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.