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A Floral Dance

Barbara Steiner, WA

26 June 2013

In September 2011 I took part in a guided 8-day walking tour along the famous Bibbulmun Track, and one of my long-held dreams came true. I saw the wildflowers of Western Australia in spring as nature intended.

The group in Dwellingup
The group in Dwellingup

We covered between 10 and 14.5km of the Track each day and no, we didn’t do the camping thing, but stayed in very comfortable guesthouses and dined in style!

Western Australia had just had the wettest winter in 15 years and we were assured of a floristic treat.  The State is famous for the abundance and diversity of its flowering plants, and the southwest in particular is home to one of the richest floras in the world. Over 8000 flowering plant species occur in an area west of a line drawn roughly between Israelite Bay and Shark Bay, and some 80% of these plants don’t grow anywhere else in the world.

Our guides were Steve and Jim, both incredibly fit, knowledgeable, cheerful, extremely well organised and very caring – the best! Thank you for making this a most memorable adventure.

The walk was to start in Albany, so the first day was spent travelling down from Perth on the bus through very pretty, emerald green and rather English landscapes and rolling hills dotted with blindingly yellow canola. The day finished with a quick visit to the war memorial on Mt Clarence before we settled in to our accommodation in Albany, Western Australia’s oldest settlement.

Our first day of the walk itself started early and took us from Sand Patch to Mutton Bird Island,  via the impressive and elegant Albany wind farm through beautiful, windswept heath land.

Abundance of wild flowers near the Albany windfarm
Abundance of wild flowers near the Albany windfarm

Weaving in and around the coastal ridges, the trek offered many spectacular views.
An abundance of compact heath land shrubs with typically small, tough and hard leaves and dainty flowers were already in full bloom with many others in bud. In contrast, the Albany woolly bush, with its tubular red flowers, felt incredibly soft to the touch, living up to its name. Creamy-yellow parrot bush, pink rose coneflower, yellow sharks tooth wattle, wine-coloured cut-leaf banksia as well as bull banksia with its angular leaves, and donkey orchids were a visual delight. But it was the prolific curtains of the deep purple native wisteria that stole the show. The mass of blossoms, each dotted in the centre with two white and green eyes, was simply breathtaking.

Day two of the walk took us through some magnificent karri forest with its characteristic understorey plants; karri oak with its attractive, deeply fissured corky bark, deep purple tree hovea and pure white, lace-like common clematis or old man’s beard made for stunning sights. Scrambling over and around the numerous huge jumbled granite boulders – often on all fours – we got a closer look at the ground and spotted the first delightful snail orchids.  The steady climb to the top of Mt Hallowell was well rewarded with spectacular views of the south coast, and then the Track descended through more karri forest past Monkey Rock, to Lights Beach and on to Williams Bay through more heathland. This coastal stretch revealed a different plant community, including grass trees, hot pink rose banjine and stunning blue and pink foxtails.

Stunning display of old man’s beard
Stunning display of old man’s beard

The next day, a relaxing wilderness cruise on the Walpole and Nornalup Inlets in the morning gave us more, and very energetically presented, insights into the ecology and history of the area. Then, our focus was on the forest giants, the massive tingle and karri trees. To gain a better appreciation of the sheer height and size of these trees, we enjoyed a bird’s eye view from the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk.

Back on terra firma, we came to see one of the most intriguing trees in the Tingle Forest, the massive “pleated” red tingle tree with its magnificent, ball gown like base. No scientist can say why this tree grew twisted like that, but one thing is sure—it makes you want to dance!

Day four of the walk took us to another spectacular forest giant, the Giant Tingle Tree. The tree has been hollowed out by many fires, but at circa 400 years old it is still very much alive. To protect it and its roots from the tourists, a boardwalk has been constructed around it.
In amongst all these awe-inspiring giants, we didn’t forget to have our eyes peeled for the smaller understorey plants, and at last I came across a Kangaroo Paw in flower—delicate pale pink and green, near the Frankland River, and nearby  a small and wispy tree with a rather amusing common name of snottygobble.

A scenic two hour drive through the Shannon National Park on day five took us into the heart of karri country near Pemberton, where we started walking from the Beedelup Falls. A highlight of the day was the famous Gloucester Tree, the tallest fire lookout tree in the world. Standing at about 60m tall the lookout gallery at the top has become a favourite tourist attraction, which can be reached by climbing 153 steel spikes spiralling around the tree. Needless to say I wasn’t game and relied on my imagination of the views from the top. Intriguing were the many semi-tame, cheeky western rosellas and ring-necked parrots.

Day six was the orchid spotting day, as we wandered in the rolling hills of Balingup through beautiful mixed jarrah and marri forest with its rich understorey. Golden yellow prickly
moses dominated the shrub layer Groundcovers included the pretty rosettes of couch honeypot—and finally, with all eyes peeled to the forest floor, we spotted many exquisite ground orchids, which had everyone very excited! These gems included: pink fairies, cowslip orchids, white spider, reaching spider and leaping spider orchids, jug orchids and gorgeous silky blue orchids.

On our last day we took a beautiful walk through jarrah forest. Here, the understorey was very much dominated by tall bull banksia, prickly moses with slender grass tree here and there. No fires have come through here for a long time, hence many grass trees were sporting beautiful skirts, not to mention their sharp haircuts! And to top off our list of orchid species, we were very fortunate to spot the bird orchid or bearded greenhood, shortly before heading back to Perth.

What fabulous eight days they were, each day filled with spectacular floristic and other highlights, leaving heart, soul, mind and body hugely refreshed and enriched, not to mention the further realisation that no landscape designer can ever design a garden as well as nature does!