When most foreigners think of Down Under, they see one of three images: either a dry, barren landscape where the only excitement comes in the form of some kangaroos hopping across the road; the Sydney Opera House, or they see impossibly bronzed and healthy-looking people with surfboards. Aussies however, know there is so much more to Oz than roos, surfing and Sydney. And, we know there is a huge diversity. Less than 300 km from Perth, for instance, is a region that could well be in France, except that you’re more likely to hear ‘G’day mate’ than ‘Bonjour monsieur’.
The Margaret River region is Western Australia’s premier wine region and a foodie paradise. It also offers charming country towns, adventures in the great outdoors and, this being Australia, surfing. The town of Margaret River, which anchors the heart of the region,is only about 270 km from Perth. While it’s perfectly possible to visit the area on a day trip, the best way to experience and explore everything here is to hire a car in Perth, take at least a week, point south and hit the road.
Exploring Margaret River township
The town of Margaret River lies on the banks of the river after which it was named. Settlers of European descent moved here in the mid-19th century, first mainly to farm, but later also for the possibilities offered by timber logging.
Today’s Margaret River township is still very much a laid-back country town but with the sophistication expected of a big city like Perth or Melbourne: You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to places where you can relax and indulge in the local produce. Arts and crafts abound too and there are many galleries in town where you can admire anything from photography to jewellery.
Quenching your thirst
The Margaret River region has plenty of opportunities to quench your thirst in a most sophisticated way. The Mediterranean climate naturally led to a wine growing industry. In the last half century or so, wine has become the main economic activity in the area and the vintages produced here are world-renowned. With about 150 wine producers operating in the region, it’s not difficult to find an estate where you can sample the nectar of the gods and take a stroll among the vineyards. Some wine estates even offer accommodation so that you can spend the night in a gorgeous country setting. If you prefer your tipple amber-coloured and bubbly, you’ll be happy to know that the region also has several small breweries.
Tending the flock
The importance of sheep in Australia can never be underplayed and a popular attraction in the Margaret River region, especially for families with kids, is the Yallingup Shearing Shed- a little over 40 km north of Margaret River town. Here you can see the ins and outs of the wool industry in action, from shearing to sheepdogs earning their keep. Kids (and adults) jump at the chance to bottle feed a lamb.
The karstic geology of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge in the region has made it famous for its caves. There are at least 150 in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Par, and while most require you to have a permit and an experienced guide before you can visit, several caves are open to the public.
Mammoth Cave is probably the best known. This cave, with a depth of 30 m and a length of 500 m, has yielded some fascinating Pleistocene fossil remains including ancient thylacines- the ancestors of a now extinct species known as the Tasmanian wolf- as well as those of a giant marsupial about the size of a pygmy hippopotamus that became extinct about 45,000 years ago.
Taking a hike or hopping on a bike
The Margaret River region is a hiker’s and cycler’s paradise with an extensive network of trails so there’s no excuse to not get out into the fresh air and enjoy some exercise. If you want to start small, you can walk one of the short Margaret River Heritage Trails around Margaret River township, such as the 1.5 km Karri Walk, the 2 km River Walk or the 3 km Bridge Walk. They all begin at Rotary Park and take you past some of the town’s historic sites.
Longer trails include the Ten Mile Brook walking or cycling trail, which is about 15 km long and takes you to Ten Mile Brook Dam. Another trail of about the same length is the Margaret River Rail Trail, which stretches from Margaret River to Cowaramup, and takes you along the route of an old railway line.
Getting your feet wet
It’s not only surfers who will enjoy the ocean in the Margaret River region. There are plenty of pristine beaches where you can park the car and soak up the sun.
Some of the most popular beaches are at Yallingup, which is also a great surf spot; at Geographe Bay near Dunsborough for safe swimming and family time; and at Prevelly Park for water sports. However, there are many small beaches all along the coast so you’ll easily find the spot perfect for you.
Watching the giants of the ocean
Every year towards the end of winter and spring, whales migrate northwards from the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean to go feeding, mating and calving in warmer temperatures. They reach the Augusta area from June to September, so if you’re in the area during these months, find yourself a good vantage point like the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, get out the binoculars and start peering.
While land-based whale-watching is a great way to pass the time, the best way to see these creatures up close is during a whale-watching tour. There are several charter companies in the Margaret River region that will take you out to sea to watch the whales breach, ‘sail’ so that it looks as if they’re doing headstands, jump and generally frolic.
Learning about Aboriginal culture
European settlers started moving into the Margaret River region in the 19th century and you can still see many of the historic sites they left behind. These include mansions and homesteads. At the Augusta Historical Museum you can learn more about the lives of these early settlers.
The land however, was inhabited by the Wardandi and Bibbulman Aboriginal people long before the Europeans came. Koomal Dreaming, based in Dunsborough, offers cultural tours where you can learn more about the Aboriginal way of life. A tour with them will take you to the Ngilgi Cave, where they’ll tell you about the myths and legends associated with this cave.
Driving through the Margaret River region is the perfect road trip. There’s plenty to see from in the car and plenty of temptations to leave it for more than a few hours.