In Western Australia the distances are vast, the landscapes head turning and surprising at every one of those turns.
Step out of the hotel in Perth and turn left, continue for 2,500 kilometres and you reach the big sky landscapes that Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann used for his current movie Australia.
Turn right and you will find something altogether different.
The drive through rural Australia is one of the most memorable you will ever engage in. One of the things you have to do before you, as they say in that extremely sensitive Australian way, “kark it.”
The rented wreck and the journey across the desert is part of a general rite of passage that tens of thousands of Irish have embraced.
There is but one problem with the outback excursion. The first three hours are enthralling. The problem often is that the next 22 hours are almost exactly the same.
What to do? Solve the problem, go south from Perth. As with so much of Australia, the journey is long. As with so much of Australia the journey can be a destination in itself.
The landscape is astonishing, at least to those of us who travel from a land that is green and lush. Japanese visitors find the red soil of termites and outback terrifying. We love it.
And then a more familiar colour: the gentle rolling green of the south west has an extra appeal.
You have a choice. You can snake along the coastline, or you can go inland to find the land where sheep really do graze by the score.
At Williams Woolshed there is a sheep station turned visitor attraction to explain it all. There are stops on the road to meet the locals and hear tales of trauma including the trauma meted out to the original inhabitants by English colonisers.
Native Australians did what they could to survive in the rough and tumble colonial world.
At Kodja Place in Kojonup a Noongar Elder will show you how to make billy tea, throw a spear and a boomerang, as well as introduce you to some bush tucker.
Jack Cox talked about growing up in the rough and tumble of the outback. His boyhood hero was a public ring fighter, who took on sheep farmers at local stations for a few bucks. “Every fight he fought the better looking he got.”
It was that kind of trade.
Further down the road Kevin and Kathy Collins have a Banksia farm with the only complete collection of Australia’s 77 Banksia specimens. At Mount Romance you can unwind, with a cone, gong and bowl experience.
Within a day you will reach the coast once more and a different coast it is. The kookaburra sings your welcome to the sound of the ocean. The southern ocean, next stop Antarctica, giant elephant rocks scattered on the beach to remind you that size matters here around.
Best to start at the top. Enormous tingle trees, among the tallest trees in the world, are found only in one surviving location. Walpole-Nornalup National Park has constructed a Treetop Walk through the canopy of the trees, towering at 40 metres above ground at the highest point of the suspended walkway.
Visitors don’t have to climb, the ground falls away beneath your walkway as you soar through the old growth forest, Some of the trees are over 300 years old, older than the nation of Australia itself. They still find new varieties of insects in the foliage below.
This is a world class attraction. You don’t get this sort of access to some of the greatest living organisms, even in California.
And you don’t get the glorious Australian commentary either. These guys have elevated irreverence to an art form. “Get a whiff of that – cat’s piss,” says Tony the guide as he picks up some cones at Valley of the Giants.
Nature’s own little Aussie joke. Amazing landscape, amazing trees, amazing experience with its own aroma.
So close everything used to be, so far away it is now. There are reminders everywhere of the days when Africa, Australia, Antarctica and America were all squashed together.
Gary Muir, who runs the magnificent WOW Wilderness EcoCruise in the islands and river estuaries around Walpole, describes how marsupials came from Asia through America to Australia as part of his quick-fire presentation on the local environment, before the continents pulled apart.
Gary steers the boat, climbs the sand dune and leads the charge into the inviting ocean, all the time answering questions and telling visitors about his beloved red flowering gums.
One red flowering gum was brought to Ireland by Professor Robinson and planted opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Over the hill and watch the snakes. “Australia gets 2,000 snake bites a year and only one or two kark it.” Gary Muir says. “If the snake don’t like you they can give you an extra spurt of poison.”
“We have had 40 snake bites in the last six years. One woman had 31 – she brought our average right up.”
It isn’t just the snakes we have to watch out for. One island has “1080 poison risk” signs. Each leaf of Gastrolovium Vlieaver on the island has enough sodium monofluoride acetum poison to kill 40 people.
He gathers together some soft toys. He pushes them together, cockatoo and kangaroo and koala and dog, into a congealed mess.
Then he breaks them off in sequence, the koala landing on his head, the cockatoo balanced on the lifejacket press for the best ecology lesson you will ever see in your life.
The Walpole region serves as some sort of antipodean dating agency for the biggest animal of all. “The guys have just come up from Antarctica, they are aired up and she rolls over,” as Gary Muir puts it, rather indelicately.
Whaling made the coast what it is until they killed the last whale here in 1978. “In the early days whaling was a necessity,” Les Ball tells visitors to a converted whaling station. “In the 20th century it was motivated by greed, in the 21st it is all about conservation.”
Whale world in Albany, the converted whale station, now gets 70,000 visitors a year. The 20 exhibits including the ‘Giants of the Sea’ skeleton exhibit, three movie theatres installed in former oil tanks and the docked Cheynes IV whalechaser. Closing the station was a company decision based on economic circumstances, rather than an ecological one. The tree ships had reached the end of their life, they would have cost $7m to replace, and the station closed putting 121 people out of work. It was the end of a very lucrative, if smelly industry. A 250 ton whale could be broken down in two hours and up to 19 were towed in with one ship.
“We have been accused of glorifying whaling, but we tell it like it was and our job now is to focus on conservation,” says Bail. “After the end of whaling these beautiful animals are still under more risk than ever. Shipping has fragmented their breeding paths. Their habitat is under threat.”
From a lookout station over Albany you can plot the changes to the coastline. In the nearby woodlands there are sections commemorating the six seasons in the Australian world: Birsk (summer) from mid December to mid February, Bumura (autumn) from mid February to mid April, Djersan (windy) mid April to mid June, Mkuru (Winter) mid June to mid August, Djilba (windy) mid August to mid October, and Kambarang (spring) mid October to mid December.
A landscape so beautiful it needed six seasons to describe.
In the evening it is time to sample another great Australian experience straight from the earth, via a vine and a bottling process.
Albany wines come from Australia, not the American Albany, thanks to Rob Wignall and his family.
Wignalls was established in 1982 after subsequent investigations into terroir by founder Rob’s father, Dr Bill Wignall.
He discovered Albany’s growing conditions in spring and summer were similar to the famous Burgundy region in France, and decided to experiment with Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “It turned out to be a match made in heaven,” Rob says.
The revolution continues. Further west is a completely different terroir, stretching from Denmark north to the Frankland River, east to Albany and north again to the Stirling Range, establishing a reputation for itself of producing outstanding vintages such as the award winning Howard Park Wines since the first vine was planted back in 1967.
West Australian wines were once a novelty act. Now it is an industry in itself, the “Great Southern” brand winning converts across the tablecloths of Europe and America.
A brewery in Tanglehead and a distillery in Albany have added to the range of experiences on offer. Through in the southern ocean seafood and the fusion food for which Australia is becoming famous at eateries such as Wild Duck Restaurant in Albany, where, as they say they use “Ingredients that are seldom used in the kitchen nowadays.”
It could apply to the landscape, to the coast, to the people. Ingredients that are seldom used nowadays.
When Australia broke away from the pile of furry toys, the rest of us lost something very special indeed.
- Kodja Place Visitor & Interpretative Centre 143 Albany Highway, Kojonup WA 6395 Tel: (+61 8) 9831 0500 Fax: (+61 8) 9831 0300 www.kojonupvisitors.com
- Great Southern Distilling Company 252 Frenchman Bay Road, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9842 5363 www.distillery.com.au
- Valley of the Giants & The Treetop Walk Valley of the Giants Road, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9840 8263 www.naturebase.net/tourism
- WOW Wilderness EcoCruises Adults $40 under 15 $15 departs from Walpole jetty area 08 9840 1111 PO Box 198, Walpole WA 6398 Tel: (+61 8) 9840 1036 www.wowwilderness.com.au
- Denmark Observatory, Mount Shadforth Road, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9848 2233 www.denmarkobservatoryresort.com.au
- Southern End Restaurant and Function Centre Mount Shadforth Road, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9848 2600
- Denmark Visitor Centre. Denmark Visitor Centre South Coast Highway, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9848 2055 www.denmark.com.au
- Pentland Alpaca Stud and Animal Farm 2019 Scotsdale Road, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9840 9262 www.pentlandalpacafarm.com.au
- Howard Park Wines Scotsdale Road, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9848 2345 www.howardparkwines.com.au
- Wignalls Wines 448 Chester Pass Road, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9841 2848 www.wignallswines.com.au
- Whale World Frenchman Bay Road, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9844 4021 www.whaleworld.org
- Gorepani Art Gallery 196 Middleton Road, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9841 4468 www.gorepani.com.au
- Mount Romance – The Sandalwood Factory 2 Down Road, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9845 6888 www.mtromance.com.au
- Banksia Farm Pearce Road, Mount Barker WA 6324 Tel: (+61 8) 9851 1770 email@example.com
- n The Williams Woolshed Albany Highway, Williams WA 6391 Tel: (+61 8) 9885 1400 Fax: (+61 8) 9885 1700 www.williamswoolshed.com.au
- n Coastline Tours and Tourism Western Australia. Coastline Tours Canningvale, WA 6155 Tel: (+61 8) 9301 5142. Coastline Tour is the perfect way to gain local insight into the Perth area while having a fun day out. You can be sure of an enjoyable tour in the company of friendly and knowledgeable guides, who have a great appreciation of the local attractions
- The Rocks Albany 182-188 Grey Street, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9842 5969 www.therocksalbany.com.au
- Walpole Hotel Motel Southwest Highway, Walpole WA 6398 Tel: (+61 8) 9840 1023 www.walpole.org.au
- The Beach House at Bayside 33 Barry Court, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9844 8844 www.thebeachhouseatbayside.com.au
- All Seasons Albany – Accor Hotels 369 Albany Highway, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9841 1177 www.accorhotels.com.au
- Comfort Inn Albany 191 Albany Highway, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9841 4144 www.comfortinnalbany.com.au
- Chimes Spa Retreat Mount Shadforth Scenic Drive, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9848 2255 www.chimes.com.au
- The Figtree Cafe Shop 8, 27 Strickland Street, Denmark WA 6333 Tel: (+61 8) 9848 2051
- Wild Duck Restaurant 112 York Street, Albany WA 6330 Tel: (+61 8) 9842 2554
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