Retro Retreat: Into the Stirling Ranges

Stirling RangesFollowing on from the haphazard adventures of my last April school holiday post, “A Mother’s Survival Guide”, where the very word camping still finds me in the foetal position rocking back and forth, I have become the very proud owner of a 1986 Viscount caravan called Lillian.  Low cost cheerless camping has now morphed into low cost captivating caravanning capers into the Stirling Ranges, Chevy Chase style…

Our 3 day and 4 night adventure into the Stirling Ranges in Western Australia’s Great Southern is retrospect in more ways than one. Firstly, it’s the first time I take my 30 year old caravan ‘Lillian’ for a run with my kids by myself, without my husband.  Secondly, I am totally reliving my child hood as the Stirling Ranges is the backdrop to where I grew up on a farm and I finally taking my 2 teenage sons for their first trip to the summit of Bluff Knoll.


We don’t ever go through my home town that often, but when I do the conversation is very predictable. “Oh look kids, you’re mother was born in that hospital”.  My hearty excitement barely inspires a head lift from the ipads.  “That was the school I went to and I wonder if Nan and Pa’s house is still there on Corbett Street?”

Lillian is probably wondering what the hell I am doing, just like the residents of 12 Corbett Street, as we pull up.  Nostalgia overwhelms me as the glorious fibro 3 bedroom home confronts us. I mentally sweep each room as I recall the soft texture of the pink chenille bedspread, the hourly chime of the intricate antique Dutch clock on the wall, the brown vinyl couch where I have a black and white photo of my sister and I sitting, the sweet smell of tobacco from my Pa’s pipe.  My beloved grand-parent’s first home in a new country which offered them hardships but a bright future for their descendants.  A great moment of hunger overwhelms my teenage sons as they see this brief hiatus into history as nothing more than an opportunity to get more snacks out of Lillian’s pantry.

Rounding the sweeping bend not far south east of Gnowangerup I am once again swept up in a familiar scene of my childhood.  A long forgotten grove of golden gimlett trees greeted me with feelings of giddy gladness.  A hearty homecoming after almost 40 years.  I guess it’s in my DNA.  Just like it was instinct to swing straight past Formby South Road as it was always gravel.  Being a farm girl I have no aversion to gravel but my beloved van, just like me, is sagging in few places and I was worried she’d be sagging in even more places after a 50km gravel road trip.  It only takes a split second to dissolve those old neuron attachments as I make the decision to ‘wild hog it’ (a term I use quite regularly to imply erratic decision making skills in close association with a come what may attitude to a totally ambiguous, unknown outcome) down the Formby South Road.  It pays off as the entire road is beautifully bitumised and one of the better ones in the entire Great Southern.  Not only that, the different approach to the Stirlings leads to a spectacular, spendourific scene as the Ranges rise starkly out of the surrounding flat farmland.

There was absolutely no ‘wild hogging it’ when it came to pre booking a site at the Stirling Range Retreat.

“I was wondering, is there someone there who can help me back my caravan up if I get into trouble” I ask helplessly over the phone.

“Of course, we get that all the time” Ayleen cheerfully replies.

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So we have finally arrived and I really don’t want any help from anyone so there we are. Lillian and I in a Mexican stand off.  You had better do what I say or there’ll be trouble.  A pleasant surprise as I realise there is no one within cooee of our designated site.  Plenty of room to line up straight with no tricky corner entries to make.  A few tries and we’re in!  I am so proud of myself.  It isn’t long before we have everything set up just right.  The annexe was up for extra space in case it rained as I’m not going to be caught out again after last April school holidays of camping in the rain. The boys are in the two single beds at the back of the van and after converting the dining table into a rather luxurious spacious bed, that’s where I slept and dreamt of our big climb up Bluff Knoll in 2 days time.


The rain had started the night before with a monotonous tone and has no signs of easing off any time today.  A fantastic day to beat cabin caravan fever with a drive after lunch.  With about 45 km of gravel road the route we took is an assault on the senses and I’m not talking about the bad corrugations on the road either.  Starting from Chester Pass Road we enter aptly named Stirling Range Drive and meander westerly through the length of the ranges.  We are surrounded by its rugged beauty as the ranges rise out of the flat mosaic of farmland.  The dank wet day added to the mystical feel as the ranges are shrouded in mist giving a mysterious wonder at the secrets they hold.

Stirling RangesThe plains in the Stirling Range region were the hunting grounds for small groups of Indigenous Australians. At least two tribes frequented the area: the Qaaniyan people in the west, and the Koreng people in the east.  The first recorded sighting of the Stirling Ranges by a European explorer was by Matthew Flinders on 5 January 1802. While sailing along the south coast of Australia, just east of King George Sound, he noted at a distance of eight leagues (44 km) inland a chain of rugged mountains, the easternmost of which he named Mount Rugged (now called Bluff Knoll or known as Bular Mial by the local indigenous people).  The distance is actually 80 km north of Albany.

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An army garrison was established at King George Sound in 1826, and the following year the commanding officer, Major Edmund Lockyer, explored the land north of the Sound. On 11 February 1827, he observed in the distance mountains running east and west about 64 kilometres.  In 1835, Governor James Stirling and John Septimus Roe led an expedition from Albany to Perth.  They first saw the Stirling Ranges on 3 November, and on travelling closer to them Roe gave them their name.  The Aboriginal name for the range is Koi Kyenunu-ruff which means ‘mist moving around the mountain’.  The Stirling Range National Park was the third park in WA to be gazetted in June 1913.

Stirling Ranges

After passing the obscured Mt Hassel and Mt Toolbrunup we stop at Central Lookout deep within the park with stunning views toward Mt Magog and Mt Talyuberlup.  Mt Hassel and Mt Toolbrunup are now in the background causing a layered ethereal vista.  We end the drive by treating ourselves at the Bluff Knoll Cafe where we enjoy hearty hot chocolates and listening to the somewhat apt ‘Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver.

Back at the caravan park, I am showing the kids a glimpse of Bluff Knoll summit as I point to it in between the trees as the clouds briefly part.  A man aged in his mid to late 60s dressed in khacki with his head permanently craned back and a pair of binoculars around his neck is now wondering towards me.  Without even making eye contact his vision is still fixated toward the tree tops as he asks “What are you looking at?”

“Bluff Knoll” I answer in an obvious tone.  “We’re going up there tomorrow”, I added excitedly.

He walked off in a disheartened manner, still looking skywards for more birds as he mumbled, “those days are over for me”.

Stirling RangesAfter dinner, we settled back into life in the van as the weather still had no signs of abating. Time to get the trakky daks on and relax in my awesome bed.  Snuggled up and listening the crooning tunes of Chris Isaak over the pitter patter of rain on Lillian’s roof, I really did think life could not get any better.  Just then my First Born son reaches for something over my bed and knelt on a week point and my bed collapsed from under me.  The dining table, aka my bed, had snapped in two.  Lillian was sagging at the seams and her paint work was cracking under her advancing years.  She needed to be treated with tender care and not under the strain of two big teenage boys.  An argument  ensued shortly after I had announced to my First Born that he could sleep on the camp mattress on the floor in the middle of the single beds while I took up his spot on the single bed.

Stirling Ranges “I like this bed. I’m not sleeping on the floor”, First Born protests.

“Not my problem, you broke my bed so you need to atone for it by sleeping on the floor” I curtly reply.

“But I can fix it”.

“There is no way in hell you can fix a broken table when we have nothing to fix it with”.

“We’ll put all of luggage underneath it”.

“Great! I’ll feel like I’m sleeping on a see-saw all night. I am not sleeping on that bed”.

“It’ll work out good, you’ll see mum”.

I give him the benefit of the doubt and to his credit, I did not notice that the bed had broken at all during my slumber during the night.


Of course, with the excitement of every impending trip from the mundane melancholy of my hamster wheel life, I made a post to my Born with a Suitcase FB page before I left.  This is how I caught the attention of an old school buddy, Graham, who said he was staying with a mate in the area and would like to join me and the kids in the climb to the summit with his son and daughter.  With our busy lives, I hadn’t seen Graham since our 30 year school reunion some 18 months ago so we had a lot to catch up on.  If you have never read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods then now would be a good time to start as this is where my story bears a remarkable resemblance on a much smaller scale of course.  Bryson hikes haphazardly into the unknown with an old friend across the Appalachian Trail, a mere 3,500km spanning nearly all of the Eastern border states of Northern America.  Sadly, Australia is bereft of mountain ranges that span 1000s of kilometres across the country necessitating months of harrowing hiking so we just have to be content with the simpler things in life.

The day of the much-anticipated climb is finally here but it’s hard to get enthusiastic when the persistent, relentless rain of the past twenty four hours is still threatening to put a downer on the day.  10 o’clock came and went and no sign of Graham who is to meet us at the caravan park.  I am secretly hoping this was his way of baling out on me. Maybe he is waiting on a call from me saying ‘I don’t want to go’. Being kind of locals, we both knew if the weather was awful down here then it would be 10 times worse up there.  Turns out neither of us are pussies or at least aren’t going to admit to anything of the kind.  Besides, we have to do it for the kid’s sake. Turns out Graham is simply running late.  Not much time to catch up on gossip, we had a job to do, so after paying our National Park fees we met up again in the car park which is eerily empty.

An ominous foreboding sign that we are the most adventurous souls in the Great Southern at this very point in time of human history.  We don our wet weather gear and get our respective kids organised.  The clouds cloak the Stirling Ranges entirely today and the car park, hereafter known as BKBC (Bluff Knoll Base Camp), lies just metres below the heavens so there will not be any welcoming or rewarding views to greet us at the summit, just pure pain and satisfaction.  It had been at least 20 years since either of us have been up here. “Graham, do you think they’ve made the track a bit more meandering, rather than just straight up? I ask rather optimistically. “Nup. The sign still says 3 – 4 hours return” he replies with his acute observational skills.

Negative thoughts already permeate my perseverance as I think ‘crap’.  On a brighter note, this is my chance to catch up on some news on Graham, his wife, Robin and our wider circle of friends.  I am thinking chatter is a good way to take my mind off the ascent.  However, incessant banter is really hard when you are gasping for every last breath just to stay alive.  After about 500m into the trek I try to remain resolute despite being soaked to the bone in my supposedly waterproof expensive Gortex jacket (while one of the $2 plastic ponchos I brought remains in the car and the other is on permanent loan to Graham, who looks nice and dry). Valiantly I tell Graham “Don’t let me hold you back” I mustered cheerfully as I am thinking I just want to die and simply can not go on.  I’ve already had hyperthermia in the Himalayas and I’m not going to be caught out again.  This time there is no Nepalese to tip cupfuls of tea down my gob in an effort to raise my core body temperature. The closest I can get is Durga the Gurkha who I now share a workstation with.  Sadly, Durga flunked Gurkha Academy due to his colour blindness and is now reduced to making me cups of tea at work.  However, Durga is 3 hours away and useless to me right now.

Stirling RangesI am also very unfit and it is a ridiculous idea to come here in the first place. I should’ve stayed in the car and listened to the ABC or gone bird watching with the other pensioners in the caravan park instead. At first Graham is being polite but it isn’t long before he makes the excuse to catch up with his kids to check on them. Granted, they are considerably younger than mine are. It is at this point a miraculous transformation takes place. Once the oxygen in my body is rerouted from my voice box to my legs, they turned into lean mean climbing machines. Like robots they knew what needed to be done and they did it with only one complaint.  Cursing and criticising the 3 litres of water I lugged up there when the water was clearly abundant as it was cascading down the stairs like Victoria Falls in the wet season.  Of course, I had the option of dumping it, however I erred on the side of caution because I’ve ended up with dehydration in the desert before and I’m not going to be caught out again.

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About half way there is a big sign.  I mentally answer yes to all the questions and then promptly ignore it as I resent the Nanny State telling me what to do all the time.  As I reach the exposed ridge on the southern ascent, arctic winds begin to whip my wet booty and the tail winds literally assist me up the mountain for the next ten minutes.

Once at the summit I catch up to the others where I thought I am at least half an hour behind them, but apparently, I am only 5 minutes behind.  The micro climate which exists up here is amazing with many species of flora not existing anywhere else.

Stirling Ranges

The wetland habitat displays a unique and threatened ‘montane’ plant community found only on the tops of high peaks.  Stirling Range is a species-rich area within south-western Australia, a region recognised internationally as one of the world’s top 34 hotspots for biodiversity and is now on the National Heritage List, although there isn’t a lot of time to fully appreciate this in the awful weather.

My first priority was to make sure the kids weren’t cold and wet.  They were all hiding in hollows to get out of the wind and rain.  Graham’s kids were enjoying hot Milos which he heroically hauled up there in a flask. He makes a better mum than me. My kids just have water.

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If it gets much colder then it’s entirely possible that we might become the extra 6 members adding to the already two existing members of the Stirling Range Ski Club.  I only have 5 minutes to peel off my back pack, take a few frenzied snaps, almost choke on a handful of trail mix before high tailing it back down again because I am very feeling very chilly and I couldn’t afford to get cold to the core.  The first 1.5 km of the descent is automatic and audacious.  The next 1km is tiring and my effort simply incredulous as I am still ahead of my teenage sons who gallantly handicapped me.  I reward myself to a rest stop in the valley out of the wind.  This is where I catch up with Graham and his kids who are also resting at a waterfall which usually isn’t a waterfall.  There is also other resting idiots who decided to trek on such an atrocious day.

Except these weren’t ordinary run of the mill morons like us.  Yes, there are other people in human history stupider than us right there on that Knoll.  Some time ago we passed a young mother and her daughter making the ascent.  It is here where we encounter the husband with a baby carrier for hikers which is nothing unusual about that.  However, it is doomy and dank in the valley so it is difficult to see properly at first, but out of the mist appeared a child, not a day under 4 years old, being taken out of the carrier.  The process of getting him out takes about half hour because the child is simply too big for it and keeps getting stuck and frustratrated.  The father is being quite saintly in the face of an uncompromising child and when he looks back at us both Graham and I have our mouths gaping open in disbelief but pretend to catch rain .

Of course, upon seeing the level at which some people overburden themselves with, I shouldn’t berate myself any further, but the last 500m is appalling as my aggrieved hip bursitis aches and complains upon the deliberation of every step down.  On what level did I think it wise to substitute the walking stick with the selfie stick, which I didn’t even use?  Hours ago, back at BKBC I was going through a serious rationalisation process and casually decided to throw my monopod which doubles up as a walking stick in the car boot with wild abandon thinking only old people needed those.  I am on the verge of vomiting up my trail mix and passing out or just completely collapsing as my left hip goes woefully wobbly and wavering.  I muster every last ounce of lactic acid to engage my mournful muscles and it takes a deep mental defiance to stop my body from going into a cowardly crawl for the last 100m.  To add insult to injury, at the last 3m there is exactly 10 steps up to a viewing platform to end the expedition at BKBC whether you’d like to view it (or not).  I use the handrail in a humiliating effort to heave up my belligerent body toward my band of waiting, worried well wishers.  Not a bad achievement, 6 people, 6 km return in 4.5 hours with a total of 10 minutes rest. 1095m above sea level.

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The viewing platform the next day when the weather improved

Back at the retro retreat, I can’t even find the energy to walk to the camp kitchen and heat up pre-made lasagne in the microwave for dinner.  As I lie on my bed in a mummified state, the kids boil the kettle for me and poured me a cup of noodles.  It isn’t long before I start on a well deserved bar of chocolate.  On the approach to the third row it slipped out of my fingers as I fell into unconsciousness.


I am able to get out of bed well enough but when I need to visit the toilet, but as I look down at the two caravan steps I am terror stricken.  Those steps and my apprehensive legs are all that separate me from the rest of the world.  How am I going to make it down?  If I do make it down, then what else can I do while I’m down there so I don’t have to come back up again.  Is this how old people think!  So I get all my camera gear to make the trip worthwhile as I move through the pain barrier.

With my camera around my neck, I find myself outside the toilet block looking at all the pictures of the birds known in this area.  This is where the proprietor, Ayleen, an keen conservationist and senior person, mistakes me for an avid birdwatcher and insists on showing me where the local owl’s favourite roost trees are.

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“So what are those yellow striped birds that love the Woolly Banksia” I ask with feined interest.  The change is coming and it’s happening faster than I’d anticipated…Birdopause is on its way.

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New Holland Honeyeater in Banksia Bush

“That would be the New Holland Honeyeater” Ayleen informs me.

I bide some time before my mum drives up from Albany to meet up with us for a picnic lunch.  We discuss having a picnic at Mt Trio where our trusty map says there is a picnic table but we need petrol first.

Filling up with petrol at Amelup roadhouse is a bit like having a trip down Route 66.  A long forgotten servo on the road to nowhere much.  Nevertheless this is where the rest of my family notice The Lily windmill in the distance. I knew it was around here somewhere and I had totally forgotten about it as a place to visit as I had already found out the café is no longer open.  However, seeing as we are close by we decide it is still worth the visit as the novelty value never fails to entertain me. Incongruous with the distinctly Australian background, here is a little piece of Holland.

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It is about 2.30pm and we are all getting hungry so we decide to have a picnic outside the windmill instead.  Although the café is not open, the public can still view The Lily from the outside.  Accommodation is offered inside the windmill, in the other quaint buildings as well as in a recently acquired fantastic new edition since my last visit.  A Dakota DC-3 has been fitted out inside to accommodate guests and gives a whole new meaning to flying first class.  This aircraft is one of the thousands manufactured for the war effort and built in the USA in 1943/44. It was delivered to the Dutch East Indies in 1944 and did service in Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia.

Stirling RangesWhen we finally got to Mt Trio we are glad we didn’t end up picnicing there as there is nothing other than a gravel car park with no picnic tables as promised on our trusty map of the area.

It takes me a little under a week to fully recover from my escapade up the summit and I’ll always be wondering if it will be my last but the mind will always be willing even if the body isn’t.

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