Yes, the Bibbulmun is safe

A week ago, a Finnish couple hiking in the Perth Hills were the victims of a terrifying and brutal attack. The violent encounter happened on Fern Road in Paulls Valley, just a few kilometres from the Bibbulmun Track’s northern terminus. The Finnish man and woman, both 33, were walking along the road when a man allegedly tried to run them down with his 4WD ute, before leaving his vehicle to attack them with a shovel.

The driver allegedly assaulted the Finnish man, leaving him with a serious head wound. After a scuffle, the Finnish woman managed to seize the shovel and hit the alleged attacker. Another hiker then arrived to help the couple hold down the alleged assailant until police arrived. Thankfully, both hikers have since been discharged from hospital.

At the time of writing, 36-year-old Sawyer’s Valley man Matt Whittaker was in jail, awaiting trial on one charge of attempting to unlawfully kill. Police say he did not know the two hikers prior to the incident.

The attack has shaken the Perth hiking community, most of whom know the track as a place of safety and tranquility. It has also attracted plenty of media attention. “TERROR ON BIBBULMUN TRACK” proclaimed page one of Monday’s edition of the West Australian, along with a two-page spread complete with photos of forensic detectives alongside the Bibbulmun’s iconic waugyl markers. I received Facebook messages from a TV reporter looking for information on the good Samaritan hiker, as did many others in hiking Facebook groups. The story led several TV news bulletins.

Unfortunately, much of the reporting lacked context, and fed many of the misinformed fears about hiking. I spoke to Bibbulmun Track Foundation (BTF) lead guide Steve Sertis about it.

“It was sensationalised quite a bit,” Steve said. “Probably the worst was Channel Ten’s black and white footage of a guy walking down the track with a shovel. They dramatised it.”

Steve said he stressed to reporters that while the couple were hiking the Bibbulmun, they were doing so on a section that is essentially in the outer suburbs of Perth. “All the footage that I’ve seen shows the dirt track,” Steve said. “If they’d turned the camera around 180 degrees they would have seen bitumen.”

As Steve points out, this was not some Wolf Creek-style remote horror story. The site of the attack was just 3 kilometres from Kalamunda’s main street, as the crow flies. From an end-to-ender’s perspective, it’s practically in town. “[The journalists] really cut out a lot of stuff I told them,” Steve said. “It made it look like it was a remote area out in the bush, which is not the case. This is a very random incident that could have happened anywhere. It’s the first time there’s ever been an assault that we’re aware of.”

I don’t want to minimise the terrible ordeal suffered by the two Finnish hikers. Encountering a violent or dangerous character on the track would be the nightmare of anyone who walks it. But it’s also exceedingly rare, and far less likely to occur in the bush than it is in the city.

Still, like airplane travel, there’s something about hiking in the bush that stokes people’s imaginations, despite its relative safety. Since it hit the news, several non-hiker friends have asked me what I thought about the incident. “Don’t you worry something like that might happen to you when you’re out there?” asked one friend. “What if you had no one else with you?”

These kinds of fears are common among non-hikers and people considering solo hiking for the first time. Being away from the safety net of civilisation can be unnerving at first, and it’s easy to imagine all kinds of scary scenarios when you’re three days from the nearest town with no phone signal. “Yes, you’ve got to think about personal safety, but from the perspective of ‘do I have my first aid kit’ or ‘what happens if I break my ankle or get bitten by a snake’,” Steve said. “I tell people the worst thing that’s likely to happen to them is they’ll get a blister.”

Steve said he could think of two people who have died while out on the track since its formation in the late 1970s – one of a heart attack, and another of a different medical condition. Another male hiker went missing near Walpole in 2013, and a coronial inquest ruled he likely drowned.

The BTF doesn’t have a complete picture of incidents on the track, partly because they are usually handled by other agencies without the Foundation’s involvement. But the BTF does contribute data on reported injuries and other incidents to UPLOADS, a national data set on guided outdoor activities.

In its most recent year of reporting, the two categories associated with hiking (walking/running outdoors and camping in tents) had a relatively low injury rate of around 6 per 1000 participants. Granted, these are guided activities only and they’re not exclusive to hiking, but the risks are low. It’s a cliché, but you’re far more likely to be killed in a car accident on the way to a hike than you are on the Bibbulmun Track.

That said, there are risks associated with walking the Bibbulmun that require a basic level of knowledge and preparation to be properly mitigated. The biggest risk factor, according to Steve, is walking at the wrong time of year. “People go walking in summer and aren’t prepared for the amount of water they might need,” he said. “The Australian bush is so dry, and creeks don’t run.” I generally stop hiking around mid-November and don’t pick it up again until March, depending on the weather. Snakes are more active in summer, tanks run dry, heatstroke is more of a concern, and the bushfire risk is generally high.

In January 2018, a hiker was airlifted by a helicopter from the Helena shelter in the Perth hills minutes before it was destroyed by a bushfire. He was incredibly lucky to be spotted by an aircraft as the fire approached.

Breaking, fracturing or spraining something in a fall is my biggest concern when I’m hiking solo, but it’s unlikely to be fatal unless it involves a serious head injury. I always pay close attention when scrambling over rocks or walking on especially uneven terrain. I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) so I can summon help if something like this happens. PLBs are not unreasonably expensive, and should be considered compulsory on any hike outside of phone service areas.

Exhaustion, dehydration and hyponatremia (running out of body salts) can all afflict hikers, and require some level of management to be avoided, but it’s only a case of knowing your body and consuming the right amount of food and water. I suffered some mild hyponatremia at Long Point, near Walpole. It was an unnerving and extremely uncomfortable experience, but it taught me how to prevent it in future. In short, take more breaks and keep up your salt intake.

Getting lost is one of the most common concerns, but the Bibbulmun is well-marked and usually easy to follow. I use maps, guidebooks and the Guthook app mostly to tell me how far I have to go, and only rarely to check that I’m still on the right path. Missing a turnoff is the easiest way to lose the trail, but all you must do is retrace your steps until you find a marker.

Wildlife are probably the most overstated risk on the track, because snakes and spiders are scary. While the common dugites and tiger snakes you’ll encounter on the Bibbulmun are venomous, they like to keep to themselves and will almost always get out of your way before you’re aware of them. They can be sluggish in the mornings but are not a problem if you pay attention to your surroundings. I generally wear gaiters on overgrown sections, just in case. Spiders are almost not worth mentioning – they look scary, but leave them alone and they’ll return the courtesy.

Other people are the biggest concern of many hikers, especially women hiking alone. While the track has more than its share of odd characters, I’ve never met anyone who I’ve felt threatened by. That said, I’m a 28-year-old man and I haven’t lived the experience of being a woman alone on the track – though many regularly do.

While it’s important to keep all these risks in mind when you’re planning your hikes, I don’t think they should ever dissuade anyone from hiking in the first place. On the scale of risky activities it would be buried somewhere near the bottom, and that’s before you even consider the many physical and mental health benefits of hiking. Managing your risk is essential, but the bigger risk is missing out on an incredible experience.

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