White Horse Hills to Mt Wells
Start - White Horse Hills Campsite
Finish - Mt Wells Campsite
Campsite - Three Roomed Hut
Distance - 15.5km (One Way)
Vertical Climb - 400m
Time - 4-6 hours
Date Hiked - 13th September 2019
The Hike - Day Two of my four day adventure between North Bannister and Dwellingup and it was an early start thanks to the spring sun now rising at 6am. The two gentlemen I was sharing the campsite with were up well before me packing away gear and brewing their morning beverages so I eventually joined them after pretending to be a warm, toasty burrito for a little longer.
It was actually quite a pleasant morning with the temperature warm enough to be comfortable in my hiking gear and jacket so I went about brewing up a coffee. As I was doing this the light show of the sun rising through the Jarrah forest was simply epic. A very light mist had enveloped, causing the light refraction to put on a pretty good display. At one point I got a glorious beam of golden light streaming through the trees and managed to get a semi-decent picture of it. Cliff, the S-N end to ender was off quite early so Stephen and I bid him farewell and continued faffing about packing our own things away.
Given the very short distances over the next couple of days, I wasn't too keen to be setting off super early and arriving at camp around midday. As much as I took my time getting ready I was still ready to go before 8am and so was Stephen. Stephen had started his end to end with his wife but she had to pull out at Brookton due to a viral issue that required an ambulance trip to the hospital. Given Stephen was on his own now and I've come to enjoy a bit of company on my hikes, I thought it would be a nice idea to hike relatively close together for the day. Long time readers of the website will know I am quite often alone on these longer trips with a few sections going by without seeing many other hikers so it was a nice change to have someone on the same schedule. With everything ready to go we departed White Horse Hills and began the journey south to the highest campsite on the Bibbulmun Track, the infamous Mt Wells (more on the infamous bit later).
Unfortunately what I didn't do while I was packing up was change my camera settings back from the sunrise shoot to my usual shooting mode so every shot was on a much slower shutter speed than it should have been. As I hiked up the hill to the highest point of the morning, every shot I took was sub-optimal, either very blurry or too overexposed to recover. I was lucky that a few were taken with a very steady hand or could be recovered thanks to some Lightroom trickery but on the whole there were a lot of blurry photos taken that had to be discarded. Making it worse, the scenery leading away from camp was lovely with a good amount of wildflowers on the lower slopes and granite platforms complete with Wandoo trees as you get higher and higher. After looking back at a photo to see if I had the focus right, I realised that my settings were all off and quickly made the correction (after kicking myself several times). It would have been nice to capture the whole day in the right mode but I guess I have to be thankful that I wasn't shooting in the wrong mode for longer.
While I had made the decision to hike with Stephen, early on I was more often than not ahead of him on the track, still getting used to his pace and hiking style. Taking the time to slow down myself, I took extra moments to admire the wildflowers, of which there were plenty, and just breathed in the morning air. Coming out onto an open expanse of granite, I spotted the first of the bigger droseras for the day just hiding in plain sight among the moss. After the closed in undergrowth of the first little section it was nice to be out in the open, examining the path forward as it wound up the hill. Patches of grass trees filled gaps in the boulder strewn slopes and with no sign of Stephen behind me I decided to press on and begin the short climb to the highest point of the morning. With the forecast predicting temperatures in the low 20s, I wasn't expecting the morning mist to hang around for very long so it was a pleasant surprise as I the entered the forest once again and you saw muted views of the valley below.
There are a couple of spots where the views open out and you look north towards Boonering Hill and the forests you walked through on the previous day. With the bite of the sun now starting to get a little stronger I could see the mist burning away down in the valley. Facing north meant the photos were very washed out so I only took a few and instead enjoyed the views first hand. Around this time I found an unwanted traveller had attached itself to me and this was the beginning of a bit of paranoia for this section. I scratched at my neck and found a small bump that I thought was just a bit of dirt or tree debris. After a bit of tugging to remove it, I had a look and unfortunately it was a tick. It wasn't something that was on my mind but given the warm weather we'd experienced over the last week, it wasn't totally unexpected. Slightly annoyed because tick bites take forever to heal for me, I was in a constant state of vigilance from then on every time I felt something on my skin, not a nice feeling to have for three more days.
At the top of the hill I was cheered up by the sight of something that sparked an "oh yeah" moment in me. The balancing rock and split in the granite was something I remember from Donovan's post about this section so a smile was brought back to my face as I saw this interesting geological feature. I had a bit of a sit on the granite after taking many photos and decided to wait for Stephen. While I did, I thought I'd have a bit of fun just casually posing against the boulder while my camera magically took a photo (it likes to do that). Stephen appeared not long after so I got off the rock so he could take a clean picture. A bit further up the track is the summit and a lovely granite platform that provides some sweeping vistas to the east, south and west. A big feature here is the gnamma pool that provides a cool foreground object to include in your photographs, as well as being something fun to observe (look out for tadpoles and bugs in the water). I was happy to see another of the bonsai trees here growing in a shallow soil deposit on the granite, much like the one on the south side of Mt Cooke.
Another feature that you can't escape here is the tailings dam of the Boddington Gold Mine and all the buildings around it. Looking like a distant oasis, the turquoise water looks like a nice feature from a distance and if you have no idea what it is before seeing it, you could be excused for thinking it was a pleasant inland lake. While mining has always had a tricky relationship with the Bibbulmun Track, at least the gold mine is somewhat unobtrusive in terms of size compared with the cancer of mining low grade bauxite and the devastation that has had on the Darling Scarp (not by much though). Stephen and I had a good discussion up here as we took a break and were briefly joined by an Ornate Crevice Dragon before it got alarmed and scurried off. Deciding it was time to move on, we found it would have been very easy to continue along the granite platform, thinking this was the correct route but the track takes a turn to the west near the gnamma pool and starts to head downhill. With the next hill on the agenda being the final climb up to Mt Wells, this would be the start of a very relaxing section of walking with not a big physical effort required.
Entering the thick undergrowth of the western side of the hill, there was a lovely thicket of parrot bush in bloom that made me smile along with a few really nice Jarrah trees. Chatting about various things with Stephen, the main topic along here was the Australian Alpine Walking Track (AAWT), which runs through the alpine areas of Victoria, NSW and the ACT. Stephen is from Victoria and has hiked a lot of the sections through there so recommended it as a place of interest for me. I mentioned it was on my radar but the logistics of walking/food dropping a 650km hike through alpine terrain without passing through a town meant it was a lot further down the list that other multi day hikes around Australia (plus I don't have the 5-8 weeks in leave to complete it). As we continued downhill we ran across a patch of Rose Coneflowers (the cone of bright purple/pink slivers) and it was a sight to behold. I love seeing these elaborate wildflowers and this has one of the more interesting shapes and colouring of the wildflowers found in WA.
The enjoyment continued as we reached a much flatter area and discovered a good colony of Kingia Australis stretching out near the track. I love these tall grass trees as there are some stunning examples in the Darling Scarp that are very ancient. Given they grow at 1-1.5cm per year, some of the examples we saw would have been 200-300 years old, stunning the think about when you take the time. The wildflowers through this section were fantastic so we were both stopping quite a lot to take photos and I discovered a little idiosyncrasy of Stephen in the process. He was following the guidebook and also taking photos for his own personal blog so every time he stopped for a photo or reached an important point on the track he would note down the time in a little pocket book and what it was. I didn't realise at the time that this was occurring so we got separated once again. Trying to amble along at a slower pace while Stephen caught up, I soon realised that wasn't going to happen so continued on at my own pace, which was still a fair bit slower than my regular pace given the short kilometres.
Putting on a podcast I followed the track as it wound its way through the very mature Jarrah forest. The sun was getting quite bright so I was praying that the photos would turn out right but given I was walking south, I at least had the favourable position if I shot in the direction I was walking. Doing the whole track as a N-S sectional end to end was a deliberate choice because of this reason, I don't think I could stand staring into the sun for most of the day if I walked S-N and the photos wouldn't look anywhere near as good if I shot it in the direction I was walking, more so in the winter when the sun is much lower in the sky. There was plenty to see along this long stretch of forest with a few iconic trees including one that had a lot of addition limbs growing out of its wide trunk that had been blackened by fire. I likened it to Sauron's helmet from the opening sequence of The Lord of the Rings as it had that dark, aggressive, twisted form to it.
Taking the time to enjoy this section because you never know when it might change for the worse (i.e burnt), I was happy that it was lasting for kilometre after kilometre. I spotted my first Cowslip Orchid of the trip, something I always enjoy seeing and it put me in an even better mood. With an excellent podcast on and mature Jarrah forest to walk through, this was turning out to be a very nice day. I had planned a stop for lunch at around the 7-8km mark so when I spotted a fallen log in the shade that looked perfect for a rest, I took off my pack and had a sit. Savouring my typical lunch of a Clif bar, Stephen wasn't too far behind and joined me for a lengthy break. It was here I introduced him to the delights of dehydrated strawberry and we had a chat about the last section and all the interesting things we stopped to photograph. While Stephen finished up his lunch I had a bit of an explore of the surrounding area and inspected all the little details around the log. I had another traveller join me, this time a harmless spider so I took a photo and then placed it back home on the log.
Moving on from lunch we joined Hume Tank Rd and came across the lowest point of the day, elevation wise. It was obvious we had hit an area that would be seasonally flooded with the somewhat dense forest giving way to an open expanse of scrubs to the north running parallel to the 4x4 track. The change of scenery was most welcome and this was a really pleasant part to walk through, continuing with what had been a day of walking I couldn't really fault. A large fallen tree provided something to photograph and we both stopped for a while to admire the girth and age of this forest giant. Hume Tank Rd isn't named that for no reason and after looping back on another 4x4 track we could see the remnants of an old water tank. Before then we had an incident with some local ants as we stood too long near a nest while admiring the beautiful flowers of the Wavy-leaved Hakea.
A bit of dancing and leg swatting later and we were in the clear and ready to explore the rusted ruins of the water tank. Originally built to service the logging industry, the old concrete, wood and sheet metal structure has since fallen into disrepair and is now a relic of another age. We had a bit of a poke around, Stephen very interested in the method used to hold the concrete together in the ring arrangement and myself loving the similarities between the colours of the rusted sheet metal and a nearby Jarrah tree. Unfortunately there has been a bit of rubbish thrown into the tank and graffiti written all over it but I guess that just adds to the charm (the graffiti at least). The water tank marks the start of what will be a long climb over the next 7km to cover the 250m vertical distance to the campsite on top of Mt Wells. To start with it is relatively flat and with more excellent Jarrah it was enjoyable walking.
Spotting more orchids along the way (fairy orchids this time), the forest eventually became a bit thicker and resembled more common regrowth forest you find in areas that have been previously logged. We used the time to swap stories and get to know each other a bit better given we would be companions for the next two and a half days. While I do enjoying wandering the forest alone, listening to podcasts and music, it was nice to have someone to walk with. Although this was my first time doing this section, it was nice to experience the track through the eyes of someone not from WA as Stephen asked questions about wildflowers, the trees and the wildlife. I tried to answer as best I could and eventually I was in the same mindset of observing a lot more and making notes of differences in the trees or landscape (more than I usually do).
Coming across an open section of the forest, a hill appeared behind the canopy that I initially thought was Mt Wells. Turns out it was a smaller hill to the north west but it meant that we would be climbing soon. This natural clearing provided a nice opportunity for some panoramic shots with a mass of tall trees and blue skies. Given we had plenty of time left and a decent climb up to the campsite we located another log to sit on and enjoyed a small break. We both remarked about the lack of wildlife on such a beautiful day where roads were few and far between but I assured Stephen that this was prime kangaroo and emu territory. As we chatted some more I heard a very faint drum noise to the east so was busy trying to spot any distant emus.
I soon realised that the noise wasn't coming from the east but from behind us to the west and sure enough there were three emus coming down the hill. Given we had been pretty still in the same position for about 15-20 minutes, we must have blended into the landscape because it took a while for them to notice us. When they did though, they did their panicked muppet show and sprinted off to the north even though we hadn't moved. They really aren't the smartest birds. With Stephen happy to see his first lot of emus on the Bibbulmun, we moved on and began the climb up the slopes of Mt Wells. The climb starts off very gradually with no more than a gentle 3% gradient and is home to some of the really soft, grey Jarrah that I enjoy. With a little bit of cloud cover starting to roll in, the lighting was getting softer and softer, making me happier and happier.
I was in my element as we continued through the excellent scenery although I had to pump the brakes on the number of photos I was taking because how many shots of Jarrah forest of this quality is too much (the answer is never enough to me). I found remnants of someones discarded and rusted clutch disc on the side of the track that seemed an odd place to replace one of those on your 4x4. More interesting to me were the trees and the wildflowers, of which there was an abundance around to photograph. After ten or so kilometres after the last one, we found another Rose Coneflower that hadn't quite fully formed so had the intricate pattern showing on the cone, amazing stuff. Before the climb reached the double digits in terms of gradient we found a tree that looked like it had snapped up the middle and fallen over the track recently. An interesting thing we found was the existence of what looked like an internal root system within the trunk that we both couldn't figure out.
Reaching the steeper section of the 4x4 track leading up the hill, the pace slowed a bit as we both went as fast as Stephen was willing. He insisted I carry on ahead but I was enjoying his company and where else did I have to be? Turning off the 4x4 track for a brief moment, we headed along single track through more quality Jarrah forest complete with an increase in Zamia Palms and Grass Trees. The gradient had flattened out a little so we got some respite from the calf burning inclines of the 4x4 track and could enjoy the scenery a little more. Eventually popping out onto the main 4x4 track leading up to Mt Wells, I was pleased to see it blocked off to vehicles from this side as I imagine the local bogan population would enjoy this spot and I've heard stories of hikers sharing the campsite with those that are not meant to be there.
With a bit of climbing to go we were at least on the home stretch and stopped for a while to admire what was around us. A plethora of Grass Trees could be seen up and down the hill, a wonderful sight when they are in such great numbers. In perfect lighting I was having a lot of fun photographing the tiny details I found everywhere from the cotton candy like moss that likes to hang off the banksias to the Parrot Bush flowers and even my first Donkey Orchid of the trip. I don't know why but I always make a point of trying to spot one on my spring hikes and it feels like a nice accomplishment when I do see one. I even managed to spot a tiny skink on a fallen branch and got in a quick shot before it scurried away into the leaf litter.
With only a small section of 4x4 track to get up we continued forth and pretty soon the top of the Mt Wells fire tower came into view through the trees. I may have let out a yell of excitement when I saw it as we'd reached home for the night and a campsite I was most curious about visiting for a number of reasons. The first being the fire tower, a cool feature that provides a bit of history to your stay and a nice place to sit and observe from (more on that later), the second being the unique nature of the shelter (the fully enclosed hut) and the third being the various stories I'd heard about the place being potentially haunted. Some people swear that they've seen or heard things in the night that are unnatural and for this very reason I brought my full tent setup.
The campsite itself is set right on top of Mt Wells with the shelter and tower set on the edge of a big clearing. A small set of communication boxes, antennae and aerials are a short distance away from camp and only serve to ruin the photos (for hikers at least). We dropped our bags at the table outside the shelter and inspected the hut to see if we fancied a stay in one of the rooms. Being a warm day there were flies buzzing around and to be honest, it didn't look very appealing after being used to the regular open, three sided shelters on the track. If the weather was windy and rainy like my friend Bonny experienced when she was here a couple of weeks earlier on her end to end then I might feel differently but on my visit I was more than happy to setup the tent and enjoy a night in my little cocoon. I can imagine settling in and getting the indoor fireplace going while the rain pounded against the roof would be a very cosy feeling (ghosts aside).
Stephen felt the same way so we both went off and found a tent site we liked, not easy on top of a hill like Mt Wells as finding a bit that was both flat and easy to dig your pegs in was difficult. In the end my tent was on a wonky angle but it would do me for the night. With the rest of the afternoon to enjoy the campsite I washed up and made myself a cup of tea to enjoy on the platform halfway up the old fire tower. Unfortunately they have blocked off the top section with razor wire so hikers have to settle for compromised views from about halfway up. It's still a cool place to enjoy a warm beverage as you soak in the last of the afternoon sun and think about the day you've just had. The added benefit for me was because you are so high up (552m ASL), I got reception with Vodafone. A quick call to Caris to let her know everything was alright plus some catch up on the socials was a good way to wind away the time before dinner.
As the sun slowly made it's way back to the westerly horizon for the day I prepped all my gear for the night and started on dinner. On the menu tonight was a veggie pasta complete with an essential added ingredient that really finishes the dish off, Hemp Parmesan. If you haven't tried it on your pasta meals when out hiking then make sure you do as it provides a salty crunch that is really comforting at the end of the day. I took my dinner and hot chocolate up to the fire tower as the sun was setting where Stephen joined me. There we enjoyed a muted sunset as the cloud cover was a little bit too much but there were still some nice colours to the sky. After the sunset we got a bonus with a moon rise to the east that really topped off a fantastic day on the trail. With the clouds hanging around and a full moon I wasn't going to be getting any decent astrophotography shots so we both retired to our respective tents. I instead enjoyed some wine, chocolate and Dark Crystal before falling asleep. I only got up once during the night and didn't see anything supernatural but I was well away from the shelter.
Final Thoughts - Another spectacular day on the Bibbulmun Track and one I can say that was truly enjoyable from start to finish.
I'd heard good things about the forests between North Bannister to Dwellingup so was very happy to confirm they were of the highest quality. With so much burning going on around WA it was nice to have a whole day not be affected by blackened trees and green jumpers.
The wildflowers out here were definitely a highlight with a great variety complimented with a great quantity. Spring in the Jarrah forest is a very rewarding season and I'm glad this trip got pushed out to this time of year.
Mt Wells as a campsite is fascinating and I love how this little bit of history has been preserved and celebrated. They could have easily built another shelter elsewhere and just made this another interesting but shallow feature so to have it form part of the camping experience is an asset to the track.
With Worsley wanting to expand their bauxite operations in this area I really hope the EPA knocks them back as the track would have to divert around this area and the ugly scarring would mean yet another blight on the Darling Scarp.
Best to plan a trip here while you still can, it's a wonderfully unique section of the track that deserves more than it has lined up in the future.
Get out there and experience it!!!
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