The first stage of our adventure takes us south to where the two great arteries meet: road and rail. Before the Great Southern Railway was built: Katanning was an occasional sandalwood cutters camp; Broomehill was a few kilometres west (and called Eticup); Tambellup was part of a pastoral station; and Cranbrook was near a popular sheep-grazing spot called Round Swamp. All these towns that you pass through on the way south, owe their existence to the controversial decision to take the railway inland along the edge of the plains, and not down the Albany Highway. It was a choice that changed the fate of places like Williams, Arthur River and Kojonup forever. The two trails meet at Cranbrook, near the western tip of the Stirling Ranges, which is our destination.
All of the towns along the railway have had their boom times. When wool was in high demand, growing wheat required a small army of labourers, and the gold rush in Coolgardie brought a flood of hopefuls travelling the Holland Track, which started in Broomehill. Signs of a more populous past are everywhere in Broomehill, Tambellup and Cranbrook. Stop and stroll through the quiet morning streets of any of these towns and you’ll be in a living museum where you can feel history instead of just reading about it. If you take a small diversion over the railway line at Tambellup, it’ll be impossible to miss the giant timber tank stand on the main street that remains from the steam rail era. Then, before you continue south, cross back over the highway and drive a few blocks west, past the bright purple church, to the weir on the Gordon River, where you can see some of the abundant birdlife that inhabits the rivers and lakes of this area. It is a particularly beautiful spot in the early mornings and a perfect place to pause and prepare for a day in the Stirling Ranges. In Cranbrook, you can see the first brick house that was built in the town after it was gazetted in 1889. The old station master’s residence is now a museum that is open by appointment if you call ahead. The Cranbrook Hotel is another example of the beautifully restored old pubs in the region and sits on a quiet street, lined with buildings from the turn of last century.