A three hour drive due south of Perth takes you to a small protuberance on the south west corner of Australia: the Margaret River region. It’s topped and tailed by two lighthouses at the northern (Naturaliste) and southern (Leeuwin) ends of one of the best roads in Western Australia – the Caves Road that runs parallel to the Indian Ocean and delivers you a series of caves and the most beautiful beaches you could ever set eyes on.
As this was a road trip we had to do something we hadn’t done for seven months: drive a car. Our trepidation was tempered by how quiet the roads are in W.A. and having driven part of this route before a couple of years ago. Like the U.K. they drive on the left in Oz, which helped, and the car was automatic, so no worrying about clunking gear changes and ham-footed clutch control (if you can be ham-fisted, I presume you can be ham-footed?).
Our itinerary was relaxed, starting with two nights in an AirBnB in Busselton, which gave us plenty of time to wander off our planned route and follow our noses to interesting diversions, all of which turned out to be more engaging than our first stop in the intriguingly named Australind. It’s an unremarkable spot and while it had a very pleasant estuary it suffers from being so close to far nicer beaches, starting with Koombana beach in neighbouring Bunbury. This is a popular stretch of sand that has an excellent Dolphin Discovery Centre, soft sand and crystal clean water.
Like many W.A. beaches it does experience a wind that whips from the west and makes Sun-Brolly positioning and erection something more akin to a mechanical engineering exercise than simply popping it open and sticking it in the sand – if you do that it will be the last you see of your shade, unless it spears an unfortunate family of sun-seekers immediately downwind of you. In that scenario in all likelihood a big tattooed Aussie bloke called Shane will return it to you offering to pop it up for you properly…..after sticking it somewhere the sun doesn’t shine – and there aren’t many of those places in W.A.
With that in mind and being the sort of chap who prefers to avoid confrontation (i.e. British) I spent a good 20 minutes excavating a hole to bury the bottom half of the brolly, and weighed down the umbrella section with a variety of heavy objects. The result was that our deluxe 6ft Sun-Brolly now crouched at a rather lowly 3ft, making it look like a completely out of place toadstool. “I know it’s a bit inconvenient….” I said to Sam as we burrowed our way under it, “….but it’s not going to blow away and cause a scene”. Sod’s Law being what it is, I wandered off to get a drink after all that digging and returned to find Sam battling with the brolly which had decided it would look nicer as a deformed Tulip.
After a dip and a spot of lunch, we set off for our stay in Busselton, a lovely buzzing beachside town that boasts two great attractions (in addition to the stunning beach). Busselton Jetty runs just shy of 2 kilometres and is one of the southern hemispheres longest wooden jetties.
If that isn’t enough to induce you to walk its length, then at the end you will find its underwater observatory, where you descend a spiral staircase 8 meters to the seabed and can take a look at a live sea life show, marvelling at whatever happens to be swimming by. To add to our entertainment we had a guide who we suspect had received her training from the Gestapo. “Achtung! There vill be no fun on zis tour, children will be quiet and do exactly as I say and do not touch zee glass”. Seriously, at one point when a child was wailing she said to the beleaguered parent in a sweet but firm tone “you are free to leave the tour now and go upstairs if you like.” As fine a display of passive aggression as you could wish to witness.
After a couple of relaxing days at Busselton, on a recommendation we headed west towards Dunsborough to grab breakfast, stroll around the town and head to the beach. Like Margaret River itself, Dunsborough has a slightly hippy laid back vibe going on that makes it immediately likeable and relaxing. We found a great little breakfast spot for a super-healthy snack and what could be our first and last tasting of a thick turmeric smoothie. It must have been incredibly good for us as it tasted awful!
Dunsborough isn’t a completely new age po-faced PC hipsterville though, as this A-Board wittily demonstrated…
…..we passed on this tempting offer and headed down to the beach, where we pitched up on the sand and took advantage of a calm lagoon to do some more Stand Up Paddle-Boarding. While paddling along I saw the dark shapes of Rays swimming beneath me – a reminder of the fabulous sea-life that frequent the waters here. The wind made paddle-boarding harder than usual, pushing us both towards the sandbar enclosing the lagoon, but it was ideal for folks in boats.
We set off again westward ho! toward Naturaliste lighthouse, and in doing so came upon Eagle Bay. As we pulled up in the car park and looked down on the beach Sam and I said “Wow” in unison. In front of us was the archetypal perfect beach: soft white sand, a turquoise sea, deep blue sky and incredibly, hardly anyone there. Initially we decided to have a stroll up and down the beach marvelling at the beauty. However, we agreed that we couldn’t look back on this beach without getting in the water. I raced back to the car, got our cossies and jumped in the sea…omg it was cold, not U.K. cold, but still a bit of a shock after the temperatures we had got used to. Once in it was okay and the water was the clearest I think I’ve ever swam in.
We finally made it to the lighthouse after these delightful detours, but just too late to go into the building itself. We had to make do with a stroll around the grounds. It was odd how many times we found ourselves unable to see the lighthouse as we meandered about – hopefully there is a clearer line of vision from sea!
From Naturaliste we headed due south on the glorious run that is the Caves Road, past forests and countless wineries to the town of Margaret River. Curiously, it’s not on the coast but lies a few kilometres inland. It’s a pretty town with quaint shops, good eateries and the perfect base for the beaches and wineries. It’s also a good spot for finding kangaroos in the wild. While heading into town we had our first ‘roo experience when one bounded across the road about 20 metres in front of us: simultaneously an exciting and frightening sight. A ten minute drive from town into a sparsely populated area you will find kangaroos bouncing about and grazing to their hearts content in the gardens and fields of local residents.
From Margaret River we made further jaunts up and down the Caves Road visiting the coastline that offers one golden strip after another – Yallingup being a particular favourite – with the rugged and wild Canal Rocks breaking up the stretches of beach.
When it comes to beaches and beautiful coastline, the Margaret River area has an embarrassment of riches, and with such great expanses you rarely find the beaches crowded. We enjoyed some wonderful beach life in S/E Asia, but here there is the beauty, tranquility, and not a spot of litter anywhere. For my money, the best beaches we’ve seen anywhere in the world……but we haven’t gone east yet.
After our short trip through Margaret River we headed east to spend five nights of solitude staying in our nephew’s holiday home in what can definitely be termed the “middle of nowhere” – although with the small town of Mount Barker a 15 minute drive away, there is much more “nowhere” to be found in this vast country.
On our way we headed into the dense Karri Forests to visit the Gloucester Tree. Standing at almost 200 feet tall the first thing you notice about the tree (other than its height) are the stakes driven into the trunk in a spiral that enable the intrepid to climb almost vertically to the top. A small net runs alongside the stakes to help prevent you launching yourself sideways off the tree. This is not for the feint-hearted, unfit, dodgy-kneed, or those with a fear of heights. Happily I ticked at least three of those boxes, although my siblings Sue and Dirk have both climbed it, so Mitchell’s have been to the top of the tree.
The tree is one of eight look-outs for detecting bushfires during the hot season, so as well as being a tourist attraction, they serve an important purpose.
Staying with the forest theme we travelled to Walpole and the Valley of the Giants, which as the name suggests hosts huge Tingle Trees. It’s a great visit that has a superb tree top walk 40 metres high, where you can stroll along the forest canopy testing your nerve as you look down the vertiginous trunks. The walk is sturdy, but you can certainly feel plenty of “bounce and wobble” as you gingerly step along the walkway On reflection, maybe that movement was just me after festive excesses.
In contrast back on terra firma there is an equally impressive walk through the forest where you can get close up with the tree trunks and marvel how they still stand despite age, fire and disease hollowing out their bases.
Star of the trees is Grandma Tingle, sitting and watching over the forest, so named for obvious reasons…
On the coast of this stretch of W.A. sit pretty towns such as Walpole, Denmark and Albany, all sharing a lovely laid back feel and rugged beauty that reminded us more than once of California’s Big Sur.
In a distinctly chilly Albany we were about to abort our trip on account of the cold when we popped into St John’s Church, a very pleasant building with striking stained glass. However, the best thing about the place was meeting a lovely man called Norm who delayed locking up to tell us a bit about the church including its history in hosting the very first on the Anzac Day Dawn Services in April 1930. Albany was a key location for the assembly and departure of convoys heading to the battlefields of WWI. Norm was fascinating, telling us of his father who had survived the Great War and met his future wife while convalescing in England after the War. She subsequently joined him in Australia, stepping off the boat at Fremantle in her bridal dress to be married in a local church an hour later. Then it was off to the outback to farm 4000+ acres – that must have been a shock but they made a success of it and it was passed on to their children. History was made even sweeter when Norm told us that he and his wife had just celebrated 60 years of marriage. It was a heartwarming experience and we felt rather sad to leave Norm and his treasure trove of experiences and stories.
Back at home outside Mount Barker we were enjoying the isolation and getting to meet the neighbours: dozens of sheep and two alpacas called Salt and Pepper. Having chatted to out nearest neighbour (who lived about a kilometre away) he encouraged us to get to know the fluffy condiments by feeding them carrots.
They really enjoyed the treat and whenever they saw us leaving or entering the field next to theirs would pop up their heads and amble over in the hope of more. They are very lovable but skittish things with teeth that don’t seem to distinguish between carrot and finger!
In Mount Barker itself we couldn’t resist paying a visit to a wonderfully ramshackle book shop that contained an incredible array of literature and other bizarre memorabilia. It was one of those places where you could spend hours searching through it in the hope of stumbling across a priceless first edition.
There probably is one in there…but your chance of finding it among the crammed higgledy-piggledy shelves.. well you may as well buy a lottery ticket. We gave up after about half an hour of rooting around and satisfied ourselves with a couple of old paperback Penguins. Charming place.
In contrast to the beaches, coastline and forests, the Stirling Range dominates the skyline, brooding over the plains below, changing colours like moods. We spent a day driving around its foothills and finding viewing points, but had left it too late in the day to trek in the climbing temperatures. The views of the Range are as stunning looking up as they are looking down, made even more so by the splendid isolation.
There is a magical and mystical feel to the Sterling Range and Bluff Knoll in particular which is captured by the Aboriginal interpretations and understanding of nature and their relationship with it. The Noongar warn of the dangers of the mists and evil spirits circling the mountain, leading the unaware astray.
Our trip south of Perth had come to an end, and on the last night we quietly sat watching the colours and shades change as the sun went down. A beautiful end to a lovely trip to Australia’s south west corner.
Next Up: Mercury Rising in Adelaide