Northcliffe to Gardner
Start - Northcliffe
Finish - Gardner Campsite
Campsite - Nornalup
Distance - 15.8km (One Way)
Vertical Climb - 254m
Time - 4-6 hours
Date Hiked - 1st June 2019
Directions - Northcliffe is located four hours south of Perth and 30km south of Pemberton. From Pemberton take Pemberton-Northcliffe Rd south and follow the signs to Northcliffe. The trail head is at the lovely Visitor Centre where you can sign the book or restock with supplies (Back Country meals and gas cannisters sold here).
The Hike - With the goal of completing my sectional end to end moved from 2018 to 2019 thanks to an achilles injury and a couple of unplanned Google Trekker adventures, my focus turned to planning which sections I wanted to do and in what order. My hope was to have all the gaps plugged in the Darling Range section before finishing with the entire Northcliffe to Albany section broken up into the various town to town sections. Unfortunately the best laid plans don't always work out and thanks to a very warm and dry autumn combined with some heavy handed prescribed burns around Dwellingup, this section would be my first overnight hiking trip of the year.
With the first week of June meaning a short working week thanks to the WA Day public holiday, I scheduled another week long trip so as to save on precious annual leave. The other reason I chose to do this section now was it is notorious for flooding once the rains start to hit and while I some day would like the full Pingerup Plains experience of wading knee deep in puddles for days on end, I wanted to experience it with mostly dry feet and without the risk of being diverted in sections around some of the nicest parts (Lake Maringup mostly). With that in mind I packed up my things including a few new items that were purchased to improve the quality of my hiking experience this year. The first (that was actually a present from Caris and came with matching gifts from close friends) was a new Osprey Atmos 65L pack and associated dry sacks and 3L water bladder.
The upgrade from my old pack was due to that one being very uncomfortable over long distances thanks to inadequate shoulder straps and just being an inferior bag in every way. The point at which I thought Osprey was for me happened at Harris Dam Campsite when I tried on Aron's pack at the end of the day and found it to be a dream compared to mine. The new pack coupled with the insulated version of Sea to Summit's ultralight sleeping mat and a new pair of Heat Holder socks meant I was going to be a lot more comfortable in 2019 than I was in 2018. After driving down to Funbury the night before to see my family and to break up the driving (and enjoying some of dad's world famous pancakes), I arrived at Northcliffe Visitor Centre ready to start my seven day journey and began by signing into the green log book located on the table.
With beautiful blue skies forecast for the first five days at least, I was in for a lovely week of hiking as I set off towards the landmark red sign on the old rail tracks telling you distances to the two ends of the Bibbulmun. I had hoped to arrive here and stare at the Albany 334km part of the sign and feel a sense of excitement that I only had that section to cover but it wasn't meant to be. I still have to cover that distance to complete my sectional end to end so in some ways I could still feel like the finish was in sight but I don't think it was the same. The first section leading away from the Visitor Centre is along the old railway that used to run right through town. I enjoy the old railway sections that the Bibbulmun uses and this one feels extra special as the overgrown nature of the path really adds that element of a long forgotten track.
For a small town like Northcliffe, exiting into the wilderness is a very long affair with the track crossing or joining Windy Harbour Rd about four times before actually leaving to go into the forest for real. Looking at the map there doesn't seem to be a better way to exit town unless a deal could be struck to take a shortcut through a few of the farms leading south from town (not likely). The result is a hodge podge of trails that cross various roads, walk along them in places or right along a narrow wildlife strip on the side of a road. It's not entirely a bad experience but every time it seemed like you were finally away from it all the track changed direction and you would be staring at a road section again.
This first section did give me the opportunity to scope out the wildflower and fungi situation I might possibly encounter along the track as it weaved through some denser pockets of undergrowth. While spring is the main time of the year for wildflowers in Western Australia, the catch 22 of this section is that during that time it is most likely flooded and not that enjoyable to walk through (some people enjoy it a lot). The trade off between relatively dry walking and seeing wildflowers is something you have to keep in mind when planning this section and with no campfires allowed south of Dog Pool, the opportunity to dry your boots becomes limited to the available sunshine. My findings close to town were a mixed bag of dried up Kangaroo Paws, some lovely fungi popping up in the sandy soils and a few signs of early wildflowers. Thankfully I spotted a few of my favourite plants in the South West, the drosera (or sundew) and this made me very happy.
After another road section followed by walking between some large Karri trees and a nearby farm, you cross the road for the final time and are deposited near the Gardner River (which isn't important enough apparently to show up on any online map). The track doesn't take you down to it but there is a short 4x4 track that does so I followed it and stopped for a break while I adjusted my pack. The river is a feature of the day and with the first campsite named after it I thought it would be a lot more visible but as with a few rivers along the Bibbulmun, this wasn't the case. One reason for this is the catastrophic bushfires that burnt through a lot of the surrounding landscape over a long period in 2015. One of the more devastating fires in recent history, the effects of that event are felt all throughout this section as you head down towards Walpole.
With one last visit to the road you finally saw goodbye to the bitumen and begin your winding path through the sandy plains and forests towards the Gardner Campsite. By now you're about a third of the way through the kilometres for the day so it's really just a short-ish walk from signs of civilisation. With over four years passing since the bushfires, the area is recovering quite well, more so the undergrowth that has become very thick with new vegetation. The trees on the other hand take much longer and although the area is alive with epicormic resprouting (the green jumpers of foliage), these fires were hot enough to kill a large number of trees. It will be a while until some sort of canopy forms (as much as a canopy can form in the Jarrah and Marri dominated areas) but there were encouraging signs that the area might return in a reasonable condition.
Finding a good rhythm as I went from forest section to forest section, this was a nice start to what is a very enjoyable part of the track. At the 10km mark I reached the first crossing of the Gardner River and another of the rustic wooden bridges you find along the Bibbulmun. Given the size of the river this isn't one of the bigger bridges you'll see along the track but it has a bit of character fitting for the area. I ventured out into the middle and dropped my pack, deciding this was as good as any spot to enjoy a spot of lunch. Taking plenty of photos, I settled on the bridge to watch the water flow by, admire the large Marri and Yarri trees that lined the banks and take in the serenity of such a beautiful spot. This is what I promised myself last year that I would do more of and with a short and flat 16km day, I had plenty of time to soak it all in.
After some final photos I put the pack back on and began the final push into camp. On the other side of the river was a hill on the edge of some farmland that provided a couple of cool shots as I climbed up the small hill. Here is where there was a sustained section of nice forest that is still recovered from the bushfires. A prime example of the way different trees respond or at least the time it takes for the signs of bushfire to start to disappear became obvious when I passed a young Karri and Marri tree. The Karri that sheds its bark every year was a nice smooth grey while the Marri was still holding onto its char marks. The reason for the nicer forest is you are heading to some of the lower lying areas of the day as you follow the river. That's not to say you don't get the occasional bit of open sandy track but from here until the finish it is mostly a pleasant stroll through mature trees and thick undergrowth.
The second distance figure on the map for the day is a second crossing of the Gardner River and after descending down a lovely overgrown section of ferns and early wildflowers the small bridge came into view. Much smaller than the previous bridge, it still had a unique charm to it with the moss slowly taking over the wooden structure. I'm glad that the track decided to cross the river a couple of times on this day because it really didn't need to and with the thick undergrowth, it sometimes is easy to forget you are walking next to a river. To have a moment to rest and admire the water course, riverside vegetation and just be still in a peaceful place is really most of the reason we enjoy getting out into nature on these hikes. Rising up the small hill on the other side you are again among some enjoyable forest with views looking back down at the valley. Here I found a nest of angry ants, something not quite noticeable with the raised design of their homes (due to the area getting flooded quite easily) but on closer inspection I saw a lot of activity going on.
Not wanting to get covered in angry ants I kept moving and headed towards where the track meets up with the final 4x4 track that leads you into camp. A mix of sandy tracks and orange gravel, I noticed that the gate marked on the map had been destroyed, most likely by the local bogan population trying to get where they shouldn't be. The scenery starts to open up a little before camp and before I knew it I had stumbled across the rammed earth toilet block and a man sweeping the floor. Giving him a wave I continued down the road and was soon staring at the new rammed earth Gardner shelter. Destroyed in the 2015 bushfires, it has been rebuilt in the new rammed earth style that is meant to withstand a fire with only minimal items needing to be replaced. I was soon joined by the guy I passed earlier and we introduced each other. Malcolm was on a S-N end to end and as soon as I introduced myself as Mark he knew who I was (also helped that I was wearing my Life of Py branded shirt).
As I setup my tent we swapped stories and chatted away about the Bibb, our experiences, characters on the track and what gear we had. Having had a few sections where I didn't share the campsite with anyone it was nice to have the first night with someone else as I find the first couple of nights away a bit lonely until I get into trail mode properly. As we were enjoying dinner Malcolm spotted a bat circling around camp so we both tried to stay as still as possible while capturing it on camera. I managed a very blurry photo and in the end just settled for enjoying it first hand. The campsite itself is situated up on the hill from the Gardener River with nice views over the Karri forest. If you continue along the Bibb you'll come across a bridge, take the steps to the left and follow that down past the picnic table to the river. There is a small stream where you can wash off and the log there is very reminiscent of the Boarding House Bridge. Not a bad finish to the start of another seven day journey on the Bibb.