Whilst in lockdown, Great Walks columnist Janet Paterson AKA 'The Walking Scientist' looks to her future by reliving her Bibbulmun Track past.
"On the last night of my eight-week hike along the Bibbulmun Track I meet Andy, whose blue eyes radiate kindness and knowing. I had hoped for a hut to myself and some time for reflection on my last evening, so felt slightly jarred on arrival to find three men setting up in the three-sided shelter.
But Andy, like so many of the other chance encounters I experienced on the track, manages to enhance rather than diminish my 1000km walk. Discovering he is a retired zoologist I quiz Andy about his career – which has spanned many decades and almost every ecosystem across WA.
He spins an engaging yarn about his research into a tiny freshwater fish – the ‘spotted minnow’ and its evolutionary quest to survive WA’s landlocked, drought-prone river systems. The tale has a bit of everything. An ancient animal with its origins in the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, a Charles Darwin round-the-world expedition, extraordinary adaptation to a drying climate and the dogged pursuit of a Western Australian scientist bent on unravelling a unique piece of fish biology.
On hearing that I have walked the Bibbulmun nearly end-to-end, one of the other men in the hut asks me which section I have enjoyed the most. “I’m very drawn to the jarrah forests and their granite outcrops,” I answer. “But I love the transitions of the track too – the appearance of the huge karri and tingle trees in the southern forests, the unique wildflowers of the swampy Pingerup plains, the anticipation of the ocean after weeks of walking through the bush.”
We talk about how varied and unique WA's landscapes are and I ask Andy which bit of our state appeals to him the most. “Whichever bit I’m in at that moment,” he replies.
I can tell by the light in his eyes that it’s true. This is a man who is content wherever his feet are planted. Waking before dawn the next day, I pack up my belongings and head into the sunrise towards the Bibbulmun finish line in Albany. It is a hard, warm day of sand dune hiking but through it all Andy’s words stay with me. “Whichever bit I’m in at that moment.” They feel like a parting gift from the Track. A reminder to stay present wherever my feet are planted.
On the bus the next morning heading back to my wheatbelt home I'm filled with deep gratitude for my time on the Bibbulmun. All the people I crossed paths with will visit me again in my mind’s eye. Each interaction touched me in some way. I chat again to all the animals I met along the way – the blue wrens at Warren, the emu and his chicks out of Collie, the fiery-tailed cockatoos near Balingup.
The colours of the track’s wildflowers fill my heart even as my bus hurtles past parched wheat paddocks. Perfect coastal daisies smile up at me as I hike those challenging dunes again in my imagination – white, yellow, purple and blue faces encouraging me ever onwards.
Covid-19 has changed many things about our daily lives but thankfully the wilderness remains out of its reach. As we return to a new normal (whatever that may be), I like to think the many thousands of hiking trails across Australia are encouraging us to continue to walk our way into this post-virus world."