Saturday, 20 October 2018

Torbay Head & West Cape Howe (West Cape Howe National Park)

A walk through West Cape Howe National Park, this mix of walking and vehicle tracks explores the wild coastline of Western Australia's southernmost promontory. Starting at Shelley Beach, the track heads deep into the park to explore Torbay Head - the westernmost point of the state - and the stunning sea cliffs of West Cape Howe itself. Let down by sandy 4WD track walking, the spectacular scenery makes it worth the effort

Distance: 16 km (loop)
Gradient: Moderate hill climbs through the inland section and some flat, sandy track walking
Quality of Path: Clear and relatively well maintained trails closer to the start of the walk at Shelley Beach, with vehicle track followed for the rest of the way. Faint bush pads to Torbay Head and the Old Man
Quality of Signage: No Trailhead. Initially follows Bibbulmun markers, and is signed until the end of the walk track as it joins Dunsky Rd. No signage from there onwards
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Required. While most of the walk is on already existing trails, the walk is not marked and follows bush pads in close proximity to the wild Southern Ocean. Highly unsuitable for inexperienced hikers who are not comfortable with navigation and map reading. 
Time: 5-6 Hours
Steps: Several formal and informal steps
Best Time to Visit: Autumn-Spring. There is a lack of shade and a high fire risk in Summer
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees Apply
Getting There: The circuit starts at Shelley Beach Lookout. From Lower Denmark Rd, head south of Hortin Rd and then turn right onto Shelley Beach Rd. Follow Shelley Beach Rd until just before it turn to run along the coast and follow the signage to the lookout point. Trail starts at the car park
GPX File: A GPX file of this walk is available here. Please note that while all care has been taken to make this file as accurate as possible, by downloading this GPX file you agree its use, and reliance upon, is entirely at your own risk. The Long Way's Better and its writer Donovan de Souza accepts no responsibility for 
any loss, injury, damage, mishap or inconvenience sustained by anyone undertaking this walk. It is the responsibility of every walker to evaluate the best and safest way to actually proceed

One of my critiques of the Bibbulmun Track between Albany and Denmark is that it does not fully explore two of the area's best and most dramatic landscapes - West Cape Howe and Torndirrup National Parks. Of course, the track passes through both parks but it skirts inlands through the top of West Cape Howe National Park and the briefly enters the western end of Torndirrup before continuing into Albany. Where the Bibbulmun had previously been happy to meander to the best and most beloved features of other sections such as Beedelup Falls, the Gloucester Tree and the Valley of the Giants, it seems odd that the track here is so direct and perfunctory in its route.

Having seen the turn off into West Cape Howe when Alissa and I did this section of the Bibbulmun Track, I was intrigued to see what the park had to offer and the quality of the walk trail given that the southernmost point of Western Australia and some of the best sea cliffs in the state are found in the park. After having walked the Cape Raoul Track in Tasmania - the third cape of the Three Capes Track but not on the Three Capes Track - I was particularly interested to see how our coastal sea cliffs and walk track compared.

Although Alissa and I had been through the park a few times on the Bibbulmun Track, we had never actually driven into the park, and we were amazed by the Karri forest that can be found at the park entrance. While driving into the park, we noted the road crossing points we had walked on previous visits and decided to go check out Shelley Beach and its small campsite. Shelley Beach (pictured above) is one of those typically beautiful beaches that so characterise the southern coastline, with white beaches and beautifully blue water but with a wild roughness that can make it a bit less inviting for a swim in high swells.

After enjoying Shelley Beach, Alissa and I drove to the Shelley Beach lookout to start the walk into the park. The lookout provides excellent views of the beach and southwards towards Torbay Head - the main destination of our walk. This lookout point is also popular with hang gliders as it features launching ramps over the beach.

From the car park, a linking trail provides access via the Bruce Tarbotton Memorial Track which joins onto and then runs concurrently with the Bibbulmun Track.

At the point where it joins onto the Bibbulmun Track, the Bibbulmun turns right to head towards Albany while going straight aheads takes walkers to Denmark. While technically correct, Alissa and I found it curious that the sign points towards Walpole instead of Denmark, especially given the fact that the Bibbulmun is broken at Wilson Inlet.

Having visited the park in late October, Alissa and I were delighted by the sheer number of beautiful wildflowers on either side of the track. This area had been badly burnt by fires not long before we last did this stretch of track, and if there is one positive about bushfires is that it tends to result in the most impressive blooms in the following years.

One less great aspect of the walk was the number of flies that were everywhere. Alissa and I had bought head nets for our northern adventures but have continuously forgotten to bring them with us. After the very annoy experience of the flies on this track, they are now part of our permanent backpack kit.

The Bruce Tarbotton Track head up the ridge along a series of wooden duck boards. These are very similar to the ones seen on the Bald Head Walk Trail in Torndirrup National Park, and are in surprisingly good condition considering that the area was subject to a pretty major bushfire.

The top of the Bruce Tarbotton Track runs across a rugged limestone ridge, and provides excellent views down to Shelley Beach that are a good alternative viewpoint for those not heading to the Shelley Beach lookout on the Bibbulmun Track.

Descending from the ridge, the track passes through a tunnel of tall heath and Peppermints. Before reaching the crossing of Dunsky Rd, an old sign at the trail junction points out the walk trail that heads into the park. The overall quality of the trail is surprising given that there is hardly any information online; there has been steps put in place on slopes to prevent erosion and there are marker poles for most of the time there is a trail. Some effort went into making this a usable walk trail at one time, which makes the fact it ends abruptly later all the more curious.

In the intervening years, the track does not seem to have been continually well maintained, and while it is mostly clear and easy to follow, there are some sections that are somewhat overgrown.

While initially rising up over a few hills, the track is basically a continual descent towards Torbay Head. Once the track is out of the thick heath, the views of the ocean and the headlands makes for some spectacular coastal walking.

If you look at the Torndirrup and West Cape Howe National Parks brochure, it is interesting to see that the trail is shown to only go one way, while Google Maps and what you see in reality has the track reach a fork. Ironically, the turn left/east towards Torbay Head is seen as the main (and only) trail according to the brochure, and yet the turn off is poorly marked. Someone has put white flagging tape at the left turn to make it clear about which way to go.

What follows is a well maintained stretch of track that is unfortunately fairly uneventful as it passes through a corridor of Peppermint Trees and fails to provide any particularly interesting views. Alissa, who was not in the mood for the somewhat unknown element of this walk, was not impressed by this as I had spruiked the spectacular views. 

The unknown element of the walk is the fact that the track ends abruptly and then joins the four wheel drive track. According to the park's management plan, the walk trail was put in for walker's safety, and it seems like a bit of a moot point if it then joins the four wheel drive track at a somewhat dangerous bend!

Alissa had quipped that we should have just driven into the park when she at first saw the road, however looking left to where we were heading it was obvious that this was not suitable for our X-Trail to drive on given how deeply rutted it was. While I was prepared to push the X-Trail through the soft sands of Francois Peron National Park to do the Wanamalu Trail, deep ruts like this are a bridge too far that would undoubtedly lead to damage. Trust the signage - this is an area for high clearance only.

Alissa and I continued along the vehicle track as it descends to Dunsky Beach. The track to Torbay Head turns right off the track to Dunksy, however Alissa and I continued down to the beach for a short side trip.

Smaller than Shelley Beach, Dunsky Beach is nevertheless similarly beautiful. Alissa was happy to have reached the beach and we decided to stop for a mid-morning snack while appreciating the area's beauty.

Just before the beach, there is a grove of Peppermint trees that is almost definitely used as a campsite. For Bibbulmun Track walkers, this would be the perfect spot to camp if looking to explore the area; from West Cape Howe, follow the Bibb until the track junction, follow Dunskys to here and then follow the rest of the route described in this post back to the trail junction and then continue on the Bibb. It would of course add one day to the walk and none of the usual luxuries of a Bibbulmun Track campsite (ie no hut, water or toilet), but it would be a worthwhile side trip from the main track and a nice way for End to Enders dreading the end of their trip to have another day on the track.

After Dunksy Beach, Alissa and I followed the sandy track to Torbay Head. While unmarked, the walking is fairly uncomplicated - simply follow the road, take the first right, and then stay on the road until it reaches a T-junction and then turn right to the car park at Torbay Head.

From Google Maps, I knew that the car park finished before reaching the actual point of Torbay Head and this was another grey area for Alissa and I to negotiate. What we found was a relatively easy to follow foot pad with cairns marking the way. It has become very trendy to denigrate all cairns as being the sculptural equivalent of graffiti, however these cairns serve a real purpose by identifying the safest route to the southernmost point.

Heading along the rough pad, Alissa and I took the time to appreciate the rugged beauty of the area. We would not be exploring the adjacent headlands as seen to the left of the photo, but it was nevertheless interesting to see the waves crashing into the granite cliffs.

The pad rises up to the large granite expanse of the headland, reminding Alissa and I of the thrilling endings of the Peak Head and Bald Head Trails.

A cairn near the end of the walk seems to identify that this is the southernmost point. It is certainly close, however you can go even further south.

Just beyond the cairn are a series of granite boulders that serve as a perfect ending for the walk, but even then it is possible to go even further.

Alissa was content to sit at the rocks, so I continued by myself as far as I felt comfortable to continue, which led to this lookout point. A mild scramble below would have brought me to another series of granite formations, with one have a beak-like structure similar to the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island. With a continual slope and particularly rough waters that I knew there was no coming back from, I decided that this was as far as I was willing to go to experience this southernmost point of Western Australia. And besides, I'd already been to the southernmost point of the entire mainland earlier this year when I did the Wilsons Promontory Southern Circuit.

Having made it to this ruggedly beautiful part of the park, Alissa and I next set our sights on heading towards the sheer cliffs of West Cape Howe and to find the sea stack pillar known as the Old Man that is frequently pictured in tourism brochures and West Cape Howe Winery's promotional material, but doesn't even crack a mention in the Parks and Wildlife brochure.

Here is where the lack of a walker-friendly walking track really got tiresome, as it meant us having to walk back up the sandy tracks to the point where we had joined the vehicle track from the walk trail. Instead of rejoining the walk trail, Alissa and I continued on the vehicle track through the park as it headed west towards West Cape Howe. Immediately, my mind was racing with ideas for how good a walk trail could be if it branched off from Torbay Head, skirted the cliffs and then cut across the middle headlands before coming across the West Cape Howe. That would be an awesome coastal walk.

Instead, it was a trudge along the sandy track inland. The wildflower blooms kept it interesting enough, but it would be less interesting at other times of the year. Additionally, the flies were starting to get really annoying by this point, which only added to our irritation. At the next trail junction, Alissa and I turned left towards West Cape Howe. Along the coast to the right I could see what looked like the Old Man, and I tried to walk to it off-track through the heath. Streams and tall grass which would be attractive to snakes made me think otherwise, and I returned to the track to walk to West Cape Howe itself and see if I could find another way there from the main car park. If you're following the GPX file, ignore this part!

The main car park at West Cape Howe is huge, which is surprising given the soft sand that must be traversed to get there would result in a lot less visitors. Walking towards West Cape Howe, it didn't seem like we were particularly high up, and I was thinking that these cliffs could not possibly be as grand as the cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula.

Rounding the corner, I was proven incorrect - these were huge cliffs that were just as dramatic as what we had seen at Cape Raoul or in Kalbarri along the Bigurda Trail. If you look in the top left corner you can see a man standing which should give you some indication for how tall these cliffs are. Though probably not as tall as the cliffs at Cape Raoul and lacking the columnar shape of the dolerite, these were nevertheless awe inspiring.

The cliffs had a very similar appearance to the rock near the Gap, but the wall of what is apparently a mix of black granite and dolerite is longer and continuous. The ocean here is just as wild however, and it was great watching the waves crash against the cliffs with such intense force.

From cliffs, I was determined to make my way to the Old Man. From the main car park, an old vehicle track continues west, and then a faint foot pad appears.

The faint track is used by rock climbers to get to some of the best crags in the state. While the cliffs here are not quite as tall as those at the main lookout point they make up for it with their interesting shapes.

As I continued along the cliffs, I was excited to see the Old Man jutting out from the cliffs.

Conveniently, a bit of the coast juts out just in front of the Old Man, providing a perfect vantage point from which take a photo of this spectacular formation. This photo does not do justice to the sheer size of the Old Man, and it really made me wish there had been a rock climber present on the day so I could give this a true sense of scale.

Back from West Cape Howe, it is a bit of a tough sand slog up some hills on the 4WD track.

The turn off is not overly obvious, but as the road bends right at a fork, walking straight from the vehicle track takes walkers to the other side of the walking trail through the park. This trail joins back onto the trail we had used earlier and and leads back to the section shared with the Bibbulmun Track.

This return journey is mostly uphill, culminating in the lovely stretch across the limestone ridge on the Bruce Tarbotton Track before returning to the car park at Shelley Beach Lookout.

Our adventure in West Cape Howe National Park was definitely worth the effort; the park's best features like Torbay Head and West Cape Howe itself are really excellent and would rank right up there with some of the best coastal scenery we've encountered in Australia. It is a shame then that the scenery is let down somewhat by a track that the management plan describes as being a temporary solution, with no permanent solution in the pipeline. Walking the track, I couldn't help but think that there is the makings of a great day walk or section of a multi-day walk in this, and that with some thought and better track construction West Cape Howe could be a walk worthy of being considered one of the best in Australia.

Which had me thinking - what could a great walk in the area look like? While I have no reason to believe anything will be done in the park in the way of track building or that I have any particular sway, here's my idea for how this walk could be even better. Starting from the Shelley Beach lookout, there is a track that goes down to Shelley Beach. Following this track down the hill, the route could then follow Shelley Beach to its southern end, where it rises up a wooden stairway similar to what is at Cosy Corner (to prevent vehicular access) and then follows along the edge of the ridge towards Dunksy Beach. From Dunsky Beach, the track could rise up what is now a closed 4WD track to join back onto the vehicle track to Torbay Head. At Torbay Head, the cairned route could be more clearly formalised and then on its return journey it could branch off and then follow the coastline along the granite cliffs before cutting across to meet the eastern end of West Cape Howe, follow along the tall cliffs and then head north along the western coastline past The Old Man and all the way to the lagoon before Golden Gate Beach. From there, the trail could continue along the vehicle track and then turn onto the existing walk trail that joins onto the Bibbulmun Track, runs along the Bruce Tarbotton Track and back to the car park. That loop would be shorter and more scenic, and could really give the scenery of the Tasman Peninsula a run for its money. As an added bonus, if they threw in a pit toilet and a water tank at Dunksy Beach, this could even be marketed as a spur trail circuit off the Bibbulmun Track that I'm sure would be popular with End to Enders and Section Hikers, or as a self contained short overnight.

Of course, while I think the above is feasible and does make use of a lot of the current track infrastructure, it is sadly pure fantasy. For now, the track is what it is - slightly flawed but leading to some truly impressive scenery at Torbay Head and West Cape Howe. For visitors looking for a day walk option in the Albany area, there is lot to recommend this walk, and Bibbulmun Track End to Enders looking to extend their journey by one more day should seriously consider this as an excellent side trip with a night at Dunsky Beach. 


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