Saturday, 23 February 2019

Bunker Bay Loop (Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park)

An enjoyable short loop at Cape Naturaliste, the Bunker Bay Loop explores the interesting north-facing coastline of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. Heading from the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse car park, the trail heads along the coastal cliffs with views to sea caves as a major highlight. Culminating in a short side trip to stunning views of Shelley Cove and Bunker Bay, this is a great all-year short walk option

Distance: 3.5 km ('tadpole' loop)
Gradient: Some minor descents and ascents, with some steeper sections leading to the lookouts
Quality of Path: Largely clear and well maintained, although some sections are highly uneven and 'risky'
Quality of Signage: Clear trailhead at Cape Naturaliste, with informative maps at all trail junctions
Experience Required: No Previous Bushwalking Experience Required
Time: 45-90 minutes
Steps: Some informal steps along the rocky path, with formal steps leading to the lookout
Best Time to Visit: All Year
Entry Fee: No
Getting There: From Dunsborough, follow Cape Naturaliste Rd to Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse. The trailhead is located in the car park

With the weather in Perth still being in the uncomfortable range to really go out hiking, Alissa and I used the opportunity of a free weekend in late February to head down to Busselton for a quick getaway. After some fun snorkeling at Yallingup Lagoon in the morning and a break in the afternoon, Alissa and I headed out to Cape Naturaliste to complete the Bunker Bay Loop on the recommendation of our friend Mark from the Life of Py who had completed the walk earlier in the Summer.

With a dinner reservation in Dunsborough at 6:30pm, Alissa and I had planned to give ourselves an hour and 20 minutes to walk the 3.5 kilometre loop, however after departing slightly late and then taking a wrong turn, we arrived at 5:20pm with less than an hour to smash out the walk without being late for dinner. What was supposed to be a pleasant stroll with plenty of time to smell the flowers and take photos turned into a race against the clock!

Following the sealed path past the lighthouse, the signage is not overly clear as it heads across the car park and towards the coast. Once leaving the car park, markers clearly point the direction to head out to the loop.

After crossing the exit road and following the trail for a short distance, the Bunker Bay Loop reaches a trail junction. Being a tadpole loop (a loop with a return section), walkers have the option to walk the loop section in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Looking at where the exciting parts of the walk were, it seemed obvious to Alissa and I that we should follow the walk in a clockwise direction as it would get the less exciting section passing through the coastal heath completed first with the lookouts and clifftop walking saved for later in the walk.

Having explored the national parks of Western Australia since I was a kid, I've become very familiar with the risk signs found everywhere. They usually warn about relatively sensible things like staying clear of unstable cliffs or unpredictable coastal conditions, but I found this particular sign somewhat humourous given the extreme of declaring the trail itself a risk! I understand their point - the exposed limestone makes a trip hazard - but it seems like a bit much to have to point out uneven ground or a bush track as a danger. I can't imagine such a thing being required in other Australian states such as Tasmania where there are actually quite serious dangers on some of their trails.

Walking along the first part of the loop was pleasant but uneventful. We could see the Indian Ocean beyond the tall heath (which would make this an improvement over sections of the Bibbulmun Track between Nullaki and West Cape Howe) but it was far from the trail's best moments.

Nevertheless, the overall feel reminded us of sections of the Cape to Cape Track, and even though not overly exciting it did fill Alissa and I with a bit of nostalgia for a trail we thoroughly enjoyed walking back in 2017. It should come as no surprise then that this stretch of track is sometimes used by walkers to extended the Meelup Trail right through to Cape Naturaliste and then onto the Cape to Cape Track as part of Day 1.

Reaching another trail junction, a bench offers walkers the opportunity to have a rest. As with the earlier trail junction, a map of the trail is located at the junction to make it clear which way to head.

Taking the right turn, the track heads back from this westernmost point of the loop and begins the journey towards Bunker Bay.

This section of the walk is far more eventful than the first leg, with lookouts and interesting coastal cliffs being regular features. A short distance after the previous trail junction, yet another trail junction is reached to explore a short side trip to a lookout point.

The lookout provides excellent views to the east and west. Being a north-facing section of coast protected by Cape Naturaliste, the waters here are uncharacteristically calm for South West Western Australia, yet the coastline is just as rugged and interesting as any section of the South West's wilder sections. 

As with the section of the Cape to Cape near Contos, the higher cliffs are dominated by younger limestone formations, while the older granite can be found along the water's edge.

Leaving the lookout, the track rises up along some 'risky' sections of track that feature a lot of jutting out limestone rock to serve as trip hazards.

While rising higher, the track is still in very close proximity to the cliff edges, and the walking is rewarded with sustained views of the rugged coastline. This was definitely reminding Alissa and I of the some of the better sections of the Cape to Cape Track.

Continuing along, Alissa and I passed by the area's famous coastal caves. We had seen photos of these caves in the Cape to Cape Track guidebook before, and I had to admit it had made me tempted to walk the Meelup Trail to the the Cape to Cape Track trailhead just to see these caves. It was a real treat to see them now, as they are bigger and more impressive than the cave near Contos - which is itself within one of the Cape to Cape Track's best sections.

Continuing along the cliffs, the track alternates between coastal views and more sheltered pockets of coastal peppermint that would provide a lovely respite during the hotter times of the day.

Continuing along the coastal cliffs, short visits off the track to the cliff's edge provided even more outstanding views of the cave-filled coastline. While the larger cave we had encountered earlier was easily the most impressive, their were many smaller caves along this stretch of the coast that I'm sure animals use as shelters.

Heading away from the cliffs slightly, the track rises up yet again before heading back towards the coast and the point overlooking Bunker Bay.

Many of the trees along this stretch of the track show signs of having been badly burnt by a bushfire in the past. Alissa and I enjoyed watching some crows perched on one of the dead trees, and we noted how calm they were as we walked right by the trees as we made our way to Bunker Bay.

Reached via a steeply descending spur trail, the trail leads to a lookout out that provides views of Bunker Bay and Shelley Cove.

Due to our late arrival and unlucky timing, I arrived at Bunker Bay in somewhat cloudy, grey weather. Which is a shame as the view is quite spectacular thanks to the broad, sandy Bunker Bay and the charming, granite-dominated Shelley Cove. Shelley Cove's granite outcrops makes it look like a worthwhile place to snorkel, and it is somewhere Alissa and I will have to check out next time we are in the area. 

Returning from Bunker Bay, the trail heads steeply up a 'risky' section of track back to the main trail loop. From here it is a continuous, gentle ascent back to the first trail junciton and the close of the loop, and then another 800 metres back to the car park.

Back at the car, Alissa and I were about five minutes later for our dinner, but were glad to have completed the walk in a somewhat brisk 40 minutes. While the speed we walked the trail at was not optimal for enjoying the scenery, the Bunker Bay Loop is a good short trail option for visitors to the Dunsborough area. Fans of the Cape to Cape will undoubtedly enjoy the type of scenery on offer and the mellow, 3.5 kilometre length makes it ideal for walking during the warmer times of the year. While I would still rate the Meelup Trail as a better short walk option in the area, the Bunker Bay Loop is definitely worth checking out, particularly over a weekend where time is tight and at a premium.

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