Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travel: Walking therapy on the Bibbulman Track

It doesn’t take long to drive from Walpole to Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia, in fact not much more than a couple of hours. Along the way there are many green fields with, depending on the season, open water lying on the clay-rich soils and reflecting the skies above, or herds of cattle strolling trough the grass. There are also many opportunities to drive through majestic karri forests, many invitations to turn off the main road and visit an inlet or a beach, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the many other tourist attractions.

There are wineries that offer cellar-door tasting, and producers of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are also numerous art galleries and restaurants. In addition to this, there are offers of recreational opportunities including walking among the treetops of the karri forest, riding horses, swimming, fishing, and four-wheel driving. All along the way are chalets and farm-stays that provide pleasant accommodation. Invitations to adventures or pleasures are signposted on the side of the road.

Yet, on the horizon to the south lie the coastal hills. They seem so far away, but they lie only a few kilometres distant. Karri forests offering shade and mystery lie to the north of the road. Narrow access roads leave the highway on an irregular basis. They lead to small car parks and walk trails hidden behind the dense foliage or in distant dunes.

This method of visiting the south coast is like watching a slideshow. One minute you are in a forest, the next you are in a winery, the next you are at the coast. Then there is a fleeting image of an orchard or some farmland, or perhaps a picturesque town. None of these images stay with you for very long, it is all so superficial. The experience you get is two-dimensional – a pretty picture, some nice colours, a few tastes and smells, but no real warmth. All too soon you find yourself back home with some fast fading memories and a vague feeling that there was more to see and do, or that an important experience was missed.

However, walking through the landscape is a very different experience from driving through it. When a person walks a track, they become part of the landscape and have the chance to experience it as it changes. When safely cocooned inside a car, coach or train, or racing through on a motorbike, an individual is isolated from that which they see.

While many shy away from the weather, preferring the cocoon, it is the feel of the rain as it hits your skin, the sound of the rain hitting a jacket or dropping on to the leaves of surrounding trees, which indicate you are within the landscape. It is the feel and sound of the wind tugging at clothes or rustling the through the vegetation that tells you that you are in a dynamic environment. And it is the smell of freshly dampened vegetation or the approaching rain, which lets you know you are in a three-dimensional place, and not simply looking as you would at a postcard.

Walking takes time, and this can be a problem to those who have convinced themselves that time is in short supply. Time is a precious commodity, too much of which that should not be wasted on the mundane or unenjoyable, but should instead be used for the fulfilment of life and the chance to immerse oneself in enjoyable experiences. The phrase ‘Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time’ comes to mind. Taking time to walk puts the emphasis on enjoying the journey rather than achieving the goal. This slows us down and encourages some reflection and thought outside the screaming urban centres, where we are bombarded thousands of messages each day from a multitude of sources, asking us to make decisions, telling us we have to achieve quickly or we might miss out, or that we are falling behind in an attempt to achieve the ‘perfect’ life.

So, if you drive between Walpole and Albany you will, all too soon, arrive back into the maelstrom of everyday life. Two hours and it’s gone; you’re in Albany looking for a hotel. But if you take a walk on the Bibbulman Track that runs between these two towns, you will experience the forests, the coastal dunes, the beaches and the inlets (in fact the track runs from Perth to Albany, a distance of eight hundred kilometres or more, and this just the last leg). You will find secluded huts where you can simply put your feet up and enjoy the views, remote benches overlooking majestic coastal cliffs, and dense forests that hide a multitude of wildlife rarely seen by most people.

The track asks that the journey not be rushed. It insists that you do not brush off the views, the smells, and changes in the weather and light. You can’t close windows, turn on the lights, or turn on the air-conditioning. It demands that those who walk its length cast off the shackles of urban life and surrender to the whims of Mother Nature. It presents a chance to cleanse the mind and body of stress; to return to that peaceful place we all need to go to reclaim our sanity and our humanity.

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