Stirling Range National Park lies approximately one hours drive north of Albany in Western Australia’s Great Southern region. The reason most people visit the park is to climb Bluff Knoll which they believe to be the highest peak in Western Australia. Bluff Knoll is an imposing structure – it rises dramatically above the pan flat agricultural land surrounding the park – but the highest point in Western Australia it is not. That honour goes to Mount Meharry in Karijini National Park which is 1245m compared to Bluff Knoll’s 1093m. The other reason people visit Bluff Knoll is that it is the most easily accessible walk in the park being serviced by a road, having parking and a cafe. The trail is well signposted and is comparatively well surfaced and above all despite being steep in places anyone of reasonable fitness can do it. That cannot be said of some of the other walking routes within the park. There is good reason why Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) train there.
Highland areas such as the Stirling Range always have very variable weather and often in the extremes. The Qaaniyan and Koreng groups of the Nyoongar called Stirling Range Koikyennuruff or place of the swirling mist. Low lying cloud and mist often shroud the peaks even on bright sunny days. The Nyoongar believe Noatch, the spirit of the dead, lived in the mist and that evil witches lived on the high ridges and so tended to avoid going up onto the peaks. All I know is that it can be shorts and tee shirt weather at the base of Bluff Knoll but when you get to the top it can be very cold and wet. The fact that it is the only place where it snows with any regularity in Western Australia (any time between April and November) shows how difficult the weather can be. The weather is one of the main reasons why people get into strife when climbing Bluff Knoll, most are simply under equipped and under prepared. A Swedish acquaintance once told me there was no such thing as bad weather just poor choices of clothing and that is certainly borne out here. Things aren’t much better in summer as the park is very prone to bush fires so if you wish to visit make sure you are aware of what is happening in the park and whether the trails are open by checking with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions Parks Alerts System and then plan accordingly. The other reason why people get into trouble is that they leave the trail looking to find a short cut and then get disorientated and lost in the scrub.
I first intended to climb Bluff Knoll with my partner back in September of 2000 to celebrate her fortieth birthday but we never did it as I was run over by car. It wasn’t until October 2008 that we finally got round to doing it. Better late than never I suppose. It was a bit of a slog in cold wet weather but it was well worth the effort. We were staying at the Stirling Range Retreat which was then run by Ayleen Sands and her husband Tony. Ayleen ran orchid spotting trips and we did one and that opened my eyes to the biodiversity of the region and more specifically the amazing orchids that are found in Western Australia and I’ve been photographing orchids ever since. It was from Ayleen that we learnt that Stirling Range is an incredible biodiversity hotspot. In spring and early summer the 1500+ species of plants that can be found within the Park’s boundaries come into bloom. To put that into perspective the 1,159 km2 of the Stirling Range National Park contains more species of wildflowers that the 315,159 km2 of the British Isles. Some of these plants, such as the mountain bell (Darwinia leiostyla), are found no where else in the world. A staggering 123 species of orchid have been found in the Stirling Range National Park which works out to be about one third of the total number of orchid species that can be found in Western Australia. There are more than 140 bird species, approximately 20 species of native animal – the most likely to be seen are western grey kangaroos. Rottnest Island isn’t the only place with quokkas they have been seen on the slopes of Bluff Knoll. The are more than 30 species of reptile and of course it would not be Australia without poisonous snakes. I initially went to climb Bluff Knoll but found so much more and have been back since and intend to go back again and again.