Bibbulmun: and the ghost of Cobber

by Tim Dawe

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Sunrise over cloudy Helena Valley

Two men in a boot; forget Jerome K Jerome’s tale of three toffs on the Thames who finish a day’s row on the river with a three-course dinner, a few ales and a down-filled bed. This is about two blokes in late middle age scrambling up and down the Bibbulmun Track – perhaps for the last time.

My partner in boots, Roger the dodger, and I are on a two and a half day hike through pristine bush in the Mundaring water catchment area. This is a test of resolve: of nostalgia and optimism over age and creaking knees.

My wife drops us off on a lonely stretch of country road 52 kilometres south sou-east from the Mundaring Weir Hotel, a distance seemingly doubled with the weight of 15 kilograms on old shoulders.

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there’s gold in them thar hills

The spring-time vegetation before us is lush; not usually a word associated with the Australian bush. Unlike Perth’s coastal hinterland or the bush in agricultural areas, where mostly one wildflower dominates, every plant is in flower. The variety of colour, size and display is astonishing.

So thick is the undergrowth there are times when the track almost becomes a tunnel with high sides of flowering vegetation. A machete would be useful.

The Bibbulmun track celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2008. Aboriginal readers may find 10 years rather risible as their ancestors tracked the area for tens of thousands of years. Just as fanciful is the notion the track overlays some prehistoric freeway. We can only assume the Bibbulmun tribe of Noongar people traversed the country for seasonal food and important ceremonies.

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a cuppa and an early morning glow at Helena campsite

The track is a project of the WA Government and is well managed by the Department of Environment and Conservation with a small army of “friends”. Support also comes from mining and timber companies, outdoor equipment firms, bush walking clubs and even schools. Officially 963 kilometres long (marketed as ‘1000 km…nearly’) from Kalamunda to Albany via eight country towns,  the world-class ‘Bib’ is WA’s best known long-distance walking track and one of the longest in Australia.

It was originally planned for short walks but its popularity with distance hikers prompted the addition of sturdy three-sided huts, tables, water tanks, toilets and other camping facilities. Much of the fabrication and construction work was undertaken by prisoners, who not only left a lasting legacy for trackers’ safety and security but also gained self esteem and marketable skills.

My tiny view of this mighty track proves a wildflower delight but it belies the huge range of plants and animals in the remaining untrodden 900 kilometres. More than 2000 species of plants grow along the track that slices through sparse Jarrah bush, mighty Karri and Tingle forests and windswept coastal heathland. Western Australia’s southwest, which the Bibbulmun highlights, is home to some of the world’s most diverse environments – and also many “hotspots” of endangered species of fauna and flora.

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A reflective moment as the Bibbulmun track crosses a creek

We meet our first fellow traveller at Brookton campsite finishing his ablutions. He is alone and in no hurry. With a mouth full of toothpaste he tells us he is going to visit his grandmother at Albany, “down the track”.

Spirits continue to soar as we stop for lunch surrounded by a profusion of chest-high wildflowers. Then it is all uphill from there as we skirt Mt Dale, so busy in conversation we miss the turn-off to the next campsite. Fortunately it’s not our intended overnight stop. The ongoing score to find campsites is not looking good: found 1; lost 1.

I am startled by a ghostly vision on the track. It turns out to be a woman in a white plastic poncho waiting behind a Flinders Range Wattle for her flush-faced husband to catch up.

“Men are so weak,” she opines without much enthusiasm – or likelihood of being challenged.

We meet another couple, then another, both heading south. We seem to be the only ones going north. Most of them are going all the way to Albany. Once upon a time only a handful of hardy souls did the Bibbulmun end to end. Now it is de rigueur.

Next we meet Red Dog and Chunky, optician and dentist we later discover. They are the first to tell us of Cobber, the wiry 62-year-old Bibbulmun legend.

We shrug off the lightest of drizzles – onward and upward – as I recall the weather forecast: “occasional light showers, becoming heavy by late afternoon”.

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typical spring vegetation of the Perth Hills

The conversation becomes animated as we climb to yet another ridge. At the top a track leads off but there is no familiar Aboriginal Rainbow Waugal sign to guide us. So we pass on descending steeply to a gravel road strangely similar to the one we crossed earlier. One of us insists we continue. Our overnight campsite must be along this road: “Just around that corner.” As the setting sun turns grey into gloom it finally dawns; things look bad. The campsite score is now: found 1; lost 2.

There’s nothing for it. We have to camp by this desolate road to nowhere. With bivvy tents erected in a freshly dug pine plantation there is time for one glass of claret with cheese and biscuits before the heavens open. Exhausted from both the 20-kilometre day and the rising anxiety of being lost, we crawl into our tents around 5.30 pm “to rest a while” only to emerge 12 hours later, very damp.

The morning ground is sodden and the groundsheet supports a small lake but at least it’s not raining. But there are other concerns. We have no idea where the track is and we have almost no water left. Fortunately with recent rain the Darkin River flows freely, so we replenish.

Within minutes not one but two brand new signs appear at a turn-off on a road thought to be without sign or hope: Nipper Road and Godfrey Road. Godfrey! I remember that from previous porings over my disintegrating map. Yes, it does cross the Bibbulmun. We’re on track! Thank God for Godfrey!

The relief is palpable. For a short while backpacks are lighter, feet are less flat and taut muscles are freer. Vows are taken to be more vigilant and to stay off roads – after all, it is called a track!

Despite this, a stop to boil the billy, a talkative lapse, and momentarily we miss another Waugal sign. We don’t miss the next campsite – Waalegh – named for the wedge-tail eagle. From a high ridge we look down on tributaries that flow into the Mundaring Reservoir. We cook our lunch and dry our wet sleeping gear. Campsite score: found 2; lost 2 – improving.

The afternoon is testing. Nostalgia and optimism are definitely giving way to age-weariness and creaky knees. Stopping times become more frequent and longer. However by 4 pm we arrive at Helena, our overnight campsite perched on a rim among tall timbers of jarrah and white gum. Campsite score: found 3; lost 2 – better.

With no rain likely we choose to pitch our tents rather than stay in the eight-person wooden hut overlooking the steep-sided valley. Before we finish, the young lovers and the loner man are joined by three more in the hut.

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low cloud covers the valley: imagine waking up to this

John, another end-to-ender and the only ‘south-to-norther’ we meet, arrives soon after us but he walks in one day what it takes us two – 39 kilometres. An engaging fellow, he takes charge of fire lighting.

“How do you manage to hike all this way, week after week, with no tent,” I ask incredulously.

“I just squeeze into the hut,” he drawls.

“At one hut I saw people on a sleeping platform (designed for three at a pinch) and five pairs of feet lined up all in a row.”

Blue, from Geraldton, has an open face and manner and the large hands of a farmer. He’s a former military man and off to Collie, some weeks off, where his daughter will pick him up.

But the one we all talk about is not here. Cobber – the legend. He has been here; we know that, we’ve seen his standard cryptic evaluation in registration books: ‘OK’. That I have never seen him (what’s that whoosh?) only adds to the mystique. The legendary Cobber not only holds the record for doing the Bib end to end in 28 days – he does it in thongs! Some say thongs and socks!

imgp2693The sun sets, the campfire crackles, the remaining claret-in-a-sac is consumed as stories of a legend are greatly embellished.

The next day emerges cold but we’re up to it. With only an 11km, half-day to go, we can just about taste that first beer at the Mundaring pub.

So what’s the verdict for Roger and me? A wonderful walk in beautiful bush with spectacular scenery at the best time of the year. And another thing…the dodger and I may be mates but we’re certainly not Cobbers. For us future bush walks will be with just a day pack, an organised tour, oh, and a guide!

All I can say is, thank God for Godfrey!

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