Wiilman Bilya Trail
Start - Coalfields Hwy
Finish - Wellington Dam Kiosk
Length - 20km (One Way)
Grade - Red
Terrain - Single Track, 4x4 Track
Vertical Climb - 452m
Time - 5-7 hours
Signed - Yes, Follow the Brown Boot
Cost - National Park Fees Apply
Date Hiked - 22nd June 2019
Best Time - Autumn to Spring
Directions - The northern trail head is located just off Coalfields Hwy. Look for the gravel road on the right hand side about 7km past the Wellington Dam Rd turnoff. Turn right again, drive through the gates and park in front of the Wiilman Bilya Sign.
The Hike - The creation of a new hiking trail in Western Australia is rarer than spotting a numbat in the wild with by our recollections on the podcast episode about this hike, the last Parks and Wildlife built trail being Eagle View sometime in the 90s (the excellent Wadjemup Bidi on Rottnest was mostly grant/sponsorship driven). With such a long wait, Donovan and Alissa from The Long Way's Better and myself were excited to check out the new trail, located a short distance from Collie in the stunning Wellington National Park. While the trail was officially launched in January 2019, we thought we'd wait until at least winter to experience in the right hiking weather and to maybe have a chance at early season wildflowers or winter fungi. At 20km one way it was either going to be an overnighter to take advantage of the brand new campsite or we would organise a car swap and do it in one day.
With both myself and Donovan having limited time and wanting to preserve some of our weekend for other activities we decided a car swap would be best with the initial plan being that once we got to Wellington Dam Rd, Donovan and Alissa would drive my car to the Kiosk end and I would drive their car to the Coalfields Hwy end. Starting at opposite ends we would meet in the middle somewhere and swap keys so we could drive our own cars back home. When it came time to do the hike though Alissa was still battling a cold so decided that a full day of hiking in the predicted stormy weather probably wasn't the best idea (rightly so). Donovan and I then decided to walk it together with a car at each end, which actually worked out well as one thing we didn't think about was both Donovan and Alissa don't have manual licenses so wouldn't have legally been able to drive my car (we would have figured out a system though).
As I mentioned the weather was predicted to be rough with afternoon storms set to dump upwards of 60-70mm but I was confident that we would miss most of that if we finished in the mid afternoon. Setting off on the two hour drive to Wellington National Park we left Donovan's car at the Kiosk car park and drove my car out to the start point. Finding the new Wiilman Bilya Trail sign where it said it would be, we were bemused when it showed the location of the actual trail start to be on the other side of the drainage channel that I'm assuming in late winter and spring is full of water. We tried locating a path to the highway but in the end crossed the channel and made a few comments about the interesting choice not to link the car park with the start by a more obvious path. We figured they expect you to walk back along the gravel road you came in on and then hike along the highway over the channel until you reach the start.
We eventually reached the other side of the channel and found the trail, which we had to backtrack on so we could begin at the intended start point. Finally reaching the official start right next to the highway we found nothing but a sign stating no motorbikes but were excited based off the short section we had just walked through. Immediately off the highway you enter a world of great Jarrah, lush ferns, green moss and plentiful fungi. Having experienced how nice the Jarrah forests of Wellington National Park can be while on the Sika Trail and Jabitj Trail, I was very excited for a long one way trail that explored the edges of the dam. With access to such a large water source and being in a fairly wet area to start with, the Jarrah forest around these areas can thrive and I believe it is the best in the state (it's a tight race between Collie and Dwellingup).
For those that listen to the podcast or follow The Long Way's Better know of the running joke that Donovan is not the biggest fan of the Jarrah forests, whereas I see it in a more favourable light. Expecting something similar, if not better, than the Sika Trail, I wasn't surprised as we walked along the vehicle track next to the dam and it was just kilometre after kilometre of stunning Jarrah. While following a vehicle track is usually something I don't like, in this case it made sense because it provided a good mix of dam views along with having the beautiful forest on your right. I've said before that vehicle tracks in Karri forest are sometimes better as you get a better sense of scale to the forest and this mature Jarrah was exactly the same. As we twisted around the track different views would open up with more of the dam showing, across to more lovely forest and the sounds of black cockatoos in the distance.
Donovan was a convert at this stage and was beginning to really enjoy his Jarrah forest experience, having been wary of the "World Class" label that DBCA had put on this hike in their release documentation. About 2.5km in from the start we arrived at the purpose built for this trail, Nyingarn Campsite (meaning echidna). Donovan and I had a laugh because as many of you may know, I've yet to see an echidna in Western Australia despite thousands of kilometres hiked over the years and with the drizzly weather I wasn't expecting to see one here (but you never know). The first thing we came across was the toilet block, which we originally thought was the shelter but as we approached it, it became clearer that this was only the beginning. Wonderfully constructed and thought out, the campsite is really high quality and both Donovan and I more than once said that we would love to stay the night here. Perhaps when they finish the proposed Collie Loop Trail that will link up this trail with the town and form a loop with the Bibbulmun Track spur.
The shelter are not exactly what you'd expect from a typical Bibbulmun Track shelter and more like the group campsites. There is no sleeping platform, instead just offering up two walls and a roof to keep you a bit dry. There are four bench seats for you to enjoy and the whole thing looks out over the artificial lake created by the dam (I'm going to start calling it a lake from here on out). There is a picnic table in the open with similar views and steps down to the edge of the lake. We spent a lot of time here marvelling at the location and Donovan even favourably compared it to the Echo Point Campsite on the Overland Track, high praise and a sign I think he was really enjoying the hike. We explored the tent sites up the hill and found them to be well thought out and well designed. A large fallen tree covered in moss provides a natural divider and the whole place just had a magic about it, as if it had existed for a hundred years or so.
Thoroughly impressed with the campsite and all the work that has gone into creating a nice place to stay, we said our farewells and moved on into the forest keen to explore what had started out as a fantastic trail. I hung back a little after we departed camp as I was loving all the fungi and moss growing everywhere so was busy taking as many photos as I could (finished the day with over 1200 on the memory card). The quality of the forest here kept its great standard, perhaps even got better as we moved onto single path. Still traversing the edge of the lake there were moments where it was all clear and you could get wider views over the water and then times when you headed inland a bit to enjoy the tall trees and green ferns.
As with any mature forest there was a nice variety of plant life ranging from Bracken Ferns to Banksias to Jarrah to Marri and all kinds of plants that will reveal themselves in the spring as the wildflower season begins. We saw a nice beach just off the trail so we found a clearing and decided to check it out first hand. As we exited the forest and the views widened it was another moment where you could fully appreciate the enormity of the Jarrah forest surrounding the lake created by Wellington Dam. As far as the eye could see were hills of Jarrah forest with the moody skies providing the perfect backdrop. We noted the red colours in the forest on the opposite bank and thought nothing of it, something that in hindsight was very important for the day.
Rejoining the trail we continued on, coming across a fantastic old log that was now blanketed in an assortment of different moss, fungi and lichen. This truly was a treat and something I love seeing in the wetter forests of Western Australia. The run along the water on the Warren River Loop Trail is full of these mossy, decaying features and they are a delight to photograph. I stayed here a while shooting the moss log from various angles before catching back up to Donovan. The now you see it, now you don't approach of the trail with regards to the lake continued here with great effect as the scenery is always changing. Saying goodbye to the lake for a while we headed back into the forest where the lush undergrowth and assortment of different plants and fungi had us raving about this trail.
We were both really enjoying our time here, constantly stopping for photos of the greenery or a new style of undergrowth. I think at one point near the creek crossing Donovan exclaimed something along the lines of having to eat a large helping of humble pie after doubting the World Class claims that had been put on this trail. If the first 5km or so were like this then I was going to need that second battery in my pack for all the photos I was going to take. The photos do convey a little of what it was like but you're missing the whole sensory experience of the wet smells, the touch of water drops falling off the canopy, the close feel of a mature forest and the 360 degree sight line that comes with being out there. It felt like being out on the Donnelly River to Pemberton section of the Bibbulmun Track, just without the golden Karri trunks filling up the forest.
Then we rounded a corner and saw it...
On our side of the intersecting 4x4 track it was all green and on the other side a scene of total devastation. The red tinged forest from before should have been a warning but it looked like it was on the other side of the lake. As it was we had looped around the edges of the lake and were now right in the middle of the aftermath of a recent prescribed burn. I get the reasoning behind prescribed burns and I'm all for them if carried out properly but it hurt so much that the first new trail we get in literal decades and less than six months of it being open they decide that torching it would be a great idea. As you can imagine, Donovan was not a happy camper as listeners to the podcast will know, along with those that read his posts on The Long Way's Better, he absolutely hates walking through burnt forest, more so when it is a prescribed burn.
Utterly bemused at the start, we joked around that they knew Donovan was coming so decided to burn here for a laugh. I took some photos of Donovan looking fake cross in front of the charred remains of the forest and we hoped that this would only be a small section of the trail. We continued on through the blackened mess of what we assume was of very similar quality to what we had just walked through, joking again that it looked like a cool burn as the canopy was left green in places (I severely doubt it was a controlled or cool burn based off what we saw along this section). Remarking that in places they had burnt their brand new trail markers, this was quickly becoming a real downer on what had started off as an excellent experience.
Both Donovan and I had been to the Mt Dale area just after the 2015 fires that swept through that area and both enjoy the contrasting colours of the blacks, reds and oranges. The difference there though was that was a natural fire caused by a lightning strike, which is completely normal for the forests of Australia. This type of deliberate mass burning that results in the same destruction, while sometimes necessary, is at least planned so why do it along a recreational trail, especially one that has just been opened and you spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on. Given the option of walking through blackened forest and what we had experienced on the first 5km, my choice would be for the quality mature forest.