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In the beginning…

By Dave on December 30th, 2009

Sitting in a café having lunch with a friend in early 2003, I was yet again rabbiting on about all the good bushwalking opportunities near Perth that weren’t documented and that most ‘outdoors’ people in Perth were sadly unaware of.

Perhaps in the hope of moving on to more mutually interesting subjects (he was a non-bushwalker), he suggested “Why don’t you put all your walk routes onto a website?” – The obvious solution and just the challenge needed! So starting with no real IT skills, and after purchasing the old MS Frontpage software and a student’s primer on web authoring, I embarked on a steep learning curve on how to build a website.

By October 2003 I had launched my non-commercial WalkGPS website. It had, and still has, the simple aim of sharing my local bushwalking information with others, to help fill that big gap that still exists in the public knowledge of the many thoroughly enjoyable bushwalking opportunities within 100 km of Perth city. The site initially provided descriptions for about 15 bushwalks in the Perth region. Over the past six years the total number of walks on the site has grown to over 55 with a few more still to be added when time permits.

Despite all that walking, I am a Johnny-come-lately on the local bushwalking scene; ‘Tramping’ in N.Z. had been a major passion through my high school years and through University, but I didn’t get started into the Australian equivalent until as recently as 2001 – almost 30 years after I had first arrived in Perth from N.Z. in 1972. I had arrived as a young geologist straight out of Auckland University, to take up an oil exploration job based in Perth. It was an especially exciting phase in the industry when exploration offshore on the Northwest Shelf was still in its early infancy and exploration drilling was still testing remote onshore areas such as the Canning Basin beneath the Great Sandy Desert. It was an opportunity to visit many interesting onshore locations that would otherwise be difficult to get to as a private individual. I ‘sat’ wells in the desert, on Barrow Island, and also on offshore drilling rigs at locations ranging from the middle of the Timor Sea to offshore of Mandurah. There were major gas, and some oil, discoveries and lots of ‘dry’ wells, but for a young geologist nearly every exploration well was very exciting; to be interpreting the geology often for the first time from the rock ‘cuttings’ broken up by the drill bit and carried in the drilling ‘mud’ to the surface, from depths up to about 4 km.

But back in Perth more permanently, after a few years and many work stints on remote wellsites, why was it I then took so long (another 25 years or so!) to rediscover my love of walking? – In the anticipation of lots of walking in W.A., before I left N.Z. I had even invested in a new custom-made ‘Mountain Mule’ backpack, which at the time was still considered the pack of first choice by N.Z. trampers and hunters. The best local service that pack gave me over the subsequent years was for family excursions to Rottnest Island! For a newcomer from N.Z. it was frankly difficult to get enthused about walking in the eucalypt forests near Perth: The Darling ‘Range’ was really just a low plateau; the climate was very harsh compared to N.Z. and it seemed too uncomfortably hot for walking for much of the year; the streams were mainly ephemeral and therefore not reliable as year-round (or even winter) drinking water sources; there were snakes and ticks (not present in N.Z.); few real walking tracks (aside from the precursor to the ‘new’ Bibbulmun Track); the vegetation was seemingly rather monotonous, being dominated by just a few tree species (jarrah, marri and wandoo); and to a geologist even the geology was also quite unexciting, being dominated by just a few igneous rock-types (mainly granite and dolerite), often with a capping of laterite.

Even the Waitakere Ranges, less than an hour’s drive from my native Auckland, had been such a striking contrast to the Darling Range: The species-rich, sub-tropical coastal rainforest of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park covers an area of only 160 sq km (which is less than 4% of the 4100 sq km area of the northern Darling Range forests, north of Dwellingup). Yet the Waitakeres contain around 250 km of much-used walking tracks, contrasting with our single, main walking track, the Bibbulmun Track (which is 202 km for the Kalamunda-Dwellingup section through the northern catchments). There are picturesque streams flowing year-round to drink from and to camp near; rugged terrain, with interesting geology and landforms and often dramatic scenery (including some of the stunning settings for the 1993 N.Z. movie “The Piano”); surf beaches (albeit with black volcanic sand!); and no snakes and ticks! –A walker’s delight! (Aside: The Waitakere Ranges also include water catchments for five water reservoirs which provide around 25% of the drinking water requirements for Auckland’s 1.3 million population. That is a quite similar situation to Perth where the Darling Range reservoirs currently satisfy around 27% of the water demands of Perth’s 1.6 million population. The Waitakeres perhaps provide a useful example of community recreational access (for walking) to a drinking water source area, an issue of relevance to the future of bushwalking in the Darling Range near Perth which has been under threat in recent years.)

In about 1985, aware of my then long-dormant love of walking, my wife bought me as a birthday gift, the wonderful little book “Forests on Foot (40 walks in W.A.)” by Kathy Meney and P. Brown, and published that year by the then Campaign to Save Native Forests. As I flicked through the pages of “Forests on Foot at that time I found myself interested, but still not quite ready to test this new walking experience, so alien from what I had grown up with and enjoyed in N.Z. So that little book was to remain tantalizingly on my bookshelf in pristine condition – for another 15 years or so – until it was to become the inspiration for me to start visiting some of the walk routes and to eventually include variations on some of those walks on my WalkGPS site. Meanwhile in those intervening years Perth of course offered lots of other fulfilling interests and distractions to fill the gap!

Clearly I wasn’t the first to suffer such detachment from ‘place’ and won’t be the last. In 1972, the very year I arrived in Perth, Australian academic George Seddon had first published his landmark book, “Sense of Place”, which was his response to the Swan Coastal Plain environment. Seddon brought to his highly regarded writings a wonderfully multidisciplinary background, having held University chairs in Geology, English, Philosophy and Environment. He was also a keen gardener and bushwalker. After years away from Australia, and having been brought up in country Victoria, Seddon captured his early impressions of Western Australia in the Foreword to his book, as follows: “The country was all wrong and I felt cheated. This wasn’t what I had come back for; where were the ferntree gullies, the high plains, the trout? All the plants scratched your legs. The jarrah was a grotesque parody of a tree, gaunt, misshapen, usually with a few dead limbs, fire-blackened trunk, and barely enough leaves to shade a small ant. If you went camping in the summer, you carried water – you couldn’t take a running stream for granted. It was slowly borne in on me that I wasn’t an Australian at all, but a Victorian…. Slowly I came to understand the land better.” Seddon acknowledged he had been “ill-prepared” for Western Australia, and sensed that “this must be a common experience”. But he also noted that “even the Western Australians whose families have been here for three and four generations are ill-prepared in some basic ways”.

I was to find, like Seddon, that achieving a real sense of place in this seemingly very unfamiliar environment would not occur through some strange epiphany. There would be no instant gratification. Rather it would be through a more patient and cumulative process of “learning to see”, to experience and eventually to truly appreciate the new environment. For some aspiring bushwalkers that process might be accelerated by becoming immersed in a challenging 960km end-to-end walk of the Bibbulmun Track. But for me it finally began in 2001 in a more gingerly manner, by dusting off my old copy of “Forests on Foot”, testing out a few off-track, map-and-compass walks in the nearby Darling Range, and joining the Perth Bushwalkers Club.

Ironically, once I got started, my old prejudices and misconceptions began to quickly fall away: Yes, the climate in the Perth region can be harsh and unforgiving for those foolhardy enough to bushwalk in mid-summer, but it is otherwise mostly pleasant from mid-April to early November during the main autumn-winter-spring bushwalking period; There may not be much obvious drama in the landforms of the nearby Darling ‘Plateau’, but there are the partly ‘bald’ granite domes of the ‘monadnocks’ providing views across the surrounding plateau (plus a few modest challenges for rock climbers). The fracturing, weathering, exfoliating of the many ancient outcrops also produces aesthetically curved and stained slopes and other natural sculptures, including giant granite boulders. The deeper gullies, gorges, and several waterfalls toward the western margin of the Range, near the Darling Scarp, also add special interest and walking opportunities.

There is also the beauty and amazing diversity of the wildflowers throughout much of the walking season, more than compensating for the limited variety in the forest canopy. There is the almost magical annual resurrection of life-in-miniature on the granite outcrops as seemingly dead mosses, lichens, sundews, and ‘pincushions’ (Borya sp.) respond to winter rains and moisture. There is the grace and exquisite form of many of the orchids, often the first plant life to emerge after a bushfire, and along with other resilient wildflowers, quick to soften the initial oppressiveness of the stark, fire-blackened jarrah forest. And then I found, like many before me (and also perfectly described in “Forests on Foot”, p.83), the very light and open wandoo woodlands to the east to be the most welcoming and refreshing of places: The rich, warm glow of the freshly exposed orange trunks of the ‘powder barks’ (Eucalyptus accedens) after the autumn bark-shedding, contrasting with the cool silvery-white trunks of the wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo), often juxtaposed against the dark brown-red slope of a laterite ‘breakaway’, and all softened by sunlight streaming through the relatively open canopy, creating scenes that would have any landscape painter reaching for his/her palette.

And there are the encounters with wildlife, especially when walking quietly, alone; mostly kangaroos, wallabies, emus, wedge-tailed eagles, parrots, tawny frogmouths, lizards of various types, occasionally echidnas. Early trepidation over snakes and ticks, and even feral pigs was soon replaced by the awareness that a small amount of knowledge and commonsense (including now carrying a Personal Location Beacon) was all that was needed for peace of mind (not the least for those at home!), and that any greater response was irrational. (Note: The advent of the Personal Location Beacon in recent years has provided a wonderful and highly recommended ‘insurance’ for any solitary walker, or group of walkers, in the very unlikely event of snakebite or any other serious misadventure in a remote area!)

But one of the most significant revelations was the surprising accessibility from Perth of the many worthwhile bushwalking areas in the Darling Range, most being within 100km of Perth city and an easy hour-or-so’s drive. The convenience factor was important in making it easy to establish a regular bushwalking habit: A day’s bushwalking of around 15-20km can be fitted very easily into most weekends when work pressures could otherwise make longer, overnight trips away from Perth too difficult. And there was also the variety factor: No need to go repeatedly back to the same walk area when there was such a range of areas within the State Forests and National Parks to select from and explore. (Note: The issue of accessibility and variety is a topical one in view of the current W.A. State Parliamentary inquiry into recreation activities in drinking water catchments in the Darling Range. – See more commentary on this issue on WalkGPS.)

There was also the realization that the mainly relatively light and open eucalypt forests and woodlands are ideal for minimal impact, off-track (cross-country) bushwalking. Such walking offers a special freedom and the obstacles are minimal. The thickets of prickly ‘parrot bush’ and other ‘dryandra’ species (now re-classified as banksias) which often dominate on lateritic hilltops (especially in the wandoo woodlands) are mostly easily bypassed. Similarly, patches of scratchy shrublands and heathlands are common around granite outcrops, but the patient walker usually finds the easy way through by following well worn animal trails (mainly from western grey kangaroos and brush wallabies). Unlike in my native N.Z., ‘bush-bashing’ would not be required to walk cross-country through these forests!

And finally the advent of the hand-held GPS receiver unit as an accurate navigation tool added another level of freedom to off-track walking in the Darling Range. Like myself, most others using map and GPS have found that it has liberated them from the usual limitations and uncertainties of traditional map and compass navigation alone, especially when gentle terrain increases the challenge by providing few prominent landmarks or other clues. With map and GPS there is that wonderful new freedom of being able to wander freely; to fully enjoy the bushwalking experience and environment; not keeping to a compass-bearing but often exploring away from a planned route; and then being able to navigate back to the known route at any time from wherever your curiosity may have led you on the day. I quickly discovered that while map and GPS navigation is a catalyst for both freedom and adventure, it is also the ideal tool for the solitary walker simply seeking a relaxing walk in the forest without being preoccupied with navigation.

And so, having taken my first belated bushwalking steps into the Darling Range in 2001 as a 51-year old, and having purchased a basic GPS receiver in early 2002, I have over the past eight years recorded cumulatively more than 4500 km of bushwalking in the region, including optimising my initial walk routes, and eventually documenting many of them on WalkGPS. But aside from all the pleasure I have had from sharing information on the walks with many others through WalkGPS, this has been an intensely personal and profoundly satisfying journey, rewarding me along the way with that long-elusive ‘sense of place’. As I celebrated my 60th birthday in late 2009, I was quietly thankful for what bushwalking and the Darling Range near Perth has given me. I thought ahead to the many ‘classic’ overseas and interstate treks that still await me, but in the sure knowledge that my walking in the Darling Range will also continue. After all – as Marcel Proust wrote at the end of the 19th Century – “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.


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