Bibbulmun hikes: West Cape Howe to Muttonbird

Day 15 of my 16-day/335km section hike from Northcliffe to Albany on the Bibbulmun Track.

Distance: 28.9km

Terrain: Undulating coastal cliffs and a long beach section.

Fierce winds woke me up several times during the night at West Cape Howe shelter, and I had to get out of my tent repeatedly to replace tent stakes that were yanked out of the ground when the wind turned the tent fabric into a sail. My Zpacks Duplex tent is an ultralight free-standing model that uses trekking poles and tension to stay upright, rather then heavy tent poles. It only ways 595 grams without its stakes and is roomy enough for two, but it comes with a bit of a learning curve to set up properly. The sandy ground around the campsite didn’t offer enough resistance to my thin ultralight pegs, so I’ve since purchased a set of slightly heavier MSR Mini Groundhog stakes that perform much better in soft soils. I’ve also learned to shorten the hiking poles when setting up the tent in windy conditions, so it has a lower profile to help deflect the wind.

A dewy spiderweb at West Cape Howe

After wrestling my tent back into its stuff sack, I had breakfast with the other two hikers at the shelter and set off with them. I’d planned on making it to Muttonbird that day, which would give me plenty of time to get into Albany and freshen up before the late afternoon bus back to Perth the day after. I said goodbye to Shauna and her partner a little ways up the track, and sped off ahead.

As I approached the cape, the clouds briefly parted, and the sunshine broke through to light up the coast. It’s funny how the same coastal scrub can look beautiful and lush in strong sunlight, but when the clouds return it suddenly looks like it belongs on some Scottish highland. Seeing it in both lights in a short space of time made me feel a little bipolar.

I followed the ups and downs of the coastal cliffs all the way to Torbay campsite, where I stopped for a chilly lunch while I tried in vain to dry the sweat out of my clothing. Torbay is known for its resident quenda, but I didn’t spy it in my short stay at the shelter. I imagine they’re more active around dusk.

Shortly after lunch, I met an overnight hiker going the opposite direction, then continued along the coastal ridge for a few more kilometres before a set of stairs led me down to another beach at Cosy Corner. The map told me I’d be following it for about five kilometres, but thankfully the sand was firm and easy to walk on. While I was trudging along, gusts of wind would blow sheets of sand along the beach, creating a stunning visual effect that I was only partially successful in capturing with my phone camera.

I scrambled around a rocky headland and soon after passed the Torbay inlet, which was thankfully not yet breached. Stormy weather set in again as I neared the exit at Muttonbird Beach, whipping up huge waves that pounded the sand. I climbed up the stairs at Muttonbird Beach in spitting rain, and took momentary shelter at the lookout above the beach. I stowed the clothes I’d been drying on the outside of my pack in a dry bag, and continued along a series of low hills on the coastal ridge.

The turbines of the Albany wind farm loomed into view as I got closer to the campsite, the first sign that I was about to return to civilisation. I made it into Muttonbird around 4PM, the wind blowing even harder than it had been on the beach. A good spot for a wind farm, I guess! Last night’s experience made me reticent to set up my tent again in such blustery conditions, so I rolled out my sleeping mat on the shelter’s wooden boards and made dinner.

I was reading by torchlight in my sleeping bag just after dark, when I glanced up to see a group of millipedes hanging off my water bottle. As I reached over to shake them off, I realised there were hundreds of them, crawling at me from every corner of the shelter. Apparently, they’re attracted to light. Realising I would never sleep under this insect assault, I dug my tent out of my bag and went to find a spot that wasn’t too exposed to the winds.

Thankfully, the Bibbulmun Track designers had thought of this problem, so I found a tent site surrounded by a grove of thick trees and bushes not far from the hut. I pitched my tent – lower this time – and moved all my stuff inside. Safe from the millipedes and protected from the gale going on outside, I had a restful night’s sleep.

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