Trekking, Orchids and Birding in the Stirling Ranges.

Bluff Knoll Blanketed in Cloud.

The Stirling Range is a fabulous National Park a four and a half hour drive South East of Perth. It is a large National Park (just under 1200km2) with an abundance of wildlife. Renowned for its magnificent mountain scenery, it is best known for its plants of which 1500 have been identified so far and 87 of which are endemic to the Stirlings. The park consists of six trails that ascend various mountains. I have climbed all, some several times and my experiences are as follows:-

Mt Magog (856m)

Accessed from Stirling Range Drive this is the longest of the six walks, although most of the walk is across a flat sand plain before the final steep assault on the peak. This walk I found the hardest going of the six although this might have been a result of the warm conditions on the day.

The imposing Summit of Mt Magog.

Highlight:- the fabulous view East of Talyuberlup’s castle-like domes.

Talyuberlup Peak (783m)

Accessed from Stirling Range Drive this is the shortest of the peak trails, but it is hard going from the start with the steepest profile of all the walks.

Talyuberlup Summit.

Highlights:- sitting in the middle of the Stirling Range views from Talyuberlup both East to Toolbranup and West to Mt Magog equally impressive.

Toolbranup Peak (1052m)

Accessed from Chester Pass Road, Toolbranup is my favourite climb of the six and the most difficult. The trail ascents gently from the carpark before becoming steeper further up. An advantage of this walk is the valley that the trail follows is protected from the sun by the mountain. The ascent includes hopping up boulder fields and the final ascent on the peak is very challenging with almost vertical climbs for the final 40m.

Eastern Stirling Range and Bluff Knoll from Toolbranup carpark.

Toolbranup Summit from Chester Pass Road.

Toolbranup Summit looking West.

Highlight:- great views of Bluff Knoll. Red-eared Firetail Finches common.

Bluff Knoll (1095m)

Accessed from Chester Pass Road and then Bluff Knoll Drive this is the highest peak in the Stirling Range and the highest in Southwest Australia. It ranks third highest in the state after the Pilbara peaks of Mt Meharry and Mt Bruce.

This walk can get very busy during peak periods (public holiday weekends and weekends with snow forecast.)

The walk starts by climbing to a ridge perpendicular to the massif and then follows this ridge. It then gets steeper as the trail diagonally ascends the cliff face, although there is a wonderful shady spot for a rest next to a waterfall on this part of the trail. Most of this steep section is stepped. The final third of the trail is actually the gentlest as the walk meanders over the top of the mountain to the highest point.

The Eastern Peaks of the Stirling Range from Bluff Knoll Summit.

Bluff Knoll Drive and Carpark from the Summit.

Highlights:- the wonderful assortment of people on this very popular trail. In August/September surrounding farmland North of the mountain is a magical patchwork of yellow canola fields.

Mt Trio (856m)

Accessed from Formby Road South this trail is maybe the easiest of the six although it is definitely not easy by any standards and from the start the walk ascends steeply. It follows a cleft in the mountain before traversing a ridge along the top to the highest point, although the highest point is surrounded by vegetation and so the view can be a little disappointing without clambering on the trig point.

Sunset on the Summit of Mt Trio.

Mt Hassell (847m)

Accessed from Stirling Range Drive this peak is one of the easier climbs. From the car park, the trail ascends diagonally across the mountain before the final ascent on a ridge. Beware there are a number of false peaks before the actual highest point

Toolbranup from the Summit of Mt Hassell.

Highlights:- an abundance of King’s Skinks, wonderful flowers and great views of neighbouring Toolbranup from the peak.

Where to stay

There are three options within the park boundaries but the park is within an easy drive of the towns of Mt Barker, Albany, Denmark and Kojonup where there would be a huge number of accommodation options.

Moingup Springs

This basic campground operated by parks and wildlife signposted just South of the junction of Stirling Range Drive with Chester Pass Road is in a very tranquil spot. Facilities are limited to a toilet block.

Mt Trio Bush Camp

I have stayed at this great camping spot a couple of times. Signposted off Salt River Road it is part of a farm. The actual camping field adjoins the National Park and a bonus of this is that it is a great spot to view Western Brush Wallabies that graze on the borders of the camping field with the National Park at dusk. Facilities include a clean toilet block, kitchen area, games area and a bloody great communal fire pit! These guys run orchid tours although I have never done one.

Stirling Range Retreat

This fabulous bush retreat near the entrance to Bluff Knoll Drive is where I usually stay when visiting the Stirlings. It has a variety of accommodation options from unpowered sites to rammed earth cabins and lots in between. There is a clean toilet black and large kitchen area and small fire pit.

One of the reasons I usually stay here is because of the guided tours done by Birds Australia in Spring. For a $20 donation knowledgeable birders will open your eyes to the amazing variety of birds at the retreat and adjacent National Park on a three hour tour. Below is a few of the birds photographed on these tours.

Owlet Nightjar – Stirling Range Retreat.

Elegant Parrot – Stirling Range Retreat.

Carnaby’s Cockatoo at Wandoo Nesting Hollow – Stirling Range N.P.

Another fabulous tour offered by the Retreat is the Orchid Tour taken by the thoroughly entertaining and knowledgeable Bully. For $49 the three hour tour can show up to 15 species of orchid in season, in addition to a plenitude of other interesting plants including a secret spot where you can see mountain bells without actually climbing a mountain!

Darwinia Mountain Bells without the Climb.

The Orchid Tours start in mid-August as the captivating Queen of Sheba begins flowering. In 2016 I was very keen to see this orchid. The retreat tours started on Mon 15th but the previous weekend was a rare “blue bird” winter weekend with sunny skies so I elected to search for the orchid just in case of inclement weather during the flowering period. The Queen of Sheba being a sun orchid only opens in warm, sunny conditions.

I knew roughly where to start looking and during Saturday I spent my time in this area scanning roadsides and culverts and though I did find a single flower it was closed.

I kept returning throughout the Saturday and also early on the cold Sunday morning to no avail. I decided to climb Toolbranup to kill some time and have one last check before I drove back to Perth. Lo and behold at the 11th hour she had opened.

Long live the Queen – Queen of Sheba Orchid.

Late August was a washout and I felt validated by my spur of the moment visit because had I not done this I would have missed this orchid on the remaining weekends of the flowering period.

Another orchid I have searched for in the Stirling Ranges is The King-in-his Carriage (flowers mid-September.). These cunning orchids are doubly deceitful to their pollinator the male Thynnid Wasp. They emit a pheromone smelling exactly like the female wasp to attract the males, then their labellum resembles the shape of the wingless female wasp.

When the males attempt to carry off this attractive “female wasp” to mate in flight they are flippped onto the pollen bearing part of the orchid and so pollen is transferred to the next orchid when the same process occurs!

The deceitful King-in-his Carriage Orchid.

The Dragon Orchid is another orchid that uses the same doubly deceitful method as the King-in-his Carriage to same poor pollinator the male thynnid wasp.

Dragon Orchid.

Other fabulous orchids seen on the Stirling Range Retreat Tours over the years include:-

Clockwise from top left – Zebra, Blood Spider, Blue Lady Orchid, Bird.

Clockwise from top left – Dwarf Spider, Pink Candy, Stumpy Spider Orchid, Rattlebeaks.

Clockwise from top left – Reaching Spider, Butterfly, Snail, Helmut Orchid.

Cranbrook Reserve.

At the Eastern end of the Stirling Range is the town of Cranbrook. On the outskirts on the town on Salt River Road is the wonderful Cranbrook Wildflower Walk a 1.7km path that meanders through the bush. Between September and November there are plenty of orchid flowering in this reserve easily found. The following are a small sample of the orchids flowering here:-

 Clockwise from left – White Spider, Cowslips. Purple Enamel.

Clockwise from left – Leopard, Scented Sun, Lemon-scented Sun.

Where to eat while visiting the Stirling Ranges.

If staying at Moingup Springs Campsite you are going to need to be self- sufficient equipment wise, but both Mt Trio Bushcamp and the Stirling Range Retreat have great camp kitchens for you to cook your own food.

Borden is a small town 24kms North of Bluff Knoll Drive on Chester Pass Road. The pub there does a variety of good meals served by the friendly staff (it opens from 4pm on a Saturday.)

The pub at Cranbrook at the Western end of Salt River Road also does food but beware Salt River Road has Considerable wildlife at dusk/nightime and extreme care should be exercised at these times (I drive no more than 50kms an hour.)

Further away is the town of Mt Barker which also has a pub serving dinners. During the day there is a variety of food options in the form of a bakery and cafes and a daytime visit can be combined with a visit / walk in the beautiful Porongorups.

There is an amazing Thai restaurant in the Porongorups that does both lunch and dinner. Be warned you need to book in advance for this world class Thai food!

Reptiles of the Stirlings.

The Stirling Range is a really great spot to view some of the intriguing reptiles of South West Australia and being on the border of the Arid Zone and the wetter South West it has a good range of species.

Salt River Road is a good spot to start looking for reptiles and I have seen all of Dugites, Western Bluetongue lizards, Bobtails and Southern Heath Monitors on this road with the latter being particularly common. Warm Spring mornings (Sept/Oct) being best.

Reptiles seen on Salt River Road – Western Heath Monitor, Western Bluetongue, Dugite.

The Peaks of the Ranges are good for both Southwestern Crevice Skinks and also King’s Skinks. I have seen Tiger Snakes on Formby Rd South and a Western Bearded Dragon on Red Gum Pass.

Western Bearded Dragon – Red Gum Pass, Southwestern Crevice Skink – Bluff Knoll.

Although I have not spent too much time in the Stirlings during warm summer nights this can apparently be a good time for Bardicks on Bluff Knoll Drive. #NatureNeverFailsToImpress!

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