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When life gives you lemons

Sun-Mi Clyburn, WA

6 December 2016

I looked up at the stars through the thick canopy of the karri trees,  took another sip of green tea from my aluminum mug and moved closer to the fire, the only source of light and warmth for tens of kilometers. My fiancée Kirk and I had made it to camp earlier than usual; normally we wouldn’t get to relax and enjoy the surroundings for long before it grew dark. The sounds of scurrying wildlife and water flowing through the creek were the only things interrupting an otherwise absolutely silent night. This was serenity. I was sad, but somewhat relieved that this was my last night on the Bibbulmun Track. 160km over eleven days worth of walking was quite an achievement for me and somewhat surprising, considering I had been in crutches, because of a knee injury, just four weeks before we started. I had done some serious prepping for this; besides doing the research on the Track itself and getting all the necessary equipment I’d been training nearly every day. I also did a first aid course and put together probably the most comprehensive first aid kit a person could carry.

We thought of a number of places to start walking from, and eventually settled on Albany. I loved the southern stretch. It was difficult, because we walked through sand a lot of the time and with the foliage being mostly coastal shrubbery we were completely exposed and vulnerable to rain and sun, but we hugged the coast the whole time. I love the ocean, the sound of the waves, the smell of the salty air and the way the sand and water tickle my toes when I walk barefoot along the shore. Still, walking an average of 13km a day with a 20kg back pack was gruelling at times.

Some hikers drive to their starting points and use TransWA services to return to their vehicles. We opted for public transport there and back. We took a bus down to Albany on Good Friday and spent the night at the YHA, a pleasant little hostel, with comfy rooms, a rustic outdoor area and wall paintings that made the place feel homely and inviting. After a good night’s sleep we went down to Cosi’s cafe for an excellent breakfast of eggs Benedict and coffee. This was the last brekkie we were going to have for a while that wasn’t oats, so we enjoyed it.

The start of the Bibbulmun Track took us through town, so we didn’t get very excited about it initially. We stopped at Frenchy’s cafe on Frenchman Bay Rd for iced mochas and the best strawberry cheesecake I think I’ve ever had, then about three kilometres down the road we made a sharp turn right into the bush. This was it! Uphill it went. It was a clear day and the sun had a definite sting to it. We got into camp four hours later, exhausted, made some tea and went to the look-out to watch the sun set over the ocean and the wind farm. We sat there looking at how far we’d have to walk over the next few days. It was stunning and peaceful.

We heard from people in camp that day two would be the most challenging, as the body is in a mild state of shock. We woke up sore after a terrible night’s sleep, almost dreading the moment when we’d have to put our back-packs on again and walk to the next camp. We walked by the wind turbines and sand dunes in the rain.

Day three was my favourite; we walked a seven kilometre stretch of beach and crossed the sand bar below the Torbay inlet. It was good to take my shoes off and walk in the water. It was a much needed sunny, soothing and relaxing day. We got to Cosy Corner and climbed up a set of 170 stairs back into the bush. By days four and five we felt strong and determined. We climbed higher and higher and admired the stunning views over Shelly Beach and West Cape Howe. In the distance we could still see the wind turbines, but now they were tiny dots on the horizon. We started to feel how far we had come; we felt track fit and starting to have fun.

That wasn’t the end of our adventure: next we walked through the marri and  karri forests. The scenery of this area was so different from the southern section of Albany to Denmark.  All the trees in the Golden Valley Tree Park had turned to a colourful pallet of reds, oranges and yellows. We walked through pine forest, the majestic karri trees provided shade and shelter from the rain, the air was more humid and, most importantly—there was no sand! Through the thick forest you couldn’t see miles ahead of you, which oddly enough made the walking easier. It’s probably a psychological thing; down south we could see more than a day’s walk ahead of us, but in the forest you can see only five to ten metres ahead!

By then we were averaging almost twice the daily distance compared to when we first set out. We got to Donnelly River Village and took a longer break. The holiday village was remote and tranquil, with no mobile coverage or transport, so the only way to get in touch with the outside world was with a pay phone. The reception and general store closed at five o’clock but thankfully we got there in time to get two beds in the room reserved for Bibbulmun Track walkers. We had dinner, much needed hot showers and fell asleep in warm comfy beds.  After spending two days relaxing, playing table tennis, watching family movies and interacting with the friendly wildlife we continued on to One Tree Bridge, where family picked us up.

After that we spent the weekend in Pemberton exploring the culinary and natural attractions the area had to offer. We went to the Pemberton bakery for delicious homemade pies and sausage rolls, sampled the wines of Mountford Winery, and bought a few bottles of their excellent Tangletoe organic cider and cider liqueur (it baffles me that their products aren’t available in Perth!) and had dinner at the magical Karri Valley Resort. We also visited the surrounding national parks and took the car down the scenic Karri Forest Explorer Drive.

On our last day down south we stopped at the Lavender and Berry farm for their legendary blueberry pancakes topped with vanilla ice-cream and homemade berry preserves. We sat out in the alfresco that looked out over the lavender bushes and a peaceful pond. It was a nice end to the trip. On the drive back to Perth I got a bit nostalgic. Looking back, it’s amazing when you realize how many things in everyday life we take for granted; things as simple as clean fingernails, water, soap, toilets and toilet paper, dry feet, two-minute noodles, electric light, shelter and technology. Even though I am a self-proclaimed city slicker, I’ve come to understand why people are drawn to bush walking and keep going back to walk more. In a world of instant everything, hard work and need for money, it’s a relief to be able to switch off and let things just be, get up at sunrise, sleep when it’s dark, let your mind wander and flow without unnecessary interruptions. Here you have only one agenda for the day—walking. If you do that every day, every day is a success. It’s addictive.

In addition, the interactions you have with other hikers give you hope for humanity. You meet some of the nicest, most generous people along the Track. There is an instant sense of companionship and readiness to share space and resources. The smallest things end up being of vital importance when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, so you want to help each other out. A number of fellow campers topped up the fuel for our stove, others gave us a stack of large bandaids for Kirk’s blisters when we had run out, and I gave one lady a spoon, because she had lost hers. One night a gentleman pulled out a bottle of red wine, a bag of marshmallows and some chocolate and insisted we help ourselves. The nicest surprise, however, was when one lady pulled out a ukulele and played for us.

No wonder National Geographic considers the Bibbulmun Track one of the top 20 best tracks in the world. It has some of the most diverse scenery and even though the terrain can be challenging, even gruelling at times, it’s accessible for all age categories and fitness levels. Surprisingly, most of the people we met on the track were in retirement age, but we also met hikers in their 20s and 30s, teenagers, even parents with children. It isn’t all easy, it isn’t always fun, but I promise you it is all well worth it.