West Cape Howe to Torbay
Start - West Cape Howe Campsite
Finish - Torbay Campsite
Campsite - Nornalup
Distance - 17.2km (One Way)
Vertical Climb - 352m
Time - 4-8 Hours
Date Hiked - 24th September 2019
The Hike - After an enjoyable introduction to the Denmark to Albany section of the track, I woke up on the penultimate day of walking for my sectional end to end. With such a great vantage point to take in the sunrise, I was up and about early, exploring the area around camp as I photographed the changing colours. Given the location of the shelter and the accompanying viewing areas, West Cape Howe Campsite is best just before first light. There is a calmness to the air and the approach of another day on the track is made all the better by being up early and seizing the moment. Another reason for being up early was I had 29km to cover today between West Cape Howe and Muttonbird. As I've stated before, I have previously being doing shorter days between the designated campsites but for this section I decided to stretch the legs and double all the way into Albany over three days.
The body was feeling great after the 27km day yesterday so I was raring to get going while the air was still cool. After watching the sunrise and packing my possessions away, I was ready to go at 7am, a very unusual occurrence for me. I love walking at first light as the air is cooler, the lighting softer and there is just something about the experience that is much more enjoyable. Back home I often aim to be out on day hikes at sunrise to capture the best of the conditions but out on the Bibbulmun I normally can't find the motivation to be out early mainly because I'd be done by lunchtime and would end up spending half the day sitting at camp. With 29km to get through, this wouldn't be an issue so I headed off on the first section and found a bit of an issue with hiking this early on the south coast. With the N-S direction of hiking, when you hit the south coast it turns to W-E and you start the day hiking directly into the sun. That's fantastic if you're cold and you want to feel the warmth of the sun on your face but when photos are involved, especially through closed in coastal heath, it can be a bit annoying.
As I headed away from camp, the views of the ocean disappeared every now and then, replaced with a winding path through the Peppermint trees and a bright sun right in my eye line. I compensated by shooting either what I had just walked through or on the ground at the various wildflowers and orchids that dotted the path. Occasional ocean views presented themselves but were nothing compared to the epic scenes I would get later that morning as I headed to West Cape Howe. While the previous campsite is named after the southernmost point in Western Australia, the Bibbulmun Track only takes you to within viewing distance, a great shame since it has the opportunity to rival some of the amazing coastal cliff walking they have in Tasmania like Cape Hauy and Three Capes (maybe not quite at Cape Pillar levels). I hope one day the track gets realigned but for the current alignment, a far off glimpse and the occasional lookout is the best we get. As you head through the Peppermint trees the lighting in real life was really good but obviously doesn't translate through the camera due to it's limitations. The dune bashing through here lasts a good 3-4km and while I knew it would eventually get better with a few highlights coming up throughout the day, it was still a bit of a mission to hike through the endless twists, turns and hills.
Coming across Shepherds Lagoon Rd, from a little way back I could see the after effects of the prescribed burns people had mentioned in the log books at West Cape Howe. The south coast is a little different when it comes to prescribed burns as the coastal heath is full of quick burning grasses that left unchecked can cause a lot of devastation in a short amount of time. The burn had happened a month or two back and funnily enough, the diversion to Torbay cut out a significant distance for the day (from memory it was only 10km instead of 17km). Arriving at the edge of the burn I was happy to see the diversion was no longer in place and I was free to walk the full 17km to Torbay. Being near the top of the hill I had been climbing all morning I decided to have a break in the shade and give Caris a call and see how she was. With a diversion essentially cutting out 7km of the day I was really worried that the burn was extensive and I'd be walking through a wasteland for kilometres on end. I sent a picture to the hiking group chat I have and they all made comments about the appearance and also hoped that it wouldn't last too long.
With a decent break under my belt and the morning starting to warm up, I headed off thinking to myself that at least the snakes would be easier to spot now. While endless kilometres through this type of burnt terrain would not be ideal, in short bursts it can actually be quite amazing to see with a tragic beauty to it. It was quite cool to see the contrast between the blackened ground, the green of the new shoots coming through and the blue of the ocean in the background. As much as I don't like the way the prescribed burn program is handled in WA (very hot burns over too large an area at the wrong times of year), when done properly I am perfectly fine with it. The colour palette was very interesting with lots of black, orange and red. The snakes ended up being very easy to see as one was near the edge of the track and I managed to catch the literal tail end of it slithering off into the charcoal. Walking through the burnt area, I was pleasantly surprised to see it end after maybe 600-800m of winding through the dunes and a stark contrast of burnt and green coastal heath appearing in the distance. It was a relief to continue through greenery once more with plenty of wildflowers dotting the side of the trail.
Popping out from the dunes and out onto the hills leading down to the coast, this was the start of a very enjoyable section of walking. The views of West Cape Howe will be a constant through here and it's a good landmark to use to help judge your progress over the morning. Like I said, it's a shame the track doesn't give you the whole WCH experience but for now it is nice to see it from a distance. One thing you notice from this position is how steep the hill down to the ocean is without the help of the limestone cliffs that are common to the south coast. A long staircase provides a fun way to head down the hill and the perspective as you descend is really quite cool given you are staring right down to the turquoise waters below. While those with dodgy knees might curse this area (or those heading back up it in the other direction) I was really enjoying the steepness of the trail and the expansive views it was providing. With perfect whale watching conditions given the flat ocean and clear day, my gaze kept wandering over the endless blue trying to spot a migrating whale.
Alas it was not to be and I had to be content with spotting what was in the coastal heath instead. One particular plant I had a laugh at was the Woolly Bush that started to appear along here. Caris and I have frequent discussions about the Woolly Bush and our different levels of enjoyment over this thick green plant. Caris really enjoys them while I was not always the biggest fan of them until this trip. My reasoning is they looked really out of place in the suburbs of Leeming, where I grew up as a kid and always had not much growing around them in the sandy soil. Caris grew up along the coast south of Perth where it would have naturally grown and enjoys them. Seeing them in their natural state, I started to appreciate them a lot more with the thick green/silver needles providing a a cool foreground object to photograph against the vivid blue of the Southern Ocean. At the bottom of the steep hill you start heading more towards the water and the views looking back towards the west start to open up. It was turning into a glorious morning with the bright sun really lighting up the deep colours of the ocean and highlighting the famous turquoise waters closer to shore.
The trail continues to hug the coastline for a while as it flattens out and allows you to take in the majesty of the Southern Ocean stretching out before your eyes. With such an expanse I once again stopped and started training my eyes to search for whales. You need a few minutes for them to adjust to the distance and it's a very intense sensory experience to channel everything else out and just stare intently at the vast blue. Every white peak of the waves becomes a potential breach but having spent a while standing still and scanning the water, I decided that this wasn't my moment and continued on. I was having much better luck with the land based details so continued along the track trying to spot different wildflowers, snakes, lizards and anything else that might catch my attention. The flat walking was nice and served as a point where I could speed up a bit but this also felt like an area where I could just meander around. With the coastal heath extending way into the distance and the rolling hills seemingly never ending, this felt very much like a wild place.
With the trail snaking is way into the distance towards the hills, I knew that the flat would soon end and it would be more climbing to reach what I hoped was a spot I was really looking forward to. Now much closer to the West Cape Howe headland, the prominent landmark that had been my companion for the morning disappeared, replaced by grassy hills and fields of pink Coastal Banjine. It was quite the spectacular sight and one I'll not forget anytime soon, kind of reminding me of the "Avenue of Pink" that appears in the Kingdom of Py come late spring. In this green paradise I spotted some locals and they were all too happy for me to walk on by, simply raising their bodies upright and inspecting the crazy human walking by. It was another cool sight with the green wildflower filled hills extending downhill all the way to the ocean and a mob of kangaroos just happily grazing away. I met another local not far along with another Bobtail Lizard sunbaking on the edge of the trail. This one wasn't as friendly, showing me the full jaws open warning as I tried to take a photo from a decent distance away. Receiving the warning loud and clear, I headed uphill and into the Peppermint trees that were home to a few 28s (parrots) but a decent photo eluded me.
The area I was quite looking forward to was right ahead and after crossing Dunskys Rd, the main 4x4 track that takes you to the end of West Cape Howe, I was nearing the famous narrow limestone ridge that the track passes over. My first visual that I remember of this section was from Michelle of Walkingtwobytwo fame and she was using a wide angle lens that made the track look like it dropped away severely on each side. In real life the effect wasn't as pronounced but this is a real highlight of the day as it also marks the first time you see further afield to Torndirrup National Park. At this point it really hit me that tomorrow I would be finishing the Bibbulmun Track and Albany was getting very close. Having spent the last day and a bit wandering through terrain that could have been anywhere along the south coast, it was a big moment to be confronted with the final stretch of coast and the end of my three year journey to this point. After it sunk in, I was back to enjoying the present moment and admiring the rugged beauty of the limestone cliffs around me. You really are up quite high and the headland of West Cape Howe can be seen again extending off towards the horizon. As you continue along the ridge gets narrower and you start walking along some boardwalk that have done well to survive up here through a couple of fires.
I stopped again to watch some smaller birds of prey circling above and then swooping down, thinking to myself that the cliffs would provide some great nesting spots. The views down into the heath filled valley are pretty awe inspiring and as you continue along the white sands of Shelley Beach continue to open up. Coming across the plaque for the Bruce Tarbotton Memorial Walk, I remembered Donovan mentioning this on the podcast and jokingly saying this was the shortest trail in WA and he wasn't wrong. The trail extends maybe 10m up a small hill to provide some even better views of Shelley Beach and West Cape Howe than what you can see from the trail. It may be short but you can't fault the trail design, wow factor or attention to detail with the quality of the plaque. I think I picked a pretty good day to be walking this section and although it was getting towards midday and the sun was feeling pretty harsh, the classic hues of the ocean more than made up for any discomfort I was feeling. From the Bruce Tarbotton Memorial Trail the track starts to descend off the limestone ridge and you reach a sign that confirms that Albany is indeed on the radar from here on out. There is a side trail down to a pretty famous spot that is synonymous with West Cape Howe and that is the car park where the hang gliders launch from.