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On the right track
Niall McIlroy On the right track

The forests outside Dwellingup may be only 90 minutes from Perth but here beneath a jarrah crown canopy so dense the light barely filters through, big city pressures are easing from the mind.

I've set out on a 12.4km walk from Yarragil Form to River Road with Jean Byrne from the Bibbulmun Track Foundation which markets the long-distance trail that stretches 965km from Kalamunda to Albany. The route is one of seven that can be taken in the area as part of a Bibbulmun Walking Break package that combines track walks with accommodation at Dwellingup B&B and Chalets owned by Mark Curry and Margaret Noble.

Jean and I are armed with maps and trail notes from the foundation and in our backpacks are big lunches prepared by Margaret. They are light and easy to carry and all we need for a day out on the track.

A former police officer and hardware shop owner, Mark felt like a friend within minutes of our first meeting. Born in my home town of Belfast, he left for Australia at the same age I did - six. There was plenty of common ground.

On the way to our drop-off point, he filled us in on the history of the old timber town. It's nice to know a little about the area, to understand the significance of the country I'm exploring. And Mark and Margaret have embraced the spirit of Bibbulmun Walking Breaks - offering country hospitality and good local advice, as well as the creature comforts of their B&B and its promise of a good night's sleep at the end of our walk.

"It's like a try-before-you-buy," Mark explained. "The breaks give you the chance to see if you enjoy walking the track before you buy all the expensive equipment and the 'you beaut' walking shoes. Walkers love coming back to a bit of luxury in the evening - having a hot shower and a good night's sleep."

Deep in the forest I'm surprised to find the area strewn with thick branches that have been sheared from the tree trunks by the wild storms that pounded the region in recent months. In some parts, trunks have been uprooted leaving gaping holes.

A big hollowed-out jarrah known as the Yarragil Hilton stands by the trail. It has provided many a walker with shelter in a downpour and the yellow waugal sign it bears points us in the right direction. But I've never been in a forest so eerily quiet. Jean echoes my thoughts.

"It's hard to believe we are just a few hours from the big city," she says. Here you could convince yourself you're the two one on Earth. The track meanders, occasionally straightening along old timber trails before veering back among the trees and finally opening to a sunlit plateau where the birds have found their voices. It's as if a switch has been flicked. Long whistles and staccato chirps hang in the air, it's warmer and I hear the babble of a brook.

It is the many moods of the forest that I find so alluring about the Bibbulmun; a highway through the olive and khaki of the damp forest and then the bright airy bush which crackles underfoot and rings to the sound of black cockatoos cracking banksia seed pods. It changes by the minute. It is dynamic. It is alive.

We stop for a welcome lunch 7.5km along the track at Swamp Oak campsite. Like all 49 campsites along the trail, Swamp Oak is at the luxury end for a long-distance walking trail with undercover sleeping shelters, a padded area for pitching a tent, a rainwater tank, a toilet, benches and a table on which I devour a beetroot, tomato, cheese, lettuce and ham roll, a muesli bar, cream cheese and crackers, juice and apples from a local orchard.

The sight of two figures emerging from the bush is a surprise after even just a few hours of seclusion. Keen walkers Wayne and Janice Bertram recognise Jean from her work with the foundation, for the track is close to their hearts. The couple met on the Bibbulmun, married, and then had their wedding reception at a tavern near the track. And they've arrived at Swamp Oak to camp overnight in celebration of Wayne's 50th birthday which Janice marks by producing a happy-birthday banner and party hats.

We leave the happy campers in peace and march on through the banksia and pine forest. Clouds roll in and I'm pleased for Wayne and Janice that the overnight low shouldn't plunge as far as last night's -3C.

I have no such worries at the end of my walk for within minutes I'm warming myself in front of the log fire in the cosy living room of Mark and Margaret's B&B. Ensconced in the middle of the jarrah forest, the property is pretty as a picture, especially on a misty morning. Six new chalets in a crescent overlook gardens and a dam while the house takes pride of place in the middle.

My room is one of four upstairs ensuite doubles and a delightful retreat after a day on the track. Windows either side of a four-poster-bed look out to the dam. I can see Margaret's kangaroos, mostly joeys rescued from road kill, devouring their evening feed. The hot shower is an instant pick-me-up before I enjoy a coffee in the guest lounge and join Mark and Jean on the balcony to relish the quiet of the 13.5ha property. Five kilometres from town along an unsealed road, cars are a rarity.

Thanks to the walk and the comfortable bed, I sleep through the night warmed by the flue from the downstairs log fire, before a hot breakfast that would do any B&B proud. And as I head back to the city, I'm wishing for another day on the track and a second day of good country company.

  • factfile *

  • THE PACKAGE *

·A two-night Bibbulmun Walking Break in Dwellingup costs $540 for two people and includes two nights in a queen room with ensuite and breakfast at Dwellingup B&B and Chalets and two days of packed lunches. Also included is a Day Walk Map Pack which has a regional Bibbulmun Track map, suggestions for six day walks, postcards, a Forest Discovery Interpretive Guide and safety information. Most walks end at River Road near Dwellingup B&B and Chalets which provides drop-offs and information. Bibbulmun Walking Breaks are also available at Kalamunda, Collie, Balingup, Pemberton, Northcliffe, Walpole and Denmark. bibbulmuntrack.org.au and 9481 0551

  • WHERE TO STAY *

·Dwellingup B&B and Chalets has three queen-sized rooms and one twin-share, all with ensuites, in the main house and six double- storey self-contained chalets that sleep from 2-4 people. The property is close to the Murray River and Lane Poole Reserve - both great places for paddling and bushwalking. Queen-size rooms are $169 per night for two people with continental breakfast, or $179 with a full breakfast. Chalets are from $195 twin-share or $240 for a family of four. The Midweek Special is offered Monday-Thursday and includes two nights in a chalet and a bottle of wine for $265 per couple. dwellingupchalets.com.au and 9538 1155

  • MORE INFORMATION *

· Visit dwellingupwa.com to read about the history of Dwellingup as well as activities, arts and crafts, trail maps, places to eat and accommodation.

'It's hard to believe we are just a few hours from the big city.'"

Jean Byrne

Niall McIlroy travelled courtesy of the Bibbulmun Track Foundation and Dwellingup B&B and Chalets.