Friday, 29 July 2016

Rottnest Island

My time in Western Australia was almost up but there was a final item on the bucket list that hadn’t yet been ticked off: Rottnest Island which lies about 19km off the coast from Fremantle. It’s a popular weekend escape for Perth families and it’s easy to see why. Cars are prohibited and the sandy island is fringed with secluded beaches and bays. There is also the wildlife of fur seals, sea birds and native quokkas. Yes, ‘Rotto’ as it’s known to the locals is a great place!

The ferry arrives at the marina in Thompson Bay on the eastern end of the island. Rottnest is relatively small - about 11km long and 5km at its widest point. My plan was to hike the cycle pathways around the southern coast to camp the night at Eagle Bay on the western peninsula.  In the morning I’d return via the string of little sandy bays and rocky inlets along the northern coast. Inland there’d be unique landscapes and historic sites to enjoy along the way.

Quiet roads past the lighthouse

Rottnest Island has an interesting history and was used as an Aboriginal prison from 1838. An octagonal building built in 1864 was once part of the prison block but now forms part of a hotel. In a wooded area nearby there are hundreds of prisoners buried in unmarked graves. In a 19th century building around the corner is a photo exhibition that focuses on another chapter of local history: between 1838 and 1950 the island’s salt lakes provided all of Western Australia’s salt.

Pink algae around one of the salt lakes

Just out of the Thompson Bay settlement I visited the old Army Barracks. Rottnest Island was used as a strategic defensive post to protect the Port of Fremantle during World War II. A few kilometres further along the coastline, I stopped to do some snorkelling in the clear, sheltered waters of Salmon Bay. In the middle of the island I detoured inland and walked up to the lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill. Being the highest point of the island, I was rewarded with nice views in all directions.

While having lunch, I met one of the friendly resident quokkas.  These small marsupials were originally mistaken for rodents and that's how the island was named.  (Rottnest is Dutch for 'rats nest')  Anyway, these adorable little creatures were mostly quite tame and were happy to come right up to me.  They were mostly found around the populated areas but there was evidence of them all over the island.  I found this to be (forgive me...) 'a quokk-a shit'.

A tame and very cute quokka

After a beautiful sunset and night on the beach, I realised I had a problem in the morning. I had a long hike back and virtually no water. I didn’t stop to remember that the island is ‘dry’ with no streams, rivers or lakes. I was surrounded by water everywhere but couldn’t drink any of it. I suddenly had to put myself on very strict rations until I found a water fountain somewhere.

The snorkelling on the north coast of the island wasn't as good as Salmon Bay and the best part of the day was hiking up to the historic gun battery on Oliver Hill.  This 9.2 inch canon had the capacity to fire armour piercing shells up to 28km but was never required during the war. The top of the hill provided interesting views of the saline lakes that fill some of the island’s interior. It’s both a unique and pretty landscape that contrasts from the rocky coastline.

Cape Vlamingh where I camped on the beach

I was relieved to find water on the road around one of the northern bays and by mid afternoon I was back on the northeast point of the island. I had an hour to spare before my ferry departed for Perth so I visited Bathurst Lighthouse which was built after a ship wrecked off the coast. Over the years, more than a dozen boats have been wrecked on the reefs of Rottnest Island. While hiking around the island I found several marker plaques that tell the tales of how and when the ships sank.

‘Rotto’ was a great way to finish the western part of my Australian journey. Within a few days, I’d be heading across the vast expanses of the country to the South Australian capital of Adelaide and is if to complete the circle, eventually to back to the east coast of Queensland.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Cape to Cape

At the sleepy little town of Pemberton we stopped at the Bicentenial Tree which was quite amazing.  Originally used as a fire lookout, it has 130 steps attached to it that spiral up around the truck to a viewing platform some 70 metres above the ground!  I have to admit the palms were a little sweaty but I made it safely and enjoyed the great view from the top.  The Gloucester Tree offered a similar experience but was slightly lower with a 60-metre elevation. 

About to climb the 60 metre Gloucester Tree

Our destination that afternoon should have been Augusta which is the most south-westerly town in Australia. Unfortunately we made a navigation error and ended up in a little place called Nannup.  So we decided just to go on to Margaret River and return to Augusta and Cape Leeuwin the following morning.  The historic lighthouse at the south end of the cape is one of the few places in the world where you can see where two oceans meet. Looking out from the windswept point the Indian Ocean is on the right and the Southern Ocean to the left.

Cape Leeuwin where two oceans meet

The lighthouse is also the start (or finish depending on which way you do it) of the Cape to Cape walking track.  The other end is 135km north at the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse.  I walked about 40 minutes up the track but didn't feel very inspired by it.  It didn't seem very well maintained and the scenery would probably be similar all the way up the coast.

The next day was one for the girls.  We went first to the Margaret River Chocolate factory and then wine tasting around the seemingly endless choice of wineries.  I couldn't participate too much because I was driving but I had the privilege of tasting a 1981 port that sells for $250 a bottle.  We made a quick stop in Dunsborough and then headed out to the lighthouse at Cape Naturaliste.  Unfortunately it was only accessible by a tour which we didn’t have time to wait for. So we did a walk around the rugged point and enjoyed some nice ocean views instead.

Kangaroos on a Margaret River vineyard

On our way north we stopped in at Busselton to admire the famous timber-piled jetty. Built in 1856 and stretching 1,841 metres out into the ocean, it has the distinction of being the longest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Our destination for the final night of our tour was Bunbury, which is the only city in the southwest region. It doesn’t have a lot to recommend it but it’s pleasant and we visited the art gallery housed in an old restored convent before making our way to the local campground.

The famous Busselton jetty

The reason we wanted to camp in Bunbury was the bottle-nosed dolphins.  About 60 of them live in the bay year-round and their number increase to about 260 over summer. In a similar way to Monkey Mia, they come in almost every morning and check out who is checking them out.  It was an interesting experience because the dolphin centre is run by friendly volunteers and it's not as tourist oriented as Monkey Mia.  A couple of dolphins came in and swam around as we stood knee deep in the rather cold water.

And has we dried our feet and returned to the car, our tour was complete. Ten days had disappeared quickly but we’d packed as much as we could into the time. It’d been a great little adventure but it was time to return to the relative comfort of a Perth hostel bed, hot meal and a cold beer.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The great Southwest

From our campsite at Lucky Bay and I attempted a bushwalk the next morning over to Rossiter Bay.  Unfortunately the weather closed in on me and I didn't make it all the way.  I couldn't avoid the rain and arrived back rather wet.  Back in Esperance we drove the 30km Ocean Drive which goes along the coast, past a wind farm and circles back around what is known as the Pink Lake.  The pink tinge it is attributed to high concentrations of salt-tolerant algae called dunalella salina. Unfortunately a storm a few years ago has since flushed the algae out and the phenomenon no longer exists.

Pink Lake

We camped that night in the Fitzgerald River National Park, which is just out of Hopetoun on the southern coast between Esperance and Albany. Unfortunately we had to leave early in the morning after a short walk along Barren Beach.  Driving west we went through the Stirling Range National Park and stopped at 'The Lily'.  This delightful and fully operational Dutch windmill built almost single-handed out of largely recycled materials by one man over six years.  An amazing achievement that today is a relaxed cafĂ©.

Dutch windmill, 'The Lily'

The highest peak in the park is Bluff Knoll at 1073m.  We drove up to the car park which would have been about 200m.  Initially when I looked at the mountain I didn't think I'd have time to climb it.  The time on the sign indicated that it would take about 3.5 hours return.  But I love a challenge and decided that I'd at least give it a go!  So, I grabbed the running shoes and hit the trail. Less than 40 minutes later I felt like I was standing on top of the world.  The views of the park were magnificent and enhanced by the beautiful sunny day.  And coming down was so much fun!

On the top of Bluff Knoll (1,073m)

Our eventual destination that day was the historic town of Albany.  Established just before Perth in 1826, it’s the oldest European settlement in WA. We visited a couple of city lookouts before driving down to the Torndirrup National Park.  Our first stop was the Albany Wind Farm - 12 huge wind turbines that produce about 75% of the town's power requirements.  We also went to natural coastal rock formations of The Gap, Natural Bridge and Blowholes.  Although it’s a windswept coast, the ocean swell wasn't quite sufficient for the blowholes to work while we were there.

View of Albany from city lookout

In the afternoon we headed north to the Porongurup National Park which features imposing granite outcrops that rise above a rich forest. It also has some towering karri trees that the southwest of Australia is renowned for. I dropped the girls at a vineyard/art gallery and went bush walking up to the landmarks of Castle Rock and Balancing Rock.  Castle Rock offered great panoramic views and Balancing Rock is a massive boulder weighing about 180 tons that sits delicately on a flat rock which is little more than a metre across!

Castle Rock, Porongurup National Park

We drove south again to Denmark and camped at Parry Beach in the William Bay National Park. Before leaving we did one of the walking tracks to the beautiful Greens Pool and appropriately named Elephant Rocks. We then headed into tall trees of the Walpole-Nornalup National Park. At popular and aptly named Valley of the Giants, the girls did the Tree Top Walk while I hiked some of the Bibbulmun Track. This is one of the world's epic hikes, stretching 963km from the foothills of Perth all the way down to Albany. In less than a year I’d return to hike the entire length.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Wave Rock

After exploring Perth and accumulating some money from my work at the hostel, it was time for a ten-day trip around the south-west corner of Australia.  As I imagined, it was a magnificent area highlighted by lovely beaches, tall trees, vineyards, wine and some great bush walking.  Unfortunately the weather didn't always quite match the splendour of the scenery but overall it wasn't too bad.

Together with two friends, we set a course for the small town of Hyden, about 350km east of Perth.  We didn't make it all the way there on the first day and camped at a curious little place called Gorge Rock.  The toilet was on a concrete pad and the walls around it had fallen down. I smiled at the sign reading 'No Swimming and No Fires' because in the dusty dry background were a couple of fireplaces and some firewood.

The heritage listed Gorge Rock Hall

I smiled again at the Gorge Rock Hall.  Constructed in 1920, this dilapidated old structure of wood and corrugated iron looked shaky and nearly ready to collapse. On one of the rusty walls it had a sign which read: "The Gorge Rock Hall is considered to be of significant heritage value and is included on the Municipal Inventory of heritage places.  The hall is worthy of conservation as it is a special and important place.  Please respect it."

Hyden is in the southern wheat belt which is dotted with large granite outcrops. The most famous of these is the perfectly shaped cresting wave called Wave Rock. Originally called Hyden Rock, it wasn't till 1963 when a photo of it won an international competition that the name was changed.  Initially only a few tourists made the trip to see it but numbers soon increased and various facilities were put in place.  Today, it is one of Western Australia's great sights.

Wave Rock

Formed millions of years ago by weathering and erosion, Wave Rock’s smooth lines are dramatically enhanced by streaks of colour created by run-off from local mineral springs. I got the almost obligatory photo of ‘surfing’ the rock before taking a walk up on top of the wave for views of the surrounding countryside. This area features another fascinating rock formation called Hippos Yawn. As the name suggests, it’s a huge overhanging rock that looks like the gaping jaw of a hippopotamus.

From Hyden, we travelled south to coastal town of Esperance.  The town itself doesn't have a lot to recommend it so we headed east to the Le Grand National Park.  The clear turquoise water and white-sand beaches here have been voted as among the best in the country.  There's a small mountain in the park called Frenchman Peak so while the girls had a picnic at the beach I hiked to the top.  The sign in the car park indicated two hours return but after really hustling, I was enjoying the great panoramic views from the summit after only 15 minutes.

Whale carcass, Le Grand National Park

I had a swim when I returned. The water was cold but not as bad as I expected.  As I emerged from the water I read a sign advising that “A whale carcass had been washed ashore in the next bay and sharks had been sighted in the area.  Swimming is not recommended”.  We went to view the whale the following morning and it was an extraordinary sight.  It would have been about 10 metres in length and weighed several tons.  Bite marks from the sharks were clearly visible along the side and the fins were missing.

Friday, 1 July 2016


Nestled beside the Swan River, Perth is also the sunniest capital city of Australia. I worked to earn my keep at a hostel in the city which became my home for about a month. It was now autumn time so I did plenty of my sightseeing under beautiful blue skies and pleasant temperatures. Although it felt remote being on the far edge of Western Australia, I enjoyed my time in Perth. It’s a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city but the fine beaches and hinterland bush is an integral part of the relaxed lifestyle.

City views from Kings Park

My city sightseeing began at the beautiful Kings Park Botanical Gardens. This bush-filled expanse offers wonderful views of the Perth skyline and in the heart of the park are the impressive botanical gardens. In spring it includes a display of the state’s wildflowers but there is plenty to enjoy at other times of the year. Aside from the city, the views from the park include the Canning River meeting the Swan River to form Matilda Bay before flowing out to the Indian Ocean at port city of Fremantle.

View of Swan River from the Bell Tower

The paths along the Swan River make an ideal place for walking, jogging or cycling. In fact, on of the cycling routes extends all the way to Fremantle. I didn’t have access to a bike but I did several walks and developed a picturesque running circuit for myself around the river. I especially enjoyed the day I had exploring around the south bank of the river and returning to the city using the bridge over Heirisson Island. Later in the afternoon is a great time to see the resident kangaroos and wallabies here.

Watching cricket at the WACA

Back on the north bank of the river, the cycle path goes past the WACA which is the most important cricket ground in Western Australia. It then comes to the famous Bell Tower which is a pointy glass spire containing very old bells from England. The oldest of these dates back to 1550 and there are nice views of the river from the top of the tower. Just a few blocks away near the city centre are the state’s museum and art gallery. Both of these are free to visit and offer excellent displays that I spent hours admiring. The museum complex actually includes Perth’s original jail built in 1856.

The iconic Bell Tower

No visit to Perth is quite complete without a visit to the beach and it’s hard to beat Cottesloe Beach on a sunny day. Just a few kilometres down the coast is Fremantle where there is much to enjoy. Aside from being a cosy home to buskers and artists, the primary attraction is probably the old convict-era prison that is now a World Heritage site. It was originally built by the first convicts in the mid 19th century and used until 1991. Inside the foreboding limestone walls there are both day and night tours that can be done.

Convict era prison, Fremantle

I love maritime museums and the one at Fremantle is a fascinating exploration of the region’s enduring relationship with the ocean. With only limited time, I had to give this museum a miss but did enjoy the shipwreck galleries of the nearby Western Australia Museum. This includes a section dedicated to the famous Dutch merchant ship Batavia that was wrecked off the coast here in 1629. Between these two museums is the Round House, which is an odd 12-sided stone prison that commenced in 1830 and is the oldest surviving building in WA.

Ship leaving Fremantle harbour

Fremantle boomed due to a gold rush in the late 19th century and the city retains many lovely buildings from around this era, including a church, school and town hall. Adding further character to the streets are the bronze sculptures, many done by a local artist. The colourful Fremantle Markets set up on the weekend so I made another trip back a couple of weeks later to join the relaxed crowds browsing over the souvenirs, crafts and fresh produce.