Late last year, I had a taste of the Walpole Wilderness Area, and ever since I have wanted to go back to this spellbinding woodland in Australia’s south-west. For me, it possessed the wow factor.
Part of what made the first trip so remarkable was a boat ride that crisscrossed twin inlets surrounded by ancient natural environments, that could inspire an antique oil canvas painting of deep green forests of soaring trees fringing sapphire inlets. The scene was pure as much as it was wild. What added to the wow factor was the take on the region’s unspoilt history from Walpole resident and exciting tour guide, Gary Muir.
“You’ve got the North Pole and the South Pole, and what is in the middle?” Mr Muir eagerly asked my tour group as we voyaged around the inlet onboard his family-run business, WOW Wilderness EcoCruise.
Almost instantaneously, he revealed the punchline — “Walpole!” He soon followed up his geographical repositioning of Walpole, enthusiastically proclaiming that, “Walpole is the belly button of the world!”
You could believe it too. The scenery was undoubtedly pristine, providing the solace you would expect to feel on the edge of the world. It didn’t take long for me to be convinced. I had soon become enchanted with Walpole, home to less than 500 and situated 400km south of Perth.
Mr Muir’s knowledge on the area was deserving of a Britannica or few. His family has lived in the region for over a century and a half, so to say he lives and breathes Walpole is an understatement. It was hard not to be intrigued with his captivating storytelling of the region’s indigenous past, European colonisation, and far-reaching stories with ties to Russian literary genius, Leo Tolstoy. And it was with his great gusto and conviction of Walpole and its neighbouring national parks’ scenic majesties that made me keen to wander the west’s wild side.
Fast forward to 2020 and I made good on my mission to explore more of Walpole and experience its surrounds and rare environmental attractions in solitude.
Walpole’s premier beach, Coalmine, is unlike other famous beaches in the south-west region.
For one, it does not hug the ocean. Instead, it is situated within the peaceful waters of Nornalup Inlet and receives the backwash of five rivers and has an ornate horizon of evergreen forest. Closer to the shoreline, a karri forest juts out along a bay to the beach’s right.
You are right to imagine it as a beautiful combination of natural backdrops of gentle waves and lush woodlands. Yet, it poses the perfect dilemma: to lay in utter bliss on a beach towel or be tempted to hike its surrounding forested trails? Do yourself a favour and make time to do both.
I was kind to my leg muscles with the 6km return Coalmine Beach Heritage Trail. The easy trail starts from the Walpole Nornalup Visitor Centre and veers through swamplands (mostly along a boardwalk) until arriving at Coalmine Beach Holiday Park. From there, it made the post-trail solitary beach splash so much more gratifying.
Many other trails descend on Coalmine Beach, ranging from easy to hard. They’re worth checking out at the visitor centre.
From the “bellybutton of the world”, the list of attractions spreads in all directions. A 30-minute drive north of Walpole is Fernhook Falls, located in Mount Frankland South National Park.
Fernhook Falls can be deceiving as it does not gush all year around. Visiting Deep River in the autumn put a stop in my plan in seeing the region’s famous falls. The forested falls experience a trickle (if that) in the summertime, while the winter sees the flow-on effect cascading over granite boulders. On the flip side, despite the absence of falls in warmer months, it proved to be a serene place to have a stroll on its riverside boardwalk and observe the natural pool, Rowell.
I cursed myself for not having my bathers ready to jump in, but a hearty cook up in the park’s undercover barbecue area proved to be a worthy consolation.
VALLEY OF THE GIANTS
How to make yourself feel small in the world? Stand on the shoulder of tall giants.
Less than 20km away east from Walpole is the region’s natural skyscrapers, Valley of the Giants. The centuries-old giants — towering tingle trees — provide a bewitching canopy, with the rare eucalypts stretching far into the sky.
You could say that this world-famous nature-based tourism attraction in Walpole-Nornalup National Park and Walpole Wilderness is epic in more ways than one, because it’s true. Its other star attraction is the 600m long Tree Top Walk, which allows you to have a bird’s eye view of the timber giants 40m above the forest floor and afar into the wilderness.
The Walpole area is home to the only tingle forest in the world, and these trees are some of the world’s biggest. It is impressive to get up close and personal with these ancient wooden pillars. For a feel-good moment, I was made to feel young again!
Back on ground level, strolling along the Ancient Empire Walk bestowed a sense of wonder. Along this wooden boardwalk you can carefully observe the trunks’ gnarled appearance, with some red tingle trees even receiving a nickname. (The 400-year-old Grandma Tingle rightfully deserves its tag for its wrinkled distortions and uncanny resemblance to a human face.) What is even more fairytale-like is being able to not only stand inside some of the trees’ giant burnt hollows but to casually stroll through to the other side like it’s the norm of this distant world.
Walking through a living tree is nothing short of an extraordinary moment and a walk to remember for the ages.
GIANT TINGLE TREE
Walpole Wilderness Area is filled with distinct natural attractions, yet one stands out.
A slight detour off the South Coast Highway and along the gravel road Hill Top Scenic Drive paved the way to Walpole’s most behemoth sight, the Giant Tingle Tree.
Some 2km en route to the town’s timbered titan is a vista point worth the pullover. It’s a natural window coloured with three tiers of blue courtesy of the Frankland River, Nornalup Inlet and the Southern Ocean. I took a seat on one of the two benches located at this lookout for a snack and to appreciate this spectacular colour scenery while listening to the natural soundscapes around me.
Another 3km along the red dirt drive and I came face to face with the famous fire-hollowed red tingle tree. It’s enormous and awesome. It was at this moment I found myself mouthing the biggest “wow” of my life because it is such a mind-blowing sight. The tree’s diameter is over 6m, and it looks like the tallest tepee you may ever see.
It has been the subject of novelty, with the tree tried and tested as a gimmick parking bay (Yes, the tree's burnt hollow is big enough to fit a car!).
The unique parking spot is accessed along an easy 800m loop trail, which also includes signposts providing information on the abundant native flora and fauna found in the forest.
Top tip: visit the Giant Tingle Tree en route to the Valley of the Giants.
It was time for my footwork to be challenged. Not only was my drive headed north of Walpole, but so too was my altitude.
The pinnacle of visiting Mount Frankland National Park is, of course, seeing the park and beyond from its 411m peak. Its namesake mountain’s granite top is an intrepid climb to conquer so good leg muscle work is required.
It takes just over a kilometre to reach the summit and once atop, be prepared to be blown away twice over. One, for the windswept factor and two, for the ‘this was all worth the sweat’ moment with its 360-degree panoramic views of the Walpole Wilderness area. Karri, jarrah and tingle trees all form part of the shades of green blanketing the landscape below.
Once I was up, there was too much cloud cover to get the full scope of the area’s vastness. The park’s vantage point has been taken advantage of for many decades (with the Towerman’s Lookout present) and a tower was built to keep a watchful eye for potential fires and check the weather. On a clear day it is possible to see the region's natural skyline — Mount Roe, Stirling Ranges, the ancient granite Porongurups, and views of the Southern Ocean.
I relished coming down the mountain. After I walked down the 300 steep stairs along the granite peak, the clouds had shifted, and the sun shone through. Nature had teased me with this sudden luck. Luckily, I didn’t miss all the views. My efforts came to be worth it as the mountain also featured a skywalk, shortly after the stair climb down, which embraced the peak’s perimeter. The views made me gasp as the forests, heathlands and beyond were all breathtakingly beautiful.
PORONGURUP NATIONAL PARK
Hiking up Mount Frankland proved to be a good warm-up for the next feat to come — Porongurup National Park, just short of a two-hour drive headed north-east.
This National Heritage Listed park is ancient; its soaring granite domes are some 1100 million years old, dating back to Jurassic times. World-recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, the park is home to a high volume of flora and fauna within its vicinity. Native myrtles, heaths, banksias, flame-peas, rice flowers, kangaroo paws, orchids and lilies are just some of the 700 plant species splashing colour in the grey stone backdrop.
The 4.4km return hike up to its star attraction, a 670m high granite skywalk, was not going to be easy. Little did I know the trek to the peak would require fearlessness, exertion and a good grip.
Just before reaching the mountain’s grand balcony, excellent bodywork and boulder action was required. It was a steep climb to reach the top and one with hurdles. Rock climbing handles are attached to the granite outcrop to conquer the ascent’s rocky pass.
Thankfully, the impromptu mountain gym session didn’t last long. My last bit of strength was needed to arrive at the most glorious and rewarding views of the region.
What an engineering feat, I thought, as I climbed the ladder towards the silver podium wrapping itself around the distinctive summit of the region. How they did it, I don’t know, but I am glad someone saw the benefits of constructing this exclusive skywalk. Atop of Castle Rock, I had adrenaline-charged views.
The panoramic vistas of the region were overwhelming and as far as the eye could see. Across the way, I viewed an opposing mountain decorated with giant Flinstone-like pebbles (boulders).
This natural amusement park also has another attraction — Balancing Rock. The boulder’s balancing appearance seemed like a still from an Indiana Jones film where you would expect to hit play, and the giant stone would continue to roll on. Reality doesn’t require a run for your life moment as the boulder is not going anywhere — for now.
Coming down, I felt I could appreciate more of the jarrah and marri forest that aligned the trail. My mind began to think back to all the incredible natural towers and unkempt scenic splendours I had experienced in this vast concourse.
North Pole, South Pole, and then there’s Walpole, the more accessible, colourful pole. Its wilderness area is a playground, and its natural sceneries will tame any adventurous soul — all without the extra layers required.
COALMINE BEACH HOLIDAY PARK
Unpowered and powered sites, chalets, cabins and glamping tent style accommodation available.
Ph: (08) 9840 1026
PORONGURUP RANGE TOURIST PARK
Unpowered and powered sites and chalet accommodation available.
Ph: (08) 9853 1057
VALLEY OF GIANTS
Open 9am–5pm daily.
Cost: $21 per adult; $15.50 per concession card holder; $10.50 per child (6–15 years); $52.50 per family (two adults, two children between 6-15).
Ph: (08) 9840 8263
EXPLORE WA PARK PASS
From $25 for five days per vehicle.
Ph: (08) 9219 9000