Southern Lights and Living Fossils at Lake Clifton

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What do the Southern Lights and rare, living fossils have in common? They can both be seen from Lake Clifton, one of the featured hikes on the Trails WA website. I stumbled across the website one morning and spent an hour or so exploring the map, finding all sorts of trails not too far from our home in Mandurah. Maddie has never been a fan of the car so Jed and I wanted to find some walks close to home. I knew there were a few hikes around the lakes to the south of us in Yalgorup National Park but we hadn’t checked them out yet, although we had visited the area and taken what turned out to be some memorable photos – more on that later. Since having our daughter we had become quite preoccupied with walking in shade. We have spent a lot of time out in the Darling Ranges, hiking under the big Marri and Jarrah trees in the relatively cool air. We have always loved hiking along the Bibbulmun Track in Dwellingup and Kitty’s Gorge Trail in Serpentine National Park for this reason. Without really checking, I had assumed the walks round Lake Clifton and Lake Preston would be fairly exposed to the sun with only low-lying scrub.

Lake Clifton - Jed, Suzy and Maddie
Jed, Suzy and Maddie on the Lake Clifton Boardwalk

We have spent many evenings attempting to photograph the Milky Way from the Lake Clifton boardwalk, after our first crack at astrophotography from the site back in 2013. We did not have much success that night though – or so we thought! Aside from not yet having the skills to take sharp, detailed night-sky photos, and not having quite the best equipment, we were also getting dull red light pollution towards the horizon when facing south. It was not quite in the right direction to be light from Bunbury 70km away. I was stumped but the trip wasn’t a complete write-off. I would just go home and search the internet for tips.

I was about to delete those blurry, red-sky photos when I saw an article pop up on my newsfeed featuring a stunning photograph of the Aurora Australis by a Perth astrophotographer. I scrolled through his images and saw some which looked just like the ones we had taken at Lake Clifton, only a lot better quality of course. I looked to see what date the photos had been taken and lo and behold, it was the same night we were out! By complete fluke, Jed and I had accidentally captured the Southern Lights on our first ever astro-expedition. Thank god I hadn’t deleted them! We have been back to that spot several times since to practice and improve our photography but only actually walked the trail there once.

Southern Lights captured from the Lake Clifton boardwalk

The weekend before Jed went back to work we decided to go out and walk the Lakeside Loop Trail, a comfortable 5km loop that runs beside the lake from the Lake Clifton Thrombolites car park. Some friends of ours recently bought a baby carrier so we invited them along for the walk. Maddie was recovering from a cold so hiking and carrying the babies in their packs was a good chance to meet up without the little ones coming into physical contact and sharing germs.

Two families setting out on the Lakeside Loop Trail

We were delighted when Yasmin, Nathan and baby Liam replied to say they would join us for the walk. We hadn’t all known each other long, less than a year, but we had grown close. Maddie and Liam always seemed to hit their development milestones around the same time. Us adults seemed to be going through similar developments too as our lives evolved to include our babies, and this was very reassuring to me.

We arrived in the car park and had only just started to unpack our gear when the others pulled up beside us. We were in no rush so took our time changing nappies, applying sun cream and getting the babies into their packs whilst chatting away.

Suzy carrying Maddie at the start of Lakeside Loop, Lake Clifton

When we were ready, we donned the baby carriers and set off up the path just in front of our cars. After about thirty metres the path popped back out on to the car park so we continued to the other side of the clearing, looking for the start of the trail but don’t see anything.

“It’s up this way” said Nat, “remember the last time we were here?”

“Nah, I thought it was over here” I said, pointing off about 90 degrees from where Nat was heading.

Damn, were we lost before we even started? “Did anyone look at the information board?” Jed asked. Nope.

By now we’ve pretty much just walked a loop of the car park and we were back at the information board anyway. What’s the first rule of Hike Club? Know where you’re going! We checked out the map, shared a giggle about how hopeless we can be sometimes (let’s blame baby brain) and headed out towards the start of the trail, in the opposite direction from our first attempt.

The Lakeside Loop trail is mostly flat and hard under foot. To my surprise there was a lot of shade. The scrub we walked through was maybe 6m high allowing a lot of protection from the morning sun and creating comfortable conditions. The babies seemed happy, pointing at the trees and birds, nattering away to each other in baby gibberish.

Lakeside Trail, Lake Clifton, WA

Little information boards are spotted regularly along the trail telling about the flora and fauna. One of the first signs told us to look out for bungarra burrows. These bungarra (Gould’s monitor) can grow to 1.6m and run at 60kmh! That’s damn fast. We passed a lot of burrows along the sides of the tracks, maybe a hundred or so all up, which I assumed to be these big lizard burrows. They looked like they were still in use so the lizards are probably around but we were not luckily enough to see one. Jed once told me that if you see a big goanna or perentie you should lay on the floor because if you spook them they run up the tallest ‘tree’ they can see. In the low-lying scrub that you find in the more arid parts of the bush, you may be the tallest thing about and these lizards may try and climb you! They are heavy and have huge talons, a few inches long. Even if they don’t intend to, they can do quite a bit of damage. I don’t know if this is true though. Looking back, I question a lot of what Jed told me in the early days.

After about twenty minutes Maddie started to nod her head and look tired. I worry if she is comfortable enough in the carrier without a nice pillow so Jed rolled up a t-shirt to support her head and she drifted off as we walked on.

Maddie sleeping sound in the Osprey pack whist Suzy walks on

We stopped so Nat could take over carrying Liam. I always carry Maddie on our hikes these days because I’m trying to get my stamina up for future multi-day hikes. Jed took the opportunity to unceremoniously announce that he needed a pee and ran back down the track and around the corner. The three of us walked on again. A few moments later Jed reappeared grinning and munching on a Snickers. “Did you fake a wee break just to have a snickers?” I asked.

“Maybe” he responded cheekily. Jed does love a Snickers.

Jed is amazed how much talking my friends and I can get done whilst hiking. As mothers of toddlers, we rarely get to chat uninterrupted. With one baby sleeping and the other being carried by his dad up ahead, Yasmin and I chatted away. We covered a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically, puffing because neither of us are fit enough to walk fast and talk at the same time.

The four of us strolled on for a few kilometres further, Nat and Jed up ahead, Yasmin and I falling behind as we stopped every now and then to check Maddie was sleeping ok. It is a nice, easy trail with breaks in the foliage every so often offering views of the lake beyond.

Glimpse of Lake Clifton from the Lakeside Loop Trail

Jed and Nat stopped ahead of us. “An emu has been through here recently,” Jed announced confidently, pointing at a splatter of seedy mush on the track.

“How do you know its emu poo?” asked Nat.

“It looks like it’s fallen from quite high. Do you know anything else around here with a bum that high off the ground?” stated Jed earnestly before chuckling and going on to talk about how you can actually identify emu droppings. There was no emu to be seen though. I’ve still not seen an emu whilst hiking.

Towards the end of the trail the path veers down into a peppermint grove. The peppermint trees grow tall and their canopies shade almost all of the ground below. The trees out-compete all other vegetation for water and soil nutrients so nothing else grows, leaving the area quite open compared to the thick bush we had just been walking through. There is a faint smell of peppermint, which along with the cool air and shade gives the whole area quite a refreshing, peaceful feel.

Peppermint Grove towards the end of the Lakeside Loop Trail

The trail pops out of the peppermint grove, rejoining the track close to the start, completing the loop. We arrived back at the car park quite happy with our walk. I think our friends enjoyed their new baby carrier too.

It’s only three hundred metres down to the thrombolites boardwalk so we head down to check them out. The path winds through the scrub a short way before the dense vegetation gives way to clumps of tall grasses. The grasses thin out leaving a microbial mat close to the waters edge, and irregular-shaped blobs in the shallow water known as thrombolites. These ‘blobs’ are actually of great significance in Earth’s history. They are not single things but are made of communities of living organisms. Fossil evidence shows that structured communities of microbes such as these were likely to be the first life on earth. It was the oxygen produced by these photosynthesising creatures, slowly but steadily over millions of years, that was the first step in creating the atmosphere we breathe today. If you pay attention, you can see tiny bubbles escape from these thrombolites every now and then.

Lake Clifton Boardwalk over the stromatolites

“Look kids, fossilised dinosaur poo!” Nat said matter-of-factly to the babies. They didn’t seem too impressed or amused but I thought it was hilarious! In all my years of fascination of these formations, I’d never heard them called that before. To be fair, they do sort of look like fossilised poop.

Perhaps that is one of the great joys of hiking – everyone sees each trail, and the landscape along the way, through their own perspective whether that be a geologist, bird-watcher or just a big kid marvelling at strange blobs in the water.

large rocky mounds that look like blobs of concrete half submerged in a shallow lake
Walkway over the thrombolites
large rocky mounds that look like blobs of concrete half submerged in a shallow lake
Thrombolites at Lake Clifton
Lake Clifton – Maddie playing in the leaves
Maddie playing after completing the Lakeside Loop Trail

Did you enjoy reading about the living fossils? Did you know you can find ancient fossils of some of the first ever land animals in Kalbarri National Park? Or if you prefer living animals you could try whale watching from the dramatic Kalbarri coastal cliffs.






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