A few years back we explored the south-west corner of Australia by camper. When we got to the bottom of the country we knew we’d found somewhere special.
We slept that night to the sound of the sea. As the sun set in a distant tangerine glow two lazy bottlenose dolphins had been sloppingabout in the waters of the Blackwood River mouth just outside our camper, and several big, equally lazy pelicans had been perched on a rock, just watching. In the distance the sound of the sea breaking on the ocean beach at Flinders Bay had lulled us to a tired sleep.
Having already skirted the southern coast of Western Australia we were finally about to turn the corner at Cape Leeuwin tomorrow and head north, back towards Perth some four hundred kilometres away.
Cape Leeuwin is a major landmark on the Australian coast – the most SW corner of the country and the point where the warm Indian Ocean meets the mighty rollers of the colder Southern Ocean. After three weeks of stormy weather we had fluked a stunning sunny morning with no breeze, where the huge white waves breaking over the countless off-shore rocks and reefs of the cape contrasted boldly with the deep, dark blue sea. Heroic little fishing boats were working through these surf breaks, trawling back and forth across the breaking white water.
The Leeuwin Current, which runs south along the Australian west coast from up near Indonesia, brings many warm-water species into the temperate waters of the cape region, creating a diversity of sea life not seen elsewhere. Tropical butterfly fish, wrasse and corals are all found in these western waters, and at the time it was under consideration to be made a marine conservation reserve for its ecological and historical importance.
But for us, the relative quiet of the cape on this sunny morning was a special treat and we lingered for a long time watching the rollers crash in on the solid rocks beneath us, admired the towering, historic lighthouse, and wandered out to the waters edge where these two powerful oceans meet.
The Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge is a significant piece of geography running between Capes Leeuwin and Naturaliste. It rises up to 200 metres above sea level, its seaward or western edge worn by the untiring westerlies that come ashore along this coast. The eastern edge, which is up to five kilometres inland is softer and rolls off into green farmland and vineyards as it fades eastwards. This 600 million year old granite and limestone ridge defines the landscape between the capes and is best seen from the Caves Road.
The rocks of Cape Leeuwin, however, are not the only ones to explore between the two capes. There are no less than 350 limestone caves beneath this rolling landscape of karri, jarrah and eucalypt forests and the Caves Road, which is the more coastal of the two roads through this region, passes the main ones.
Jewel Cave is the most southern of the caves open to visitors. A guided tour took us 42 metres down into glittering caverns of crystalised silica, ‘frozen’ waterfalls and bony stalactites. Our guide took great delight in showing us the ‘phallictites’ rising promisingly from the cave floor. Jewel Cave is an inactive cave, which means it’s formations are not currently growing due to a drop in the water table. This is being attributed to the increase in irrigation on the farms and vineyards above, and the owners are looking to restore the native surface habitat to see if the cave will once again begin to ‘grow’. It remains an excellent cave to visit despite this as it is totally dry inside.
Taking the Caves Road also meant we could explore the narrow winding side roads leading down to the thundering surf beaches along this patch of sandy coast. A succession of gorgeous west coast beaches runs along the length of the cape coast and we dropped into several. Hamelin Bay has the remains of an old jetty limping out into the bay hinting at the busy timber port that was once there. But it was burnt down when local fishermen waiting for a ship to arrive lit a fire on it to keep warm. It is also a popular lookout point and the first place heading north from Cape Leeuwin where the road meets the Cape to Cape walking track, which is 120 kilometres of easy hiking. It can be done as one long walk or broken into sections.
Further up the coast similar gorgeous beaches are found at Conto’s Spring, Redgate, Ellensbrook, Injidup, Yallingup and Sugarloaf Rock. After all the storms of the preceding weeks these beaches were covered in kelp and had a strong salty smell. The air was thick with a salt-filled haze as the waves crashed on to the white sand beaches. Some of these beaches have surrounding communities of beach houses but others, like Sugarloaf Rock, are empty and perfect. At daybreak there is not another living soul around, except the usual reptilian and marsupial creatures that slither and scuttle through the undergrowth
Introduced animals like foxes and feral cats have taken a huge toll on the local wildlife, decimating populations of the curious little phascogale, the quokka and the chuditch. But the exotic pests also get their comeuppance from native plants known as poison peas. These plants contain natural sodium fluoroacetate, which when manufactured industrially is better known as 1080 poison. Native animals have evolved a natural resistance to this poison that the introduced pests can only dream about, which they do as they fall down dead after eating it.
Further up the Caves Road, from Jewel Cave, the roadway winds through the Boranup Forest, which is a classic display of Australian karri forest. The silver, red and grey of their long straight trunks must look very inviting to anyone who works with wood, but luckily these ones have been left to grow. Beneath their lofty branches the light is softly filtered and the undergrowth is quite open, so it’s a nice place to take a walk without the threat of invading wildlife leaping out of the undergrowth.
Travelling by camper we were free to stop in any number of quiet little camp spots along the coast. But further back on the inland road there is plenty of accommodation, cafes and wineries to keep things civilised. Margaret River is the main town in the area and there are countless wineries to visit. But with the local wine industry going through a consciousness shift as it adapts to having an oversupply of red wine we were happy to stay on the coast and soak up the natural landscape and its ecological significance – not a winery in sight.
Cape Naturaliste is the end of the Cape to Cape walking trail, and the end of the road for us. Set back from the sea cliffs, the Naturaliste lighthouse is smaller than the one at Cape Leeuwin and surrounded by a high fence that can only be breached by tour guide. But the walking tracks leading out to the cliff face and down to the ocean are a key spot for whale watching in their seasons, which are July and October to November.
Humpbacks and southern right whales lumber past this point heading north to breed, then south again after that. The southern rights will swim close along the back of the surf line and are often thought to be stranding, but are in fact swimming inshore so the females can give birth and care for their babies in shallow water. What was once a significant whale hunting area is now more valuable as a whale watching area, and I guess the whales know that now as they appear year after year.
We parked up at Sugarloaf Rock to watch the coast on our last morning. This spot is the southern-most home for the red-tailed tropicbird which rides down with the warm Leeuwin Current, attracts maternally inspired whales, and gung-ho wetsuit-clad surfers. We watched storm clouds gather out to sea and a rainbow break over the water, as we listened once again to the soporific sounds of the pounding Indian Ocean.