Western Australia: Adventures in an ancient landscape

By Judy Bailey

Judy Bailey takes in the magnificent forests and rugged coastline of Australia's southwest.

Nothing rivals experiencing the full, boiling fury of the Southern Ocean to set your pulses racing. I am not even on the water but bent double in an unseasonal howling southerly on the cliffs of West Cape Howe, Western Australia's southernmost point.

I am here to explore the road less travelled with an award-winning ecotourism operator and local character Dr Dave (aka the Adventure Doctor).

Dave hails from Denmark - Denmark WA that is. No connection to Scandinavia, he says.

Denmark is a picturesque town about an hour's drive west of Albany. And an easy five hours' drive south of Perth or there are multiple flights each day.

Dr Dave has an infectious enthusiasm for his patch, which boasts one of the world's most diverse ecosystems. He reckons the best way to protect this special place is to educate people about its unique flora, fauna and geology.

With that in mind we head out to the cape along the red dirt roads of the Australian countryside as flocks of bright green and yellow Port Lincoln parrots dive through pockets of towering karri gum.

It's spring and the coastal heath is alive with colour: red and yellow, pink and blue and purple. The white flowers of the carnivorous sticky tail plant lure unsuspecting bugs. There are red and yellow banksia crawling with bees and the heady scent of peppermint gums and native rosemary fills the air.

As we roll down sandy tracks towards the coast the wind picks up and storm clouds roll in. The waves are crashing in over the cliff tops ... it's wild out here.

The irrepressible Dr Dave insists I inspect the ancient dolerite cliffs close up, an experience not to be missed, particularly in a roaring southerly storm.

He entices me out onto a convenient slab of rock perched high above the roiling waves (80m high ... and I'm not good with heights). I cling to his hand as we spread out on our tummies and hang over the edge.

"Look at that, look at that!" he enthuses. He loves this area's ruggedness, its isolation. It's a chance to get right away from the rat race.

The cliffs are the result of volcanic activity during the breakup of Gondwana, around 65,000,000 years ago. The dolerite came bursting up from deep in the earth's core, leaving almost sculptural columns, which have weathered with the relentless pounding from the Southern Ocean.

Per square kilometre there's more diversity here than any other part of Australia. Along with the plants, there's abundant animal and bird life - bandicoots, roos and wallabies, sea eagles, kestrels and osprey. It's a high octane, unpredictable environment of extraordinary beauty. It's one of the world's 35 biodiversity hot spots, under threat particularly from foxes.

As we leave the park, we pass an entrance to the Bibbulmun Track, a walk covering 1000km from the hills of Perth to coastal Albany. Much of the track traverses the coastal headlands of South Western Australia, and in many spots provides the only access to stunning, sandy beaches.

Just north of the park we stop in the shelter of Cosy Corner beach for fresh coffee and homemade muffins that Dave deftly produces from the back of the van. There's a clear, calm crescent of azure water fringed by white sand. It's easy to see why it's a favourite with the locals.

To the west of Denmark in the southwest Walpole Wilderness, you'll find the Valley of the Giants. Twenty five years ago people came to the forest near Nornalup to photograph their cars in a hollowed-out giant red tingle tree.

Tingles are found only in this part of Australia. So many people were coming to admire these forest giants they were inadvertently trampling the root systems, cutting off the nutrient supply. The magnificent tingles were under threat and something had to be done.

A treetop walk was the solution. The glory of this suspended walk is that you are among the treetops with the birds, 40m up in the canopy. The medicinal scent of gum leaves wafts soothingly on the breeze.

As you leave the walk, continue onto the boardwalk of the Ancient Empire. You're on the forest floor in amongst the huge, gnarled trunks of the mighty tingles, many of them have almost human forms, knots and burrs giving them clearly identifiable faces. It's like a fairyland.

In Walpole, we meet Gary Muir. He's an eighth-generation Western Australian whose family have been running tours here for more than a century.

Gary's passionate about his special place in WA.

"There's the North Pole, the South Pole and Walpole," he says.

Gary's "WOW Eco cruise" takes us through the sparkling waterways of the Walpole National Park and then we walk over the hill to the pristine Shelley Beach. It's a two-and-a-half-hour round trip and he keeps us entertained with his hilarious mix of biological and ecological info.

He moves like John Cleese on steroids, rummaging about his boat looking for photos and props to illustrate points. At one stage, demonstrating what to do in case of a snake bite, he straps a stuffed kookaburra to his leg. Trust me ... you had to be there!

He tells us about the dangers facing this stunning place, the phytophthora die back that's threatening 40 per cent of Australia's plant species. The disease is devastating animal habitats and it's carried on our shoes.

The Walpole community has developed a simple boot-cleaning station to fight the spread of the disease. He tells us too, about the decline in the frog population, 170 species wiped out in the last 10 years by a fungal disease causing them to die of dehydration.

The national park is also known for its resident community of honey possums. These tiny marsupials, about half the weight of a mouse, have a long tongue that gathers nectar rather like a hummingbird. They're rare and hard to spot, especially during the day.

Gary loves this place, it's in his DNA.

We follow him as he walks barefoot (he never wears shoes) through the peppermint mallee gums, over the sandy track to Shelley Beach.

His family has celebrated New Year here every year for 106 years. It's stunning, private; the sun shimmers on the ocean. There's no sign of human habitation, just the way he likes it.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand.

For more information see: Explore - Nature and Wildlife.

Judy Bailey travelled to Western Australia with the assistance of Tourism Australia, Tourism Western Australia and Air New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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