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Northcliffe, WA

Important timber town in Western Australia's famous Karri forests

Northcliffe is a small timber town set in the karri, marri and jarrah forests of Western Australia's south-west. It is a popular stopover for bushwalkers on the Bibbulmun Track, cyclists of the Munda Biddi track, and visitors wanting to explore the D'Entrecasteaux National Park and the wild beauty of Windy Harbour. The forests are particularly impressive in spring with dramatic displays of wildflowers.


Northcliffe is located 357 km south of Perth via Highway 1.


Origin of Name

The town of Northcliffe was gazetted in May, 1924. It was named after Alfred C M Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe, who had died in 1922. He had been the proprietor and publisher of the London Times and the Daily Mail. The town's origins lay in the Group Settlement Scheme, a plan to resettle British servicemen who had fought in World War I. The theory was to reward them for their service to the country by offering them land which they could develop and thus establish themselves as farmers.  Lord Northcliffe had been an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme which, incidentally, was a disaster.


Things to See and Do

Pioneer Museum
Located on the corner of Muirillup Road and Windy Harbour Road, the Northcliffe Pioneer Museum occupies the old Group Settlement School which was built in 1925 and used until 1946. The local website (http://www.northcliffe.org.au/where_we_live.html#ourlocation) explains that the museum "has an outstanding collection of original items used by the Northcliffe Group Settlers more than 80 years ago, illustrating their domestic life and work on the dairy farms, on which the district of Northcliffe was founded. The original Group 121 bush school, teacher’s cottage and hospital memorabilia bring back countless memories, and the large collection of family photographs is of special interest to those researching their family’s life in the 1920s.
"The George Gardner exhibition in the Museum’s mill cottage displays fossils 3000 million years old and 1200 rocks and minerals from around Australia and overseas. The collection also includes the George Gardner photographic record of all native wildflowers growing in the Northcliffe region. The Robey Engine, brought to Northcliffe in 1924 to help build the timber Group Houses, is on display in a glass case outside the museum." The museum is open seven days a week from 10.00 am - 3.00 pm.

The Understory - Art and Nature
Located at the Northcliffe Visitor Centre and open from 9.00 am - 4.00 pm the Understory Trail is "a nationally unique art in nature experience that everyone can enjoy. Artworks are located along a 1.2km walk trail through pristine native forest. Sculptures, stories, poetry and music explore our relationship with nature and the 'spirit of place'." It includes 43 sculptures titled 'Rising from the Ashes' by award-winning sculptor, Kim Perrier, as well as works by over 50 national and international artists. To experience the full range of remarkable art works check out http://www.understory.com.au.

Northcliffe Forest Park
Located one kilometre from the centre of town, off the George Gardner Drive, is the Northcliffe Forest Park. There are a number of trails through the Forest Park. The most popular walks are:
* Twin Karri - a short and easy 500 metre loop which starts at the Hollow Butt Karri and passes through thick karri forest including two huge Karri trees situated next to each other. In spring the forest floor is ablaze with wildflowers.
* Town Dam - a short and easy 500 metre loop to a picnic spot beside the town dam. It is common to see ducks on the dam which was never used for the town water supply because of the poor quality of the water. The walk continues beyond the dam through  jarrah, marri and karri forest. There are banksias and she oak trees as well as old logs, felled in the group settlement days.
* Bardi Creek - an easy 800 metre walk back to Northcliffe via a coastal swamp. The trail crosses Bardi Creek on stepping stones.
* Riverway Adventure Trail - a more difficult 600 metre walk which leaves from either the Acacia or Casuarina picnic areas and heads down steep slopes to the Gardner River valley. After crossing the fallen logs and log bridges, the trail leads back to Acacia Road. In spring wildflowers carpet the forest floor.
The karri trees in the park are marked and there are a number which are over 75 m tall. Look out for the purple-crowned lorikeet and scarlet robin as well as unusual and beautiful wildflowers. Check out https://trailswa.com.au/trails/northcliffe-northcliffe-forest-park-walks for more details on the walks.


Other Attractions in the Area

The Bibbulmun Track
The Bibbulmun Track, which starts in Kalamunda in the north goes for more than 1,000 km south to Albany passes through Northcliffe. It can be entered at Wheatley Coast Road and if you head south there are a number of access points (see https://www.bibbulmuntrack.org.au/trip-planner/track-sections/northcliffe) on the way to Walpole. This is a point on the route where, as the guide points out, "Between Northcliffe and Walpole, walkers heading south from Kalamunda will once again reach a few milestones; the diverse ecosystems of the Pingerup Plains, the last of the campsites with campfires allowed and most significantly the first encounter with the wild southern ocean. This is the remotest section of the southern part of the Track, with few accessible roads and almost no signs of civilisation for eight days!"

Munda Biddi Cycle Track
The Munda Biddi Cycle Track runs from Mundaring, north east of Perth, to Albany on the south Coast. The sign at Pemberton explains: "The Munda Biddi Cycle Track (which means "path through the forest" in the local Noongar language) is Western Australia's only long distance off-road cycle trail. From Mundaring the trail meanders south through the rolling hills of the Darling Range, along scenic river valleys and through magnificent eucalypt forests. Once past the tall timber country the trail traverses the Walpole Wildeerson and some of the wild and stunning southern beaches, before finally reaching the historic port town of Albany ... The Munda Biddi is made up of bush tracks, firebreaks and old railway formations so most of your trip will be on gentle grades, although there are a few challenging sections as the trail enters and exits the river valleys. Encounter native plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world. Immerse yourself in the beauty of the bush as the wonders of South Western Australian landscape are revealed along your journey." For more detailed information check out https://www.mundabiddi.org.au/home.

Pemberton Tramway Company
Located at the Pemberton Railway Station which lies 31 km north of Northcliffe, the Pemberton Tramway Company offers two departures daily - Monday to Saturday - at 10.30 am and 2.00 pm. The website (see  http://www.pemtram.com.au) explains: "The Pemberton Tramway Company Pty Ltd is a privately operated tourist railway ... which conveys tourists through deep forests and picturesque countryside as well as recreating the history of the timber railways that were so important to the regions development and growth. The railway uses paid and voluntary staff, and operates diesel hydraulic trams over a total route length of 10 kms."
Historically the Pemberton to Northcliffe Railway, which was completed in the early 1930s, is a scenic journey with the railway crossing rivers and passing areas which, in season, are ablaze with wildflowers. It is worth remembering that when it was built the railway from Pemberton to Northcliffe was the most expensive in Western Australia costing about £20,000 a mile as it cut its way around hills and across bridges. Check out http://www.pemtram.com.au or tel: (08) 9776 1322 for tickets and booking arrangements.

Boorara Tree
Located 16 km south-east of Northcliffe is the old Boorara Tree, a 50 m high lookout which was built in 1952 and abandoned in 1977 due to the trunk weakening. It can't be climbed but the area around the base is ideal for picnics and there is a replica fire lookout cabin where visitors can imagine what it must have been like to sit at the top of the tree and watch for bushfires. Lane Poole Falls are located near the Boorara Tree and are reached by a pleasant 5 km return walk through thick forest. After rain the Canterbury River falls 12 metres over smooth granite rocks. Check out https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/boorara-tree-and-lane-poole-falls for more information.

Windy Harbour
Located 27 km south of Northcliffe, Windy Harbour is the only point on the south coast between Walpole and Augusta which can be reached by conventional vehicles. It is located on Crown Reserve and surrounded by the D'Entrecasteaux National Park. Since the 1900s it has been a collection of cottages which were built on individual leases. Windy Harbour offers all the usual seaside recreational activities - fishing, swimming, snorkelling - as well as some dramatic 160 m limestone cliffs at Point D'Entrecasteaux to the west of the town. Visitors with 4WD can drive to Salmon Beach where the Roaring Forties have created white sand dunes up to 60 m high. For more information check out https://www.manjimup.wa.gov.au/our-places-and-spaces/windy-harbour. The Explore Parks WA site (https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/windy-harbour) notes of the activities that "Visitors can view Sandy Island from the cliffs at Windy Harbour, an important nesting site for flesh-footed shearwaters (Puffinus carneipes). Up to 300,000 breeding pairs of these birds descend on Sandy Island each year, a large proportion of the global population." and "One of the best ways to experience Windy Harbour’s stunning setting is to take a walk along a cliff top. Coastal Survivors Walk is a coastal walk along the dunes and cliff tops which links Point D’Entrecasteaux and Windy Harbour via Cathedral Rock. Learn about the coastal plants and animals and their adaptations to this most demanding of environments. Distance: 2.8km one way. Time: Allow 2 hours.  Class: 2-3 Moderately easy."

The Story of the Group Settlement Scheme
Northcliffe's origins lie in the Group Settlement Scheme, a plan to resettle British servicemen who had fought in World War I. The aim was to reward them for their service to the country by offering them land which they could develop and establish themselves as farmers.
The scheme was that "Groups of twenty or so families were taken to areas where blocks of 100 to 140 acres had been surveyed, and the men began clearing to establish dairy farms. On most blocks, twenty acres were partially cleared, five intensively. However, the land itself varied greatly; north of Northcliffe, men ringbarked the huge trees to gain pastures; south, their cattle struggled on the 'desolate sand plains' and failed to thrive because there was no knowledge of how to make the soil produce good pastures."
The scheme was enthusiastically backed by the English newspaper magnate, Lord Northcliffe (he gave his name to the town), but was a total failure. The problem was that by the 1920s all the decent land in the state had already been settled. All that was left was land which earlier explorers and settlers had deemed too difficult to develop. This meant that the South West timber country (which was inhospitable) saw a large number of Group Settlement projects started in the 1920s. They all had failed by the mid 1930s. This description of the Group Settlement Scheme near Manjimup is a reminder of what these poor settlers had to go through.
'The Group Settlement Scheme was set up by the Western Australian Government after World War I to resettle returned soldiers and immigrants. Part of the idea was to give Western Australia's rural economy a boost by opening up more land for agriculture. Twenty families of Group 10 settled the land near One Tree Bridge. They lived in rough temporary huts provided by the Government until 25 acres of each family's ballot-allocated 100 acres was partially cleared. Then they could move to their respective blocks and get down to the serious business of farming. Clearing took 6 months, the bush was thick and the trees enormous. Most of the group settlers had no experience of farming and very little bushcraft. With only crosscut saws and axes they were faced with clearing some of the world's biggest trees from their land. Many group settlers left unable to handle the conditions and meet the repayments on their land and equipment and the loans they had to take out to buy stores. Those that stayed the longest scratched a living from dairy produce as they struggled to clear enough of their land to farm. The great depression of the 1930s heralded the end of most of the Groupies. The price of butterfat collapsed and their main source of income disappeared.'
They were destroyed by the Great Depression which meant that "the Groupies" (as they were known) could not sell their produce at economic rates. Northcliffe, as one of the most isolated of the settlements, was generally regarded as one of the most miserable.



* For some 50,000 years the Murrum Aboriginal people lived in the area prior to the arrival of European.

* By the 1830s the area around Northcliffe had been explored by Europeans.

* Some European farmers settled in the area in the 1860s but no town was created.

* It wasn't until 1924 that the town came into existence. Northcliffe's origins lie in the Group Settlement Scheme, a plan to resettle British servicemen who had fought in World War I.

* They Group Settlement Scheme had failed by the mid 1930s. The Great Depression of the 1930s heralded the end of most of the Groupies. The price of butterfat collapsed and their main source of income disappeared.'

* The scheme was tried again after World War II with the advantage of chain saws but still the project failed.

* In 1963 Bunnings purchased the Kauri Timber Company.

* In 1972 Bunnings signed a contract to sell woodchips from Northcliffe to Japan.

* By the 1970s the district was attracting artists and tree changers from the city.

* In 1995 Bunnings closed their wood chip operation.

* In 2015 bushfires destroyed 100,000 ha in the area.


Visitor Information

Northcliffe Visitor Centre, Muirillup Road, tel: (08) 9776 7203. Open 9.00 am - 4.00 pm seven days a week.


Useful Websites

There is a useful local website. Check out http://www.northcliffe.org.au.

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  • My father was the person that rebuilt the old school in about 1973/1974 . He was the youngest son of George and Eva Willis that settled in Northcliffe in 1925 . My father was Bill Willis they were farmers my Father passed away Dec 1976 as a result of a car accident. I was born in Pemberton 1951 and lived in Northcliffe until I was 9 yrs. I still call Northcliffe my home . I have photos of Dad at the school house when I took him lunch with my youngest son I’m my arms he is now 49. ☺️

    Mavis Hubbard nee Willis