Western Australia's natural beauty is in full bloom in spring, writes Judy Bailey.
Some sage once said the best way to understand the universe is through a wilderness. I'm visiting the West Australian wilderness in spring. The southwest of this great state is a hiker's delight at this time of year, taking you close to the wonders of nature.
The Porongurup Range, 40km west of Albany, is among the most ancient in the world, standing here for more than 1000 million years. Once an island surrounded by sea they now stretch just 15km from east to west and their once mighty peaks have weathered, exposing wondrous granite boulders.
Local winemaker Eugene Harma came here from Idaho, United States and has been growing grapes in the ranges for more than 20 years. He's infectiously enthusiastic about his new home and keen to take me up one of the major peaks in the Porongarup National Park, Mt Barker, to experience its granite skywalk.
I've heard this walk is not for the faint-hearted but it turns out to be a pleasant stroll uphill through giant karri and jarrah trees.
On the forest floor tiny orchids unfurl in the sun, electric-blue fairy wrens dart about in the canopy and giant eagles swirl overhead. I'm feeling rather pleased with myself about this "challenging" walk - then we get to the challenging bit.
We arrive at Balancing Rock, the huge granite boulder that seems to teeter on its edge near the summit. The subject of many photo opportunities, it is a hint of what's to come.
The boulders crowd in on each other near the summit and Eugene disappears through a crevice, calling me to follow. We begin the climb proper, over massive boulders, clinging to thoughtfully placed iron bars. The person who placed the holds was obviously a giant. I'm a good 1.78m tall and I'm having trouble reaching them.
And then, there we are, at the foot of the skywalk ladder. There's a steep drop off to the side. The ladder goes straight up 90 degrees and Eugene shinnies up like a mountain goat. I don't know if I can do this.
"Come on," Eugene bellows from somewhere above me.
I press on gingerly, trying desperately not to look into the abyss below. Eventually, I emerge out on to the platform of the skywalk proper. The view is spectacular, 360 degrees, over farmland and vineyards to the Stirling Range and out to the sea. I'm well pleased with my efforts.
Spring is, of course, wildflower season in WA and one of the best places to catch the wildflowers in bloom is the Stirling Range, with more than 1500 different species, many sprinkled randomly along the roadside. But to get the most out of the ranges you'd bewise to look up Ayleen Sands at the Stirling Range Retreat.
Ayleen has been running wildflower tours for nearly 20 years. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more gentle, knowledgeable, good-natured companion. People come from all over the world to marvel at what Ayleen calls her "little treasures". But some visitors can be a liability.
"It's possible to love our bush to death," she says.
"It's really important to teach people about how vulnerable these flowers are ... A hefty footfall in the wrong place can kill a plant. The rule of thumb is, 'stick to the path'."
Ayleen introduces me to the perfect pink mountain bells, with up to 12 tiny flowers inside each bell. There's the creamy white southern cross and the bright yellow billybuttons, each ball-shaped flower made up of 100 tiny daisies.
The sticky carnivorous drosera glimmers in the sunshine. There are the delicate pink and apricot pansy orchids and the pale-pink flowers of snake grass that twine through the forest floor.
It looks gorgeous but also anchors the leaf litter, which feeds the other plants.
Ayleen reckons the best way to find the flowers is to look for mountain drainage channels and seek out the sun.
"Walk in the gutter," she says.
"You'll be surprised what you find."
They're exquisite, Ayleen's treasures, and to see them in this mountain range setting that's more than a billion years old is simply magical.
Wild about wildflowers
Western Australian wildflowers are among the world's most spectacular wildflower displays. The rugged landscape comes alive with brilliant colours and lush scents from June to November.
For six picturesque months, a whopping 12,000 plant species carpet the state with their vivid beauty.
More than 60 per cent of these species are not found anywhere else in the world, and more varieties are still being discovered.
In Western Australia, Australia's most familiar wildflowers take a dazzling twist from the norm. Pink boronias, red and green kangaroo paw, magenta paperbark blossom and orange-flowering banksias are top of the list.
If you have limited time, check out Perth's famous Kings Park. This 400h bushland, bang in the middle of the city, gives you a wonderful insight into the diverse flora of the state and hosts a Wildflower Festival in September.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Perth.
Further information: See Explore - Nature and Wildlife.