Ball Creek to Helena
Start - Ball Creek Campsite
Finish - Helena Campsite
Campsite - Brand New Design
Distance - 8.6km (One Way)
Vertical Climb - 200m
Time - 2-3 hours
Date Hiked - 2nd July 2016
The Hike - Mornings at Ball Creek can be a bit of a chilly affair with the campsite being raised almost 300m above sea level and deep in the forest. If you're lucky then the trees will be shrouded in mist and you can enjoy the sun streaming through the canopy as it gently rises. My first visit here I was lucky to get these conditions and it made for some excellent hiking (despite the very cold conditions). Once you've packed up your gear make your way across the open sandy soils for an immediate crossing of Ball Creek, a very seasonal watercourse that I've only ever seen trickling once. From here you join a management track that will be home for the few couple of kilometres. While it has been slightly burnt over the past couple of years, the regrowth provides some greenery to offset the blackened trunks of the Jarrah.
Scan the undergrowth in winter and spring for wildflowers and if you're lucky then an orchid or two might reveal itself. While this walking is on a 4x4 track, it does give you the opportunity to set a good pace and warm up the blood a little. I've said it before when talking about leaving Swamp Oak, I absolutely love walking east at sunrise, more so on a cold and misty morning. The shroud of the unknown, the bright sun rays warming your cold skin added to seemingly endless possibilities that come with spending days in the outdoors with nothing but getting to the next campsite on your mind. It's these moments that are the reason I enjoy multi-day hiking so much and if you can't enjoy the simple things in life then what can you enjoy?
On a downhill stretch of the 4x4 track you are pointed rather abruptly into the forest although it is better marked than it once was (I may have gone further down the track on my first visit here). Continuing on with the descent (the theme for the morning), you reach a much lusher part of the forest that runs along a larger creek. With ferns, large tree trunks and a very close feeling to the undergrowth, this is the beginning of a pretty cool stretch that will be home for another kilometre. Rising momentarily out of the little valley, you reach a series of granite platforms that allows some exploration of the creek as it exits the forest (be careful of the moss). On the other side of the bank is an old gauging station with wires leading away from it, looking very enticing as a flying fox.
Follow the well worn path along the granite to the crossing of Allen Rd. This wide 4x4 track is home for a short distance before you are back into the forest and following Mann's Gully, albeit from a bit of a distance. The forest here transitions to lovely Wandoo as the slopes get a bit steeper and the result is stunning. Wandoo is one of my favourite trees in the Darling Range as their smooth trunks look and feel stunning as you pass them. Crossing over a stream (again only flows in the wetter months) you start the big ascent of the day up to the end goal of the Helena Campsite. Watch out for orchids in the spring or thick bushes of wildflowers for most of the year as the easy to access water supply makes life much more abundant here.
Once you start the climbing it is more gradual than taxing but will keep going for quite a while so pace yourself. Joining back up with a 4x4 track, the forest here is absolutely stunning and is one of my favourite sections despite the occasional steep bit. At the top of the steeper gradients is a crossing of Unnamed Rd (great imagination there) where you will find an old concrete water tank that has long been abandoned to the elements and thus is about as good at storing water as I am at performing the lead role in an opera (not very good for those that don't know my singing voice). Being at a more elevated position the forest from here transitions into a much drier style landscape with the divisive Parrot Bush becoming more prominent.
This only becomes an issue when you leave the 4x4 track and move onto single track as anyone who's ever hiked through Parrot Bush will know, it isn't the softest of plants to rub up against. Luckily the single track doesn't last long as you approach a lookout over the Helena River Valley and Lake CY O'Connor. This encounter with the views is very short lived and you are directed back into the forest and onto a 4x4 track called Driver Rd towards a really cool granite expanse. Providing views up and down this slope, the open air is certainly appreciated, along with allowing a better perspective at the lovely Wandoo's that make a reappearance.
You keep following Driver Rd as it winds up the hill to the summit of Mt Hall (not marked) and along the top of the hill towards Helena Campsite. Knowing camp is nearby and finally done with all the climbing makes this last stretch a very relaxing finish. When you reach the turnoff for the campsite it is a welcome relief and it's a bit of a steep descent down to the shelter. Helena has a reputation for being one of the best campsites on the track and the location has a lot to do with that. With great views overlooking the Helena River Valley, both from the shelter and the granite platform just below, this is one of those magical places to spend a lazy afternoon in camp. Recent upgrades to the tent sites mean that those wanting to escape a busy shelter or simply enjoy tenting have access to some amazing spots too.
Unfortunately I cannot talk about the Helena Campsite without mentioning the devastating bushfire that ripped through this area in early 2018, wiping out the shelter and having a major impact on the surrounding forest. While the forest will take longer to recover, there is some good news with the shelter being replaced with a new style of the rammed earth building being due for completion in June 2019. You can view pictures of the as yet unnamed design here or if you are reading this post June then by all means go out and have a look for yourself. I've had many great trips out there and I will continue to return given its close proximity to Perth (and to also check out the new shelter this spring).
2020 Update - With the horrific bushfires of early 2018, the Helena Campsite shown in the above gallery was destroyed and a large area around the campsite was burnt. Thanks to the great fundraising efforts of the Bibbulmun Track Foundation, insurance monies and a generous bequest by Chris Piggford, a previous maintenance volunteer that sadly passed away. With the wooden shelters now confined to the existing structures, the new shelters are now being built out of rammed earth and the Helena shelter is an uber version that can cater to up to 24 hikers. It certainly is a nice design (although disappointingly not the extravagant one I suggested on the podcast) and I'm sure will get a lot of use in the future as a popular spot to enjoy an overnight hike. In April 2020 I finally returned after my last visit to check out the new shelter and to see how badly the area had been affected by the fires.
With COVID-19 closing the campsites, it was disappointing to see people ignoring the restrictions and still deciding to stay there (day hikes to the area were allowed if you don't touch anything around the shelter and facilities). The area around the campsite was looking much nicer than expected and the shelter looks fantastic. It suits the area well and those views dont get tired, even if the bottom of the valley is looking a little sad after the fires. The area should continue to get better with time but it was disappointing to see that the Forest Products Commission has cleared a large section that the track runs through and has replanted with some hideous pines. The walk from the concrete water tank to the campsite is a little sad with the burnt forest, cleared land and the ever increasing size of the pine plantations that I find baffling given new trails in this area are strictly forbidden because of the archaic water catchment rules.
Final Thoughts - Continuing on from an excellent first two days on the track, this section provides more fantastic forest walking with more natural highlights.
Exploring the dips and hills of the area feeding the Helena River Valley and Lake CY O'Connor, the walking here will keep you engaged the whole time.
The introduction of the Wandoo forest in larger tracts makes for a nice change and little pockets of granite and small creeks will excite the inner child in even the more hardened hiker.
Another short but sweet section of the Bibbulmun that seems to be the theme for the Darling Range section.
Get out there and experience it!!!
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