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Rainbow Trail: a milestone in WA forest management

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

Photo courtesy of Joe Caruso

This is a story about a road through the forest, beginning with its origin as a logging railway, its evolution into a rough walking track, then later into a popular scenic drive for forest visitors, and finally its devolution back into a rough walking track. The four phases all link to my life and experience in the Western Australian karri forest, and to some extent are a metaphor for both. Back in 1968 I was a forestry officer working for the WA Forests Department. I had recently been appointed “District Manager” (the then-title was Divisional Forest Officer) of the Department’s Pemberton District, which encompassed the bulk of the prime karri forest. I had come to the job with two priorities. The first of these was hammered into me on Day 1 by my boss, the Regional Forester Steve Quain. This involved bushfire management and the need to find new ways of rescuing the karri forest from the perilous bushfire threat it faced. This is another story, yet to be told, and I won’t go into it just now. My second priority arose from a private passion, one I brought with me from other forests, indeed from other countries. This was to instigate a ‘forest recreation program’ in the beautiful forests around Pemberton. It would involve the development of walk trails, scenic drives, picnic areas, tourist maps and interpretive information for forest visitors. Welcoming visitors to the forest, and providing them with facilities, is taken for granted these days. But at that time, there was no forest recreation program in Western Australian forests. Few urban people found the bush interesting or attractive in those days, especially compared with the beach. Moreover, the senior staff of the Forests Department were mostly opposed to it. "It will only encourage people into the forest" the Deputy Conservator Roy Wallace told me, "and then they'll start telling us what to do". He was right (although this was not always a bad thing)… but there was no holding back the tide. Providing opportunities for recreation and facilities for forest visitors had long been part of forestry in the USA, and inevitably would become so here. I had lived in the USA during the mid-1960s and spent most of my spare time hiking, camping and exploring in the national forests. I had seen and enjoyed the professional approach brought to recreation planning, design and management by American foresters. I was convinced that this was where we should be heading in the karri forest. People were going to come anyway – the forest is inherently beautiful and interesting – so we might as well provide them with an interesting and informative experience, and attractive facilities.

The beauty and colour of the karri forest is captured in this painting by forester Rick Sneeuwjagt

There was another reason for my passion. I loved the forest, revelled in its glories, and wanted to share them. When I returned from the US and before moving to Pemberton, I spent a couple of years as DFO in the northern jarrah forest, and here I made my first trembling steps into forest recreation. This involved the construction of picnic spots along the Mundaring Weir and Kalamunda Roads, where families could enjoy a picnic in the bush using the bush furniture and stone BBQs that we provided. I didn't have a budget for this work, and it was done surreptitiously. The crusty old Assistant Forester Andy Selkirk was my partner in crime ... like many field staff foresters of his day, he had a surprisingly poetic nature. The sites chosen were not very attractive, basically old gravel pits with room to park a few cars, and the bush “furniture” we provided was crude by modern standards. But their popularity surprised everybody. Every weekend, and on sunny days in winter and spring, the sites were crowded to capacity. Clearly a demand existed.

The remnants of the first picnic spot in State forest, on the Mundaring Weir Road, constructed in 1967, still in use in 2022

Things had not reached even this rudimentary point in the karri forest. In 1968 there was not a single picnic spot, walking track or scenic drive anywhere in State Forest anywhere in the region. Within the national parks there was one "scenic drive" (more of this in a moment) that led out from Pemberton to the Big Brook Arboretum and one or two bush tracks near the Warren River that could be used as walking tracks, or tackled by intrepid motorists. An example of the latter was the Heartbreak Trail in Warren National Park, a precipitous and dangerous track that dead-ended in the river. It had originally been a containment line cut along the edge of a bushfire, by hand. We were constantly rescuing people whose cars had become bogged or who could not negotiate their way out.

Tourists ventured out of town on the main roads to Nannup and Northcliffe, or visited local attractions like the Gloucester Tree fire lookout and the town swimming pool. Contemporary readers will be surprised to know that a highlight for many visitors at that time was a guided tour of the local sawmill. Otherwise, fishermen sought marron in the river and trout in some of the local brooks, but when it came to recreation in the forest, that was about it.

An associated problem in those days was that the Forests Department had almost no heavy machinery. This meant that to build roads, including scenic drives for tourists, it was necessary to hire contractors.

One of the contractors we hired several times and who was held in high regard by forestry staff was Vittorio (Vic) Caruso. He had good machines, usually a Caterpillar D7 which was just about the biggest dozer around at the time, and good operators, often in the early days Vic himself. Vic was reliable, a good bloke, and someone who would get the job done for the money available.

Vic Caruso at the controls of his D7 bulldozer (photo courtesy of Joe Caruso)

I was lucky that Vic was such a capable man, because he won the contract for one of the trickiest jobs I can remember. This was the development of the scenic drive known as Rainbow Trail in Big Brook State Forest (to finally get to the point of this story).

Rainbow Trail had originally been an un-named railway constructed by the Pemberton sawmill used to bring logs in from the forest. The railway took off from the south side of the Mill, crossed the Lefroy Brook at the bottom of Pump Hill and then wound around the valley of the Lefroy and the Big Brooks, past the town’s water supply/hydro dam, all the way to Big Brook State Forest, several miles to the west. It was a scenic and charming route, with narrow cuttings, embankments and timber culverts. On one side was the lovely karri forest and on the other were, firstly, the still pool of the dam with its graceful reflections, and then further on the rushing stream with its many rocky cascades. There were off-shoots from the main line into the West Pemberton area and another to the Eastbrook, and eventually it was extended across the Channybearup Road into the karri forests along the Four Mile Brook.

Construction of the Big Brook logging railway had commenced just after the First World War and it was still in use almost up until the 1950s. At that stage the mill turned its attention east of Pemberton into the Collins, Brockman and Crowea State Forests. The old line to Big Brook Forest was abandoned and the rails pulled up. The formation became a rough walking track, used mostly by marron and fishermen.

The Forests Department, as it often did, decided to convert the old railway formation into a track for forestry vehicles. The sleepers were dug out and chucked away (they were karri and rotten) and a light grader was run along the surface to even-off the slots where the sleepers had lain. It was a very rudimentary road, but better than no road if you wanted to get to a bushfire, or carry out regeneration operations in the cut-over forest. The main thing it lacked was good drainage, this being something that railway trains could cope with (they ran on steel rails) but rubber-tyred vehicles could not because they drove on the road surface. The lack of good drainage meant that the track was boggy, pot-holed and rutted, so along with it being narrow and basically one-way, it was also very rough to travel, and slippery in the wet.

A parallel development in Pemberton at about the same time as logs were being hauled in on the Big Brook railway was the building of a trout hatchery. The hatchery raised fingerlings of Rainbow and Brown Trout which were then released into the streams of the karri forest. There were no environmentalists around at the time to prevent this release of “feral” fish into pristine streams and the project was successful and popular. There was basically no such thing as freshwater angling in WA at that time, so trout fishing in the karri forest provided a whole new experience. The hatchery itself became a tourist attraction, especially with visiting schoolchildren. Fishermen came from all over the country ... and one of their favourite spots was the Lefroy Brook, to which they walked or drove to, up the old railway formation, now a forest track.

The guru of the Pemberton Tourist Bureau was Ralph Kelly, a successful businessman, farmer and community leader. He was also the guru of the Trout Hatchery, the driving force behind the Trout Acclimatisation Society, and personally responsible for the whole trout raising and release program.

Ralph Kelly (right) with a then-Minister for Fisheries, demonstrating trout roe (photo courtesy of Robert Kelly)

Ralph also had a flair for P/R and he conjured up the name “Rainbow Trail" for the old railway formation running out from town along the Lefroy Brook. Signs were erected and the name became synonymous with trout fishing in the karri forest. The word “Trail” was part of Ralph’s genius – it was an Americanism, the Australian word being “track”, but Rainbow Trail somehow sounded better than Rainbow Track, and especially appealed to older Australians who remembered the Kokoda Trail from World War II.

Rainbow Trail had been a good railway and was still a nice walking track, but it was a very poor road. It plunged through cuttings that were only just wider than a car, crossed creaky or rotten old timber culverts, was pot-holed and boggy, and had blind corners where the tall karri scrub lent across the track. There were no safe places where people could park cars while they went fishing, or to turn around when they wanted to come home. The result of all this was a growing number of traffic accidents, including some head-on collisions and injuries. Since most of the road was on State Forest, I was responsible.

However, as is so often the case in life, a problem was also an opportunity. Chancing my arm, I applied to Head Office for funds to upgrade the trail all the way out to the Big Brook Arboretum, and to install some picnic spots, turn-arounds and parking facilities near the popular fishing spots. Done correctly, this could be the embryo of a serious forest recreation program for the karri forest.

The money came through, rather to my surprise (as several of the senior staff regarded it as a waste of precious forestry funds). It was designated with the grand name as the “Tourist Facilities Development Grant” and was only about $5000, laughable by today’s standards. But there were ways it could be stretched. Immediately plans were drawn up and tenders were called for the work.

But it was not smooth sailing. Despite being a fervent promoter of tourism, Ralph Kelly was furious and fiercely opposed the project. In his view we were desecrating an historic feature (the old railway formation), and he tried to get it stopped, appealing over my head to the Conservator of Forests, Allan Harris. Harris understood Ralph’s desire to preserve a historic feature, but in the end he supported me, as did a number of influential Pemberton citizens including George Germantse, John Major and Bill Tracey, all of whom were also involved with the tourism industry, and understood what I was trying to do. George was particularly supportive, as he ran the Shell Motor Garage in town, and was the one most often called upon to rescue bogged or crashed vehicles out on the trail.

There were some tense meetings, and some raised voices, but in the end, Ralph agreed to the project going ahead. [In passing I need to point out that later he and I collaborated on many projects, and developed a mutual respect. But he never forgave me for upgrading Rainbow Trail].

It was a sensitive job, not simply because of the controversy surrounding Ralph’s opposition, but also because it was to be the first road ever built by the Forests Department specifically as a tourist attraction. Those senior people in the Department who did not believe in forest recreation secretly (I think) wanted the project to fail. So, it had to be done professionally and to budget, the end result had to look good and we needed positive feedback from the public.

To my relief, the bulldozing contract was let to Caruso Brothers and the dozer drivers were Vic himself and his son Joseph, also a skillful machine operator. I put my most experienced Forest Ranger, Terry Court, in charge of the work, and he was supported by my most able overseer Ted Loud. It was Terry's job to make sure we ended up with a clean and professional job, while Ted and his gang were charged with building the picnic spots, cutting logs and putting in concrete culvert pipes for drainage. Part of the job description was that if any tree had to be felled during the widening of the road, it had to be removed, or left only at right-angles to the road, and nothing was to go into the Lefroy Brook. I let them all know we were under the spotlight, and that I would not tolerate “any-old-how” bush workmanship. The result had to be spotless. I was out there like a worried parent nearly every day.

The completed Rainbow Trail winds its way through Big Brook Forest (photo by Jack Bradshaw)

The result was a lovely job. With new timber signposts and interpretive information the upgraded Rainbow Trail became popular overnight. One of the things that surprised and pleased me was that it was not just the visitors from out-of-town and the holiday-makers, but also the people of Pemberton who appreciated this work. Most of them depended on the forest for their livelihoods, and now there was an opportunity to enjoy it for its beauty.

Another outcome was the karri forest’s first ever picnic spot, which we called “Karri Oak” (after the graceful riverine species Allocasuarina decussata, the karri sheoak), located at the junction of the Lefroy Brook and Big Brook. Here Ted installed a stone BBQ and timber tables and seats (“butcher block” style) that the gang fashioned from trees that had been felled during the widening of the road.

I will never forget calling in to look at Karri Oak picnic spot the day after it was finished. I found a young honeymooning couple from the city seated at one of the log tables. On this they had spread a white table cloth, silver cutlery, a candelabra and champaigne glasses for their picnic. It seemed to me that this little scene encapsulated the beginning of a new era in the management of the karri forest.

A family picnic at Karri Oak – Ted Loud’s handiwork on display

Later we extended Rainbow Trail northwest through Big Brook to the Channybearup Road (the extension being named Tramway Trail, as it also followed the route of a former logging railway), providing a loop back around to Pemberton. This completed the first dedicated scenic drive in the karri forest, and was the forerunner of a network of routes that are (mostly) still used today. To appreciate the value of these new roads, it has to be remembered that these were the days before most families owned a 4-Wheel drive vehicle. Many city people felt nervous driving in the bush and were appreciative of a scenic road that was well designed and safe for the family Holden or Falcon.

Following the success of the Rainbow Trail project, the Tourist Facilities Development Fund became part of our District budget, and was gradually increased, year by year. Other districts all over the south-west soon followed suit, and a whole new portmanteau was added to forestry work. The appointment of trained recreation specialists and landscape architect, among them my good friend Wayne Schmidt, gave an essential injection of professionalism in the design and management of visitor projects, and to interpretive maps and guides. In another milestone, the Department adopted a new logo, now officially recognising “Recreation” as one of its four key objectives:

Over the next five years or so, several new tourist routes and scenic drives were constructed in the Pemberton area, and historic sites like the Brockman Sawpits, the Cascades and the 100-Year Forest were developed as attractions for forest visitors. The project of which I was most proud was the Maidenbush Trail. The new scenic drive wound around the hills above the Warren River for several km, and provided superb views of the river valley and the spectacular karri forest on its slopes. The survey and construction of this route was extremely challenging, and it delights me that it remains one of the most popular scenic drives in south-west forests to this day.

Maidenbush Trail, shortly after construction. Photo by Jack Bradshaw

Fifty years later, as I write this in 2022, the pendulum has swung 180 degrees from the days when I was a DFO and cautiously introducing those first forest recreation programs. Providing a wide range of recreational opportunities and jazzy facilities for forest visitors is now so much part of the forest management scene that it takes priority over other work. In this, the department has to be careful not to make a grave mistake - history has shown over and again that the first priority for management of Western Australian forests must be to protect them from high-intensity summer wildfires. If this is not done, everything else will be lost, including the beautiful forest landscapes which attract forest visitors in the first place, and the facilities provided for their enjoyment. The principle is a simple one: if you don’t get your bushfire management right, no other forest objective can be achieved.

There is an unhappy postscript to this story. The department (now known as Parks and Wildlife) has decided that the section of Rainbow Trail that runs out from Pemberton along the Lefroy Brook be closed to vehicles; the once-popular drive has reverted to a rough walking track. The signs at the trail entry where once tourists and townsfolk were welcomed, now say “No Entry”.

This cancellation perplexes and saddens me. But what can never be cancelled (at least to my mind) is the fact that this inconspicuous little trail entry, curving off into the trees, represents the start of not just a once-popular scenic drive, but the start of the forest recreation program for the entire karri forest.

Everything that followed, culminating in today’s “Visitor Services” program in the south-west with its large corps of specialist staff and $multi-million budget … it all started here.

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10. Aug. 2022

Beautifully told Roger

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