Walpole Wonderland

David Cook — 18 April 2019
Cooky waxes lyrical on the karri forests, landlocked dunes and deserted coastlines that form a geological paradise in our nation’s south-west.

The south-west corner of Western Australia supports some of the greatest natural wonders of this nation and is well worth including on any travel bucket list. For those who love the outdoors, bushwalking and the natural world, it’s a must-see.

13 national parks and conservation reserves bunch together in this region to form the Walpole Wilderness Area: a huge and pristine area of karri and tinglewood forests, rivers, inlets and largely deserted coastline, with wildlife from seals to quokkas and bandicoots. Walpole and Pemberton are two small towns at the centre of this region and make great bases for exploration of the many attractions. For those with a camper trailer, it’s an area where you can spend a lot of time.


Best known among the attractions are the huge karri forests, which occupy an area of relatively moist but nutrient-poor soils, with wetlands, heathland and river banks providing the moisture to assist in the growth of these magnificent trees. Karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor) trees are among the largest flowering plants in the world, and achieve heights of up to 90 metres with trunk diameters up to 3.5 metres. In Australia they are rivalled only by the mountain ash of the Victorian highlands.

Though the soils on which the karri forests grow are relatively poor in nutrients, the karri trees have among the highest turnover of recycled nutrients from leaf litter in Australia. Leaf litter recycling is vital to many of our eucalypt forests with similarly deprived soil. Minerals and nutrients in the leaves are leached into the soil after falling to the ground, where they become available to the parent plant once again. In these forests shed bark is believed to be one of the principle constituents of soil formation and can form layers of up to six metres in thickness around the base of trees.


The karri forests occupy an area of only 200,000 hectares and are preserved in several national parks, though the wood is still harvested for use in a variety of industries, including building and furniture. In the past many of the streets in Sydney and London were paved with blocks of karri timber, but these have all long been covered over with asphalt.

Forest management from the 1930s and into the 1950s involved establishing lookouts in some of the taller trees to keep an eye out for fires. Funny how these trees have been so important to us historically, given that in South Africa they’re seen as a major pest species, because they tend to outcompete native trees, especially where opportunistic growth can arise from wind-borne seeds.

These fire lookout platforms are no longer used for this purpose, as spotter planes are much more effective, but several of the lookouts have been converted into tourist attractions. The Gloucester Tree, Bicentennial Tree and Diamond Tree have metal rungs spiralling up their trunks, and while the climb is heart-thumping, the views are spectacular. 

The Bicentennial Tree, at 75 metres high, is the tallest, and is to be found in Warren National Park. A drive through this area to the Warren Lookout is well worthwhile and you can even camp amongst the trees and swim in the river. Canoeing is a much favoured activity on the Warren River, and if you don’t want to carry your own you can hire a canoe at Nornalup. If you’re into more terrestrial activities there are some great bushwalks too.


Also to be found among the karri trees are the red tingle trees (Eucalyptus jacksonii). These eucalypts reach up to 75 metres in height and 26 metres in circumference, and can live for up to 400 years. Like all the trees of the region, and much of Australia, the trees depend on forest fires for propagation, but in the case of the red tingle trees, fires have often resulted in large voids being created at the base of the trees. These voids can be big enough to shelter as many as a hundred people or to park cars in.

Like the karri trees, the red tingle trees have long straight trunks with branching taking place only in the upper third of the plant. This creates both excellent timber and a substantial room for an understory of other plants, which occupy the ground and space between the trunks of the larger trees.

One of the best places to see these forests is at the Valley of the Giants Treetop Walk where you can walk among the forest canopy, as well as through the arching hollowed buttressed bases of the red tingle trees along the adjoining Ancient Empire Trail. The only downside to this drawcard is the crowds.


A little to the south of the karri forests is D’Entrecasteaux National Park, a narrow strip between five and 30km in width that runs for 130km between Walpole and Augusta. This is a great place for 4WDs, with the Yeagarup Dunes, wild deserted beaches, sea cliffs, lakes, rivers and estuaries as points of interest. You can camp at places such as Leaning Marri campground (45 minutes from Pemberton, along the gravel Ritter Road) and drive to and on the beach. The Yeagarup Dune system is the largest landlocked mobile dune system in the southern hemisphere, which is moving into and over the forest at a rate of four metres per year. Most tracks in the park are on a sand base, so care with tyre pressures is necessary.

Mount Frankland National Park, with its eponymous peak, is another major drawcard in the area. It’s located 28km north of Walpole along a good road, though the last short section is gravel. In springtime it is a riot of colour as bird activity increases and the wildflowers spread across the countryside. From the top of Mount Frankland there are 360 degree views over the untouched bushland to the north and the occupied and farmed lands to the south.


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