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The Underwood family’s great southern soujourn

Katie Bewley, Jim, Fynn, Luka and Xavier Underwood, Denmark, WA

6 March 2011

The Underwood family about to set off from the Nothern Terminus on their journey to Denmark.
The Underwood family about to set off from the Nothern Terminus on their journey to Denmark.

As I write this story, sitting at the Rame Head shelter on the Bibbulmun Track, I am watching the waves roll in and the clouds roll over this majestic coastline and contemplating our epic adventure—a family of five walking from Kalamunda to Denmark. The seed of this adventure was a romantic and initially fleeting idea. Since we were moving to Denmark, we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to walk there. Then, as we got serious about it, the beneficial and logistical ramifications began to sink in.  I say began, because at that time we had little understanding of what we were getting ourselves into.

Despite having grown up in WA, and having taken every opportunity to explore our wonderful natural environment through vehicle based camping, we had never walked more than a hundred metres on the Bibbulmun Track! Indeed, we had only done one overnight walk since having kids. After an end-to-end information evening, a one on one meeting, and a ‘cooking on a camp stove’ course with members of the Bibbulmun Track team, we were beginning to get a handle on what was required.

We became a little daunted when we realised we needed five times everything (sleeping bags, mats, tents etc.), plus a means of carrying our four year-old. When we got back from the shop after spending all our savings on gear, we didn’t know wether to laugh or cry—we couldn’t fit it all in our packs, and at this stage we had no food! But we were not going to give up without giving it a good crack. If I could carry the food, the two older boys could carry all their gear, Katie could carry the young fella’s stuff plus all the extras (e.g. toiletries, diaries, camera etc.), and if the young guy could walk a lot, then it might be possible!

We bought an extra large dehydrator, and Katie set about drying 53 meals for all of us (our growing lads eat as much as most adults). We bought as much organic bulk food as possible and began to stockpile nuts, dried fruit and other energy rich food for the trail mix. Once dinners were vacuum packed, and we had an idea of breakfast and lunches, we guessed I could carry a maximum of five days worth of food, which turned out to be pretty accurate.
So, a few days before we left, we realised we needed help—three drop-offs in the first 16 days between Kalamunda and Dwellingup, one between Dwellingup and Collie, and one between Northcliffe and Walpole. There was plethora of willing supporters, and drop-off points seemed to synchronise miraculously with the availability of people, even at such short notice. This gave us our first glimpse of the magic that is ‘the Track’.

We set foot on the Track on a warm day on November the 1st 2010. There was a feeling that summer was coming early, but we were not to know it was to be the hottest spring on record, with the first heat wave ever recorded in November in Perth. This initial stage was the most trying, as we tried to find a rhythm amongst all of us. The effects of the drought were all too obvious but despite the dryness, the beauty of some of the bush in the Darling Scarp was wonderful to experience.

Once we hit the Karri forest greenery, the elements eased off, and we started to hit our straps. The middle lad was getting used to his pack; the young one would walk solid sections while his elder brothers and parents told him stories. Our fitness was continuing to improve, and although I was still going through half a jar of tiger balm a week, I was beginning to be able to carry my pack and the little fella with less strain and more enjoyment.

By the time we hit the D’ Entrecasteaux section south of Northcliffe, we were doing 20 kms in a day without major drama, and we began to think we had it sussed. However, thinking we had it sussed was not a good idea! The weather changed when we hit the coast and the soft sand. The hardest leg of our trip was the section between Mandalay Beach and Mt Clare. At points along this section, it would take us ten minutes to walk a hundred metres, and with no shade to protect us from the elements, we realised we were pushing the boundaries between character building and child abuse! However, after a few days rest over Christmas, and the inspiring energy of the tingle forest and Frankland River, we found a new rhythm and strength to move through the sand. Thus we were able to revel in the magnificence of the raw, powerful coastline between Walpole and Denmark over the last few days.

The Underwoods at the end of their 11 week walk to Denmark.
The Underwoods at the end of their 11 week walk to Denmark.

We walked into Denmark, our new home, full of emotion on Monday the 3rd of Jan 2011, nine weeks to the day after we left. We had never understood people who said that they were sad when they came to the end of the Bibbulmun adventure…now we know. We are all missing the Track like a dear old friend, and the nomadic existence brought something that will be with all of us forever. I have never experienced the landscapes, the trees, the birds, the flowers, the fungi and the dynamic flow of Mother Nature at such a level of depth and intensity before. Having camped in this part of southwest WA so much, I thought I knew it— I didn’t. When you ‘walk’ it, the country seems to open itself up to you, it appreciates you, and it looks after you. Time and time again, we were pushed to the limit, but once that point was reached, there was always a reprieve. What a deep gift the Bibbulmun Track is for us, all the other wonderful people that walk it, and the earth herself.

I hear many of you are thinking; “why didn’t they just walk the last few days into Albany?” For us, it was never about the end-to-end per se, it was about moving to our new home at a pace that humans have moved for millennia. Our intent was to experience, or ‘taste’ the changing vegetation and climate, and introduce ourselves fully to the earth of the south coast region. It was about living the journey—we wanted to engage fully in the process of ‘being’, and not getting distracted by ‘getting there’. However, now we are so in love with the Track, we will do the last section as soon as we can, so we can ‘know’ the country east of here in our bodies as well.

So, thank you to the Bibbulmun Track Foundation, volunteers and DEC staff who initiated, designed and who maintain the Track. You have created something that is powerful and unique in this day and age. Thanks also to all the family and friends who helped us on the way. Great respect and gratitude goes out to all the inspiring hikers we met on the track— thanks for looking out for us, sharing experiences and looking after the campsites and country. We feel that we now have a Bibbulmun Track ‘family’.

Finally, thanks to the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien. We looked forward to a reading every night, and it provided hours of entertainment discussing the intricacies of the story every day while walking. Indeed, the Lord of the Rings became entwined in our own adventure, and this synchronicity came to the final fruition when we finished the last page on the day we arrived in Denmark.

There certainly is magic in the Bibbulmun Track.

Yours with gratitude, the “Free Fivers”.