In July 1972 Geoff Schafer walked into the office of the then Minister for Forests, H.D. Evans, with an idea designed to prompt urban people to go bush. The Minister listened, liked what he heard, and sent Geoff and his idea to the Forests Department with a green light to go ahead and thus the Bibbulmun Track was born.
Geoff, then an active member of the Perth Bushwalking Club, was a former Victorian, and used that State's Alpine Way as inspiration for his proposed Perth-to-Albany walk track. His idea, however, was cause for some consternation in the Forests Department, which at the time had only a very small recreation budget, and little or no knowledge of long distance trails.
Fortunately, within the Department were several officers who seized on the inspiration Geoff's idea provided, and set about the considerable challenges it posed. Foremost among these were Peter Hewett and Ross Gobby who were to play significant parts in transforming the idea into reality, a process which was to take almost two years.
By September of 1972 the enthusiastic planning team had designed on paper a Lancelin-to-Albany walk, via the Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge, but in ensuing months it was realised this was unrealistic, and this rather grand proposition was abandoned in favour of a shorter Kalamunda to Northcliffe proposal.
With this change of route the early name Perth to Albany Track was abandoned, and the search for a new name began. Many options were considered until a suggestion was made by Kirup forester Len Talbot that the Track be named to recognise the pre-European inhabitants of the area, the Bibbulmun. This suggestion was adopted as both unique and appropriate, even though the Track did not follow Aboriginal travel routes; rather it recognised the Bibbulmun peoples' practice of walking long distances for ceremonial gatherings.
Early planning of the alignment was plagued by concerns over public access to domestic water catchment areas and the impact of bauxite mining, which was at the time going through a rapid expansion. Nonetheless, the first alignment of the Track was marked on the ground in March 1974. For the next four years this route was subject to a range of modifications as various parties sought to ensure that their interests were preserved.
Despite the numerous modifications and realignments, walkers were using the Track throughout the seventies, with the Forests Department logging over 1000 enquiries a year. Finally, in October 1979, the Bibbulmun Track was officially opened as part of Western Australia's 150th year celebrations, an event celebrated by Bibbulmun Walk '79. This 900km journey (which began in Albany, although the Track only went from Kalamunda to Northcliffe), included a full traverse of the Track, and involved over 1000 walkers on different stages.
Media coverage of the Bibbulmun Walk was extensive, and community response all along the route reflected a growing acceptance of the Track as a significant means of recreational access to the forests of the south west. Numerous schools took part in the walk, as did most local Shire Councils, with the Kalamunda Shire playing a leading role in organising and promoting the whole venture. A core group of hardy souls walked the whole distance, thus becoming perhaps the first official end-to-enders.
The 1988 upgrade
During 1987/88 the then newly formed Department of Conservation and Land Management undertook a significant overhaul of the Track, including the relocation of the section between Kalamunda and Dwellingup further east, to avoid conflict with bauxite mining. Further, the south end of the Track was extended east from Boorara Tree, near Northcliffe, to Walpole, traversing the new Shannon National Park.
This project, overseen by Project Officer Drew Griffiths, also saw the adoption of the distinctive Waugal symbol as a trail marker, and the incorporation of the Track into the State's Heritage Trail network. Track usage was hard to quantify at this time, but was estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 per year. The majority of these users were short term hikers undertaking walks of 1-3 days, reflecting the real wisdom of Geoff Schafer's original plan to draw would be walkers out into the bush. It was recognised early in the history of the Track that it would be built not for those hardy few who'd walk end-to-end, but as a magnet for all those who might dream of doing so, but would take a short walk instead.
Building a better track
By the early nineties walkers and Department of Conservation and Land Management District staff were once again reporting a range of issues impacting on the Track, mainly focused around ongoing conflict with other land uses; forestry operations, mining, water catchment, vehicles and a range of roads of various sizes. In October 1993 the Department took the bold step of undertaking a major overhaul of the Track, aimed at laying these issues to rest permanently and turning the Track into one of the world's great long distance walks.
As a model for the third alignment, the Department's Division of Parks, Recreation, Planning and Tourism chose America's famous Appalachian Trail, a 3,450km walk stretching from Georgia to Maine. The A.T. as it is known was completed in 1937 and is widely recognised as the greatest of all the long trails.
The initial task of the Building a Better Bibbulmun Track Project was to arrive at an alignment for the Track which would minimise conflict with other land users and provide quality access to the widest variety of scenic and natural attractions. The route proposed included a radical realignment of the Track, retaining less than 10% of previous alignments, and a significant south coast extension, taking the southern terminus some 200km further east to Albany, thereby fulfilling the original dream of a Perth-to-Albany walk.
As the vision for the new Track became clearer it became apparent that for the Project to succeed the widest possible spectrum of the community would need to become involved. Shrinking government budgets meant that resourcing a major project such as this needed to be a joint effort, but this in itself generated a vital component of the big picture - a very real sense of community ownership.
To this end, the Project Team assembled a remarkable rainbow coalition, with significant input coming from all levels of government, the corporate sector, service clubs, schools, outdoor clubs, bushwalking clubs and the wider community. Key funding came in the form of a major Federal grant, provided through the Regional Development Program, worth some $1.38 million over two years. This was matched by contributions from the then Department of Conservation and Land Management, the Ministry of Justice, Regional Development Commissions and Employment Training programs.
Further funds were received from a range of corporate sponsors, with companies such as Alcoa of Australia, Worsley Alumina, Griffin Coal, Hedges Gold, Random Access, CSBP, Mountain Designs and Cullity Timbers all contributing to the Project. Scotch College also contributed to the Project, indicating the regard held for the new Track by the education community. Furthermore, the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs obtained a grant from the Gordon Reid Foundation (Lotteries Commission) for construction of seven additional campsites on the new Track.
A wide variety of work crews assisted in developing the new Track. Foremost of these, in terms of overall input to the Project, were the Ministry of Justice crews based at Wooroloo, Karnet and Pardelup Prison Farms. This joint venture proved an outstanding success, both in terms of outcomes for the Project and for the Ministry of Justice. Prisoners gained useful work skills and a significant boost in self esteem, while making a positive contribution to the community and the consequent positive impact on their rate of recidivism was the icing on the cake.
Further to the field construction work done by prisoners, the Ministry of Justice also contributed to the Project by undertaking the prefabrication of Track facilities; shelters, toilets, tables etc - in prison workshops. Once again, this provided productive work for prisoners on a Project they could relate to and brought significant cost savings to the construction program.
The vision for the new Track attracted a wide variety of other groups to volunteer for campsite construction tasks. The Collie Combined Service Clubs undertook four weekend busy bees, building the Yourdamung and Harris Dam campsites north of Collie, the Noggerup campsite south of the Preston River, and the bridge over the Harris River. Inspired by these feats, staff from Worsley Alumina volunteered for similar construction weekends, completing both the Possum Springs and Dookanelly campsites, sponsored by the company. Many other groups have made similar contributions, surrendering weekends to the shared goal of building the Bibbulmun Track.
A range of Department of Employment, Education & Training job skills programs undertook trail, boardwalk and campsite construction work on the Track. In addition, crews and staff from all eight Department of Conservation and Land Management Districts along the Track were active in the field, and provided the back bone for the whole Project.
Opening the newly aligned Track
The first section of the new Track, from Kalamunda to the Brookton Highway, was opened on August 15, 1995, with the northern half from Kalamunda to the Brockman Highway opened on August 14, 1997, and the southern half, through to Albany opened a year later, on September 13, 1998.
The Bibbulmun Track now stretches nearly 1000km through a wide variety of jarrah, marri, wandoo, karri and tingle forests, interspersed with sections of coastal peppermint and heathlands. It traverses some of the most beautiful and wild areas of the south west, and offers facilities unrivalled on any long distance trail in Australia. Most importantly, it thoroughly and without question fulfils Geoff Schafer's original dream of a long-distance walk track designed to prompt people of all ages and experience levels to 'go bush'.