatively easy. The track through this section of the Bibb is now rerouted inland and a bit boring, however we did the older, more exciting alignment that went closer to the coast, and I recall a lot of tyre stairways that I haven't seen on the Bibbulmun with anywhere near as much frequency these days.

At Peaceful Bay, the four of us were joined by our friend Rob. The good thing for us was this was a perfect time to offload stuff we wouldn't need to Rob's dad, who I'm glad to say took photos of us at the Peaceful Bay Caravan Park. Daniel had brought deodorant and a hair brush, and that was quickly jettisoned along with just about anything that Cam, Simon or I could get rid off.

Either Daniel or Rob had brought a footy to kick around at the campsite, and this was quickly left behind as we knew from experience that we would be too exhausted to be playing with a football at the end of the night!

Being fresh to the track and not having experienced the sheer exhaustion of being a young and inexperienced hiker, I remember Rob being far less ruthless with the things he was carrying than we had suggested he be. This was at his peril, and I recall him admitting the next day that it was a lot harder than he expected.

Trying not to waste our money on accommodation, we continued on to the Irwin Inlet with the idea being that we would camp near the river. We ended up finding a decent spot for a camp on the dunes overlooking the rivermouth, and set up our tents before a storm hit. The night was extremely windy as a result, and I remember thinking we had perhaps made a bit of a mistake. I woke to discover another mistake - we had set up the tent in such a way that blood had been rushing to my head all night and I woke up with the most terrible headache!

The Irwin Inlet crossing was a lot of fun, and it is one of the reasons I still think Peaceful Bay to Boat Harbour is one of the great stretches of the Bibbulmun in spite of it being a long and challenging day. With all the coastal walking, Rob was really challenged on this day, and Simon was also slowed down by debilitatingly bad blisters. I recall having to cut the loose skin off his popped blisters and the screams of 'Oh fuck!' he yelled as we put antiseptic over the wound. I've done a lot of hiking in the intervening years, and I have to say I've never seen a blister as bad as that one, and I jokingly referred to it as a stigmata due to its massive size. It was so bad that Simon's email address became 'bad_blister' for a number of years after. This is definitely a warning to others - make sure you break your shoes in properly before a multi-day hike!

Boat Harbour to William Bay featured more excellent coastal walking, but was most memorable for the gruelling Mazzoletti Beach. Stretching on for 7 kilometres of often soft sand, you can see all the way from the start to the end of the beach. This makes Mazzoletti a physical and mental challenge. By this stage of the walk we'd certainly fallen into a pattern, with Daniel generally the fastest walker, Cam and myself a short distance behind and then Rob and Simon at the rear. Nearing the end of the beach, Cam and I caught up with Daniel who said he had looked behind him a few minutes ago, saw Cam and I not that far away and then saw Rob and Simon looking like tiny specks in the far distance!

At this point, I thought we would be going through Greens Pool so I was surprised that the Bibbulmun ascended to Tower Hill and away from William Bay National Park's most famous feature. Regardless, we were happy to be celebrating our last night on the track as we would be in Denmark the next day.

With the exception of the last few kilometres through the Dieback-infected Jarrah, William Bay to Denmark is now one of my favourite sections of the Bibb, largely due to the fact it contains the stretch up Mt Hallowell. At the time, the five of us had began to dread any track note that said that there were 'spectacular views to the [insert cardinal direction]' as it was almost a euphemism for 'there's a fair bit of uphill in your future!', with the more cardinal points mentioned the worse the ascent! Being young, inexperienced and keen to get into town, we decided to skip Mt Hellowell, and instead walked around it on the road - a stretch of road I would humourously have to walk again 14 years later with Mark from the Life of Py due to a massive miscalculation (you can read about it here). I seriously regret missing out on Mt Hallowell as it is the last major Karri-dominated granite mountain of the track, but even more so I regret taking a short cut as I've definitely come to embrace that the Long Way's Better. 

Getting into town and eating food by the Denmark River, I remember being glad to no longer be out on the track and that it was now all over, but I also had that feeling that I've come to know very well - in spite of the physical challenge, the occasional boring stretches and always looking forward to the end, I had the urge to go back out on the track again. I wanted more of the Bibbulmun Track, to complete it and do much more hiking in the future. 

The next Bibbulmun adventure would be in July 2004, with Cam, Simon and I doing the Bibbulmun stretch from Brookton Hwy to Kalamunda. Replacing Daniel and Rob were Azriel, Justin and a primary school friend named Phil. 

Some people reading this blog may recognise Phil, and that is because he would go onto becoming a prominent member of the trail running community and is known for his Instragram account 5k_a_day_

While I seem to be able to recall many details about Walpole to Denmark, I find my memory of the July 2004 hike to be far more scrambled and confused. I've been adamant for years that this was Brookton Hwy to Kalamunda, however my memories of the geography of the first day never gelled with this.

For example, I recall there being excellent views from a high point on the first day that had 'ephemoral pools and gnammas', as I specifically recall Justin finding the word gnammas comical. I remember Justin struggling on the first day and that there was a descent to the campsite, and Justin's disappointment that I hadn't come back to help him. All these details would make me think we started at Sullivan Rock and had headed towards Monadnocks given the sweeping views, ephemeral pools, the fact it was a bit tough for Justin and the descent to the campsite, however I was absolutely certain that it had been Brookton Hwy that we started at. 

The photo above - with four of us showing a terrible disregard for Leave No Trace principles as we casually walked over the moss - finally clued me into the fact that there was something wrong with my memory of the walk. My immediate thought was that this looked an awful lot like the section near the bridge over the Canning River, however as it could not possibly be south of Brookton Hwy, I completely discounted it. A closer inspection of a photo I had taken of this same place more recently proved conclusively that it was the same place - if you look at the photo in the write up of Marginata Rd to Sullivan Rock, you will see that the rocks are perfectly in line in both photos, and that a tree in the middle right of the above photo matches up with one in the middle of the other photo. 

Suddenly it all made sense - the memories of descending to the first camp, the tougher first day, even the quote about 'ephemoral pools and gnammas', which was a misremembrance of the guidebook's note that Monadnocks to Mt Cooke features 'some beautiful ephemeral gnammas (pools)'. What had actually happened was that we'd walked from Albany Hwy to Brookton Hwy with Phil, who then left us there as the rest of us continued to Kalamunda. That's why I remember a car, and why Brookton Hwy stuck in my head as the start point for the journey. 

I remember Phil being great at lighting campfires, having been in scouts when we were in primary school. This was just as well for us, as the first night at Monadnocks was apparently one of the coldest nights for several years. Simon - who had packed too warm a sleeping bag for our first hike - had packed a lighter sleeping bag this time, and immediately regretted it, telling me that the last time felt like an oven while this time the thinner sleeping bag was so inadequate he could have simply wrapped himself in paper it would have been just the same!

While some of the walking from Canning campsite through to Mt Dale can be a bit dull, I remember us really loving the trio of excellent campsites along the Helena Valley - Beraking, Waalegh and the sadly destroyed hut at Helena. 

Cam, who took these 2004 photos clearly loved Waalegh just as much as I do, as there are a lot of photos from our time at this hut. Something that completely surprised me was the fact Waalegh had shade cloth back in 2004. The shade cloth was already pretty ratty looking at the time, and by the time Alissa and I visited the area in 2016, it was long gone. 

From either Beraking or Helena, we shared the campsite with a couple who I remember as being very friendly. Embarrassingly, given how nice the couple were, I remember that Justin and I were openly clashing by this point, largely centred around the fact Justin and Azriel wanted to stay the night at the Mundaring Weir Hotel while I was of the mindset that we were out here to avoid the luxuries of somewhere like that, and that not all of us had the money to stay in a hotel. I recall yelling that I liked the fact we were getting blisters and were uncomfortable at night - things I have now long realised are not foregone conclusions on a hike, and a hardline viewpoint I've definitely softened from in the intervening years. Still, the point about money was my main argument, as we were all poor students for whom a night in a hotel was a luxury on our lowly wages. 

While Justin would admit to being difficult, I didn't make things easier either. On one of the days, Simon and I agreed that we would not stop to rest at any hills and found to our surprise that you can keep walking non-stop and recover on the descents. As such, we were able to double hut through a campsite pretty easily and left a note for the guys to keep going to the next campsite. Our note was however extremely pitiful as it was scrawled into the ground, and other hikers must have walked through it as the others became really confused as to what happened. They were justifiably angry when they finally caught up to us. 

And unfortunately, the negative feelings on the walk lingered after the hike. Justin and I drifted apart for a number of years as this and other disagreements made our once close friendship more tenuous, and a number of unfortunate events led to the almost complete disillusion of my circle of high school friends. Some of this was due to my actions while others definitely share the blame, however at the end of the day it was all caused by the petty bullshit you get caught up in when you're in your late teens/early 20s. Seeing these photos and how close we all were back then does fill me with a lot of regret for the fact we never did a trip like this again, and I'm particularly saddened by the fact Simon, Cam and I never got to finish a sectional End to End together.

It would be eight long years before I would do another sectional hike on the Bibbulmun (Albany to Denmark with Alissa), and a further five before Alissa and I would finally complete our sectional End to End. While there's a certainly tinge of sadness to the way these early Bibbulmun adventures ended, they are part of my origin story, and none of this - The Long Way's Better - would exist without my formative experiences on the Track. While I can sometimes be critical of aspects of the Bibb, there will always be a part of me and my friends that will live on in the spirit of this magical place, and I will be forever grateful there was a time and place for us, and that the Bibbulmun Track could become a part of our story. 


  1. Loved the retro post Donavon....and the honest writing. It's amazing how much we change in our outlook on life as we grow older. I look back at myself at 18 and think how I naive and silly I was. Cheers

  2. Great post Don. These trips really were incredible. I have some more photos I'll have to dig out when I'm next in Perth. You did, however, miss the hilarious "short cut" through some farms, barbed/electric fences and jumping a river from the first trip. Maybe better left out though ;).

    1. Hahaha yeah, I remember that! Daniel was really confident that this was the 'better' way to go (since it didn't have views to the north, south, east and west) and while it did cut a bit of travel time off our trip, it was pretty arduous anyway! It would be great to see more photos if you find them. Let me know!