Travel Story WA's Fitzgerald River National Park: A true local treasure

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

It's one of Australia's biggest national parks, and one of the country's most botanically significant — and you'll probably have it almost to yourself.

Perching on a granite outcrop atop a mountain, we survey our surroundings. We drink in the sea of grey-green, the distinct colour of the southern coastal Australian bush extending towards the horizon before it is cut short by the blue of the Southern Ocean.

We are at the summit of West Mt Barren in the Fitzgerald River National Park, which covers  297,244ha between Bremer Bay and Hopetoun, 420km south-east of Perth.

From our vantage point we have a glimpse of its immense size — it’s one of the biggest national parks in Australia — the mass broken only by the occasional snaking gravel road and estuary. While its size is impressive, its true beauty lies in the detail.

Fitzgerald is one of the most botanically significant national parks in Australia, with about 15 per cent of WA’s described plant species growing within its ancient landscape. More than 1700 plant species have been identified and 75 of those can be found nowhere else. If you are into exclusivity, this is your park.

Perhaps one of its most famous denizens is the qualup bell. When we were kids, Dad used to slam on the brakes driving through the park and we’d all pile out of the yellow HiLux to admire the qualup bell’s pretty hanging pink and yellow flowers. Unlike many native West Australian plants, the bell looks delicate, an outlier in these sandy soils.

While the qualup bell is subtle, the royal hakea (or hakea Victoria) is an attention grabber, with its startling green-tipped orange and yellow foilage, the spiky branches reaching for the sky. 

Take the time to hop out of the car for a close look at the leaf patterns and colours.

Today our kids, aged four and seven, are climbing the West Mt Barren Summit Trail for the first time. It’s a great walk for a “first mountain” at 1.7km return. Even at a four-year-old's pace and with time at the summit, we are back to the car within an hour-and-a-half.

The climb gives us time to admire the view and get up close to the diverse plant life and the reptiles too — hopefully for everyone the kind with legs.

The class four, moderate-difficulty trail is rocky and there are parts where you may have to scramble a little, so only climb if you have sure footing. Hiking boots or runners are best and wear long pants — some of these WA plants are spiky.

Even on this summer day during the school holidays, there are just a few other climbers — a young family and two men. The park’s size and isolation is a boon for those who like their travel free of crowds. 

The Fitzgerald River National Park is not only a haven for budding botanists, it is also home to more than 200 species of birds and more species of animals than in any other reserve in south-western Australia. 

We don’t even have to get out of the car to see it.

Turning off Swamp Road towards the park, a kangaroo with a joey tucked in its pouch sits beside the roadside. Her less welcoming mate, a huge boomer, sits alert in the bush, watching us warily.

More kangaroos and even wallabies cross our path; there are all sorts of lizards and skinks trail side and birds break the silence with their calls.

While we can appreciate the splendid diversity of the park now, it wasn’t always so.

Passing Dutch, English and French explorers noted the barrenness of the land as they sailed past in earlier times.

Friends of the Fitzgerald River National Park point to English explorer Edward Eyre, who on his journey across the Great Australian Bight from Adelaide to Albany in 1840-41 remarked in his journal: “Most properly has it been called Mt Barren for a more wretched looking country never existed than that around it.” Fooled him, I say.

In 2016, the park made the National Heritage List and last year The Fitzgerald Biosphere, covering 1.5 million hectares including the park, retained international significance from UNESCO as a biosphere reserve.

There is plenty to see besides West Mt Barren. We make a day trip to Point Ann. From July to October southern right whales gather in the bay to nurse their young before heading back to Antarctica. Humpback whales also pass on their long migration.

While today is an overcast summer day (this is the south coast, after all) and there are no whales, it is still well worth the visit. Boardwalks and viewing platforms offer great vantage points to take in the clear waters of the cove and a beach that seems to extend forever.

There are also facilities with toilets, barbecues and picnic areas looking across the water to East Mt Barren near Hopetoun.

Today Fitzgerald River National Park has again shown me what I’ve known since I began visiting as a kid. It is one of WA’s most valuable treasures to be marvelled at, appreciated and protected. 

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