Day three of my 335km hike from Northcliffe to Albany.
Terrain: Flat and easy.
Bonny and I awoke early on day three, as we were pretty eager to get an early start on the first “long” day of the hike (in Bibb terms). After my hearty breakfast of oats with a generous topping of sugar (way better than yesterday’s revolting eggs) we set off on the 4WD track that loosely winds its way around Lake Maringup.
The track took us through some spectacularly thick karri forest where you’ve really got no option but to follow the waugyls. The morning sun streamed through the canopy, making for a real Fern Gully vibe on the forest floor. Every now and then we’d walk along elevated duckboards over low-lying sections of the track that are inundated in winter. It’s not necessary to walk along them in the dry months, but way more fun than walking along the dirty ground like a plebe. (I called Bonny a plebe while she did so – she took it in good humour)
After a handful of kilometres the track emerges into more open plains, where thick groupings of bushes replace the towering karri trees of the forest. We stopped for morning tea at one of the many “significant footbridge”s described in the guidebook, so named to distinguish them from the many insignificant footbridges (read: planks) you cross pretty regularly in this section.
The trail followed more sandy tracks for much of the day, crossing a couple of gravel roads on its path through the open plains. These plains are a recurring feature nearly all the way to Mandalay Beach, and they make up for their lack of soaring greenery with spectacular 360-degree vistas. The unimpeded views make you much more aware of how quickly you’re travelling, as the hills that dot the horizon move in and out of view with surprising speed.
The open, flat terrain got me in the zone for hiking, so I went ahead of Bonny and zipped through the section until the track returned to the forest. I took a break on a convenient fallen log, which was improved immeasurably by my foam sit pad. True ultralight hikers might consider it a luxury, but being able to put something soft and dry between you and whatever you’re sitting on is essential in my books. The $25 Thermarest Z-Seat is the gold standard of sit pads, but $2 knock offs are available on eBay that do the job almost as well, and weigh virtually nothing. I’ve got the latter.
Bonny arrived soon after, and we walked another short section of forest together before the track reached Dog Road. This wide, well maintained gravel road made for an easy if uninspiring final 5km for the day, on the way into Dog Pool campsite.
Another rammed earth shelter, Dog Pool sits next to a bend in the river that can apparently turn into a torrent in winter. When we visited, it was little more than a couple of ponds of stagnant black water. Never one to turn down the prospect of a swim, Bonny dived in while I gave myself a prison shower in knee-deep water.
At the shelter we met Carla, a solo hiker from Tasmania who’d made it from Albany despite being tormented by blisters. She told us one had become infected, and she was considering dropping out in Northcliffe. I found out later that she did so, but returned to the track not long after to turn her E2E into a sectional. I love the perseverance of people on the track! It’s really inspiring to see it in action, even if things didn’t go as they were originally planned.
Not long after we’d arrived, we were treated to a brief rain shower. Good thing we didn’t leave Lake Maringup half an hour later or we’d be sodden!
The rain persuaded me to sleep inside the shelter – something I hardly ever do given how much I love my tent. Thankfully, no snorers!
Day two of my 16-day section hike from Northcliffe to Albany.
Terrain: Flat and easy
Bonny and I planned another short day to ease into this hike. We’re both experienced hikers who can handle 30km days, but I was extra conscious of my recent knee pain and the need to manage my legs properly so they’d survive 335km of walking.
The next camp site at Dog Pool is another 25.7km beyond Lake Maringup, so it made sense to keep this section a relatively easy single. Strong hikers could easily make the journey between Northcliffe and Lake Maringup in a day, provided you start early enough – which we didn’t. Knowing we didn’t have much ground to cover, we had a late-ish start that was further delayed by my disaster of a breakfast.
I’d been experimenting with making dried meals in a dehydrator at home, and after great success with a variety of dinners I got cocky and simply assumed that scrambled eggs would dehydrate just as well. Wrong! Close to an hour of soaking the hardened egg-lumps in boiled water only turned them into purple, slightly rubbery hardened egg-lumps that were absolutely foul.
I forced myself to eat some because I knew I needed the calories, but immediately regretted it and had to make a hot drink to try and get the lingering taste out of my mouth. They were gross! Somehow, even the dried bacon tasted disgusting – probably because it had been sharing a bag with the eggs in my freezer for about a week. Pro tip for any back country cooks: Just buy powdered eggs. They’re not the greatest, but they’re won’t make you want to scrub your tongue clean. Or stick to porridge, which is what I did for the remainder of the hike.
Terrible breakfast over (Bonny and I were sharing some meals, so she was subjected to it too – sorry Bonny) we packed up and set off. From Gardner camp site the track follows more sandy but firm 4WD trails of the kind that criss-cross the great network of low-lying plains we were about to enter. From here to the coast the track is often inundated in winter, requiring lots of wading, but at this time of year it was mercifully dry. Less than five minutes after leaving camp we were into the plains, and rewarded with the sight of huge swathes of flowering swamp bottle brush.
Most of the morning was spent alternating between the colourful plains and dense patches of Karri forest. I saw a family of wild emus in one of the plains, but they scampered away before I could take a snap.
Eventually the trail links up again with the Gardner River, which can be accessed with a short scramble down from the elevated 4WD track that follows it. We stopped here for lunch and a swim (read: paddle), and the water was shallow enough to allow us to do some exploring by wading along its length.
It was an easy 5k or so after lunch to Lake Maringup camp site, which is preceded by some truly magnificent stands of Karri. At the shelter we met the legendary Jentz, a prolific hiker from Mandurah whose glacial pace is more than made up for by his endurance. I’d met him once before in the Darling Range section in 2017, after he’d spent all day hiking the 8-odd kilometres from Waalegh to Beraking. He’d walked to Lake Maringup from Albany on one of his many end-to-ends, and was gone hours before dawn the next morning in order to make it to Gardner.
We also met Richard and Rebecca Stokes, a pair of British tourists who were new to hiking but nonetheless determined to walk the whole way as well. They were in remarkably good spirits for two people who just walked 300km on their first serious multi-day hike, and were in much better shape than I was after my first attempts at long-distance trails!
Rebecca had been inspired by an earlier holiday to WA, and had persuaded Richard to join her on the Bibb. I met them again a few weeks later just north of Dwellingup, when they were barely a week from the finish line. By now, they should have finished.
Bonny and I tried for a swim in Lake Maringup, which is just down the hill from the shelter. Accessing the water requires wading through a reedy bog, which wasn’t too pleasant, but worse was the mass of floating particulates that we had to swim through once we were in. 2/10, would not recommend.(Bonny says it wasn’t like that on her previous visit, so the floating particulate soup mustn’t be permanent. YMMV!)
After dinner I hung my food from a karri tree using a rope I’d brought along to test the concept ahead of the PCT. It worked fine but is ultimately unnecessary on a track with rodent boxes at the camp sites and no bears, so the rope system was dead weight in my backpack until I offloaded it to Bonny when she left the track at Mandalay Beach. None of my food bags were disturbed at any other huts, whether they were hung or stored in the rodent boxes. I think some of the credit for that has to go to a set of odor-proof bags I used, which effectively sealed in the smells but only lasted the hike. When I made it home, I replaced them with a more durable Opsak I bought on Massdrop. They can even double as emergency water containers, in a pinch.
This is the first in a series of reviews of Bibbulmun sections on my quest to a sectional end-to-end!
This section was the start of my longest hiking trip yet by far – 16 days and 335km from the tiny town of Northcliffe to the southern terminus in Albany. Last year I did a very wet eight-day stretch from Balingup to Pemberton, but I wanted to test myself on a hike longer than two weeks to see if I could really hack the thru-hiker lifestyle. I was joined by my friend Bonny for the first six days of this trip.
Terrain: Flat and easy
We’d planned an easy, relatively short walk of 15.3km for day one because we had to make the three-hour drive down from Perth in the morning, and hand over Bonny’s car to local track angel Wendy in Northcliffe. The plan was to leave the car at Wendy’s, then Wendy would pick Bonny up from Mandalay Beach six days later, and bring me a resupply box at the same time. Wendy’s generosity with her time meant I didn’t have to lug eight days of supplies all the way to Walpole, and it saved us both from having to do a time-consuming car shuffle on day one. Thanks Wendy!
After we dropped off Bonny’s car at Wendy’s place just outside of Northcliffe, Wendy gave us lift back to the trailhead in the middle of town. The weather was sunny and cool, perfect for walking. After a few leg swings and final checking of gear, we were off.
The Bibbulmun follows some old disused train tracks on its way south out of Northcliffe, passing a wooden distance marker near the trail head. There’s a small burned section less than a kilometre out of town, caused by a recent bushfire. Shortly after the track crosses the main road,and begins winding its way along the boundaries of farms and houses before crossing Wheatley Coast Road and plunging into thick forest. A bit over an hour in we stopped at a wooden footbridge over a picturesque creek for lunch.
I was relieved to find my buff (kind of like a cylindrical bandana) in one of my bag’s hip pockets after thinking I’d accidentally left it behind. My buff was one of my favourite pieces of gear for the whole hike – not only does it keep the sun off your neck, but it doubles as a handy cloth when you need to dry wet items.
After munching on a wrap with salami and rehydrated hommus (surprisingly good), we packed up and headed for the camp site. The trail becomes unnervingly sandy just a few kilometres out of Northcliffe, a reminder that the town is only about 30km from the coast, despite its forest vibes.
Disclaimer: Sand and I do not get along. I would even go so far as to say I hate hiking on soft sand. Beaches are for short barefoot strolls and swimming, not slogging along for hour after miserable hour. (Take note Bibb Track Foundation!) Sand gets everywhere, including between your toes to cause blisters, which is (partly) what killed my very first attempt at a multi-day hike on the Cape to Cape in 2016. It’s also supremely unsatisfying to walk on, as it takes about three times the effort to cover the same distance you would on hard ground.
Fortunately around Northcliffe, the sandy ground is firm and not any harder to walk on that dirt. I wish I could say that for the South Coast sections! Around the half way mark we spotted our first tiger snake, who dutifully slithered out of our way before either of us could take a photo. It would be the first of many.
Shortly before the shelter the track crosses what the guidebook describes as a “significant footbridge” over a wide stretch of the Gardner River. A great spot for another break.
Before long we’d reached the shelter, one of the newer rammed earth designs that nobody seems to like near the river’s edge. The rammed earth structures lack the rustic charm of the old timber shelters, but they are much more resistant to fire and so probably necessary in this bushfire-prone part of the world.
At Gardner we met a retired Canadian guy named Gerald, who’d hiked all the way from Albany in considerable pain, necessitating long recovery stops in Denmark and Walpole. I heard later on that he dropped out shortly after we met him, hopefully he can get himself fixed up and have another crack at it. Bonny and I went for a splash down in the river, which runs below the camp site. At this point it’s not much more than a shallow trickle in late March, but there was enough water to get clean. We made dinner at a picnic table thoughtfully placed by the river, then I retired to my tent while Bonny slept in the shelter.
Day one done!
I’ve been dreaming of hiking the 2,659-mile Pacific Crest Trail for a couple of years now, but after a few painful false starts on the Cape to Cape and the Bibbulmun Track in 2016 I decided to get myself into hiking shape before tackling it.
Job one was to fix the pain I experienced in the arches of my feet, which felt like they were being stretched apart on long hikes. Ouch! By the fourth day of a five-day hike from Sullivan Rock to Mundaring Weir, I was walking with my toes curled downwards and both feet rolled almost comically outwards just to avoid putting my arches in contact with the ground. Not a good omen for a wannabe thru-hiker.
When I returned to civilisation I visited a podiatrist, who diagnosed me with moderate to sever overpronation and said I needed either over-the-counter insoles (cheap, but not guaranteed to be effective) or custom orthotics molded to the shape of my feet (eye-wateringly expensive). A pair of orthotics cost nearly $800, but I decided to follow some good advice I’d got from other hikers: Never skimp on anything that goes between you and the ground. That includes your tent, your sleeping mat, and your footwear. If any of them are crap quality, you’re in for a baaaaaaad time.
But man, have those things been worth it. A few weeks after having my foot scanned with a laser, I received a shiny new pair of ultra-comfortable orthotics that completely eliminated my arch pain. What a relief! Lots of chronic conditions require countless hours of stretching, bending and foam rolling just to be managed, never mind the thousands of dollars on physio consults and all the other palava. To fix such a painful problem for a simple one-off cost with very little ongoing management is a win in my books.
I did have to learn to stretch my quads and calves more, because orthotics force you to use those muscles – as the body is supposed to do – instead of rolling on your feet to push yourself forward. It took a long time to loosen them up, but I went from barely being able to reach the middle of my shins to touching my toes without too much difficulty.
Next step in the bodily tune-up has been to get down to a healthier weight, which was something I struggled with since late high school. For virtually all of my adulthood I’ve been a steady 100kg, and it took well over a year after I first got into hiking before I noticed any significant weight loss.
For that first year, weekend hikes and the occasional multi-day were my only exercise. It just wasn’t enough to counter my unhealthy diet. The catalyst came last August, when I walked my (then) longest-ever stretch of the Bibbulmun Track: an eight-day, 170km hike from Balingup to Pemberton, via the beautiful old mill town of Donnelly River Village.
I didn’t actually lose much more than a kilo on that walk, but the prolonged exercise for eight days straight got me into a rhythm that I felt motivated to continue when I got back home to Perth. I joined a baseball team and then a gym, and started being a bit more conscious of what I ate. I didn’t stick to a formal diet, but I tried to keep fast food to a minimum and calories low.
Baseball and the gym was a great combo for summer, when it’s too hot (and unsafe) to go hiking in my part of the world. I felt motivated to work out often at the gym to make myself a better baseball player, and also a better hiker.
On my first day at the gym I tried to pick up where I’d left off on the C25K program (which I’d tried and abandoned many times), but found that I was able to push for further distances than what I’d been doing when last I used the app. I decided to keep going until I ran out of puff, and ended up running the whole 5K in about 27 minutes. So much for that program! I guess that hike had whipped me into shape more than I’d realised.
Over the next couple of months I lost 15kg surprisingly easily. I think the trick is consistency in your workout routine and your diet, even if you’re taking it relatively easy on both counts. I didn’t starve myself and I didn’t run any marathons – I just kept tabs on how much I ate, and made an automatic habit out of packing my gym bag each morning before work. I lost another 5kg on a 16-day section of the Bibbulmun last month (hiker hunger is real), and am now a pretty comfortable 80kg and feeling way better for it.
I had a minor scare when I experienced some knee pain after getting into cycling over the summer, but a foam roller and a few simple stretches (mostly to the IT band and glutes) suggested by my physio have allowed me to keep on top of it. I still get a minor twinge in my right knee occasionally on hikes, but I survived 335km over 16 days without it becoming an issue. Hopefully it stays that way!
I set out on that hike to prove to myself that I could take a respectable stab at the PCT. Now to make it happen!
If you’re into long-distance hiking, you’ve probably heard this question.
I get asked it pretty often when I talk about my upcoming hikes, usually followed by a grave look of concern (or at least some raised eyebrows) when I admit that I’m going alone.
In the two years since I got bitten by the hiking bug, I’ve completed about 80% of the 1000-kilometer Bibbulmun Track in my home state of Western Australia – most of it solo.
It always amazes me how much of an alien idea this is to a lot of people.
“But what if you get lost?”
“Is there phone service?”
“What will you do for water?”
Never mind that you’re safer slogging through the bush than you are driving to the trail head!
Don’t get me wrong, I love other people. There are plenty of fantastic people out on back country walking trails, and it’s (almost) always a thrill to meet them.
The sight of a friendly face after hours of trudging through the bush is always welcome, as is the chance to swap trail stories, hear about the path ahead and simply hear another human voice.
But for me at least, the real joy of hiking is in going it alone.
The feeling of independence is incredibly liberating, and you can’t get much more independent than a solo adventure through the wilderness with nothing but your food, your water, and thousands of dollars’ worth of ultra-lightweight gear in your backpack.
That doesn’t mean you actually need to be alone all the time, but rather that you be unattached to others’ schedules and unencumbered by others’ expectations. Every mile is your own personal achievement, as is every setback, every spectacular view, every blister and every mountain climbed (or in the case of WA, every hill).
I’ve pinched the name of part two of Roald Dahl’s autobiography for this blog, not only because it’s an excellent book, but because it sums up everything great about hiking.
There’s something romantic about going solo that I can’t get enough of.
I’ll be posting regularly about my hiking adventures on my quest to finish “the Bibb” this year, and ultimately hike the Pacific Crest Trail.