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.

Frank & Jack’s Hut – Walking Photography

Dingoes, Bees & Trees

After a busy few months for us everything’s settled down enough so we can get out hiking more. We kicked this off by heading out to Namadgi National Park on an early Saturday morning to beat the forecast 34 degree heat (which was better than the 40’s we’d been having). 

Namadgi National Park is approximately 30 minutes south of the Canberra CBD. Established in 1984 the park encompasses over 106 thousand hectares of native bush and regenerated farm land. Earliest settlement has been traced back to the Ngunnawal people, living in the region 21,000 years ago. Evidence found in rock shelters located at Birrigai (a story for another time) places continued habitation in the area during an ice age! While most Canberrans will tell you the ice age was just last winter, the entire continent was between 5-10oC cooler. Last year (2018) Canberra’s average maximum daytime temperature didn’t rise much above 15oC for 5 months. This suggests the Ngunnawal people were historically thriving in a very cold environment, an impressive feat.

Since then the park area has experienced grazing, logging and recreational skiing. Yes, you read right, the Canberra Alpine Club was skiing in the Brindabella ranges following their formation in 1934. Namadgi was also home to the Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley space tracking stations. These assisted in monitoring our first steps into space from the 1960s – 1980s. These tracking centres have since been deconstructed and replaced by the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station.

We’d come to do the 4km return walk to Frank and Jack’s hut. The dirt trail is part of a fire management road wide enough for a car. We were both keen for a nice, easy stroll on a relatively flat road. It winds up and down a few slopes through the bush which made it really shaded most of the way. The usual kangaroos and wallabies were everywhere, the younger ones bouncing off as we got closer but the bigger males finding it too hot to bother moving. There were also a few clearer sections with views to the gum tree covered Yankee Hat mountain that looked menacingly steep, even from a distance.

ALWAYS IN MY BLOODY PHOTO!

Bees

While checking out the views along the way we spotted quite a few other animals. First was a group of European honey bees flying to meet on the hollow left by a broken gum tree branch. Watching them while taking photos we soon spotted some with bright orange pollen on their legs. A local fashion trend compared to the normal yellow perhaps. European honey bees were introduced to Australia 180 years ago, to provide pollinators for early settlers. Feral populations result from swarming hives. A new queen and a portion of the existing hive leave for pastures and flower fields new, leaving behind the old queen and workers, generally during spring as hive populations expand. Feral populations compete with Australia’s native animals for habitat, in particular mammals and birds that use nesting hollows in trees. Turns out bees like a nice hollow branch as much as the next cockatoo.

Orange must be in this season

Using my teleconverter but standing the minimum focusing distance away (1.8 metres for my 70-200 mm lens) allowed me to zoom in and get quite good close up shots of the bees. After a few photos I became determined to get a shot with some bees flying in, heavily laden with pollen. Watching the bees for a few minutes we found they were mostly coming from the same direction. Unfortunately, when I focused on the stationary bees I couldn’t see when the bees flying in were approaching. So, Mitch would tell me every time bees flew in so I could pre-focus on about the right spot and rapidly fire the shutter just as the bees were about to enter the frame. This upped my chances of getting a flying bee in good focus within the frame. This technique involved some planning and a lot of luck and patience, but let me capture bees in action. Don’t forget, always make sure your voice activated light stand is well trained to provide assistance in all situations.B

BEE_01 to Control, request permission to land

Dingo

While I was busy photographing the bees, Mitch saw a flash of white in the bush up the hillside on our left. A dingo!!! He got very excited and we left the bees to try and get a closer look at the wild dog. It was wary of us trying to get close and disappeared further into the bush, only to come out again if we stood still long enough. We never got closer than 30/40 metres to it but because it didn’t take off as soon as it saw us. We assume there was something worth staying in the area for, possibly it had pups, a den or there was something good to eat nearby. We managed to get a few shots, my new 1.7 teleconverter really helped but it was so far away I’d have to zoom in and crop so any photos were just for showing that we saw it more than anything.

Not sure if they’re coming or going

Dingoes have been acting as high-level predators in Australia for about 4000 years, filling the niches left by declining marsupial predators. It’s thought their introduction to mainland Australia occurred during visits from early seafaring peoples. According to the ACT Parks and Conservation Service the Namadgi population is mostly wild dingo, with some introduced domestic dog genes.

The domestic mixes originated from interbreeding with released and escaped dogs over the last 200 years. The best advice for seeing them is to watch, but otherwise leave them be. We took the opportunity to enjoy seeing one of the few large native carnivores active on Australia’s mainland before heading on our way.

The hut

Weeds count as flowers right?

We seemed to hit a stretch of hills after seeing the wild dog. The wallabies and roos on the side of the track were all lazing about in the shade by now, some of them not even bothering to look at us as we walked past. Even the energetic youngsters had lost their usual nervous bounce as the temperature continued creeping up. Just as the hills were getting monotonous, we rounded a downhill curve in the track and the hut came into sight across a clearing. Weeds or native flowers lined the track (we’re definitely not botanists) giving a colourful entrance to the hut. The hut sat at the end of a grassy space, surrounded from behind by a bush covered hillside. The trail split off before it reached the hut, heading off towards Yankee Hat mountain.

The hut itself was larger than we expected. To enter you climbed some stairs next to the water tank, through a door to the enclosed verandah. Looking through the windows gave a great view back along the track from where we’d just walked in. Sunlight reflected from water pooled on top of the tank and danced across the wooden ceiling in wobbly patterns. Opening another door we walked into the kitchen/dining area with a woodfire stove taking up most of the wall on our left. Looking straight ahead was a sturdy table and chairs and a window with a magnificent view of the outdoor dunny. Turning right you entered the bedroom which was sparsely furnished to say the least. The frames of two metal beds sagged on opposite sides of the room. One was particularly dilapidated with metal springs spiralling in all directions and bare wire, giving that cozy, welcoming feel of an abandoned asylum.

I’ll take the one on the left, Mitch you get the other one

Frank and Jack’s hut was built in 1954 for Frank and Jack Oldfield by Cecil Hopkins. Originally bought from the Bootes family in 1948 it was never used as a permanent residence, but instead served as a stockman’s hut for sheep grazing. ACT Forests used the hut through the late 1950s to support and develop their pine plantations. According to the Heritage Register, for the huts in the Namadgi area, Frank and Jack’s is a particularly lavish example of a stockman’s hut (who would have thought it!). 

All the Mod-Cons

After a few photos we decided dining alfresco might be cooler and found a fallen log in the shade. Insects buzzed around us and crawled over the scribbly gums bordering our outdoor restaurant. Behind us was a meadow of yellow flowers and overhead white cockatoos flew past, screeching to each other. The peaceful atmosphere made it easy to understand how someone could make their home here.

Just a little off the top they said, just a trim they said!