Muttonbird to Sandpatch
Start - Muttonbird Campsite
Finish - Sandpatch Campsite
Campsite - Nornalup
Distance - 12.4km (One Way)
Vertical Climb - 117m
Time - 3-5 hours
Date Hiked - 25th September 2019
The Hike - The final day of the Bibbulmun was upon me and it was a morning of two starts. As promised, Gandalf and Pixie were up and about to leave at 4:30am so I briefly woke up then before falling right back to sleep. It would have been nice to wish them good luck on their final day but I'd see them again that afternoon. Rising again as first light was breaking, I thought the most appropriate way to see in my final day was to head to the coastal cliffs for what ended up being a stunning sunrise. Still in my thermal bottoms, thongs and jacket, I raced off down the 4x4 track and was soon in awe of the scene in front of me. With the sun rising behind the wind turbines to the east and some fluffy clouds hanging over the ocean, it was pretty magical sight that the perfect way to start the day.
Moments like these are why I get up early on the trail and take every opportunity to maximise the opportunity to see these special things. The humidity from yesterday had stuck around so it was a peaceful experience to sit on the limestone rocks and take in the gentle sounds of the ocean while watching the beautiful sunrise unfold. Really hoping a whale or two would swim on by to top off the experience, I was not that lucky but still had the lovely sunrise to watch so everything was fantastic in my world. My final day was a double hut into Albany, covering 25km of mostly flat terrain along the coast before heading inland towards Princess Royal Harbour and the walk into town. Hoping to get there by mid afternoon so I could check-in to the guesthouse I was staying at and have a hot shower. Returning to camp, I started the process of packing up my gear, noticing the infamous Muttonbird millipedes that I had read about from various sources. Happy that I had setup my tent inner the night before, I made sure my gear was millipede free before packing it away. Deciding to have breakfast on the trail, I brewed my last coffee for the trip and enjoyed that while stuffing everything into my pack in the correct order. Leaving just after 7am, the legs were feeling great and I was in a very happy mood, keen to explore the coastline and take in the much talked about Albany Wind Farm.
The morning light was providing some excellent scenes as the trail climbs out of the little ravine and up onto the ridge running parallel with the coastline. The wildflowers were out in force with a pink, purple and yellow theme to the early stretch thanks to some Rose Coneflowers, Native Geranium, Coastal Banjine and Wattle. Some low lying Banksia cones were in flower as you looked out towards the ocean and their beautiful structures and colours were a real treat in the morning light. The wind turbines disappeared in the first part of the day and it was nice to see the hills in their bare form given how much of the morning would be spent admiring the towering sources of renewable energy. The perfect weather looked to continue today with calm seas and non-threatening clouds providing a nice vista to photograph. There was a stillness to the air that was lovely to walk in and caused me to slow down a little and enjoy my walking a bit more. I came across a small seat overlooking the ocean and even though I was only a couple of kilometres into the day, I stopped to see if I could see any whales.
Given this was my last day, I was determined to see a whale so sat on the wooden plank overlooking the ocean and really concentrated on the vast blue laid out in front of me. I had my eyes focused and could spot every white cap that appeared but there were no whales for me. I'm guessing as soon as I turned my back they all surfaced and had a good laugh at being so good at hide and seek. With the fluffy white clouds sticking around this morning, the ocean was looking a treat as I continued along the coastal path that I was happy decided to stick with the ocean views rather than head inland. With the wind turbines getting closer and closer, it was exciting that the track takes you right up to a pretty close distance. With 18 turbines in total along the coast, it provides about 30% of Albany's power supply and is a tourist destination in it's own right. They are very photogenic, especially at sunrise and sunset, and there has been a bit of infrastructure around Sandpatch to allow visitors to walk along the coast and admire them. I'm all for green energy and I'm surprised there aren't more projects like this all along the south coast as WA isn't exactly known for being a state with gentle breezes.
While I said that the track doesn't take you inland along here, it does occasionally head through some thick sections of Peppermint trees but this just serves to provide a bit of well needed shade. It's also a good opportunity to spot some wildflowers and orchids because in spring they can be really hard to spot. Getting closer to the first three wind turbines, it was nice to hear the gentle swoop as the giant blades rotated. In sections where the sun was behind the blades, the shadows would swoop in and out of your view as you walked along. Together with the excellent wildflowers and orchids, there were many Banksias that were flowering including some really bright cones of red and orange. With different Banksia trees in various stages of the flowering process, there was a great variety on display and it was really cool to see the whole life cycle as you passed different trees. With the wind turbines continuing to be a feature, it was easy to track your progress throughout the morning and the best was yet to come as the path once again returned closer to the ocean.
The bulk of the wind turbines appeared in the distance as the track rose over a small hill and provided yet another fantastic lookout spot. It's only a small tease though as you head back into the thick Peppermint groves for a shady retreat from the morning sun. Here was the best grouping of orchids for the day with Donkey, Cowslips and Sun Orchids visible over a short stretch of the track. Even after four days of ridiculous levels of wildflowers along every kilometre of the track (beach section aside), you would think my enthusiasm for seeing them would be diminished but every time I saw a good clumping or an interesting angle, I spent the time to bend over and take a photo (easily ended up with over 4000 for this five day stretch). With the morning sun getting a bit fierce and the shady Peppermints coming to an end, I stopped at one of the many markers and had a small break to apply some sunscreen. I got distracted by some purple daisies hidden in the nearby bushes but with some sun smart application, I was ready to hit the trail once again and enjoy the best part of the day leading to the Sandpatch stairs.
Arriving at another little lookout, I noticed a path leading down the cliffs a little bit and decided to check it out because why not. It just led down to a better position over the cliffs looking down to the shore below but this turned out to be the right decision. Even though you are right near the water, the cliffs are still 80m above sea level so trying to spot things in the water is still a challenge. Spot things I did though as I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and wouldn't you know it, right below the cliffs were a pod of dolphins having a surf in the waves. I quickly got the camera zoomed in and focused but even at the 55mm position they were still tiny specs on the screen. Figuring I either had the shot or I didn't, I put the camera down and just watched them frolic with my own lenses for a while. This had me excited for more potential aquatic sightings for the morning but if that was going to be it then I would be happy with that. With an extra pep to my step, I continued on and came across another bench overlooking the ocean but given I'd just stopped for dolphin surfing, I took a couple of photos and kept going.
Up ahead was the first of a few hang gliding launching spots that were home to the various clubs in the area. The first belonged to the Southern Slope Soarers (lovely alliteration there) but was unfortunately devoid of activity on this Wednesday morning. It would be really cool to be here when they were launching themselves off the cliffs and get some photos backdrop against the lovely colours of the ocean. I'm assuming they soar over the ocean for a bit before landing at the beach near the Sandpatch stairs. This was the start of the really magical stretch of walking as you had fantastic views up and down the coast with wind turbines in either direction providing focal points for the photos and the sun was shining brightly, making the turquoise waters closer to the cliffs just pop with bright colour. The bright sun had also attracted a slivering local to try and catch some rays on the track. It wasn't too keen to stick around so I got the tail end of another snake as it crawled into the bushes. The wildlife spotting didn't stop there with a large bird circling the cliffs looking for a morning meal. I couldn't quite make it at the time but looking at the photo I took, it could be a Barn Owl.
Becoming more of a feature as you moved along the coast was the tiny dot before the horizon that is Stony Island. I love the little islands dotted along the south coast as they provide something interesting to look at while you walk along and I always imagine what it would be like to visit them (on a calm day like today). By now you are in the thick of the wind turbines and there are plenty of great photo opportunities looking in both directions. With the cloud cover in the background, the view was looking a million dollars, both inland towards the turbines and out over the ocean. Passing more varieties of wildflowers that I hadn't seen today including the leaf coloured petals that I first saw heading to West Cape Howe and a fluffy white concoction that looked like a variant of Old Man's Beard. Coming across the boardwalk that was installed when the wind turbines were constructed in the early 2000s, I knew I was getting closer to Sandpatch and an area that attracts a lot of visitors. Easy to access via the road, there are numerous seats and lookouts along here for day trippers to come out and experience the beauty of the coastal cliffs. I sign pointing the way to Albany was another reminder that this was my final day on the track but for some reason it just felt like any other day.
Reaching the multi-level whale watching platform, I was sure that this would be the spot where I would see a few mamangs breaching as they made their way along the coast. Being a calm and sunny day would surely be the best conditions for a bit of play so in between reading the excellent information boards I once again started to focus my gaze on the water to try and catch any sign of a whale. Again there were no whales to be found so I continued to explore the area and read the information boards telling you about the area. From this elevated position the ocean was at least looking just absolutely stunning with the azure waters and foaming white water creating some vivid photos. A bit further on from the whale lookout are the famous Sandpatch stairs, a long set of stairs leading down to the water that is commonly used by surfers to access the surf break below. Had I not been keen to get into Albany I would have dropped my pack and headed down to the water but I think I'll save that for a return visit to write up the day walk found here (maybe even drag the surfboard that's been sitting in my garage since I bought it in my youth).
The track then momentarily heads away from the coast and another sign pointing you to Albany indicates that there are only 14km to go, meaning it's a couple of kilometres to go until the Sandpatch Campsite. Thinking that this would be the end of the coastal views until the campsite, the track then does a small u-turn and you are back walking along the cliffs. Looking back to the west was another pretty sight and then you start heading into the aftermath of the 2018 fires. An out of control burn in Torndirrup National Park at the end of a hot and windy week after a really dry autumn resulted in a large section of the coast being destroyed, along with the Sandpatch Campsite. At the time of writing, the new shelter was having the finishing touches applied to it and it will be a functioning campsite once again. On my visit there was a good amount of regrowth but the Peppermint trees were all skeletons, making the place feel very eerie. On the plus side, the wildflowers had come back well and in sections there were carpets of the red peas lighting up the somewhat gloomy landscape. Arriving at the campsite, it was a bit of a sad sight to see just a table, water tank and toilet standing there with an empty patch where the shelter used to be. I had a small break here, checking out the nearby lookout that would be an amazing spot to view the sunrise/sunset/spring Milky Way. One day I'll return and stay here the night to get the full experience.
Final Thoughts - A section I was looking forward to hiking and what a way to start my final day.
With glorious weather and a perfectly calm ocean, I don't think I could have asked for better conditions. Seeing the wind turbines is the obvious highlight but I think the combination of turbines, some of the best coastal cliff walking and being so close to the ocean for most of the section is what makes this bit so special.
While there were no whale sightings, seeing surfing dolphins was a fantastic spectacle.
After the 2018 fires it was disappointing to lose the Sandpatch shelter unnecessarily and I think if it was still standing then I would have made room for an extra day and stayed at what looks like one of the best campsites along this section.
The final campsite before Albany and only one final stretch of walking until the end...
Get out there and experience it!!!
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