Our Maui camper van instantly felt like home as we took to life on the road in Western Australia. What my travelling companions and I weren't expecting was such a sudden introduction to realities of life in this region, namely: its deadly wildlife.
"Don't forget: stick to the path and watch out for snakes," said the chirpy lady behind the giftshop counter. We must have looked startled. It was only the first stop on our journey, having driven almost 300 kilometres south of Perth to see the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. This stunning stretch of land hugs the coastline for 120 kilometres, from Bunker Bay in the north to Augusta in the south.
Naturally, we were petrified. But we diligently followed one of the many walking trails to the lighthouse, obsessively sticking to the paths. Distracted by the view, our fears quickly diminished. For, there in front of us, the majestic lighthouse stood tall over the breathtaking Indian Ocean waters of Geographe Bay, named in 1801 by French explorer, Nicolas Baudin after his ship, Le Géographe.
A short drive from the lighthouse, we followed a trail to a popular whale-watching lookout point. This time we did see a snake, on the walk down. But it slithered away into the scrub so fast we only caught a glimpse. It clearly wasn't interested in us. The atmosphere at the platform was tranquil, the wind gently blowing. People waited patiently, taking in the dramatic view out to sea, cheering in delight when two humpback whales — a mother and baby — breached and blew water into the air. It was a sight to behold and one that we would not forget.
Amazed by what we'd just witnessed, we headed to the nearby Bunker Bay Beach Café, a blissful stop metres from a pristine white-sand beach, for lunch. As we sipped deliciously cool iced coffee and relived our experiences, we all agreed — snakes aside — that we couldn't see how it could get any better than this. We felt privileged to be exploring this hidden corner of the world.
We were based just a little further south, in a town called Prevelly in the Margaret River region, well known as the state's undisputed wine-producing area and wave-catching capital. We asked some fellow campers for a surf report, and the inevitable conversation ensued: sharks. It's common knowledge that great whites are notorious predators in Western Australia's waters, so it didn't come as a surprise. In fact, I was fascinated to hear what the locals had to say. "Stay out of the water if you can, mate," said our neighbour. "Everyone in the surf community seems to know someone who has been lost to a shark," he continued. "My friend was circled by a great white pointer shark as long as your van! Luckily he survived."
I couldn't surf and was more than happy just to gaze at the view. But the risk of sharks didn't deter some. As we sat one morning at Prevelly's White Elephant Beach Café for breakfast — the perfect spot overlooking Gnarabup Beach — we watched as several hardcore surfers were towed out on jet skis to surf distant four-metre waves. They were either dedicated to their sport or completely mad.
Back on the road, and next on the agenda: a drive through "Tall-Timber" country, circling a town called Pemberton 160 kilometres southeast of Prevelly. Towering forests abound in the southwest, hence its nickname, with plenty of options for walking, or even climbing the giant Karri trees, which rise to over 60 metres. The well-signposted Karri Forest Explorer Drive is a good way to see it all from the comfort of your vehicle, punctuated by glorious walks, magnificent trees and picnic areas, as it wends its way along 86 kilometres of scenic and partly unsealed roads through three national parks.
We stopped at the popular 68-metre Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree in Warren National Park — also our home for the night — and the tallest of the climbing trees. Not one with a head for heights, I stayed at the bottom while my companions attempted the climb, only one of them reaching the fire lookout at the top for a heady view across the entire treetop canopy, which I was told was superb.
If you don't fancy the climb, you may prefer The Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk in Walpole, a short drive from Pemberton. Suspended 40 metres above ground amid a canopy of giant Red Tingle trees; its walkway spans a total of 600 metres, giving you a unique perspective from which to admire the foliage, the abundant birdlife and the view.
With a brief stop off at Albany, our next destination was Esperance along Highway One, a large town in what's known as the Esperance-Goldfields region. Although the town itself is nothing special, starting at the waterfront, we followed a well-signposted 40 kilometre driving loop — the aptly named Great Ocean Drive — to discover a breathtaking stretch of coast that includes good surf breaks and picture-perfect swimming spots, including the pretty Twilight Cove where we couldn't resist a dip in its crystal clear, azure blue waters to escape the heat. We could have stayed forever.
--- Next week, in the last of this three-part series (Pique, June 27 was the first) Ellie heads into the bush ---