What: thru-hike of the Bibbulmun Track (Bibb).
Where: the southwest corner of Australia.
When: September 7 to October 8 (32 days).
Distance: about 602 miles.
Highlights: great birds; fine floral displays; interesting forests; nice coastline; easy walking with good infrastructure.
Why we went
This was our third trip to Oz and our goal was to explore some places we had not previously visited. We had hiked on the east coast of Australia on a previous trip. There are a number of other long distance trails in the country, including the Australian Alps Walking Track, the Heysen Trail, and famous tracks in Tasmania, but we wanted one that met the following criteria:
- About five to six weeks of walking, which for us is 600-700 miles;
- A plug and play trip with good documentation, so we could just arrive and start walking and not have complicated pre-trip tasks such as mail drops;
- Travel in a part of the country new to us;
- Birding opportunities with a chance to find new life birds;
- Noteworthy wildflower displays;
- No significant bureaucratic obstacles such as hard-to-obtain permits.
The combination of the Bibb and Cape to Cape (C2C) Tracks nicely met these requirements. Our hike of the C2C is described in its own article.
We spent the first week birding in the Darwin area in the Northern Territories and the rest of our time in southwestern Australia. After completing the Bibb and before starting the C2C, we went birding in the area around Albany, where there are a couple of range-restricted endemics. After we finished the C2C, we traveled north of Perth as far as Geraldton in a rental car, again searching for birds.
Amy’s Bibbulmun Track Report Card
- A+ Shelter quality and cleanliness.
- A+ Track maintenance, quality of the tread and lack of blow-downs.
- A+ Show up and hike. We did prep work (gpx tracks and maps on the iPhone), but it would be possible to simply buy the map set and arrive at the trailhead.
- A+ Birds. Abundance and quality are terrific. I’ll never tire of the big black parrots.
- A Map quality.
- A Flowers. World class abundance and diversity. This was the highlight of the trip for me.
- A Number of other hikers – enough to provide interesting social contact and not so many as to be intrusive.
- A Quality of the habitats. Although the forests were once logged, the track (at least when we walked it) was never in a recently logged forest and we never saw or heard logging operations. We were never in forests or heath that are grazed (shame on USFS and BLM for allowing grazing on our public lands).
- A Low stress. There are no physical challenges, the weather is benign (at least on our trip), and food and water are easily available. It’s easy to relax and worry about absolutely nothing.
- A Way-marking (GR system is the A+ gold standard).
- B Route integrity. The route makes sense and provides a cohesive track from a logical starting point to a logical destination. Given that they set out to offer a path open only to hikers (no bikes or vehicles) I would say it is very well routed.
- C Town visits. The towns were friendly, enjoyable and functional and about as interesting as tiny towns in the US, i.e. not very interesting. Hard to compete with old European villages, and impossible to compete with the friendly residents in Turkey.
- C Quality of the coastal section. I love coastal hiking, and the UK’s South West Coast Path and the Great South Coast Walk in New South Wales are two of my favorite hikes of all time. I was a bit disappointed with the drama and diversity of the coastal section (although the flowering heath did not disappoint).
- C Diversity of scenery. The northern section is primarily closed-canopy forest, with variations depending on the dominant tree species and fire history. The southern section is beautiful coastal heath. Although there is tremendous botanical diversity, there were many days when I felt we could have been repeating the prior day’s section and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I agree with James that, for me, the track would actually benefit by having more agricultural areas in the mix, just to give more diversity to the scenery. The Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP) is a gold standard for habitat diversity.
- D Vistas and sense of space. Much of it is a long-green-tunnel. And even on the coast, much is in heath where you can’t see the ocean. We had only two five-star campsites, compared to the HRP or the South West Coast Path where nearly every night had a five-star camp with fantastic views.
- D Historical/Cultural interest. There is no on-trail information about aboriginal history. There’s very little on-trail interpretive information about the history of Europeans in the area, and what little history is presented tends toward the same story repeated in each town. The National Trails in the UK set a gold standard on this front, with in-situ interpretive signs and great historical diversity.
- F Vehicles on the beaches – by far my biggest disappointment. Vehicles ruin many of the beaches on the Bibb track, where National Park status does not imply environmental protection. Even when there are no vehicles present, they have torn up the sand and occasionally driven into the dunes. Woe betide the federally listed Hooded Plover that tries to nest on those beaches. We even saw signs instructing 4WDs on the beaches to “keep to the wet sand because the threatened Hooded Plovers nest in the upper beaches” – a joke to issue that warning, as the evidence is clear that vehicles go everywhere once given access to the beach.
Amy’s Assessment of the Bibbulmun Track
We’ve hiked many trails in many countries and are a bit persnickety. If I only spent one month hiking each year, I would be disappointed if this was my only hike. On the other hand, we take several big hikes each year, and I felt this was a pleasant, easy, low-stress, and worthwhile hike. I wouldn’t repeat it, but I’m glad I did it.
The route is “remote” in the sense that you walk long distances between towns and on most days we saw few or no other people. On the other hand, there are a plethora of 4WD tracks, both active and abandoned, so it does not feel remote at all. So it’s not like the hikes we have taken in Europe or the UK or Turkey, where there are frequent towns (usually fun and interesting), and it’s not like our hikes in American wilderness areas where you feel like you are disconnected from civilization. It’s kind of a weird hybrid that to me did not offer the best of either European town-to-town hiking or American wilderness hiking.
I think this route lives up to the “world class” claim in terms of the quality of the track, shelters, and the supporting documentation. It does not, however, live up to the claim in terms of the grandeur of the scenery, and it offers very little by way of historical or cultural interest.
This is a terrific hike for somebody who wants to try his or her first multi-week hike. It is also a great choice for somebody who is passionate about botany. For somebody considering a month on the Appalachian Trail, I would say that this is a clearly superior option, as the trail is just as well marked, but the scenery is more diverse and it is not flooded with other hikers. On the other hand, most of the UK’s National Trails or GR routes in France are also well documented and way-marked, often have more diversity in their scenery, and are significantly more culturally and historically interesting than the Bibb.
I’ll add that we Americans have great options near home for long distance hiking in native forest ecosystems but that is not true for Europeans, where (outside of northern Scandinavia) the landscape was deforested long ago and there’s no place to walk for a week in native biologically intact ungrazed forest ecosystems. I think hiking in Europe is so much fun because it is different from home; I suspect that hiking the Bibb might be more fun for a European hiker simply because the extensive lush native forest and heath is so unlike what can be found in Europe. To this point, we met Felipe (French) on the track, who completed the Bibb in 2010 and returned in 2015 to hike it twice (end-to-end and back) and was very enthusiastic about taking a long walk in a forest. And Christine (our hiking hero) called it “definitely one of my favourite tracks in the whole world” – and that’s a worthy endorsement .
James’ Assessment of the Bibbulmun Track
I have very mixed feelings about this walk. Most of my reservations have to do with the way the track was routed along the coast. For far too many miles we could hear and smell of the ocean, but for unfathomable reasons, the path was routed just over the landward crest of ridges and hilltops where the only thing to see was more heath. This was immensely frustrating as the Bibb runs along a very attractive coastline. Given that there were often rough 4WD tracks between the sea and the Bibb, conservation concerns can’t be the reason for this weird and obtuse routing. Maybe the trail folks felt that the sea distracted the walker from the serious business of viewing yet more square kilometers of heathlands. Who knows, but it just seemed stupid to me. When I compare the coastal Bibb sections with say, the superb English South West Coast Path, there is no comparison in the quality of the experience.
Overall the Bibb was a good, but not great walk. The Bibb website claims that it is a “world class trail”. I don’t believe this to be true because there isn’t enough visual diversity for the length of the trail and the physical challenges are minimal. While the trail quality was good and the forests interesting and sometimes beautiful, it wouldn’t hurt a bit if occasionally the trail passed through open farmland, providing a contrast with seemingly endless Eucalyptus forests. The forests were interesting and the Karri trees in particular fabulous, however, there were just too many days of the same thing. In a way, the Bibb is like the Appalachian Trail (AT) without the crowds, mostly a long green tunnel.
The birds and flowers made the walk for me. I never tired of listening to the Kookaburras laughing at us from the treetops or flocks of Red-tailed Black Parrots commenting as we passed below. We saw huge numbers of fabulous flowers we had never seen before and I bonded with the Grass Trees (we called them Seuss Plants). Since the hiking was so easy, our trip was about the pleasures of the process of walking, not about its challenges.
Who would I recommend the Bibb to? I think it would be an ideal walk for someone who wants to do a long-distance hike but has no experience and is unsure of his or her abilities. This trip could test planning skills around re-supply, pacing, and the walker’s ability and willingness to see a long-distance hike through to the end. There are no significant physical challenges other than distance and it would be difficult to get into serious trouble. There are no vast hordes of hikers like on the AT to distract you from being with yourself. The Bibb provides a great opportunity to learn about yourself and your commitment to long distance hiking.
Notes for Potential Hikers about Southwest Australia
Southwest Australia is one of the world’s five regions with a Mediterranean climate, the same as we have in the San Francisco Bay Area: this means that it normally rains only in the winter and early spring and the rest of the year is dry. Because Southwest Australia has had a benign climate and has been geologically stable for a very long time, evolution has had a chance to work unimpeded for millennia. The result is one of the globally richest areas of plant diversity. For instance, Stirling Range National Park, 400 square miles just north of Albany, has over 1500 species of flowering plants, almost 90 of which are endemic. We timed our trip for the austral spring, when the flower displays are at their peak.
Hiking in Australia
On our prior hikes in Australia we did not meet many walkers and this proved true on this trip as well. We crossed paths with less than forty other walkers of any kind during our 31 days on the Bibb. We met only three lightweight backpackers: one American, one Kiwi, and an Australian who has a small online business about lightweight hiking.
We consistently encountered disbelief from other Bibb thru-hikers that we would actually rough camp and not stay at a shelter. Only once did we see another hiker using a tent, and that was at an overfull shelter. Perhaps the two walks we did are not representative of the Australian hiking scene as they are both on very civilized trails, but we expected to meet more people who just pitched a tent wherever they found themselves at the end of the day.
We were surprised by the number and variety of warning signs posted by the Australian government. These signs advised about all sorts of hazards you might encounter and if taken literally, might mean hiding under your bed. We assumed that the nanny state decided that it had to cover itself in case somebody got injured, but it changed our impressions of Australians being the tough, bush-loving, independent sorts.
Normally winter rains start to slack off in September and are gone by October. We expected numerous wet days at the beginning of the trip tapering to almost nothing by the end. However, southwest Australia, like California, was suffering from a prolonged drought and except for a few nights when we were snug in our tent, we experienced almost no rain at all. We had just two days with intermittent and light daytime rain.
Temperatures were generally mild, running from the upper 40’s to occasionally the mid 80’s during the day. We had one or two cool nights with tempertures below 40 F.
These tracks are at their best from late August through the end of October when the flowers are blooming; the fabulous floral displays are one of the real high points of the region. Hike it earlier and there are no flowers, often a lot a rain and soggy trail as well as short days. Hike it later and there are few flowers and it is too hot. Miss the flowers and you miss one of the major reasons to do the walk.
We had no bugs during the first three weeks of the trip. Then the flies and mosquitoes hatched. The mosquitoes were mainly active at dusk and never a problem during the day, but carry an insect proof shelter or take netting if you plan on using the shelters. The flies became active as soon as it warmed up and they were the worst hassle of the trip. While not biting, they buzzed incessantly, occasionally in large numbers, annoying the heck out of James but didn’t bother Amy. You could not escape them and there were way too many to kill. If we traveled in the area again, James would carry a head-net and very lightweight long sleeve shirts. Amy felt that the flies were not a problem on the hiking portions of the trip, but we did have seriously annoying flies post-hike when we rented a car and went to warmer interior areas.
Ticks are reported to be an issue, but we only picked up a couple very early in the trip.
Venomous snakes are a fact of life in Australia and people we met both on and off the trail frequently warned us about them; just about every grocery store clerk we met cautioned us about snakes as soon as they learned we were out walking. According to a wiki article there were about 2 fatalities per year in Australia during the 80’s and 90’s, and the majority of snakebites occurred when people handled snakes in an attempt to relocate or kill them.
We saw some snakes, but all of them slithered off into the bush as soon as we approached. We carried compression bandages in the unlikely event of snakebite. James wore long pants, and Amy wore gaiters, as the majority of unprovoked bites occur on the feet and ankles. Pay a bit of attention as to where you put your feet and the chances of snakebite are minimal.
The birds in Australia are fantastic: colorful, noisy, abundant, and interesting. Almost half the species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. Parrots, kingfishers, honeyeaters, fairywrens, whistlers, albatrosses, and pardalotes provided rich and rewarding birding. We saw about 160 species during our walk on the Bibb and C2C. This is a relatively small number given the amount of time we spent in the country, but the two walks do not visit a great diversity of habitats and we were very pleased with what we did see. Hiking in Oz without a pair of binoculars would forego half of the fun.
Notes for Potential Hikers of the Bibbulmun Track
The Bibb connects the outskirts of Perth on the west coast with the town of Albany on the south coast. It is roughly 1000 kilometers in length. The route is well mapped, way-marked and maintained. There are about 50 open sided shelters along the track, most a very easy day’s walk apart. These shelters have sleeping platforms, picnic tables, a privy, a fire pit, and most importantly, water tanks filled with rainwater. The shelters are unstaffed and free on a first-come, first served basis. Only once did we encounter a shelter that was near capacity and most of the time they were empty. The shelters all have log books for hikers to enter their travel data: name, date, residence, start point, end point, and estimated travel time. It was great fun to see who was ahead of us and guess whom we might catch.
The northern portions of the Bibb pass through Marri, Jarah, and Karri forests. Other than a couple of extremely short sections along clearings or in towns, the track essentially remains in the woods. The trees are sometime huge; Karri trees can reach 80 meters in height. The southern Bibb travels beside the south coast, through coastal heath and occasionally on beaches or along headlands.
The route is meticulously laid out to stay in either the forested or coastal areas and just a few kilometers pass through agricultural zones. The track goes to great lengths to avoid sharing a path with vehicles or bicycles. There are some sections of track that are quite convoluted to avoid using a rarely driven dirt road. Outside of entering or leaving re-supply towns, the track rarely touches pavement. A lot of the walking is on old abandoned and closed logging roads and railroad beds and there is little purpose built single-track. There are only a few small stands of old growth forest on the Bibb, however the second or third growth trees are big and the forests are quite impressive. The heath along the coast appeared, to our untrained eyes, to never have been grazed and seemed to be biologically intact. Ironically, the only place we shared our route with cars was on some of the beaches. We were astonished and disappointed that even in National Parks, beaches were often open to vehicles. While most of the drivers we encountered were polite, there were the inevitable testosterone poisoned jerks careening down the beach and into the adjacent dunes as fast as they could.
The trail is incredibly well maintained with only a few blow-downs and a couple places that felt slightly overgrown. This is a monumental task given its length and density of the vegetation; the volunteers who maintain the Bibb deserve enormous credit. The tread is generally good except in a few marshy areas that are seasonally waterlogged and/or under a few centimeters of water. This is more of an issue in wet years and the walker should be prepared to wade long, shallow pools. We experienced no difficult or dangerous water crossings. There were surprisingly few aggressive plants with thorns or spines. There are no allergenic plants like poison oak that we are aware of.
Most people walk the route north to south. We passed 15 people on southbound thru-hikes, but met only one northbound thru-hiker. The wildflower season unfolds starting in the north and progresses southward, so we walked in that direction in hopes of maximizing the show. Other than that, we see no advantage to walking in either direction.
Perth is a major city and well served by international airlines. From Perth, the trailhead in Kalamunda is easily accessible via public transit. As of this writing, you can take the Midland rail line to the Midland station and transfer to the 297 bus; get off at Railway Road in Kalamunda.
You can return from Albany to Perth via a daily Transwa bus. The ride cost about Australian $63.
Maps and Navigation
The trail is supported and managed by an active trail association, the Bibbulmun Track Foundation. They publish a guidebook and a very good set of maps available on their website. The guidebook is a useless anchor that verbalizes turn-by-turn instructions on an extremely well way marked track. The maps are well-designed, quite helpful, accurate, durable, mostly up to date, and quite expensive. The eight-map set weighs almost 11 oz. A gpx file is available from a past hiker or from our CalTopo page.
The track is so well way-marked that it might be possible to walk it without carrying maps. There are, however, a few places where the route is ambiguous and the map and gpx data was helpful. We carried the maps and were glad we did. They were also useful for planning the day and for understanding the trail in context. Additionally, the maps helped when we had to go off-track for resupply.
The way-marks are custom made yellow and black tags placed on trees and posts. They are generally easy to see except where the trees or fires have eaten them. They very clearly indicate direction of travel. In most places they are placed at frequent intervals but on sometimes you can walk long distances without seeing one.
As in the US, fire suppression by European settlers has altered the fire regimen and led to the build up of huge amounts of dead material and subsequent catastrophic fires. The Australian Forest Service has started controlled burns to reduce the dangerous fuel loads, however large uncontrolled fires still occur and have affected the Bibb. Large fires in February of 2015 destroyed several shelters and closed sections of the track. In all cases but one, the Bibb has been re-routed around the affected areas. The Bibb traverses a number of recently burned areas and it was interesting to see how the various habitat types are regenerating.
As of this writing, a section of track near Mt. Cooke is closed due a September 2015 fire and has not yet been re-routed. Check the Bibb website for further information. Ironically, we were on the track and in the area when this fire occurred. A planned burn was in progress and jumped its lines. We innocently walked into the fire zone while following a mapped and posted re-route around the burn. Suddenly a ranger appeared looking for stray hikers in a fire service vehicle with lights flashing. He told us the fire was out of control and that we could not continue. We were driven around the active fire and deposited back on the track south of the fire line. We were grateful that they patrolled the trail, found us, and kept us out of trouble. Technically, we have not thru-hiked the entire Bibb as we missed about 13 miles of walking and there was no opportunity to re-do this section. Do we still get our badge?
While on the trail, check the Bibb website frequently for track updates. Unfortunately, if you live a long distance from the track, you will have to plan your trip in advance. If a fire starts, you may have to modify your trip.
All the other hikers we met used the shelters. Even if they carried a tent, they camped at the shelters. We walked each day as far as we felt like and did not plan our end point at a shelter. Although discouraged, it is not illegal to camp along the path except in a few of the re-supply towns. Due to the usually heavy off-track vegetation, camping on the edge of the track was often difficult. However, there are a plethora of abandoned logging tracks and we frequently set up our tent on these. A few times, we camped on the Bibb track itself, setting up at sunset and breaking camp before sunrise so as not to disturb other hikers. We camped on the beach a couple of times and on a beach overlook platform once. We stayed in a caravan park in Dwellingup with showers and laundry facilities, and camped on a horse racetrack in Denmark. Finding a decent place to set up the tent was not difficult.
There are no shelters located near the re-supply towns. You either have to use commercial lodging or stealth camp in order to sleep near a town. We camped in towns several times, and with discretion, had no problems. When we asked for advice, local residents directed us to the town’s recreation center or a local park with level grassy areas with nearby toilet facilities. The Tourism Information Centers were not helpful on this front, but the employees of the grocery stores, taverns, or fish & chips shops consistently offered good advice. We camp in towns because it is a lot quieter than the hostels, hotels or caravan parks and prefer the calm comfort of our tent.
Water is frequently and predictably available because all the shelters have rainwater tanks. We always treated the water. The Forest Service even provided cans of water at the burned shelters. We bought food in grocery stores in the resupply towns and at the very occasional café along the route. Kalamunda has two large grocery stores but it is about 200 kilometers down the track to the next store. This is the longest stretch without re-supply opportunities. The size of the shops in the other towns varies and some have only very basic supplies. Store locations are listed on the Bibb website. We never had any challenges with re-supply except finding good ice cream. We mailed one re-supply box to the shop at Donnelly River Village.
In the fall of 2016, the Australian dollar was worth about $0.75 US and even at that favorable exchange rate, food was generally more expensive than in the US. There are ATM’s in all of the re-supply towns.
Options at Denmark and Wilson Inlet
- Cross the mouth of the Wilson Inlet at the coast. However, you either miss the major re-supply point at Denmark or have to walk an extra 20 kilometer round-trip to get there. Also, the sandbar allowing safe passage across the inlet may or may not be there, especially in the spring hiking season; you can’t tell for sure unless you walk even further away from Denmark to check it out.
- Hire a boat in Denmark to take you across Wilson Inlet. This requires advance notice and cost Australian $160 in 2015.
- Take a taxi around the inlet to Eden Road, which is “allowed” by Bibb Foundation thru-hike “rules” but seems quite unsporting. This option cost about Australian $60 in 2015.
- We chose to walk around Wilson Inlet and regain the trail near the end of Eden Road. The first six miles is on the very fine Heritage Trail east of Denmark. The next five miles is along a trunk road carrying some traffic, but with quite wide and flat shoulders, making the walk noisy, but safe. The last five miles is along a little used country road. Presumably you could also hitchhike the road portions.
We walked the route in 31 days. This included our involuntary ride around the fire, but also all of our town stops, walking from Denmark to the Nullaki Shelter around Wilson Inlet, and an off-route round-trip to the very scenic West Cape Howe which is not on the track. Based on entries in the shelter logs, the average time to complete a through hike is around 50 days. This is likely because most hikers walk shelter to shelter. The walk itself is not technically difficult and altitude gain, except for “Heartbreak Hill”, a massive 150-meter climb, is insignificant. If you are willing to camp away from shelters, you can easily set your own pace for the walk. If you limit yourself to shelters, then you may find that you have days that will be awkwardly short (“single-hutting”) or awkwardly long (“double-hutting”). When we ran into other thru-hikers, the first question usually asked was whether we were single or double hutting.