We flew into Perth airport, intending to spend some time touring around the south-western corner of Western Australia. We had arranged to hire a motorcyce from Bike Round Oz, whose owner, Mark, picked us up and took us to his house in the Darling Range, where he installed us in a beautiful little converted railway carriage.
Fitted out in dark wood, with a plush red bed at one end, views across the range and a serene farm dam, it was a great place to relax after our flight. Add into the equation a friendly bunch of alpacas, black cockatoos wheeling overhead, and a bottle of gratis champagne, and we felt right at home.
The next morning, after a basket breakfast, we had a look at our ride, a yellow BMW GS1200, a little elderly but with impeccable credentials – it had already been around the world once. “She lost those cooling fins in Argentina…”
After packing a handful of stuff into the very small panniers, we set off southward down the Darling Range. The GS felt like a bit of a pig at first, but was very stable at speed, apart from an inclination to pull hard to the right, and fierce wind noise from the windshield.
Mining equipment dominated the scenery. Coming into Waroona, a parking lot for mining machinery was quite a shock; absolutely immense vehicles standing shoulder to shoulder in the red dirt, surrounded by cast-off caterpillar tracks. Lining the road near Capel were scrapyards containing enormous pieces of old machinery.
Every signpost along the way indicated a mine or a quarry, and the road was chock full of ore trucks which politely shuffled over to let us past. OK, we got the picture, this was mining country.
As we headed south, the machinery gave way to dairies, and then the cows gave way to trees. Regular trees gave way to big trees, and finally to the enormous timber that characterises the logging town of Pemberton.
Back in the early days of Pemberton’s history, the timber of choice was the Karri tree, a truly enormous species scattered around the local forests. Some of the tallest were spared to serve as lookouts for the ever-present danger of fire, and only these remain.
The famous Gloucester Karri is sixty-one metres high. Embedded in the trunk are hundreds of steel spikes, and if you are particularly keen, you can use them to climb to the top.
Theres nothing to stop you slipping between the spikes if they are wet or you are careless, so the climb is quite exciting, but the views from the watch platform at the top are worth it, and it was easy to see how useful these trees were in spotting incoming bush fires.
A pleasant night at a vineyard B&B, and an equally pleasant morning chatting with the owner, a retired butcher, who cooked us some excellent sausages and answered all my presumably dumb questions about the rammed earth from which buildings hereabouts are constructed.
Much of the soil consists of marble-sized clay balls, and these are mixed with a little cement and poured into a form to build just about anything. The thickness and air-gaps make for a good insulating layer as well as a striking red colour that blends into the equally ruddy landscape.
On the road again, it was time to check out another one of those Karri trees, this one even taller and much, much scarier to climb. The spikes were farther apart, and the trunk was devoid of branches to give even the illusion of safety.
There was a midway-platform with a sign that pointed out “That was the easy bit. Reassess your situation now.” Luckily we had the place to ourselves; I wouldn’t have liked to meet anybody halfway up.
Looking around for another challenge after descending the Bicentennial Tree, I saw a roadsign that said something like “Heartbreak Trail blah blah prohibited blah blah dangerous”. This was obviously the direction that we needed to go. It looked pretty steep, and I was interested to know how those little red marbles felt under the wheels, so off we rode into the bush.
The GS performed admirably, and the riding position, which had been pretty uncomfortable on the road, started to make sense on the dirt. The marbles weren’t anywhere near as awkward as, say, dry sand, and we had a very pretty tour of some deep forest with pristine waterfalls. It was here that we discovered that the wind that blows off the Southern Ocean is so laden with salt that the rivers in this region are slightly saline. Possibly this is the reason that this is the area for catching marrons, billed as the third largest crayfish in the world.
Eventually the dirt petered out into tarmac, and we trundled along at a steady 140 through endless forests until, with some shock, we came out amongst crowds of tourists in the town of Margaret River.
There seemed to be more people in this tiny little one-horse town than we had seen in our entire time in Western Australia. Margaret River is not unlike many such attractions, in that there is no real reason to go there apart from the fact that everybody does. Most such towns have had to build something as an excuse, such as the Worlds Largest Prawn / Trout / Merino Sheep / Playable Guitar, but we looked in vain for anything resembling a Worlds Largest Drinkable Bottle of Wine. Instead, we picked up a few supplies, and headed to the Island Brook Estate Vineyard, where we had booked accommodation for the night.
The chalets at the vineyard were superb, set in complete privacy deep in old-growth forest, and surrounded by mature black boys* (*for non-Australians, a black boy is a kind of grassy palm that is designed to be burned by bush fires at regular intervals)
After a very pleasant wine-tasting, we enjoyed drinking our purchases with barbecued steaks, on the deck under the stars.
A beautiful blue morning was heralded by the fluting of bush birds. The calls of these western lorikeets and cockatoos seemed much less raucous and more pleasant than those of their eastern counterparts (or maybe it was the wine). Under foot, the bush was alive with tiny flitting insectivores. It was perfect for a long walk before breakfast.
The Cave Road caves
Cave Road runs the entire length of the Margaret River peninsula, just a few vineyards away from the sea. It is named for the enormous caves at the southern end; Jewel Cave, Lake Cave, and Mammoth Cave. It can be hard to get a ticket to get in, but we managed a tour of Mammoth, so called because of its awesome size. Its a heavy tourist site, along prepared walkways with recorded guides on headphones, but well worth the visit.
These caves were not formed by the usual erosion of limestone, but instead by water trickling through sand dunes, forming a crusty cap over the underlying water table. The ceiling regularly collapses, which means that the floor is liberally scattered with the remains of overhead stalactites. All very impressive.
Further up Cave Road, a promontory of colourful gneiss has been eroded into a series of channels by the sea. These channels form a maze of rock walls, resulting in an impressive swirl of water as every incoming wave tries to force its way along the narrow canals. It is very unusual and quite beautiful.
Our tour of the peninsula ended, after a hot but very interesting walk around Naturaliste Point, at Busselton, which boasts The Longest Pier in The Southern Hemisphere. At almost 2km, it is the result of an arms-race between the need to service ore carriers, and the silting caused by the pier itself. The longer the pier got, the more it trapped sand and silted up, until finally the whole thing was destroyed by a cyclone. Most of it has since been rebuilt, but parts of the old pier are still visible, particularly at the far end, where they have built a sort of reverse aquarium where you can climb down into a large tank and watch the fish go by. We gave that a miss, as we have scuba dived under many piers and the aquarium was pretty crowded, but the pier itself made a very pleasant walk.
For much of its length, the pier was lined with fishermen, some of whom were bringing up large cuttlefish which made an incredible inky mess. One nice touch was a line of memorial plaques to past residents who had, apparently, spent their lives fishing here.
We spent some time watching a large Chinese family who were reeling in lines and crab pots with such dedication that it looked as if they were provisioning their restaurant for the evening; perhaps they were, because there certainly seemed to be no shortage of fish.
The pier had a very pleasant feel to it. Apparently there used to be a train that ran for much of its length, but it seemed that it had broken down one time too many, and the warped and twisted tracks now just gave one more reason to keep careful watch of your step when the pier narrowed, as it occasionally did, to just a couple of metres wide.
It was time to return the GS, so we rode back to the Darling Range, thanked Mark effusively, and boarded a commuter train into Perth.
We’d thoroughly enjoyed all the wines that Margaret River had had to offer, but it was time for a change of beverage, so after dumping our gear into a convenient backpackers, we repaired to the Brass Monkey, where we addressed ourselves to the Matilda Bay ales from the comfort of deep leather armchairs. Tomorrow we would explore Perth, but tomorrow was another day.