The entire trip around Australia our children have been disappointed when we visited lighthouses. Not because they thought they were boring, or because we usually had long, windy, cold walks out to where they stood watching the ocean, but because they couldn’t go inside one! When we discovered that you could go on a guided tour of the historic lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin on the most South Westerly point of Australia, this was our chance to fix this small issue. Not only was this site absolutely stunning, with the backdrop of two oceans meeting at the Cape – Southern and Indian – and the lighthouse shining white in the sun (which led to me madly taking a thousand photos while the sun peeped out around rain clouds) but I actually learnt a lot about Australia’s history – which I’m not going to bore everyone with on here! Needless to say there were a LOT of steps and I was quite proud of the little people for making it all the way to the top and our jolly guide regaled us with stories of ship wrecks and facts about mining the limestone locally to build the lighthouse itself. This is still a fully operational light house as well and the light is on continually so it was fascinating to see.
I’m finally catching up on blog posts after a very lazy month (that included two weeks in Bali so that one is yet to come as well!) In the interest of catching up I’m lumping all of our time in the forest areas into one, as it was really just a case of wandering from one patch of really tall, old and beautiful trees to the other in this lush and ancient area 300 kms South of Perth. We started camping in the Shannon National Park and despite being a long weekend (maybe because it was a particularly freezing long weekend!) there was only a scattering of campers here. We loved it – there were fabulous hot showers, clean toilets and pre-cut fire wood (the ranger here needs a medal). Nights were pitch black other than the one of those amazingly thick star fields above (which fascinated our city living kids) and so peaceful and quiet we all slept like the dead.
From here we explored all the old growth Marri, Karri and Jarrah tree forests of Walpole, Pemberton and surrounds, finding what felt like secret circles of giant trees (the Karri grows up to 90 metres high!), buying local honey harvested from the aforementioned trees – which tasted like nothing you’ve ever bought in a store and generally just wandering around feeling awe-struck. It’s not like I haven’t been in forests before, but to be surrounded by these absolute behemoths of trees in the complete silence of the wilderness was almost (almost!) a spiritual experience…until the five year olds emerged from the Prado and completely shattered the peace of course and then it became much more of a guided nature walk again. As a quick aside, I think silence is the thing I miss the most since becoming a parent!
There were a couple of highlights from our forest sojourn… in particular the massive “fire tower” trees of the area that have previously been used as look out points to check for forest fires – complete with cabins built at the top of these 60+ metre high trees! Even more astounding is the fact tourists can climb three of these trees just for fun – using metal stakes driven into the trunks…yikes. Despite being employed in safety I often think that public safety regulation has become a little ridiculous but it does seem brave of the WA government to encourage thousands of tourists to precariously climb a massive tree using nothing but footholds and with the odd bit of fencing wire for protection! We watched with fascination as groups of tourists went up – and down – the same rungs and negotiated their way past each other A sign advised there were a maximum number of climbers allowed at any one time but there didn’t appear to be any actual control on that. Funnily enough one of our shorter family members was keen to get climbing herself, despite the fact I had to ‘rescue’ her from the 2 metre high playground equipment the day before….that bright idea was quickly vetoed by the taller members of the family. We did let them climb a short distance for a photo opportunity – and of course to make all our friends on Facebook think we are totally irresponsible parents for letting our children climb ridiculously tall trees. I also had to exercise all of my social restraint after witnessing the groups of tourists blatantly feeding the wild birds (from a bag of bird seed – who carries bird seed around?) right in front of the “DO NOT FEED THE BIRDS” sign. I’m sure the birdies were happy about it…but still….
Although not the hubby’s cup of tea, one of my favourite activities here was the “Understory” walk in Northcliffe, a winding walk through bushy forest populated by large outdoor artworks including sculptures, music and writing. It was also one of the most peaceful – husband remained behind so there was no grumbling about the ridiculousness of art, the girls were given an iPod each so they could listen to children’s stories about the forest and its animals and plants and I was able to wander through reading the brochure about the artworks as I went and soaking up the atmosphere. All three of us returned relaxed – although there was much giggling from the short ones about the little ‘people’ statues they discovered in the undergrowth!
As peaceful and beautiful as this area is pretty soon we had all had enough of tree watching and driving through forests – particularly as the next port of call was Margaret River and the red wine was already calling to us!
Heading to Shannon National Park (between Albany and Pemberton) we stopped to see one of Australia’s National icons, the Valley of the Giants and its tree-top walk. Even if you aren’t a tree hugging hippy this site makes you understand the urge they have to climb a tree to protect it. The massive red tingle trees that have given this area it’s name apparently hark back to when we were “Gondwana” land and are now only preserved in this small niche in Western Australia where conditions remain similar to ancient times – they are gnarly, often holllowed out at the base and totally fascinating. The tree walks (one suspended 40 metres above the ground in the tree tops and one winding it’s way past mammoth tree bases) lets us visit these giants without trampling them to death. One huge tree has previously been ‘loved to death’ from it’s shallow roots being trampled and fell over – that would have been a terrifying site to behold!
The suspended walkway through the tree tops was surreal – looking down at these huge trees but also looking up where they still continued way above our forty metre vantage point as the metal grid swayed gently under our feet. Even with other tourists winding their way around the walks the lush forest absorbed so much sound you felt totally isolated – I didn’t want to leave but eventually decided it would be a little uncomfortable to sleep on. The engineering for this birds eye view is incredible and has won a bunch of awards – apparently the actual foot-print on the forest floor only occupies 3-4 square metres (depending on which brochure you read) supporting six, 60 metre suspended spans – not something to think about while you are hanging around forty metres in the air swaying in the breeze!
The winding path through the forest floor was just as breath-taking in it’s own way, standing at the bottom of the giants gazing up into the tree tops you feel tiny and unimportant – but also incredibly lucky to be able to see a glimpse of history like this. I also just loved that the girls were so interested in all the botanical signs and what they were seeing – Sophia in particular seems to have an avid interest in all things natural and stated that she would much rather be out in the trees than watching a movie. Considering we are on a six month nature tour (essentially) that bodes well. I’m not convinced Layla is as enthusiastic (our princess) but she is at least willing to be a good sport about it and not be outdone by her sister in the outdoorsy stakes!
Deciding we hadn’t tortured the children for a while we headed up to the Porongurup National Park (45 kms North East of Albany) so we could drag the blossoms up to the top of Castle Rock to see the Granite Sky Walk. The walk itself was 2.2 kms and quite steep towards the end, climbing through beautiful green karri forest – however every time we came to a sign saying how far we had yet to climb it came as a shock – surely we’d gone further than 500 metres?! The girls impressed us yet again with their tenacity, everyone making it to the top despite Layla asking every two minutes when would we get there and Sophia playing David Attenborough (still), stopping to stare in amazement at every new ant hill on the way up.
The Sky Walk itself involved a ‘scramble’ up the massive granite boulders using well placed metal foot and hand holds to reach a vertical ladder up a rock face to the viewing platform – so we elected for the adults to go up one at a time while the girls played on the lower karri lookout. This incredible piece of engineering had to be seen to be believed, freely suspended 570 metres above sea level on the Eastern side of huge granite rocks the brochures tell me are more than 1,000 million years old. The vista was also breath-taking, lush green farming land, more karri forests, vineyards and the Stirling Ranges in the distance. It didn’t pay to stand too close to the edge and look straight down on the Eastern side though, vertigo inducing doesn’t even begin to cover that sensation.
On our last day in Albany the weather seemed to decide it had indulged the Queenslanders enough and returned to what is more expected down South when it’s nearly June – cold, wet and blustery. We had done most of our outdoorsy touring so headed to “Whale World” to hide from the elements. I really should have paid more attention the tourist brochures – initially I thought this was a whale information tour, turns out to be the last Australian whaling station that has been preserved complete with a whale ‘chaser’ vessel. The girls had a ball climbing through and over the whaling ship (the beds were about their size, were men all short in those days??!) however the actual historical revelations about the whaling industry required a strong stomach – the guided tour of the site included the ‘flensing’ deck, boilers and a massive saw they used to detach the poor old whales heads. However there was some great general information about whales and even the suspended skeleton of a massive blue whale (but apparently this 24 meter behemoth is half the size of the biggest known blue whales).
Returning from Whale World (immensely relieved that most of our species had realised that whaling is barbaric) the weather became even wilder, to the point where we removed the girls from the campervan and installed them in the Prado with a movie – just in case! Massive wind gusts off the ocean were rocking our little home and even once we decided it was safe enough to return Craig threw a tie down strap over the top and lashed us to the ground as added security. Sleep was in short supply on our last night with the wind, rain and noise and we were actually relieved to be on our way – Albany was fabulous but the wild wind gusts that come with coastal winters were a little unnerving!
Five days and nights free camping reached the record of Bay of Fires in Tasmania so when we departed Millers Point for Albany there was high level of shower desperation in the air (so to speak)! Also we had been free camping on dirt sites so the key requirement for a caravan park in Albany was grass – lots and lots of clean, green grass. Emu Point Acclaim turned out to be the park of choice and Emu Point itself was delightful, literally a point of land near the van park that had a little cafe perched at the end, a playground and calm stretch of beach that little ones would enjoy – and an off-shore ocean lap swimming pool complete with lane ropes! So wished it was summer at that point. Every morning I managed to escape for some peace and solitude, walking along the beach path that wound itself along the harbor and gazing out at the islands dotted around.
Our lucky streak with the weather continued as well (initially at least) and we were able to see Albany Harbor in all it’s sunny, crystal clear blue-green water glory – almost warm enough to brave the cold water and jump in, it was incredibly tempting. However instead we went fishing off the jetty and enjoyed the view – but not the fish, only catch of the day was a small crab attempting to steal bait, cheeky sod. The water was so clear that every single detail of the ocean floor was visible – in retrospect it was pretty obvious there were no fish to catch but the short people enjoyed the practice!
Albany turned out to have a lot to see and do within close range and we ended up extending our stay twice, finally spending five nights and days in this neck of the WA woods. The wind farm we thought was going to be a bit boring (a walking track through a wind farm?) was actually awe inspiring, a field of eighteen wind turbines soaring into the air above us while we wound our way through a pretty walking track with elevated viewing platforms and visual of the nearby wild ocean coast line. The route also collided with the “Bibbulmun Track” a path that is sometimes boardwalk, sometimes dirt, sometimes part of a remote track and makes it’s way from Albany to Perth for those fit enough (or crazy enough) to want to walk/ride roughly 1000 kms. Being there at sunset the photography was perfect and even the girls were impressed with this spot – and it’s not easy impressing five year old girls with technology! Apparently this supplies 80% of Albany’s power supply as well, I’ve been surprised by how many towns in WA use wind power for either some or most of their power needs, great to see.
A visit to Elephant Rocks near Denmark yet again made me pine for warmer weather – the Blue Pools looked devine in all the pictures but not quite the same under cloudy skies however the short walk to see the massive granite boulders that resembled wading elephants was worth the effort. I’m sure I could see Elephants – but the husband wasn’t sure, maybe it an individual imagination thing!
After Hopetoun we decided to continue with the free camping theme, braving further bathing in our sink and use of the little foldup toilet seat that has become invaluable (especially for those short people only learning the art of the “bush wee”!) We found a little spot in the Camps Australia book called Millers Point, half an hour out of Bremer Bay and both of these places turned out to be absolutely stunning (I’m going to run out of descriptors if this beautiful scenery continues!)
Millers Point is actually a finger of land that juts out into the Beaufort Inlet West of Bremer Bay and is also a popular fishing spot based on the shacks setup there and the fisherman putting their boats in each night. We arrived late in the afternoon on a dead calm day without a ripple on the glassy surface of the inlet in front of us or behind us. We setup in record time and parked ourselves in the camp chairs to watch the inlet turn to orange, pink and finally royal blue as the sun set behind us.
This was possibly the most perfect spot we had found to date in terms of camp setup – we were the sole occupiers of the camp ground, it was so quiet you could hear the surf breaking in the distance, the girls entertained themselves on the shores of the inlet, splashing and fossicking, we had a superb fire pit already established, wood was plentiful and the view – well, that was amazing. In the morning we were entertained by these tiny little blue tailed birds that were fascinated by their own reflection in our car windows – although Craig was less than impressed with the bird poop on his 4WD! I don’t think we had felt this relaxed since Coles Bay in Tasmania, not even the lack of a shower detracted from the absolute serenity of this camping spot.
From this little hideaway we explored the nearby Bremer Bay, where once again we were gob-smacked by the gorgeous beaches. We could drive onto the main beach in town, a sweeping vista of white sand and green water (yet again!) and even the ‘fisherman’s beach’ where boats set out and local’s tried their luck at the jetty was a little gem of a blue green cove. Speaking of locals – this place was incredibly friendly, everyone went out of their way to help or advise travelers, especially the two gentleman in their boat who picked up our daughters ‘croc’ shoe that was sedately floating out into the harbor as we watched helplessly from the rocks!
Although Craig tried his hand with the fishing rod alas we were still fish-less by the end our stay, think the lack of boat may be seriously hampering his style – although it’s always fun trying (I guess). The up side of his fishing expeditions was the discovery of a beach just out of Bremer Bay only accessible by 4WD and with the deepest, softest most extensive dune system I’ve ever come across, it was like the Sahara. Yet again we had the entire stretch of white sand to ourselves for the day and surprisingly for this far South in late May the day was warm and sunny – so all the girls (somewhat daringly) stripped down to underwear to romp around the sand dunes and soak up some Vitamin D. Needless to say clothes were within quick reach just in case some other intrepid fishermen decided to turn up in our little piece of heaven!
We reluctantly headed off after three days in this glorious location, headed to Albany and probably yet more overwhelmingly incredible scenery – Western Australia I think I may be in love with you….
Hopetoun was a little footnote on our journey across the bottom of WA, where we free-camped for a couple of nights just of the town at 12 mile beach and built fires each night and played on what was almost our own private beach. We did venture into the sleepy little town of Hopetoun for coffee and phone/internet connection however the weather was behaving for us so we mostly played in our own front yard.