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Bush Week - Stirling Ranges, WA

Words and Pics Jill Harrison

 

An incredibly biodiverse area that is also heritage listed, Stirling Ranges National Park is the perfect place to reconnect with nature.

Located 400km south of Perth and 80km north of Albany in Western Australia’s great southern region, the Stirling Ranges are known for extensive bushwalking trails and mountain-climbing hotspots in addition to wildflowers that carpet the region in spring. 

The Park supports more than 1500 flora species, at least 87 of which are found nowhere else in the world. It is also home to 20 mammal species, 120 bird species, 13 different types of reptiles, and 14 frog species including the rare mainland quokka, now only found in small pockets of Western Australia. 



We visited the Park in September 2020, keen to see its regeneration following the bushfires. The fires between Boxing Day 2019 and New Year’s Day 2020 destroyed over 40,000 hectares
more than a third of the Park.

Contractors and staff from WA’s Parks and Wildlife Service at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) spent months working to repair walking trails and infrastructure so they could be reopened.

 

SETTING UP SHOP

There are caravan parks in nearby towns, but the best way to enjoy the Park is by staying at one of the two caravan parks in the Ranges. The Stirling Range Retreat is close to the base of Bluff Knoll, the Park’s tallest peak. They offer a shuttle bus service to various locations in the Park as well as wildflower and birdwatching tours.

We chose to stay a little further away at Mt. Trio Bush Camp and Caravan Park. Located in a peaceful bush setting on farmland at the edge of the National Park with views of the mountains, it was an ideal base for us to explore the rest of the Park. 

 

IMMERSIVE HISTORY

The Stirling Ranges stretches 65km from east to west, formed over millions of years by weathering and erosion, and towering dramatically above the surrounding lowlands and farmlands. Known as Koi Kyenunu-ruff by the Mineng and Goreng people, meaning ‘mist moving around the mountains,’ it was respected and feared as both a sacred and dangerous place. The lowlands surrounding the peaks however were an important source of food.

Explorer John Septimus Roe renamed the Stirling Ranges in 1835 after Captain James Stirling, the first Governor of Western Australia.

Bushwalking is a great way to discover the scenic beauty of the Park but be sure to consider your own fitness and capabilities. Many of the climbs take several hours, are challenging and require a high level of fitness, agility, and experience. If that’s beyond your abilities, though, you can still explore the Park via scenic drives that wend through it and offer several impressive lookouts. 

Not far from the camp is the access to Mount Trio, known as Warrungup by the Indigenous people, meaning ‘three become.’ Mt. Trio has three peaks, the highest being 856 metres. The first part of this 3.5km return climb is very steep, and you should allow three hours.

At Mt. Trio we were shocked to see the bushfires’ destruction close up, with the blackened earth dotted with leafless black sticks. It was difficult to comprehend the complete devastation.

My husband chose to walk part of the way up Mt. Trio while I rambled around the lower slopes with my camera. On closer inspection, I was amazed to see the number of Red Beak Orchids thrusting up through the blackened ground and ash. Red beaks love burnt earth and often grow in colonies where there has been a bushfire. Some orchids can lay dormant for years waiting for a bushfire to assist their regeneration.

Also significant was the silvery leaved Kingia australis, called, bullanock by the Indigenous people. From the Dasypogonaceae family, they look very similar to the Xanthorrhoea grass trees, but are not closely related. I was fascinated by the multitude of globular flower clusters thrusting from the top of the thick blackened bases. Growing very slowly, these plants can live for centuries. We were told that within ten days of the bushfire, the kingias had started sprouting their flower stalks.

 

HEADING DEEPER

From Mount Trio, we continued to Bluff Knoll. At 1059m above sea level, Bluff Knoll is the highest peak in south Western Australia and is known as Bular Mial by the Indigenous people, meaning ‘many eyes.’ They believe the clouds which curl around Bluff Knoll are the visible form of Noatch, a lonely spirit who cannot hold shape for long.

Bluff Knoll has the most popular and developed trail in the Park, affording outstanding 360-degree views from the summit. I recommend starting early so you can complete this 6.8km return climb in daylight — allow 3–4 hours.

Winter snowfalls sometimes occur on the peaks, but you need to arrive early before it melts. It is the only place in Western Australia to receive snow regularly.

At the Bluff Knoll car park there is a wheelchair-friendly boardwalk, lookout, picnic tables, and seats, allowing everyone to enjoy the mountain-scapes. An information shelter introduces you to the Park.

Contractors spent four months working here to repair the extensive bushfire damage to the Bluff Knoll trail. The height of the new trail steps has been decreased, making the trail easier to climb.

For those interested in wild orchids, you can enjoy an easy one and a half-hour morning guided wildflower orchid walk during September and October from the Mt. Trio campground. Led by experienced orchid hunter Jarrad, we saw 26 varieties during our walk including many we had never seen before, including the Joseph’s Spider Orchid caladenia polychroma and the Zebra Orchid caladenia cairnsiana. Many of these orchids are tiny, or hidden in their environment, so the walk taught us what to look for.

Over 50 species have been discovered on their walks around the camp over the last few years and Jarrad said there would be different orchids flowering in October. There are identification photos in the camp kitchen.

In the afternoon we drove to Mt. Toolbrunup. At a height of 1052m, this is the second-highest peak in the Park, and one of the more challenging climbs. You must be prepared to scramble up some steep rocky sections — 4km return, allow 3–4 hours.

Jarrad told us the January bushfire was so hot that Mt. Toolbrunup, which you can see from the camp, went up like a volcano and entirely burnt within 45 minutes. 

During our 20 minute walk along the rocky trail, it was heartening to see green shoots and evidence of the bush regenerating as well as numerous wild orchids, including the Little Pink Fans a new species to us. 

Unfortunately, land care experts say the biodiversity of the Park may never be the same. At least 14 flora species were critically endangered. If bushfires are too frequent, plants do not have enough time to produce viable seed, which reduces the reproductive capacity of the plant and in turn changes the entire food chain.

 

ON THE ROAD

For those not wanting or able to climb, the 115km scenic circular drive through the Park is a good way to experience the rugged peaks, mountains, and impressive views of the Ranges.

We headed west along Salt River Road, before turning south along Red Gum Pass Road and then east along Stirling Range Drive. By doing this the sun was behind us in the afternoon as we drove through the mountains.

There are various picnic areas, lookouts and mountain trails to explore along the way. We added ten more orchid varieties to our list and many wildflowers.

The Park has mosaics of banksias, eucalypts, orchids, verticordia featherflowers, and 10 species of darwinia mountain bell ensconced in thickets, woodlands, and wetland habitats.

Around 150 bird species have been recorded, including western rosellas, and the rare Crested Shrike-tit and Carnaby’s Black cockatoo so bird watchers will enjoy this drive.

As we turned east along Stirling Range Drive it was obvious the gravel road had formed a partial firebreak, as it was green to the north and burnt black to the south. It was along here that we saw the Scarlet Banksia known as Waddib by the Noongar people. Growing around 1–8m tall and displaying superb vibrant red flowers from June to January, it only grows in a small area of our state. We had only seen them once before in the wild, in the Fitzgerald River National Park on the south coast. It is a prolific nectar producer, and the seeds are eaten by birds including cockatoos. 

We stopped at the White Gum Flats picnic area for lunch, and about half an hour later at Central Lookout, where there is a 30-minute return trail — that is steep at times — to the top of a small knoll where you can enjoy magnificent views. 

Common mammals which may be seen are the western grey kangaroo and western brush wallaby. Numbats and dibblers have been reintroduced to the Park as part of the Perth Zoo and Western Shield’s work to recover native animal populations through the control of foxes and feral cats.

If you have time and want to explore further, Porongurup National Park is only 45km away. It has various mountain walk trails and for the agile, there are magnificent views to be had from the Granite Skywalk at Castle Rock. Mount Barker and the Great Southern region is a premier wine growing region with numerous wineries to visit.

Late in the afternoon, we sat outside our caravan absorbing the tranquillity as the sunset over the green grain paddocks. Our four day break was over too soon, but despite the bushfire destruction we had experienced much of the Park. We have promised ourselves a return trip and hope to see continued recovery from the bushfires of this precious and incredibly biodiverse region.

 

 

FAST FACTS

Location: 400km south of Perth via Albany Highway, 80km north of Albany via Chester Pass Road, or 62km east of Mt. Barker.

Best time to walk: Between August to October to see the wildflowers at their best

MORE INFORMATION

WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions: parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/stirling-range

Australian Government, National Heritage Places: environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/stirling-range

Trails WA: trailswa.com.au

Mt. Trio Bush Camp & Caravan Park: mttrio.com.au

Stirling Range Retreat: stirlingrange.com.au

Mt. Barker Visitor Centre: mountbarkertourismwa.com.au

Mt. Barker Wines: mountbarkerwine.com.au

Porongurup National Park: porongurup.asn.au

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