The Margaret River Region: Western Australia’s Eden
When most non-Australians think of Down Under, they see one of three images: They see a dry, barren landscape where the only excitement comes in the form of some kangaroos hopping across the road; they see 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 Marget River township
The town of Margaret River, about halfway between Cape Leeuwin in the south and Cape Naturaliste in the north, 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. One interesting venue to visit is the Melting Pot Glass Studio and Glass Art Gallery, situated in the main street. This small family business specialises in the art of glass blowing and produces beautiful designs in striking colours. You'll probably find it hard to leave without at least one newly-bought paperweight, vase or bowl. What makes the experience even more memorable is that you're able to see how glass is blown and shaped into these stunning objects. Glass-blowing demonstrations are done daily from Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Another must-visit in the main street, especially if you have a sweet tooth, is the Margaret River Fudge Factory. Here you can watch how drool-worthy confectionery like chocolate, hard sweets and of course fudge, is made by hand. Naturally you can also buy some to take home with you, if you can resist devouring it all before you reach the car.
If you want to join one of the fastest growing foodie trends across Australia, be sure to visit the Margaret River Farmers Markets, held every Saturday morning at the Community Resource Centre. Every second Saturday morning you can also head to Town Square for the Town Square Markets, where you can buy everything from local produce to jewellery and crafts.
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 don't know where to start, the Margaret River Visitor's Centre will be happy to help you with information on the wine cellars in the area. If you prefer your tipple amber-coloured and bubbly, you'll be happy to know that the region also has several small breweries where you can try the finest beers and ciders.
Remember though that there are strict laws about drinking and driving, so it's best to have a designated driver who doesn't indulge in the tastings. Of course this gives you a great excuse to visit the winery or brewery again so that you can take turns in the driving department!
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.
Getting technical for a moment, 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. There are boardwalks in the cave to make getting around much easier and the first chamber is wheelchair friendly.
Jewel Cave is the largest cave in Western Australia open to tourists. It's also one of the most spectacular, with some very impressive stalactites, including the longest one ever found in a tourist cave.
If you'd like to get down on your hands and knees and feel like a real cave explorer, be sure to visit Moondyne Cave, where you'll be required to wear overalls and a helmet. To visit, contact CaveWorks for a tour. CaveWorks can be found at Lake Cave, the only known cave in the area that has a lake. CaveWorks has knowledgeable guides who can tell you all you want to know about the region's underground wonders and can also arrange tours to some of these caves.
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 for example 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.
If you want to do some serious hiking, you can either opt for heritage or for coast. The Augusta-Busselton Heritage Trail takes you from Augusta in the south to Busselton in the north, covering a distance of a little under 100 km. You can follow in the footsteps of the pioneers who settled the area and visit some historic sites in between enjoying the bushland and rivers along the way.
The coastal option is to follow the Cape to Cape Walk Track, between the lighthouses of Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste. It covers about 140 km of variable terrain, from paths through coastal forests and past caves to stretches along the beach. This track is quite challenging in parts, especially during the hot, dry summer. You should bring your own tent but there are some lovely campsites and caravan parks where you can spend the night. Since the trail passes through Hamelin Bay, Prevelly, Gracetown and Yallingup, you can stock up on food, water and other supplies along the way.
If you want to experience either the Augusta-Busselton Heritage Trail or the Cape to Cape Walk Track but don't want to complete the entire route, you can do only one or two stretches. Many hikers in fact return to the area again and again, each time to complete another section of the trail.
The stretch of coast off the Margaret River region offers some of the world's best surfing with more than 75 fantastic surf breaks, varying from reef breaks to sandbank breaks. In some contrast to the hot spots of NSW and Queensland, generally the good WA surf spots are quiet and crowd-free while the water and beaches are clean so that you really can become one with the ocean.
There are special features that create such great surfing conditions in this region. In the latitudes between about 40 and 50 degrees South, about 1,000 miles south of this part of Australia, strong westerly winds known as the Roaring Forties prevail throughout the year. In days gone by, sailors used these winds to propel their ships east. Today, these winds are truly a surfer's friend, generating groundswells that travel all the way north to the south-west coast of Australia, with no big landmasses in between to slow them down. This means that the waves that hit the coast are often big and powerful, just begging to be ridden.
The direction of the swells change by the season, coming mainly from the south and south-west during the warmer months but from a more westerly direction in winter. When the waves meet the coast head-on in winter and spring, the surfing is at its best, but you'll find good waves throughout the year. Remember that the water is quite cold and you'll need a wetsuit even in summer.
The Telstra Drug Aware Pro Margaret River surfing contest is usually held in autumn, at Surfer's Point, one of the closest surf spots to Margaret River town. Its left reef breaks are world-renowned, but more suited to experienced surfers. Adjacent to this spot is the Suicides, where the reef breaks come from both the right and the left. Just south of here is an even better spot known as the Bommie, which surfers describe as 'totally epic'. The right and left reef breaks here are only for pros or surfers with a death wish, though.
Learners and novice surfers will find a hospitable place to practice at Margaret River Mouth to the north of Surfer's Point with right and left beach breaks and smaller waves.
Some good surf spots for surfers of all levels include the right and left sandbar breaks of the Augusta River Mouth, the right and left beach breaks of Boodjidup and the right and left point breaks of Redgate. To find out when and where surf's up in the area, simply check your favourite surfing website or get a map from the Margaret River Visitor's Centre.
Working on your tan and 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 up the car and soak up the sun. The best beach weather is in the dry summer months. The winter is rainy season and while this won't bother water-sports enthusiasts too much, the weather won't be conducive to developing a golden suntan.
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 and you'll easily find the spot perfect for you.
If you want to enjoy the ocean in a more active way but don't want to go surfing, there's a variety of other water sports you can enjoy in the region too. Kitesurfing and windsurfing are gaining popularity, but there are also some good places for kayaking, sailing and fishing. The Busselton Jetty is a great fishing spot if you need to keep the kids busy at the same time: Simply let them take the Jetty Train to the Underwater Observatory while you wait for the big ones to bite. If you fish from the beach and purely for recreational purposes, you don't need a licence. In some stretches of river you can also fish without a licence, but for most types of fishing, including spearfishing and lobster fishing, you'll need to get the necessary paperwork, either from Australia Post or online.
There is some good diving and snorkelling to be had in the Margaret River Region too. Dunsborough is a particularly great diving spot, with the wreck of the destroyer HMAS Swan providing nooks and crannies where all kinds of marine life can hide. The reefs off the coast also offer an abundance of marine life and because of the different conditions here, it's a world removed from diving or snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.
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 climes. 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. The two whale species most common around here are Humpback and Southern Right whales. An easy way to tell the difference between them is to look at the shape of the spray of water coming from their blowholes: Southern Right Whales make two 'fountains' in a kind of V shape. Unlike Humpbacks, they also don't have a dorsal fin.
By September to December, the giants of the ocean reach the shelter of Geographe Bay near Dunsborough. If you're very lucky, you may even see Blue Whales here.
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. Maybe you'll even see a calf being born.
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.
For an even more hands-on experience, visit the Wardan Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Yallingup. Here you can follow your guide on the Bush Story Trail, which takes you through bushland and where you can learn more about bush tucker, the plants traditionally used for their nutritional and medicinal properties and how the people built their dwellings in times gone by. The trail is only 1 km, making it manageable for children too.
Other activities at the centre include learning about traditional law, art, dance and music. Learn how to use ochre for applying paint and body paint or you can try your hand at playing the didgeridoo or clapping stick. The kids will love that they don't just have to sit and watch the dancing but can join in. You may also treat them to a tool-making and spear-throwing workshop.
Driving through the Margaret River region is the perfect road trip. There's plenty to see from in the car and plenty of inducements to leave it for more than a few hours.