• View from the Top

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    View from the Top

    WESTERN AUSTRALIA

    Giant Karri tree. Credit - Megan CziszA true travel experience is never complete without scaling dizzy heights or getting down and dirty as Megan Czisz found in Western Australia.

    It’s no secret that travel forces you out of your comfort zone. All you can do is suck it up, and confront your fears. It’s all about the trip, after all. However, Western Australia is not somewhere you would usually expect to be required to get up close and personal with your phobias. Unless you’re anything like me, and heights and enclosed spaces make you a little uncomfortable.

    I’m in the region for a few days to taste some Margaret River wine and chocolate, and hang out in windswept seaside towns. Instead, I find myself staring up at other backpackers hugging the trunk of a 75 metre tree, like koalas with stage fright. The Dave Evans Bicentennial tree, near Pemberton, was once used as a fire lookout, thanks to its height. Today, it attracts tourists wanting to haul themselves up (and back down) to the two lookout points: one at halfway, and one at the pinnacle.

    There’s a wet chill in the air after a night of rain, and the metal pins rammed into the trunk of the tree are so cold your tongue would stick to them if you licked them. These 130 metal pegs winding around the tree function as an open-air staircase. All that prevents you from plummeting to the ground is your grip on the shiny, slippery pins and some half-hearted chicken wire wrapped around the outer side.

    Well aware of my limits, I stand back and watch the more adventurous members of the group struggle up to the first platform. Like mountain climbing, it’s not so much going up that’s the hard part – it’s coming down. Only one person makes it to the final platform, and it’s so high that he disappears from view. He doesn’t respond to our shouts. I wonder if he is staring helplessly down at us, wobbly-legged and overcome with paralysing vertigo.

    It turns out not everyone is as wimpy as me, and he’s laughing as he clambers back down to the ground.

    Heights, it seems, are the order of the day. The Valley of the Giants Tree Top walk is an award-winning tourist attraction in Nornalup National Park near Walpole. Built to have a minimal impact on the environment around it while allowing visitors to get up close to the forest canopy, the walk is made up of six bridges spanning seven pylons through the treetops. It’s wheelchair accessible and has been conquered by grannies and mums with prams, so I set out with a spring in my step that sets the walkway swaying. I switch to a slow shuffle. 

    Shafts of sunlight filter down through the morning mist that still hangs between the karri and tingle trees. The bush smells like wet wood and eucalypt. The view would be amazing if I could bear to move my head to look at it. I’m too preoccupied with gripping the supports on either side of me, hoping desperately we won’t be seeing my breakfast again.

    I discover later the bridges were designed to sway so you feel as if you’re amongst the trees. As I climb higher, I start to feel less like a character from Fern Gully and more like I’m on a boat. On a calm day, but still, a boat. The tops of the trees are getting closer, and I realise I’ve reached the roof of the forest, and the viewing platform at the highest point of 40 metres. For the briefest moment, I pause and look out through the trees. It’s clear why they call this the Valley of the Giants. These trees are high.

    Land of the Giants. Credit - Tourism WA

    When the platform itself suddenly begins to sway, I have to stop myself from finishing the walk on my hands and knees. I spend the rest of my visit meandering safely at ground level, along the Ancient Empire walk through the bush, adjacent to the walkway and designed in part for chickens like me. The Tree Top walk receives exhilarated reviews from the rest of the group, and I’m almost convinced to attempt it for a second time, but it will take a motion sickness tablet too long to kick in.    

    From the highest point of the trip to the lowest, Ngilgi Cave at Yallingup is the same distance below ground as the Tree Top Walk is above – 40 metres.

    Tourism is not new to Ngilgi. From its discovery in 1899 it has been a popular attraction on the southwest route, and the guide entertains us with stories of women in bustled dresses crawling through the cave for six hours at a time.

    The stalagmites and stalactites glow golden, thanks to some artfully placed lighting. The upper chambers are comfortable if slightly stuffy. Humidity in the cave is at around 94%, and because there’s only one way in and one way out, carbon dioxide levels are high. The lower you go in the cave, the hotter it gets.

    It isn’t quite like the dank and muddy cave system I remember struggling through in New South Wales on one particularly traumatising school excursion. For starters, there’s a staircase down into the cavern, and happily, there’s no sliding through small spaces on your stomach. Unless you want to. There’s a claustrophobic crawlspace for tourists to haul themselves through, but, unsurprisingly, I opt out.

    Exploring the Local Caves. Credit - Tourism WA
    In the car park of the Castle Rock picnic area the next morning, safely above ground, I’m again forced to wrap myself in gore-tex that has never been wet before, and get high. In the Porongurup Ranges not far from the township of Albany, a 1.5 kilometre climb wends its way to Castle Rock from the car park through hazy karri forest, towards a supposedly stunning view of the nearby Stirling Ranges.

    In single file, we slip and trip on the mud and rocks. Thankfully, although the walk requires moderate effort, it’s not too steep, so I’m not too stressed about getting back down.

    The muddy track gradually turns into slabs of granite that are slightly more difficult to negotiate in the wet. Near the end of the climb is a series of boulders, part of the ranges that were formed here more than 1,000 million years ago. One is aptly named the balancing rock, a rounded boulder that seems to balance on the face of the granite beneath.

    The mist is too thick for the promised view of the Stirlings, but it doesn’t matter. Standing in the rain on the rocks, I feel like I’ve conquered something. Probably not my fear of heights – I’m still too cautious to make the final part of the climb, which involves blundering over boulders and hauling yourself up a dubious looking metal ladder to stand on Castle Rock. 

    Still – I’m firmly out of my comfort zone: tired, struggling to catch my breath, while lines of sweat freeze my back. The hush of the bush is making my ears ring. There’s a smell of fresh earth. Happily, it turns out my gore-tex really is waterproof. And the effort was worth it. It’s all about the trip, after all.