11 November, 2020 By: Cassandra Charlick
The spectacular peaks of Western Australia's Great Southern region hold an element of mystery and intrigue for many WA locals.
Is it here that you'll find the only mountain range in the southern half of the State. The region is also home to the South West's highest peak and is one of the only places in WA where you'll see snow.
Just over four hours south of Perth, the Great Southern is a destination with many surprises. And while the stunning coastline around Denmark and Albany is where many holiday makers are drawn, head a little further inland and you'll be richly rewarded with the beauty and hidden treasures surrounding the Stirling Range and its crowning jewel: Bluff Knoll.
So, if you're ready to take on a true West Aussie bucket-list adventure, it's time to lace up your hiking boots and head towards those rugged and mysterious peaks for a unique and awe-inspiring journey.
A gentle warm up
Framed by the dramatic Stirling Range to the north, and the granite domes of the Porongurup Range in the south, the town of Mount Barker is at the heart of the Shire of Plantagenet and your first port of call.
A significant region in WA not only for natural wonders but also for agriculture, if you visit in early spring, you'll be welcomed by the sight of fields overflowing with yellow canola crops against a backdrop of jagged peaks.
While in town, pop into the visitor centre for information about local hiking routes, and don't miss the opportunity to taste one of the best meat pies you'll ever sink your teeth into at the Mount Barker Bakery.
You can't go wrong with the classic chunky beef, however this award-winning bakery also specialises in gourmet additions like kangaroo and chorizo. You'll have plenty of opportunities to walk it off.
For your first day of hiking, drive 20 minutes east of town and take the turn off for the Tree-In-The-Rock Day Use Area in Porongurup National Park. At the carpark you can pick up a multi-day Holiday Pass for entry into the Park. A five-day pass is $25 per vehicle and will also cover your entry into Stirling Range National Park. Keep in mind that during school holidays, carparks at hiking and picnic spots fill up quickly.
There are numerous walking trails with an option for everyone, from the flat 600-metre loop of the Bolganup Trail, through to the uphill five-kilometre return route of the Devils Slide trail. As with most hikes in the region, sturdy shoes are essential due to uneven surfaces and the weather can change quickly, so be sure to pack plenty of water and suitable clothing to layer up.
One hiking trail not to miss in the Porongurup Range is the Castle Rock Walk Trail. This two to three-hour trek will reward you with breathtaking views at the top from the Granite Skywalk - a lookout platform with lower and upper lookouts. On the way up, you'll pass through marri and karri forest and also see the famous Balancing Rock. It's a relatively steep climb but suited to those with a moderate fitness level.
Having reached the peak, there are two options: play it safe and take in the views from the lower lookout, or challenge yourself with a climb over boulders studded with metal handles and rocky footholds to get to the upper lookout. After one final climb up a six-foot metal ladder, the upper lookout offers views of the surrounding countryside as far as the eye can see: down to the Southern Ocean and Albany, and up to the striking silhouette of the Stirling Range.
Back at ground level, from the Castle Rock picnic area, you can catch your breath again on an easy one-kilometre stroll around the Walitj Meil trail and learn more about the spiritual importance the area holds for the traditional owners.
Before jumping back in the car, make sure you take a look at the Tree-In-The-Rock itself, where quite literally a karri tree has grown out of a crevice in the granite rock.
After a day of forest treks, a hearty meal awaits just down the road at Karribank - one of the oldest continuously operating country retreats of its kind in WA, having opened its doors to guests just after the Second World War.
The rambling historic property houses several lovingly restored mud brick and wooden cottages with views of the Porongurup Range. Take a stroll through the rose-filled gardens on the way to the homestead's Karri on Bar for a woodfired pizza followed by a glass of local wine on the verandah for sunset.
Head back to Mount Barker to gather supplies and recharge your batteries overnight before the next big hiking challenge - the summit of Bluff Knoll.
Time to climb
From Mount Barker, it's a one hour drive north-east to the Stirling Range National Park. Ideally you should base yourself here for at least two to three days to explore the Park well.
One great accommodation option is Mount Trio Bush Camp. This private bushland campground, built largely from repurposed materials, has powered and unpowered sites and is a stellar spot to set up camp for a few days of hiking.
Another accommodation option with an altogether different atmosphere is The Lily, a slice of European hospitality in the middle of the Aussie bush. Take your pick from one of the 16th-century replica Dutch-style houses, or for something completely different, spend a night in their vintage Dakota aircraft.
Situated against the striking backdrop of the Stirling Range, one of Australia's only operational flour windmills is also quite the landmark, and your hosts Pleun and Hennie will gladly give you a tour, along with freshly baked stone-ground spelt bread for breakfast. They've even set up a weather webcam from The Lily with a clear view over the range for hikers.
Before tackling any trails through the Park, do check which are open as some are still recovering from previous bush fires.
On the day of your Bluff Knoll ascent, if you need supplies, stop by the Bluff Knoll cafe at the turnoff to Bluff Knoll Road - they have everything from sun cream and ponchos to energy bars and coffee.
Park at the Bluff Knoll carpark and Eastern lookout and take a moment to gaze up at the South West's highest peak. Known as Bular Mial to the Nyoongar people, it is a place of great spiritual significance.
The Aboriginal name for the Stirling Range, Koi Kyenunu-ruff, translates to 'mist moving around the mountains'. As the name suggests, the weather patterns can shift fast around the peaks, so be sure to pack a jacket and be prepared for increasing wind at the top. Though you should only attempt the climb in good weather.
It's also important to advise someone of your hiking plans and estimated return time and take enough water and snacks for a solid three to four-hour journey to the top and back down.
The trail itself has recently undergone an extensive rebuild and upgrade. It's now even more accessible to hikers, with all the steps rebuilt, a new bridge halfway up and much of the trail consisting of compacted pathway. Steep sections are easier to manage than previously.
While the walk is challenging in terms of the incline in some sections, there's no race to the top and it's perfectly achievable for those with lower levels of fitness, as long as you take your time. Be sure to stop at the waterfall about one third of the way up, and then again at the seated rest point about halfway up.
The path to the top is very clearly signposted, with some informative plaques along the way and there are no alternative trails, so there's little chance of getting lost if you stay on the path.
The views from the 1,099-metre peak of Bluff Knoll are almost other-worldly and unlike anywhere else in WA. As you gain height you can see further north and west across the Stirling Range, and from the summit the views sweep southwards across to the Porongurup Range.
Take your time and soak it all up. It's also a spectacular spot to stop on a sunny day for a picnic lunch before the three-kilometre climb back down.
Dieback is a big problem in the Stirling Range, so do be careful not to stray from the path and keep your hiking boots as clean as possible. Unfortunately, more than 2,300 plant species in the South West are susceptible.
Recover and relax
To treat yourself to some well-deserved post-hike luxury, book a night or two at Katanning's Premier Mill Hotel - just a ninety-minute drive north of Bluff Knoll.
Since opening in 2018, the hotel has received much praise for its clever design, which tells the story of the 127-year-old building's history at every turn - even the coasters in the bar are printed with the blueprints for the original flour mill's operational equipment.
Enjoy a cracking local wine and bar snacks in the Cordial Bar, before heading upstairs to dine at the hotel's Dome restaurant.
In no rush to head home? Stay a few extra days and explore the nearby PUBLIC Silo Art Trail and historic sites around Katanning.
The Kodja Place in Kojonup is well worth a visit; take time to absorb the history of the town and the Nyoongar culture and stories in The Kodja Gallery, The Storyplace, and The Rose Maze. Be sure to say hello to Nyoongar elder Jack if you see him while visiting; you'll be in for a treat if you catch some of his storytelling magic.
Ready to tackle Bluff Knoll?
Make sure you're prepared - RAC members save 50% on national park passes.