Road Tripping- South West WA: Part 3

Our last two days in WA were full of exploring and food – what’s not to love! Waking up early we headed to Busselton Jetty for a stroll. Only locals were going for their morning exercise when we arrived. Plaques and poems accompany you along the full 1,841 metre length of the southern hemispheres longest jetty. Walking back we spotted dolphins surfacing. They were about ten metres away but the sounds of them blowing air out of their blowholes carried across to us. We made it back to shore before the crowds arrived to pay for a train ride up the jetty.

We’ve been looking forward to today for some time. You see we’d grabbed a map of all the foodie places in Margaret River and planned to spend the day collecting yummy things for a picnic. Each place we stopped seemed to be logistically spaced apart far enough so you always had enough room for tastings.  We followed our map crossing off a woodfired bakery, two dairy’s (cheesemakers), two chocolatiers, a coffee roaster, multiple providores stocking locally made goodies, olive oil producers, locally made soft drinks and even a nougat shop.

A highlight of our exploration was spending time in Cowaramup, the self-declared ‘cow town’. Here life size cow statues abound and there are plenty of quirky shops and beautiful murals which make wandering the main street a delight. By the time we arrived back at the motel the weather and darkness made our picnic an indoors affair, albeit a very tasty one!

We discovered an unexpected local in the gardens of our motel – the Western Ringtail Possum! Around town there are yellow street signs with a black silhouette of these critters warning people to watch out for them. These shy creatures are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list so we never expected to see one. After spotting one walk along a gutter, hop onto a branch then shimmy down it to the next tree we decided to do a bit of spotlighting. Grabbing a camera and headlamp we set off on the main motel footpath which loops around the buildings. Once we slowed down and knew they were around we spotted these possums everywhere! Just in the gardens here we saw 3 possums, happily munching leaves unnoticed as other guests walked past below. It’s amazing what you find when you look.

Our last day of holidays was spent seeing trees. Not just any trees but the famous karri forests and tingle trees. To get there we had a few hours of driving. It was a grey morning, rain fell on and off as we wound our way inland. Finally we arrived at the Valley of the Giants. A light rain fell as we braved the tree top walk – a metal path suspended 40 metres high amid the tingle tree canopy. Now is the time to confess I’m a little scared of heights. But I thought I’d be fine.

I was very wrong.

You see, as soon as someone steps onto the path

Every.

Single.

Thing.

Moves.

For the whole walk I was very aware that I was no longer on solid ground. The rain fell harder as we progressed, Mitch taking photos of the giant trees around us, me staring at his backpack and taking one slow step at a time. Sliding my hands off the wet railings we made it back to solid ground, my legs were shakey and I vowed never to do anything so silly again!

The forest walk below was much nicer. Water dripped from leaves, wrens flitted through the bush and 400 year old tingle trees towered over us. My favourite kind was the red tingle which grows up to 70 metres tall and has buttressed roots so large you can walk underneath them. But this isn’t advised as trampling the soil around the roots slowly kills the trees. Boardwalks let us safely peek inside. It feels like you’re in a cave, sounds from the world outside are dulled and if you look up you see nothing but the inside of a tree stretching upwards. I scanned for microbats roosting in the trunk but couldn’t spot any. Driving back the way we’d come up a muddy mountain road led us to the Giant Tingle Tree. Fire has hollowed out its base leaving a cavernous gap big enough to park a car in. And that’s exactly what people did, with photo’s of families with their car inside the trunk, including an old Combi. This spot has been a tourist attraction since the 1920’s but is better managed now to protect the ancient trees.

Back in the car the rain fell heavier again as we moved on. Next stop was the Gloucester tree. You pass through the back streets of Pemberton to get there, by the High School and houses then back into the bush.  It was a huge Karri tree that had been used as a fire lookout tree before spotter planes existed. 153 metal pegs have been driven into it, curving around the trunk and up to the lookout platform 53 metres above the ground. A wire mesh encircled the tree around the pegs, providing a false sense of security for those that chose to climb it. Up they went yelling at each other from the base, posing for photos 5 to 10 metres off the ground then climbing back down. Some went all the way to the top, letting their children climb with them despite the warning sign. It was terrifying to watch, there was nothing to catch you if you fell. We quickly left the crowd and followed one of the paths into the bush. Purple crowned lorikeets were feeding in the karri flowers at the top of the trees. ‘Zit zit zit’ they’d call before zooming between branches. We saw part of the Bibbulmun track before heading back to the car for our final stop.

Beedelup Falls – ‘partly closed for maintenance’ greeted us at the carpark. Unfortunately the hand rail was being upgraded but we still managed to walk over the creek and have a look at the falls. Heading back up the path felt a bit sad, this was our last day in WA. I’d spent 11 weeks away from home and now that adventure was coming to an end. But WA had one more highlight for me – a red-winged fairywren! If you’ve read our blog before you’ll notice my obsession with wrens and here was a species I hadn’t seen before! A male popped out of the bushes and hopped along a fallen log. His blue head and bright reddish brown wing feathers glinted in the mid-afternoon sunlight. Further along we heard squeaks coming from the underbrush. A male red-winged fairywren was being closely followed by a juvenile begging for food. Around the bush they flew, the male hopping up the sides of trees and along branches to catch bugs, the young one following it and noisily begging for food. A female also had a young one following her, I loved hearing them and trying to keep track of where they were as they moved through the scrub. The wrens had come to say goodbye!

The next day we were back in Perth. I handed over the keys to the hire car (goodbye Rotty!) and we were flying back across the country. We had the most incredible time getting off the beaten track and finding our own places to love in Western Australia. We saw so many animal species we never expected to come across, ate amazing things in beautiful places and are already vowing to return and keep exploring this state which is so far away but full of surprises.

Road tripping – South West WA: Part 2

We found an unexpected aspect to tourism in West Australia. For every couple of natural places free to explore, there is one human made heritage feature locked away. We first encountered this at Cape Naturaliste National Park. This sits on a headland jutting into the Indian Ocean a half hour drive west of Busselton. On the headland walking trails meander through the coastal scrub. One winds down to a whale watching platform which overlooks the calm waters of Geographe Bay, a nursery and rest area for migrating whales. A lighthouse, built 117 years ago still stands twenty metres high, overlooking the bay.

Arriving at Cape Naturaliste we jumped out of the car, keen to stretch our legs and have a closer look at the historic lighthouse. We quickly discovered it would cost $5 each to walk up the path to the base of the lighthouse and decided to give it a miss. We felt disappointed that seeing cultural heritage was going to cost money. We didn’t want to do the tour, or walk into the lighthouse and up its 59 stairs but a fenced building, also separating the lighthouse keeper cottages, kept us out. We chose to explore one of the walking tracks instead, the lighthouse peeked through the scrub at us the whole way. Our track took us to ‘the other side of the moon’. This oddly named area is on the wind exposed western side of the headland. Bushes struggle to gain much height, clinging to the bare rock. It felt like the wind was blowing straight up from Antarctica. The blue ocean stretched into the horizon, meeting only the sky. The next closest land would be Africa, only a short swim really. You feel like you’re on the edge of the Earth here.

Our next stop was Sugarloaf Rock. This unremarkable lump pokes out of the sea. Waves crash endlessly against it, filling the air with sea spray. But this unassuming, wind and salt blasted rock is the southernmost breeding site for red tailed tropic birds. Thirty pairs used to breed on this rock but now only a few scrape out nests and raise a single chick here. I’ve seen these birds at Lady Elliot Island before. They have evolved to live on the wing and spend their lives at sea, only coming ashore to breed. This means they are very clumsy on land. They have two long red tail plumes and a bright red beak, distinguishing them from other seabirds. Sadly, we didn’t see any today, maybe they use the more sheltered side of the rock.

The next day we were back at Cape Naturaliste early in the morning. Spots of rain fell as we peeled ourselves out of the car. We tackled the Bunker Bay walk which winds around the headland. Rocks and tree roots litter the path making every step a chance to twist your ankle. Wrens called teasingly from in the scrub but I never spotted one. Arriving at a lookout we could see across the blue water of Bunker Bay to caves at the top of the cliff face. Stalactites hung from the cave roof, there was no way to get any closer with a sheer drop below us into the sea.

Our next stop was an hour’s drive south, Eagle’s Heritage Raptor Centre. The place was run by a couple who took in injured raptors, owls and tawny frogmouths (which are nightjars, not raptors). Admission fees funded their work so to entice visitors in they held two free-flight raptor shows every day. We were there an hour before the first one and had a good look at all the enclosures. It was a cool, overcast morning so most of the birds were fluffed up. A large wedge tail watched our every move as we entered. Barn owls huddled next to each other, in pairs and threes. Another pen contained five boobooks, two snuggled together at the front. When we approached their heads swivelled to watch us. I’ve never seen so many birds of prey up close. It made me sad to see them in cages. Especially when I read about the powerful owl who was waiting for a mate and kept laying unfertilised eggs on her own every year.

By 11am we seated for the bird show. An older man came out with a long, leather glove on his wrist, perched on top was a barn owl. This was Ivy, he’d known her since she’d been an egg. He gave an interesting talk skipping from owl biology to Australia’s treatment of it’s endemic raptors. We learnt so many incredible facts about barn owls, they:

  • consume 1000 mice per year (that’s 900 more than the average snake)
  • can see in ultraviolet light (tracking prey from sweat or urine trails invisible to us)
  • have incredible hearing because their face feathers funnel sound to their ears which internally point up on one side and down on the other
  • have bristles on their feet, so if prey move to bite their toes they’ll detect it first.

Next in the show three black tailed hawks were released to fly free, being enticed closer with food. Evolved to catch insects on the wing these raptors were so fast they would swoop in, catch the food thrown mid-air and be gone before my autofocus could lock onto them (though we both have some very impressive looking blurs).

We drove on to visit some caves. Very excited, we drove to the first one to find another tourist trap. Entrance to the cave cost over twenty dollars, and was blocked by a shop. We could see a long line of people winding around the shelves of t-shirts and fridge magnets. Only a certain number of people were allowed in at a time, so as one person came out, you received their headset and could go in. Definitely not the kind of experience we thought of when we read about caves you could explore yourself!

We drove further southward towards Cape Leeuwin-Naturaliste. There was another lighthouse there, older than the one at Cape Naturaliste, at 125 years. It is the tallest lighthouse on the Australian mainland reaching 39 metres. With these more impressive stats it wasn’t surprising to find it cost $7.50 to get close to this lighthouse (see bigger is better). Bypassing this we followed part of the Cape to Cape track which wound out of the carpark and onto large smoothed rocks next to the ocean. The Cape to Cape runs from Cape Naturaliste down to Cape Leeuwin, a distance we’d managed in a day by car, but would take a few more on foot to cover its 123km. Walking along the shore we turned onto a path through the scrub and came across an old waterwheel. It had been built in 1895 to pump water up to build the lighthouse and provide water to the lighthouse keepers cottages. The water was being drained from a wetland spring to our right. The spring had been drained so low an electric pump was needed to keep the water wheel supplied after over 100 years of flow. The wheel itself was covered in calcified lime and looked as if it was turning to stone. Green moss grew all over it, hanging in clumps.

Heading back north as the afternoon crept in, we arrived at Ellensbrook, unsure if we would be locked out. You see this historical homestead was closed to visitors the day we arrived. We’d read about a walk starting on the property that led to a cave and Meekadarabee Falls. We were pleasantly surprised to find we could wander in freely, look around the old farmhouse and head up to the trail. We stumbled across the first evidence of residential hydroelectricity in the state built near the house. A failed project by its original owners to deliver power to the farm house. Apparently, they could never quite get the turbine to produce enough power. We then wound our way along a boardwalk, lizards dropped off into the grass as we approached. The scrub changed, thinning out, the path turned to a sandy track. A boardwalk appeared which let us overlook a waterfall in front of a cave. We were the only ones there. Ellensbrook was very peaceful after visiting more tourist heavy places. It was just what we needed!

It was getting late so we headed back, driving to Margaret River for dinner. We’d reserved a table at La Scarpetta Trattoria, an Italian restaurant run out of the heritage listed Bridgefield Guesthouse. The building was originally an old coach house, it was all arching timber curves and stained glass windows. Cushioned bench seats lined the windows overlooking the garden. A mulberry tree drooped over a bench seat outside. Just sitting there was relaxing, there was so much to take in. But the food was also incredible! Starting with arancini dipped in steaming Napoli sauce, we continued with fresh filled pasta and grilled seasonal vegetables. For dessert we tipped over into heaven with caprese al cioccolato and citrus cream filled cannoli. After all this food we needed a brief waddle up the street. What we saw of Margaret River had us very excited for our foodie tour here tomorrow. As the sky darkened we drove home, weary from a day spent outside but very, very content. While it was disappointing that we couldn’t see everything without paying, what we did find by exploring a little further afield and walking mostly unused trails was definitely worth it.