In the wake of the snake; Australia

Sue and Peter Gearing go walkabout in the Dreamtime
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The Independent Travel
We emerged from the cool denseness of the jarrah forest to be greeted by Michael and a brew of tea. We could smell the tea, spiced with a handful of gum leaves, as it heated up in a blackened billy. Meanwhile, the smoke from the fire helped to keep the flies at bay. "The gum leaves are traditional," said Michael. "Gives it a bit of a kick."

This was just one interlude on a section of Western Australia's first long-distance trail, the 1,000km Bibbulmun Track, stretching from Perth down to Albany on the Southern Ocean.

The track has been named after the Bibbulmun, a tribe of Aborigines who once inhabited the south-west corner of Western Australia, and we were following a mythical aboriginal snake - the Waugal. Legend has it that when large number of the Bibbulmun people fell from grace, the true believers were saved from a great flood when the Creator, in the form of a Waugal, pointed the way to safety. Today, the Waugal is the waymark sign, appearing every 200 metres - so there's little chance of getting lost.

It was safely leading us on a 20km stretch from Hoffman's Mill, near the thriving dairy town of Harvey, south the Stirling Dam.

The boiling billy fitted the Aussie stereotype, and so did Michael, an easy-going farmer who had built his own house from mud bricks and was earning a bit of extra money as our driver, taking us to and from the Bibbulmun track.

But we hadn't been prepared for the Australian bush we encountered - not the scrubby, windblown terrain of so many films, but a lush variety of trees and vivid native wildflowers along the length of the track.

That first day, we walked through a spectacular forest with stately eucalyptuses rising as high as 40 metres. We found ourselves in a flowering, green world of tea tree, showy bottle brush, green kangaroo paw and grass tree, with its distinctive shaggy topknots.

The sun was starting to dip and the shadows lengthened as we wearily followed the track through an area of wattle where the yellow flowers had withered to a crumbly brown. We were not prepared for the almost primeval sight that met us when we rounded a bend and reached the end waters of the Stirling Dam. There stood stark, skeletal trees, looking as if they were holding their arms outstretched in protest years after their land had been flooded.

Our second walk on the Bibbulmun was further south near the timber town of Pemberton and the start of even mightier forests - those of karri, the third largest tree in the world. We felt insignificant as we followed the well-marked track, with the silver grey trunks of the trees soaring up around us.

The undergrowth is different here. Instead of the tea tree perfume, we enjoyed the scent of Western Australian peppermint and identified a different range of bush shrubs and flowers as well as other kinds of wattle and bottlebrush, orchid-like trigger plants and several yellow-and-red cowslip orchids just coming in bloom in November.

It was here, basking on the banks by the orchids, that we encountered our first snake, a four -foot dugite, one of Western Australia's poisonous reptiles. This sleek specimen merely slithered away into the undergrowth lying behind a prominent mud castle built by wood ants.

The trail took us by old railway tracks, where, during the logging operations of Twenties, wood-burning engines used to haul massive karri logs to the Pemberton sawmills. The karris are indeed giants and can reach heights of more than 80 metres. On a day off from trekking, we visited one of the most famous karris - the Gloucester Tree, a 60m fire lookout named after a former Governor General of Australia.

One of the attractions of the Bibbulmun is that for the foot-sore, it is not hard to find things to do on one's day off. We refreshed ourselves at one of the well-established wineries, Cullens, where we sat at a scrubbed wooden table sipping fruity wines while the vineyard's friendly mongrel sat under our bench, ever hopeful of being fed.

In reality, however, it was never difficult to respond to the lure of the track, where none of the walking is difficult and there are very few uphill sections.

Steady bushwalking takes you into the heart of a territory that would have been familiar to the early settlers. They, too, would have walked through the jarrah and the karri forests and would probably been as impressed as we were by the sight of the wildflowers, kookaburras, brilliant kingfishers, lizards, snakes and wandering emus.

For more information about the Bibbulmun track: contact Jesse Brampton, Project Office, c/o Calm, PO Box 104, COMO, Western Australia (0061 9 334 0265); or the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs 0061 9 457 4757

Safety: Walkers need to be well equipped. Stretches of the track are far from civilisation and lonely. It's hot in the day but cold at night. Common sense rules apply. Ensure that somebody knows your starting and finishing points and times. Local offices of Calm will help.

Climate: Maximum temperatures are 30C from December to March with a year-round minimum rarely below 10C. Rainfall is lightest from November to March (20mm and below) and heaviest from May to August (130mm to 180mm).

The Bibbulmun Track

Though the Bibbulmun Track will not be finished until the end of 1997, the idea behind it has been around for more than a quarter of a century. The first length was completed in 1974 and, as part of Australia's Bicentennial Trails Programmes, stretches were realigned in 1988 and the track extended south to Walpole.

Progress, however, has recently been faltering. The man who is now working to put the new track firmly on the map is Jesse Brampton, director of the Bibbulmun project for Western Australia's Department of Conservation and Land Management (Calm).

A bush walker, who has conquered the mighty North American Appalachian Trail, he set out to walk the disused and overgrown Bibbulmun Track in the late Eighties. It left him with a sense of disappointment. "When people go bush walking, they don't want to walk into logging or mining operations; they want to walk in the bush, experience different kinds of terrain and have a sense of adventure."

A chance meeting with Calm gave him the opportunity to do something about it.

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