by Tim Dawe
I’ve never stayed at Walpole on WA’s south coast. I have always driven through it to somewhere else – fast. The line of uninspiring functional shops and cafés set back off the busy South Coast highway and framed by car parks does not make for a picturesque country town. A coastal settlement of 450, it lacks the broad open vista of an inlet lapping at its doorstep, like Denmark, its next door neighbour.
Walpole is not named for the British prime minister but Captain William Walpole, a comrade of WA’s Governor Stirling. It provides fuel for passing vehicles and, compared with other towns along the “Rainbow Coast”, provides modest food and accommodation. But in the hinterland of farm and forest is a range of cosy rural retreats, ideal in autumn to unwind with a book and a bowl of soup before the fire.
My mission on a three-day break is to walk along the world renown, “1000km…almost” Bibbulmun walking track that unusually, comes right into town; one day in the forest and one day along the coast.
Walpole is surprising. First impressions are of a one-horse town strung along one side of the highway. Then I discover Coal Mine Beach and Rest Point…and I discover the 100ha Nornalup Inlet, is on the town’s doorstep, only it’s completely hidden by high dense scrub.
Coal Mine Beach, a 20-minute walk from town, is a campsite plus holiday village shaded by peppermint trees and a safe haven for youngsters to wade, play and explore. It’s extensive with every amenity for holidaying families. Rest Point, a 7km drive, is bathed in a golden glow on my late arrival, seemingly an unfair advantage for an already beautiful spot. Perched between forest and inlet and facing the tall-timbered Walpole knoll, it is the place time forgot. Holiday-makers from the 1940s or ‘50s would find it familiar; unsupervised kids, barefoot, grubby and wet, whooping in chase; dads in singlets preparing boats or lines and mums chatting on the landing or at a picnic table. In front of tree-hidden cabins and the old-fashioned, two-storey “boarding house” is a wide, grassy swathe extending to the beach, bookended with 30m trees at the water’s edge. Walpole’s inlet remains open to the sea year-round, assuring fish constant passage and fishers consistent catches. Just a glimpse, but it is at once serene and exuberant.
Next day at 8am I’m already on the Bibbulmun track that is at the end of my street. It takes me through salt plains of uniform scrub, past Coal Mine Beach and the hot and dusty tidal flats to the highway that edges the forest. This road is Narnia’s wardrobe. On crossing, and entering, I’m suddenly alone on a forest track enveloped in a cool and shady world. Soon the track veers from the shared logging road and goes up…and up. A much-needed rest stop is Hilltop Lookout where, away in the distance, the Franklin River feeds the inlet. There’s an instinct to keep taking rhythmic steps one after the other; a feeling that moving is achieving. But to stop, to sit and listen and let the forest close in, is the prize. Birds are louder, more visible and the light more at play. Beyond the Great Tingle Tree I pass through what my guidebook says is the finest stand of giants – karri and tingle – in the Southern Forest. I agree. Near the Franklin River Campsite, officially the end of a day’s hike, and armed with just a camera, water and mixed nuts, I realise it’s time (3pm) to retrace my steps.
Day two’s walk, a short drive away, starts mid-morning because of yesterday’s exertion and also I keep stopping to look around on my way to Conspicuous Cliff, aptly-named as the triangular-shaped attic atop its broad cliff face visible to sailors far out to sea. Under the cliff a long crescent of sand, halved by a tumble of limestone rocks, stretches to a flattened headland, providing good surfing. High-placed platforms allow views of occasional whales and the sweeping beach with its black stream slashing the sand. I meet bleach-haired teenagers, boards under arm, gaze fixed on the middle distance searching for the right break – or courage.
I ask for directions. “I dunno. There’s no track here.” They haven’t read my Bibbulmun guide. After nearly an hour of dogged determination back and forth I find 5cm of the top of the official marker post poking out of the sand drift. It points me over the dunes where the heathland is decimated. A hot bushfire leaves white ash, black twigs and flies. The track is hot, dusty and smelly but several kangaroos happily nibble at the first green shoots. Life abounds. I call it a day and console myself that, if not the track, the natural splendour of Conspicuous Cliff has been worth it.
Between walks I relax under peppermint trees watching blue wrens at play and chat with Dietrich and Birgit, German retirees and inveterate travellers from Bonn (thirty trips to Thailand is proof). “We’ve seen more of Australia than most Australians”, says Birgit. I wander around water and forest: Nornalup, the giants of Tree Top Walk, Circular Pool, Peaceful Bay and Knoll Drive near Walpole. Further afield lies Mt Franklin, Swarbrick and Fernhook Falls.
Driving to Walpole through the magnificent karri trees of the Southern Forests is inspiring. Staying at Walpole on WA’s south coast is surprisingly enjoyable.