Country towns in Western Australia are spread out throughout this massive state; small pockets of civilisation with miles of bush in between them. You need to be a special type of person to live in them and I admire people who thrive in these conditions – I know I couldn’t. However, although I couldn’t live in a country town full time, I enjoy getting out of the city and spending time in the country. One of my favourite places to escape to is a little town called Pemberton, 335 kilometres south of Perth.
Pemberton’s first settler was Edward Brockman, the son of Perth’s first mayor, who moved to the area in 1861 to breed horses. He was also a pretty good breeder himself, fathering nine children! It was another early settler who arrived a year later, Pemberton Walcott, who gave the town its name. In the 1920s, free land was offered to group settlers to establish a dairy industry. Many of these ‘groupies’ were British ex-servicemen who had returned from WWI to find there were no jobs for them. Unfortunately, in the 1930s they found themselves out of work again when the Great Depression hit and many families had to leave their properties.
Today, Pemberton has a population of just over a thousand people. It is situated in a valley surrounded by karri forests, so its history is inextricably linked to forestry and logging. The karri tree is one of the tallest species in the world, reaching heights of ninety metres, and some of the tallest karri trees in the area were used as fire lookouts from the 1930s to the 1960s. Metal rungs were hammered into the tree trunks to form a spiral ladder leading up to a look out in the canopy of the tree. Two of the original fire lookout trees can still be climbed by daring visitors. The most well-known is the Gloucester Tree, which is located only a couple of kilometres out of Pemberton.Despite not being very confident about heights, I climbed the Gloucester Tree once in the late 1980s so do not feel the need to climb it again.
Karri trees grow in the high rainfall areas of south west Australia. They have very straight trunks that don’t separate into branches until high up near the tops of the trees so they were in great demand for railway sleepers. In 1913 timber mills were established in Pemberton to supply half a million sleepers for the Trans-Australian Railway line. Karri sleepers from Pemberton were also used in the early development of the London Underground and other railway lines in the UK.
Today there is still a timber mill in Pemberton, surrounded by old mill cottages, but tourism is also important for the town’s survival. Visitors can go four-wheel driving or mountain biking or fish for trout and marron. There is also a natural outdoor pool, but it wasn’t warm enough for that when we were there. Of course, equally valid pursuits enjoyed by many visitors are eating, drinking and relaxing in nature!
However, we went there last weekend to hike on the Bibbulmun Track – a 963km walking trail that stretches from Kalamunda in the eastern suburbs of Perth to Albany on the south coast of Western Australia. The Bibbulmun Track passes through Pemberton and we did two walks, totalling 7 hours. Walking through the massive karri trees as they stretch high above you like a natural cathedral is awe inspiring, and we were lucky enough to see emus and kangaroos, the two native animals on the Commonwealth Coat of Arms. At the end of the weekend we felt tired yet recharged by our brief break in the country.