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Published: April 25th 2019
So I was going to drive the Nullarbor (see https://www.travelblog.org/Oceania/Australia/Western-Australia/Nullarbor-Plain/blog-1033220.html?fbclid=IwAR3BaUebANjJSC7SQIwGLv88xhkBpdttSZbyQ4nrqYDJcyVlOVb_TUKLHNU)... But, if I were starting from Perth, it would have been positively rude to drive straight across to Norseman, the western end of the Nullarbor, and ignore the much-vaunted picturesqueness of southwestern Western Australia. After all, it’d only add another thousand kilometres or so.
From the manmade – lighthouses, jetties and treetop walkways – to the natural – cliffs and caves, beaches and hills, soaring trees and colourful coastal vegetation, malleefowl and cockatoos, and, of course, just a few kangaroos – southwestern Western Australia has it all. And that’s not even taking into account one of its biggest attractions, the Margaret River wineries, which I had already decided not to include in this trip (something that’d definitely be more fun in company, and preferably with someone else driving).
Of necessity, this would be a somewhat cursory scamper through the area, more of a recce for a longer trip some stage in the future, though with so much of the country – and the world, come to that – still to explore, I’m not exactly sure when that “future” might be.
My first coffee/leg-stretch after the multi-laned freeway and
traffic out of Perth found me in Bunbury, formerly industrial, now reinventing itself as a tourist town. The name niggled as I looked around the harbour and possible caffeine sources. Ah, that was it: “Bunburying”, coined by Oscar Wilde for shirking one's duties by claiming to have appointments to see a fictitious friend; an unexpected reminder of studying “The Importance Of Being Earnest” in long-ago ‘A’ level English. Weird how these things pop up down the line.
At Busselton, I found the longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere. If I’d realised this beforehand (my homework was clearly not quite up to scratch), I might have made time to walk its 1,841 m length, but I was to find plenty more jetties – if quite a lot shorter – littering the next couple of weeks. “But you don’t even fish,” Bloke commented later (well, I do, but generally only when all other pastimes have been exhausted). Fishing isn’t all jetties are good for, however: they’re great for people-watching, not to mention a good excuse for a leg-stretch in wonderful quantities of sea air.
Busselton lies near the southern-most point of Geographe Bay, the land then scooping northwest to
Cape Naturaliste. The proliferation of French names in this corner of Western Australia (now with more anglicised pronunciation and spelling) is thanks to the Gallic explorers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century who mapped and briefly claimed this corner of the continent. Arguably, indeed, if Napoleon hadn’t had the odd European war or two to distract him, this part of WA might even have remained French. Unfortunately, Cape Naturaliste’s lighthouse is currently well-shrouded in plastic, though an information board instructed me firmly that, in seeing it in this state, only its second major renovation in 116 years, I was nevertheless visiting at “a historic point in its long history”. Not a very photogenic point in its long history, though. No matter, you can’t win ’em all. I refuelled the car, re-caffeined myself, and headed south through the fabulous red-barked karri forests towards a decidedly welcome beer and a bed with my name on it in Augusta.
At Cape Leeuwin the next day, I had more success in the lighthouse-viewing and -ascending fronts, as well as the reward of a dramatic view back along the narrow peninsula towards Augusta, the Indian Ocean on one side and the Southern
Ocean on the other. Boringly, there is some controversy about which ocean does actually border Australia’s southern shores; some argue it is in fact still the Indian Ocean. In my decidedly non-expert opinion, I take the view that, as the next landmass south is Antarctica and the water is freezing, it has to be the Southern Ocean. So there.
From views above ground level to peeking below ground, my next stop was Jewel Cave, the biggest of the caves in WA that are open to tourists, with its extraordinary collection of stalactites, stalagmites and – new to me – helictites (essentially, not to be too technical about it, stalactites that, thanks to breezes through the cave, grow wiggly). The cave’s three chambers are simply magical, with an amazing variety of formations, including stalagmite waterfalls, cave coral and the longest ‘straw’ (hollow) stalactite in Australia, a fragile 2-9 mm (less than a third of an inch) in width and 5.43 m (17.8 feet) in length. At one point the guide switched off the lights so that we could appreciate true darkness and the stillness of the cave, a hint of how incredible it must have been
the road to Mandalay...
Mandalay Beach, D'Entrecasteaux National Park
to discover this cave in the 1950s.
At Walpole, my car had its first dose of gravel roads as I went in search of Mandalay Beach. Having been to the eponymous city eighteen months’ earlier, I was not going to miss this alternative “road to Mandalay”. However, that’s as far as the Burmese connection goes; the beach is in fact named after a Norwegian barque that was wrecked there early last century. Fortunately, no lives were lost, a rarity amongst coastal wreck stories on this unforgiving coastline, and, eerily, the remains of the boat occasionally re-emerge from the waves as if to remind us of what might have been. It is a stunning beach and, not for the last time on this trip, I found myself with endless miles of sand all to myself.
Dipping inland again on the way to Albany, I had the chance to see more of the fabulous forests of this part of WA, in and around the aptly-named Valley of the Giants. Here red and yellow tingles, and karris, all species of eucalypt, tower 30-80 m above the forest floor. As well as a wonderfully engineered (and fully accessible) walkway taking you up
The Valley of the Giants
towards the canopy, there’s a thoughtfully designed walking trail through these glorious trees. ‘Grandma Tingle’, regarded as the matriarch of the forest at over 400 years old, could have inspired Tolkien’s ents, the ancient tree shepherds of Middle Earth. There is something very otherworldly about the gnarled face gazing out from her lower trunk.
Denmark was a well-earned lunch-stop. Is this the only town in Australia named after a whole country, I wondered. The weather was somewhat northern European-ly grey in sympathy with its namesake as I wandered down to the Denmark River and drove out to its inlet to the ocean. Here I was impressed by a huge number of black swans. I remembered the “Save Our Swans” signs on Kangaroo Island; if they run out, they could always come and grab a couple of dozen here. No-one would notice the loss.
Albany was grey and damp, and I was tired, but nevertheless hauled myself back out in search of the Desert Mounted Corps Memorial which overlooks the embarkation point for 41,000 ANZAC troops in the First World War. Somehow I failed to find the steps that lead up to it, but I was rewarded for the
attempt. At Uluru last year, I’d been mesmerised by the “Field of Light” installation by Bruce Munro, and here I found another of his wonderful works, this one lining the first stretch of the Avenue of Honour that leads up to the memorial. It is hauntingly simple, the 16,000 lights slowly changing between white, cream and green to mirror the wattle and the kowhai, the national flowers of Australia and New Zealand.
The drive to Esperance was due to be my longest of the trip, particularly as I’d decided to follow the Book’s recommendation and head inland for a detour through the unexpected lumpiness of the Stirling Ranges. I also found myself driving through a few more ‘-up’ towns, Porongurup, Ongerup and Jerramungup, to add to Nannup and Manjimup, which I’d passed through two days’ earlier. The suffix comes from one of the local indigenous languages and simply means “place of”, logical in an oral culture of songlines mapping the land. One of Nannup’s claims to fame is the “Nannup tiger”. There have been a number of purported sightings here over the last 60-70 years of a Tasmanian tiger, the thylacine, an animal not officially seen on the mainland
for two hundred years. As the last known individual died in captivity in the 1930s, the idea that there might be one or two more still out there is romantically appealing.
Leaving Ravensthorp after yet another coffee-and-fuel stop, I pulled over and walked around the corner to photograph a vast set of grain silos that I’d noticed on the way into town. Not something I’d usually note – I reckoned that this was a first for me – but these particular silos were extraordinarily eye-catching, decorated with vast paintings of birds and flowers. Unbeknownst to me, I’d just encountered my first example of Silo Art. Northwest of Melbourne, there’s a 200 km Silo Art Trail, taking you through six sites, and now it looks as if Western Australia wants to get in on the act. I also found incredible painted silos at Tumby Bay in South Australia, the murals regarded as potentially so distracting to motorists travelling the Lincoln Highway that they’ve been painted on the non-road side.
At Esperance, I drew breath. This was to be my last stop before heading north to start the Nullarbor, and I took no persuading to extend my one extra day
one of the locals at Lucky Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park
here to two. It’s a delightful town in and of itself, protected from the vastness and brutality of the Southern Ocean by the hundred-plus islands of the Recherche Archipelago, and, as well as being home to a friendly local community, provides succour as a weekend bolthole for Perth people and a stop on the longer cross-country journey for others. On its doorstep is a plethora of wonderful beaches and scenery stretching along the perhaps ambitiously-named Great Ocean Drive to the west, and Cape Le Grand to the east.
So far, wildlife had been in somewhat short supply. I’d been greeted by the sight of a small mob of male kangaroos as I approached Augusta the first night – very welcome after spending time in the New South Wales outback where the worst drought since the 1890s is littering the land with carcasses – but “the famous sting rays at Hamelin Bay” which “love to come to the shoreline to say hello to visitors” had been conspicuous by their absence. Numerous road signs had warned of possums, turtles, bandicoots, echidnas, snakes and lizards, but they’d clearly conspired to remain hidden when I appeared. But at Cape Le Grand’s Lucky Bay,
I would just about be guaranteed some more kangaroos. Oddly, a local population has become habituated to the tourists turning up to enjoy this glorious stretch of white-gold sand and turquoise waters, and it’s becoming practically compulsory to get the kangaroo-on-the-beach pic and/or selfie. I drew the line at the latter – I don’t ‘do’ selfies (I think it’s a generational thing) – but I did indulge in plenty of the former. Like photos of palm trees at sunset, you can’t have too many kangaroo photos.
The next day, I dug myself a smidgeon reluctantly out of my warm comfortable studio apartment, and set out on the next leg of my trip: 1,200 km (745 miles) of the Nullarbor were waiting.
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