Sunday, 3 June 2018

Four Ways to Z Bend Loop (Kalbarri National Park)

An exciting unmarked route in Kalbarri National Park, the Four Ways to Z Bend Loop uses a rugged section of the gorge to link two tourist trails into a spectacular circuit. Starting at the Z Bend car park and following the Four Ways Trail, the walk descends to the Murchison River and follows it along rocky shelves and swims through various pools as it heads towards the Z Bend. Not for the faint-hearted, this is arguably one of WA's best circuit walks

Distance: 9.6 km (loop)
Gradient: A continuous gradient down to the river and then relatively flat through the gorge. Depending on the route choses, some sections required scrambling and swimming through deep pools before rising steeply out of the gorge
Quality of Path: Much of the trail is along unmodified rocky surfaces. Some potentially dangerousscrambling and swimming is required
Quality of Signage: Good and informative trailhead but no information about this circuit. Markers are visible along both the Four Ways and Z Bend Rive Trail with none along the river itself
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Required. his is a very hard walk with an untracked section in steep and potentially dangerous terrain, with large sections of the walk requiring scrambling or swimming. Highly unsuitable for all but experienced hikers who are comfortable with navigation and scrambling along ridges with a lot of exposure. Do not even think about tackling this walk if the river is flooded or in extremely hot weather
Time: 5-7 Hours
Steps: Several formal and informal steps. Several ladder climbs.
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 the Murchison Gorge access road off Kalbarri-Ajana Rd.

Returning back home after completing the Wilsons Promontory Southern Circuit in Victoria, I was keen to get stuck right back into completing some of the unfinished business I've had with a number of my favourite national parks in Western Australia. Alissa and I had visited Kalbarri twice in 2016, and had completed all but one of the park's major day walks at the time. With our 2017 trip to Karijini having sated our appetite for gorge walking, and with a few planned weekend visits thwarted by life getting in the way, the 2018 WA Day Weekend was the perfect opportunity to finally complete the Four Ways Trail in Kalbarri National Park.

Starting from the same car park as the Z Bend River Trail, the Four Ways Trail had been of significant interest to me for almost two years. With both trails running from the same car park but ending abruptly at the river, I was curious about whether these two walks could be combined as an exciting circuit walk given that the Murchison River Gorge connects the trails via the Class 5 River Gorge Hike - a wilderness multi-day hike along the gorge that takes about four days from start to finish. Having been disappointed by the relatively low cliffs of the popular Loop Walk at Nature's Window, I was certain that the wild terrain seen from the Z Bend lookout was key to creating an even better loop walk. After Bonny from Young Perth Hikers and Wild Western Australia confirmed that the walk was doable and that we should consider being prepared for floating our packs, Alissa and I prepared for our most adventurous walk since Stapylton Amphitheatre in the Grampians.

The Kalbarri National Park brochure plays up the Four Ways Trail as being one of the park's most difficult, and as a result it seems like the least visited trail of the entire park. From the Z Bend car park, the trail runs inconspicuously to the left, initially passing through the typical mix of low heath and mallee that is common to the Kalbarri area.

The trail begins to descend into a side gorge that leads to the river. The walking is very reminiscent of the Z Bend River Trail, although the walk is longer and more gradual than the Z Bend's sudden drops and ladder climbs.

Continuing along the trail, the gorge gets deeper and more impressive, and it filled me with a lot of excitement for what the walk had in store for us. While more vegetated and less red than the gorges of Karijini, it certainly brought back memories of our awesome trip to the Pilbara in July 2017.

Alissa, who had been anxious about the wild gorge walking given that most of the day's kilometres would be along an unmarked route, was enjoying the walk so far but was reserving overall judgement given her lingering fears about climbing.

The Four Ways Trail ends at the Murchison River gorge, providing a spectacular viewpoint of its namesake. This is a point along the river where two side gorges meet the Murchison at a four way junction, and makes a great final view of this beautiful part of the gorge for those just doing the Four Way Trail by itself, however it was clear to Alissa and I that the terrain at this point of the gorge was fairly easy going and was just asking for further exploration.

Alissa and I made our way upstream along the broad, flat platform. The views of the massive walls of Tumblagooda Sandstone on the other side of the river were outstanding, and drew us up along the river.

The Murchison River varies greatly in depth throughout the year, with Summer and early Autumn seeing the water levels rise due to rains in the Pilbara flowing down from the north, while late Winter/early Spring generally sees the river at its driest. For this reason, there are ledges that are polished smooth by the Summer rains that are completely submerged at some times while being easy to traverse at others. At the time of our visit, we were able to follow a fairly broad shelf just above the water level that only thinned out at a few points. Due to the variable depth, walkers have to pick their own route through the gorge, however given the obvious navigation - you're heading either up or downstream depending on where you start - it is more about finding the safest and easiest way rather than struggling with a map and compass.

Clear signs of how high the water levels get can be seen along the track, with tree branches wedged into the rocks at what would have been waist to shoulder height at the time of our visit. From the low shelf, it became clear we had to rise up to a slightly higher platform, however the walking was still fairly straightforward at this point due to the regular appearance of easily traversable shelves along the southern side of the gorge.

Our first obstacle was a point where the lower ledge seemed to run out and we initially followed a higher shelf. The higher shelf eventually ran out as well, forcing Alissa and I to head down to the sandy beach below and towards a somewhat awkward pinch point.

The sides of the gorge were polished smooth by water at a point that was greater in height that Alissa and I, and as a result the climbing was a little awkward at this point. Being a more confident climber, I decided to head up the slope first as I used my momentum and the hand holds to get myself up to the other side. Given that it wasn't overly high, Alissa and I only had to worry about falling into water, however we were sure to keep away our electronic devices at this point just in case!

With the gorge narrowing and with sheer walls on either side, the view upstream was incredibly beautiful and we took a moment to pause and take it all in before continuing along.

Alissa and I then lowered ourselves down to another lower ledge as it made its way along the river. This low ledge gradually rose up along the gorge wall, taking us up to one of the higher shelves of our walk.

The shelf eventually ran out, and Alissa and I needed to lower ourselves down the rocks to reach another lower ledge. At one point, I had to sit on the edge of a rock and drop down to a lower ledge, which brought back strong memories of the equally rugged off-track walking Alissa and I experienced on the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk.

In hindsight, I wonder if us dropping down along the gorge was the right decision as we soon ran out of ledges and had to wade through the river. Given that this is a route rather than a marked trail, there is no right or wrong way to go, but we would later find no clear way of continuing along the gorge on foot without an awkward climb, and it might have been possible that climbing higher at this point might have revealed an easier to follow way to go.

With ledges having run out, Alissa and I took the leap of faith and began our wade through this shallow section of the river as we climbed our way through a series of boulders.

Being a more confident climber, I was able to make it up one of the more awkward rocks, however Alissa's fear of falling set in and she decided it was easier to just embrace getting wet by swimming around the rock and to the easier walking on the other side.

From here, Alissa and I were able to clamber our way along a series of boulders in the river until we found another ledge to continue along.

Passing an area that looks to be used fairly regularly as a campsite, Alissa and I reached a point where there was no clear way through to the other side. The water was deep enough to require a swim and being around a corner we could not tell how long a swim we would need to undertake in order to reach the other side. Having had my confidence in my swimming ability greatly shaken by the challenging upstream swimming we had to undertake through the caves of the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer in Vietnam, I was not overly keen for a lengthy swim with no end in sight, so we spent a bit of time trying to explore ways to reach the higher ledges along the gorge.

Forty minutes of backtracking and route finding were not very fruitful, with many of the potential routes looking way too dangerous. The only obvious route that seemed half-decent required walking along a ledge with exposure to a 5 metre drop, and while there were enough hand holds to make it across, I knew Alissa would be too scared to be able to continue along this section.

After forty minutes yielded no on foot options, Alissa and I agreed the best way forward was to swim through. Having been prepared for floating our packs by Bonny, Alissa and I had brought a number of dry bags that we filled with air. These created excellent flotation devices that helped us make our way upstream. With a very low current, this was quite easy at the time of our visit, and it allowed us to take in the spectacular reflections of the water along the gorge walls. While I had wanted to continue along the ledges, this was a safer and more relaxing option, and I could tell that Alissa was really enjoying this remarkably peaceful change of pace.

A beach on the other side of the river came into view, with a ledge appearing directly opposite it on the southern side of the river. Alissa and I climbed out of the water at this point and explored ways of continuing along on foot.

While it would have been possible to continue along the ledges, the route was not particularly obvious and Alissa convinced me that it would probably be easier and faster to continue swimming until we reached another point further along.

Alissa and I got out of the water as the deep pool gave way to a gentle cascade flowing down the rocks.

This gentle water flow brought back strong memories of the gorges in Karijini, particularly bringing to mind the shallow sections of Kalamina Gorge near the start of the gorge walk.

Heading past the gentle cascade, the shallow pools were teeming with schools of fish that darted away as we came close. Looking beyond, Alissa and I thought the landscape looked a lot like what we had encountered at the end of the Z Bend River Trail. I was sure that we had a fair bit more walking to do, but began to think that we may well be at the end of the off track section.

Rounding the corner, it was pretty clear this was not the end of the Z Bend River Trail, but rather the start of the Z Bend itself. The bend is quite a slow and continuous one, and it led to me constantly repeating that we just had to make it 'around the corner' and we would be at the Z Bend River Trail exit point, only to find that we never seemed to reach the corner!

At the very least, the walking was proving to be fairly easy going. We had a number of easy to follow ledges right on the water's edge and we were enjoying the fact that the walk offers the respite of these uncomplicated sections. Along this point, Alissa and I began to see signs of footprints in the sandy sections, indicating that others had explored this part of the gorge. This was a comfort to us, as it gave us some reassurance that we were following a traversable route.

The straightforward walking continued as we came to another series of gentle cascades in a shallow section of the river. Just beyond the shallows, the pool above was noticeably higher than the pools below as it gently trickled through the rocks as it made its way downstream.

With the walk basically continuing between two walls of sandstone from start to finish, it would be easy to assume that the scenery could become repetitive, however we were constantly greeted by distinctive surprises. A classic example of this was the appearance of reeds in one of the river's pools. We did not see reeds anywhere else along the walk, making this a particularly unique and memorable section of the river.

Beyond the reeds, Alissa and I clambered over a series of boulders as we continued upstream.

The boulders once again led to a choice between getting our feet wet or climbing to a higher ledge, and we decided to keep low and wade through the water.

Out of the water on the other side, Alissa and I were really beginning to see a mass of footprints by this stage. It was fairly obvious that many walkers head down from the Z Bend River Trail and explore the gorge for some distance before heading back. Ultimately, it would appear that the deep water prevents most from completing a full circuit, with the swimming holes closer to the Z Bend being reward enough for most visitors.

With footprints guiding us in the right direction, navigation and terrain combined for some fairly easy going walking. The landscape was also becoming increasingly spectacular, with the walls of the gorge getting higher and more impressive.

As was becoming a fairly common pattern, the flat, broad ledge walking transitioned to some narrow ledge walking. At least the gnarled rocks provided plentiful hand holds to make the traverse relatively easy.

With the ledge running out, Alissa and I again had the choice of getting back into the water or rising up along the rocks. While I could have climbed up, I decided that having already gotten wet a few times by now, t was quicker to just swim through the pools rather than spending time trying to find a route through the rocky scramble.

Out of the pools, Alissa and I made our way across a series of small boulders smoothed out by the water. Interestingly enough, the footprints picked up again out of the water, suggesting that people do swim through this section - or at least did in the recent past. While I cannot be sure, my guess is that this as Placid Pool - a well regarded waterhole in the park that is nevertheless completely absent from any of the tourism information about the park.

The next stretch of the river was relatively easy going, as the water level was quite low and there were plenty of dry boot options to traverse the gorge.

As we continued along, the gorge walls increased in height. With numerous overhangs forming natural balconies, this was one of the most impressive parts of the entire gorge. At this point, Alissa and I could here voices nearby and it filled us with excitement as it meant we were nearing the end. We would discover that this area is the famous rock climbing location known as the Promenade, and if you look carefully you can see rock climbers to the right of the photo. These were the first people we had met since the Z Bend car park five hours earlier!

With the Promenade considered Western Australia's premiere sport climbing area, the adjacent area known as the Pit is a more even mix of trad and sport climbing, with some bouldering thrown in for good measure.

Just beyond this area, a rope can be seen near a scramble up to a high platform along the gorge. While this scramble looked easy enough, Alissa was determined not to do any more climbing and decided to swim through the gorge instead. Rather than go along the high route by myself, I decided it was safer to just stick together and join Alissa for one final swimming leg.

This pool was easily the coldest section of swimming we had encountered, perhaps due to high walls resulting in a decent amount of shade coverage. Looking immediately down the gorge, Alissa and I could make out the Z Bend Gorge lookout which meant we were now not far from the end at all! Alissa and I would have been visible from the lookout, and we wondered what the people would have been thinking about these two crazy people swimming in the cold water!

Out of the water, Alissa and I made our way through a section with a large overhang. The result is a small cave, and I wonder how often it is used by rock climbers camping in the gorge or walkers doing the multi-day hike River Gorge Hike from the Ross Graham Lookout to the Z Bend.

Clambering over some large rocks in the river, Alissa and I made our one and only crossing to the other side of the Murchison River as we neared the corner leading to the Z Bend River Trail exit from the gorge.

By this point, we were running into a lot of tourists who were also up for the long weekend. It became pretty clear that a lot of visitors continue a short way beyond the official end of the Z Bend River Trail and explore this section of the gorge. Most I would guess only go as far as the rock climbing area, and perhaps onto Placid Pool with very few ever following the full circuit through the Four Ways Trail.

After having said repeatedly that the Z Bend exit will be 'around the corner', Alissa and I finally rounded the corner of the Z Bend and found ourselves near the end of the Z Bend River Trail.

At this point, Alissa and I were once again on a marked tourist trail. More to the point, this was an area of the gorge we had visited before, and we knew that we now only had about a kilometre and a half to go before finishing the circuit!

With no bees to sting Alissa or I this time around, we made our way up the conveniently placed tourist ladders and back out through this stunningly rugged side gorge.

Out of the gorge, I took the opportunity to go to the Z Bend Lookout and get a photo of the Z Bend. When we were here last in 2016, the Sun had been directly in front of the viewpoint and made for a terribly bright photograph when we first arrived and then one that was completely shrouded in shadows when we left! This time around the lighting was absolutely perfect, and provided a great final view of this rugged and spectacular part of Australia.

Alissa and I have had the great fortune to have done a number of Australia's finest circuit day walks, including such memorable classics as the Grand Canyon Walking Track in the Blue Mountains, the Main Range Track through Kosciuszko National Park, the rugged adventure through Stapylton Amphtheatre in the Grampians, the Coomera and Warrie Circuits in South East Queensland and the spectacular alpine journey along the Tarn Shelf Circuit in Mt Field. While these walks differ wildly in length and difficulty, they all share the common traits of featuring outstanding scenery along a loop trail. In its own way, the Four Ways to Z Bend Loop was just as good as any of these other great walks, featuring breathtakingly beautiful views along its entire route and I would put it right up there with some of the best walking Alissa and I have ever done. This would easily outclass the more famous Loop Walk near Nature's Window due to the more impressive size and sheer drop of the gorge walls along this part of the river, which is said to be the most challenging and rugged part of the entire multi-day River Gorge Walk.

That being said, this was undoubtedly the hardest walk Alissa and I have done since Stapylton Amphitheatre and it shares many of its challenging features. While it is definitely safer than Stapylton Amphitheatre's dangerously exposed route, this is not a tourist or family-friendly trail in the slightest and should only be done by hardy walkers who have some experience in route finding and picking safe ways through a gorge which often requires swimming to avoid having to take more exposed routes along higher shelves. During the Summer and Autumn, the gorge can be flooded due to heavy tropical storms. Walkers should not undertake this walk during those times as the river may become completely impassable.

With all this in mind, I can totally understand why the Four Ways to Z Bend Loop is not an official managed trail as far as the Parks and Wildlife Service are concerned, even if it basically links up two tourist trails (the Four Ways and Z Bend River Trail) via a recognised and advertised multi-day route (the River Gorge Hike). That being said, my view is that true hardcore bushwalkers want to do walks that are spectacular in spite of the difficulty, and WA does a great discredit to itself by downplaying the adventurous walking opportunities it has to offer people who are not satisfied with 200 metre 'trails' to a lookout point. While not for the faint of heart, I firmly believe that serious hikers up for a bit of an adventure will find this to be a truly top tier walk in one of Western Australia's best national parks, and one that is deserving of being more well known in hiking circles Australia-wide.

1 comment:

  1. It looks hard to walk near the river with cliffs around you. Swimming is must to cross the river. The trip post is going to be spectacular.
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