Sunday, 28 January 2018

Koi Kyenunu-ruff - the Stirling Range Ridge Walk, Western Australia

The track notes say to expect the following: narrow ledges, much scrambling over rocky peaks, probable violent weather changes including whiteouts or snow while tackling steep ascents and descents with unreliable water sources and other 'significant challenges' such as the trail being easy to lose.

Guide books are, of course, by their very meaning, supposed to be accurate guides to a walk. But the tatty track notes I have borrowed for this 3-day walk are more than 20 years old so I would excuse them some discrepancies, particularly with the ever-changing nature of a wild landscape. The fact they turn out so eerily accurate, in directions and in the adjectives used, is worth mentioning.

The notes are borrowed from an unlikely source – a guy called 'Bully' with an 80s heavy metal hairstyle, leather jacket and exuberant love of tiny, pretty orchids. As Bully hands the notes over they come with a warning about inexperienced walkers getting into serious trouble on this three day, unmarked walk following the spine of the only major mountain range within the southern half of Western Australia – the Stirling Range.

The steep ascents:

Due to the altitude and location of the Stirling Range (its highest peak Bluff Mountain is 1,095m) this is also the state's only hike with alpine weather conditions. Just a week before we arrive, the mountains cop a decent dusting of August snow and to reinforce the point about wild weather, I read my borrowed track notes while huddled in our tent waiting for an afternoon storm of sleet and rain to pass over the campground at the base of the mountains. The range feels, and looks, is as if someone has plonked a little bit of south-west Tasmania amongst Western Australia's vast flat plains of canola and wheat.

The 3-day Stirling Ridge Walk, is 29km long and located in Stirling Range National Park, an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot. It can be walked in either direction as a through walk, if you can organise a car shuttle. Otherwise, it can be completed as a loop by including a long, flat section of fire trail that skirts farmland at the base of the range. Caz and I choose the car shuttle option, as the nearby Stirling Range Retreat offers this service for a reasonable price but at a terrifying speed, our driver flying down the narrow country rounds and taking the sweeping dirt corners like a rally star. As he drops us at the end of Gnowerall Road he says: "Be careful up there." 

We warm into the walk with 6km of open fire trail and the towering silhouette of the range stretching west before us and looking impressively rugged – bulging domes of rock, towering pinnacles and deep, dark gullies cutting into the folds of the peaks. 

Unique and colourful wildflowers are a beautiful distraction along the fire trail – banksia flowers sprout straight out of the sandy soil, pink coneflowers dot the bush along with purple and blood red pea flowers. It is a wonderful way to walk, being interrupted by flashes of brilliant colour from some new and exotic flower.

After crossing a branch of the small Woolagunup Creek, the foot track appears on the left, heading up onto the range. Despite being more than 50km from the coast the water is salty and undrinkable. Good drinking water is one of the greatest challenges on the Stirling Ridge Walk. All water down low is salty while high on the range it is often non-existent. To carry three days worth of water is a near impossible task and so we will be relying on seepages, scattered amongst the high rocky peaks.

So as not to be caught short, we begin the walk with 8 litres of water between us. It is like strapping a gravity machine to our backs, as we veer off the fire trail and begin the steep climb onto the range. The ascent is slow and sweaty and is a vertical height gain of nearly 800m from our starting point to the top of the range where we reach a high saddle. The track notes show side-trip options left and right – either up Ellen Peak or up Pyongerup Peak. We opt for Pyongerup Peak, and it is an absolute pleasure leaving the heavy backpacks behind while we head the short distance to the summit. 

Pushing through the scrub on the narrow footpad we pass increasing evidence of plant dieback, caused by the introduced fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi. The Eastern Stirling Range Montane Heath and Thicket Community has in fact been recognised as a Critically Endangered ecological community because of the threat posed by this silent, unstoppable killer. Even with the sad brown patches of affected flora, Pyongerup Peak is a lovely summit and the view from the top takes in the entire Stirling Range as it stretches westwards before us.

Much scrambling over rocky peaks:

Returning to collect our backpacks, it is not far to the first significant camping cave and we decide to stop here for the night as it is closest to a small seep that we will use to top-up our water supplies. That afternoon and all that night we move to the beat of a slow drip – it takes half an hour to collect a litre of water. I settle down to wait as farmhouse lights begin twinkling on the plains below. It is a stunning, clear night and as the sky darkens the horizon disappears and the farm lights look like a field of stars not yet risen. 

On day two, Bakers Knob is our next peak and crossing it is straightforward.  The trail skirts slightly north of the highest point and rolls easily into the next saddle. However, looking back on our route tells a different story. The southern face of Bakers Knob, only a few metres from the summit, is a sheer and enormous drop. I can't believe how close we were to that terrifying drop, completely unaware.

After Bakers Knob lies the Three Arrows – a collection of three knobbly, bare peaks and it is here the track notes come in to their own. We will be counting down The Arrows; three, two, one. Firstly for us, the route over Third Arrow sneaks through a narrow col between the east buttress and the east pinnacle. Here we drop the packs again and enjoy a steep scramble to the summit. It is an airy climb to reach the highest tip where the world drops away at our feet. The views are amazing and worth the effort. Climbing up Second Arrow knocks the wind out of us – literally. It is steeper than anticipated. Creeping up the exposed slope towards the summit we also come under attack from above. Two Peregrine Falcons dive bomb us three times with exhilarating speed and pinpoint accuracy. They come so close we hear the wind roaring through their feathers and I duck. The route up on to First Arrow (but for us the final Arrow) is again strenuous and there is a maze of route options off the western side with a myriad of rock cairns directing us this way and that. We find ourselves suddenly out on the nose of the summit with a short, but sheer, rock climb the only way forward. It is time to backtrack. We veer south, passing our packs down a couple of exposed ledges before rejoining the main route and tackling a strenuous steep descent that skirts around the base of the Arrow.

Once safely in the next saddle we rest and eat a quiet, tired, late lunch, recovering from the battle with the rocks and precipices. Then, the battle with tough, unbending heath and mallee begins. Climbing steadily up to the summit of Isongerup Peak and then descending down a natural drainage line where we load up with more water found running out of the rocks and down the track in a crystal clear cascade. Last week's snow and rain has been a treat for us and topped up the ranges nicely. Another half an hour of wrestling, pushing and weaving through the shrubbery, we come to our campsite. Like all the other campsites we have passed this one is tucked in a saddle and is littered with rubbish. Multiple old fire pits scar the site (despite this being a fuel stove only wilderness area) and toilet paper and human waste is poorly disposed of (if at all).

It is the only downer on a day that has been truly spectacular – one of those intense, varied and rewarding walking days with clambering, route finding, traversing beneath huge cliffs and across the tops of them, watching water consumption and planning intake and days left, ignoring the wind on some peaks and holding on to our hats on others, getting caught on trees and shrubs and scratched and poked and prickled.

Probable violent weather changes:

And still, the real excitement, is yet to begin. That night, the day's gusting wind rises and rises and rises. Several times in the night I wake to such powerful gusts that the tent poles are pushed in against my head. It sounds as if we are sleeping behind an accelerating jet engine. The roar is intense and all consuming. By 3am the tent is shaking and buckling. By 4am the sound is phenomenal.

In the morning, from the west a dark and ominous cloud is forming and I quickly change from gaiters into overpants thinking we might get snow or at least rain. Fully clad in Gortex, we set off to face the weather.

What we get is the most extraordinary cloud show I have ever seen. The Aboriginal name for the Stirling Range is Koi Kyenunu-ruff, which means ‘mist rolling around the mountains’ – something we experience first hand. The ripping north-westerly wind drags a sheet of silken clouds up and over Bluff Knoll which looms ahead. Behind us the same is happening on Isongerup Peak. The clouds are then being pushed down the southern side of each mountain where they meet in an extraordinary arrowhead of downdraft. We stand amongst the mallee trees watching in awe.

Looking west there are several of these smooth clouds obscuring every peak and yet beyond them are sun soaked fields of canola with blue sky above.

This amazing cloud show continues as we begin the steep climb up onto Bluff Knoll where we are engulfed by swirling clouds as we pick our way through impressive rock outcrops, searching for signs of the track in the near whiteout.

Pink tape and one official looking aluminium track marker makes things easier to negotiate but on Bluff Knoll the walking pads braid into a maze of possible lefts and rights and backtracks and wrong ways and right ways. Fortuitously, at the moment we reach these vague possibilities the cloud lifts and the summit looms ahead. We navigate by sight and reach the cairn at the exact same time as a group of four walkers setting off on the ridge walk in the opposite direction to us.

It is a little like handing over the baton. They are the first walkers we have seen for three days and we chat for a while amongst the swirling misted cliffs and pass on information about water supplies and campsites. I consider their cloudy start a blessing, as it hides the perspective I had the day before – the improbability of the sheer and rugged cliffs, the wild Arrows, the unbending mallee scrub. But then again, the challenge is exactly what they came for and having just finished it ourselves I have no doubt they are in for a treat.

The guide book:

The track notes we borrowed from Bully are a copy of Tony Morphet's invaluable, immaculately written and hand drawn book 'Mountain Walks in the Stirling Ranges'. Now out of print, you will find extensive Stirling Range walk info at Tony's fantastic website.

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