Date: 5th October 2019 – Summit: 1420m
With dry weather forecast we decided to embark on Western Bluff. It wasn’t an overly long drive to the start point of the track and according to the Good Book a medium-level hike. We had completed a fair amount of research for this one, and most blogs we had read bemoaned the amount of scree hoping required to complete this Abel. The strange thing was the aerial photos and maps we had been studying showed a path across the plateau that could be taken to avoid nearly all of these large scree fields. That’s what we would be eager to do anyway!
Distance: 16km return.
Time taken: Under 6 hrs, including breaks and photos.
Difficulty: An easy but lengthy day’s walk. Sticking to the ribbon, pole and cairn-marked trail ensures easy walking, simple navigation and assists in avoiding unnecessary scree fields.
Type of track: Faint pads but marked with a good amount on ribbon, poles and cairns.
Access from: Lake Mackenzie Road.
It is very important to note the start point for this Abel. Do NOT start at the fence line near the first gravel pit you come to on Lake Mackenzie Road! Although this is a commonly used reference point for starting the ascent of Western Bluff you will have to find your own route and tackle a harder climb than is necessary.
Continue past the first gravel pit and wire fence on the right hand side of the road for another 600m. Here you will find a second gravel pit and parking area. Directly opposite this second car park (600m from the end of the guard rail down the road) you will find three cairns indicating the start of the track proper.
One cairn on the edge of the road and two cairns acting as a gate a few steps onto the trail. If you locate this starting point you will have a very easy to navigate and entirely taped, poled and cairned route to follow that avoids almost all of the scree fields with less than 80m of scree to negotiate over the whole trek! Another important matter to note is that if you follow the Abels book advice to stay 100m or so from the edge of the plateau you will once again avoid scree and hard walking. The marked route does exactly this.
We found this hike was one of the easiest we have done in recent trips for three reasons. One, the elevation gain climbed is minimal and most of the walking is over flat or gently sloping ground. Two, the lingering damage from the fires of 2016 have opened up much of the tighter head-height scrub at the start of the walk, making for vastly easier walking off-track.
And three, the tape, poles and cairns took away any need to self navigate. That said the plateau is extremely exposed and the balance of the hike covers the plateau, so if weather closed in some level of self-navigation would be necessary if you could not find the trail markers in inclement weather. Even though we didn’t use our map and compass bearings to navigate throughout the day they were a safety back up in case we needed them.
We parked at the second gravel pit and located the hard to miss cairn on the side of the road. We noted another car was already parked there and thought we might have some company for the day’s hike.
The beginning of the trail winds through burnt out scrub which made for very easy walking. The fires of 2016 have left the landscape parched. You could see that prior to the fires this area would have been hard work to push through, but now post-fire, the pink ribbon markers and intermittent posts were easily visible and the ground open.
The climb up towards the plateau was gradual. The ground under our feet ranged from slightly boggy marsh mixed in with fire ravaged plants, to very small sections of rock. Cresting the plateau, the terrain changed to low lying alpine scrub which was very easy walking. This section too was marked by frequent pink tape, the occasional cairn and the odd pole marker to guide the route.
Higher onto the plateau there was constant evidence of the bushfire’s effects. Whilst some low lying vegetation had recovered, there were masses of cushion plants that had been burnt and showed no signs of recovery. It was interesting to see how the different plants had fared better or worse than another species right next to it. Meandering along the plateau we kept the rim within about 100m at all times to ensure we had the easiest path.
It was eerie walking along the plateau in total exposure, but stunningly beautiful. To our west we had unbroken views of the Cradle Mountain.Lake St. Clair National Parks plethora of Abels, dusted in frosty white snow. To our east the vast summit plateau went for miles, punctuated by Mt. Ironstone and Cummings Head in the distance. Nothing but low lying vegetation and various knobs of littered rock. To our distant north-west the small ridge we would cross – before changing to a westerly bearing – would occasionally reveal itself under ever-shifting mist.
As we hiked along the plateau the views of the huge expanses of Western Bluff’s monstrous scree fields began to open up to us. Such is its grandeur it almost had us speechless. While we could appreciate its rugged beauty, we were glad not to be climbing it through the enormous valley of scree. We agreed that thus far the hike had been easy. We hadn’t had to negotiate any scree at all to this point and we were well past half way to the northern rim of the plateau.
The very minor changes in elevation contributed to the easy walking. It was some time before we would drop down and lose a little elevation as we hit the next band of slightly denser vegetation. This small band appeared to have survived the fires better, sadly one of few sections unaffected, which gave a sense of how the area looked before. We reached a very open and barren part of the plateau that was covered in a mixture of low alpine scrub, rocky paths, knolls and boggy marsh. The marshes were interspersed with numerous groups of cushion plants; our pace slowed a little as we carefully negotiated around them to avoid damage.
From the base of this small green belt, looking across the plateau, the ribbon markers now changed to a mixture of cairns and ribbons. An important navigation marker here is a square cairn almost right on the western rim of the plateau with a pink ribbon around it. This indicates the path you will take to navigate around two distinct rocky knolls.
One might be tempted to change to a western bearing too quickly as the summit ridge is well in sight now, and it briefly appeared the track markers had disappeared. Indeed, Ben (who’d happily hop on scree all day) was thinking to start cutting across the top of the scree field to begin the climb to the summit plateau, where as I wanted to press on north for a bit. After a discussion, and reminding ourselves our map bearings showed a need to go past the edge of the last knoll before changing to a western direction, we continued on and a few metres later were glad we had as the ribbon and cairned track again resurfaced. This once again allowed us to avoid all the scree that Western Bluff is both loved and hated for. It allowed us to continue on with easy walking comprised of pads and rock paths mixed with bare, fire ravaged terrain.
We began the descent to the valley between the main body of the plateau and the western section that contains the summit. The highest point is located on the western arm of the plateau, to its southern side. This valley took only minutes to descend into, and once again following the taped route allowed the scree fields to be avoided. We were musing on how surely we would hit massive scree fields soon? We were feeling very spoilt with a dry and mostly sunny day and such easy walking. We were just hoping the mist about the summit would lift.
It was climbing onto the rim of the western plateau that we met the occupants of the car in the carpark. They were returning from the summit and remarked how lucky we were with the weather as the mist had literally just lifted. We crossed the flat expanse at the base of the rim and used the areas of short native grasses once again to remove the necessity to cover scree. Pink ribbons and cairns once again led the way.
The trig magically appeared in sight and we quickened our pace only to have it disappear from sight again behind what would be our first and only real scree climb. A small section from the flat plateau to the summit. Only a few minutes of rock hopping and the trig was in sight again! Given we had enjoyed next to no scree for the 7km hike in, the scree was fun. There were some decent sized boulders and not-insubstantial drops to navigate to the trig. Tracey is a little scared of heights so she took her time but wasn’t as bothered by it as she thought she might be.
It was time to touch the trig and bag this Abel. Well touch the trig and then head to the summit cairn a few metres behind it to bag the Abel as apparently the cairn is the higher point! We then settled in to enjoy a well deserved lunch in the sunlight, notably our first ‘lunch at the summit’ in months of generally inhospitable winter peaks. The hike to the summit had been easy to navigate, well tracked and simple walking, albeit a lengthy distance of 7km.
The return trip was an opportunity for Tracey to practice using her Trackbac facility on her watch, although with the amount of ribbons and cairns around it was hardly necessary. It is easy to see why if you go too far from the rim on either side of the plateau you would hit scree field after scree field. Whomever was kind enough to mark the trail certainly chose the simplest and easiest walking path!
Making fast time on the return journey allowed us to enjoy the delicious food and coffee on offer at Earthwater Café in Mole Creek, and do a little reconnaissance in the Mazda for a future Mt. Ironstone trip.