I’m 30 metres up a giant karri tree clinging to a few metal spokes for dear life and paralysed by vertigo. All the while my tour guide is yells up at me to keep climbing. Not exactly what I’d had in mind when told we’d be “seeing” some of the world’s tallest trees. My guide laughs as I begin a shaky descent, telling me this is only one of three such trees used in times past to look out for bushfires and that this is probably one of the “easier” ones. The tree I was foolish enough to climb is known as the Bicentennial Tree and measures a dizzying 75 metres high.
This is not the landscape one expects on their first visit to Western Australia; forests of towering giants as far as the eye can see, shot through with lush, well-watered farmlands and picturesque towns, surprising in a state famous for vast swathes of scrub and desert.
You can climb all of these massive lookout trees that are now just tourist attractions, rather than fire sentries, in Warren National Park just near the town of Pemberton. Although, as I remark several times after my ordeal, I’m amazed such a rustic and makeshift edifice is kept open to the public in this age of public liability paranoia.
So if you are like me and require something a little less nerve-racking, you can try the tree top canopy walk in the Valley of the Giants where another type of colossal tree called the Tingle grows. Situated in just one remote pocket of forest in the Walpole Nornalup National Park, an hour’s drive west from Albany, this is the more comfortable way to get to the canopy. The tree top walk involves a series of interconnected swaying suspension bridges that lightly ascend to 40 metres in the air, where you can literally reach out and touch the trees and see birds and animals move right before your eyes. There’s also a walk through the base of several giant trees hollowed out by fire and now resemble giant clawed feet.
Going upmarket in Albany
After I’ve had my fill of death-defying heights I take in the port town of Albany, a delightful, if slightly sleepy seaside centre. The town centre is about four-and-a-half hours’ drive from Perth and a great place to stop, rest and take stock after travelling through the surrounding wilderness and farmland. With a population of just over 30,000, it provides a variety of accommodation and dining options from the very chic down to affordable and cosy. When you look at some of the more upmarket options, think mains reaching up to $40 for items as exotic as sous vide duck and beef oyster roulade, it’s easy to see that even in this part of the state the mining boom is having an impact.
Just a little over four-and-a-half hours’ drive west from Albany is Esperance, an excellent base from which to explore the more remote western areas, which include six different national parks. The town itself has a charming waterfront esplanade where a lush strip of green grass meets the sparkling ocean. It’s a pleasant place to sit taking in the sun for an hour or so grazing on a classic Aussie burger as locals stroll past in very little hurry. The reason for Esperance’s existence, a major mineral and agricultural port, looms omnipresent in the background. While the town has a pleasant local flavour to it, it’s the surrounding countryside that you are really here for. The rugged coast is dotted with national parks, and surf beaches where you can wander for hours, get in and under the water, or just laze on the beach.
Top picks include Hellfire Bay in Cape Le Grand National Park and West Beach just outside Esperance, a favourite haunt for surfers. The best way to take it all in is to hire a car or camper and take the Great Ocean Drive from just outside Esperance along the coast to the west.
To the west on the other side of Albany is the upmarket, boutique-filled and European-sounding town of Denmark. It’s a great place to sip coffee, peruse local bookstores, and scratch your head over house prices advertised in realtor windows. While there’s little that’s Danish about the town, there is a striking similarity to towns in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands or the Dandenongs in Victoria.
The joys of Esperance
Earlier, in the trip, on a cool, crisp morning as the sun rises over Cape Le Grand, near Esperance, I am greeted by one of the most amazing experiences. A pair of female western grey kangaroos usher their joeys right down to the receding tide’s edge to fossick for washed up seaweed just metres from me. The gentle-eyed mothers are completely oblivious to the handful of people from Perth and overseas on the beach staring at the remarkable sight. I’m lucky enough to get close up and hand-feed one of these amazing creatures. But be warned, although they seem placid don’t try and touch the joeys, as I’m told by one mother’s deep guttural growl that has me jumping back a few paces.
For a lot of people, a beach is a beach and one strip of coastline is as good as any and I certainly fit into this category, but even my jaded beachcombing eyes drown in the visual impact of the coast along southern Western Australia. Running in a swerve of blue, grey and green from just before Esperance, all the way past Albany to the D’Entrecasteaux National Park, is some of the most untouched and deserted coastline in Australia. Forget the dark, deep blue of the Pacific, this corner where the Southern and Indian oceans meet is pure turquoise and resembles the white sand beach paradises of south east Asia.
But if you don’t want to just sit and wallow on the shore, there’s plenty to do, including swimming with dolphins, whale watching and some big surf beaches.
Inland to the north of Albany, you’ll find the land rises up to meet the Stirling Ranges, where it’s not uncommon to see a dusting of snow during winter, another contrast to Western Australia’s reputation as a hot, dry and arid land. Stirling National Park and the nearby Porongurup National Park are both great for bushwalking but it’s even better if you are a rock-climber.
The bright lights of Perth
I’m sitting at a bar with a guy who can’t be more than 25 and is laughing as he tells me how much he makes working in a mine in the north-west of the state. He orders bottles of imported, over-priced beer, which he downs in almost one gulp, before moving on to a bottle of wine I’d buy when making a marriage proposal. Not to share with a random guy I just met in a bar. Yeah, times are tough, bud. I think I’ve just met the nouveau riche of Australia’s newest boomtown.
It reminds me of Sydney a decade ago when the city was still smug and booming after the 2000 Olympics and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I’ve only been in the city a few hours but I am fast realising this is where things are moving economically in this country. I feel somewhat happier when he tells me he has to leave to get to bed at 9pm – he has to get up at 4.30am to return to work. I imagine him travelling back to some remote, hot dust bowl where he digs ore out of the ground for some multinational mining conglomerate. There’s a reason we’re not all flocking to get a cut of this boom.
Later, I wander through downtown Perth by night and I’m impressed by the diversity of the night life on offer; bars, clubs, pubs, restaurants – all packed and inviting. Despite the newness of everything, it’s surprisingly seductive and sophisticated for a city of just over 1.6 million people. This is my first trip to Perth and I’m beguiled by the speed and obvious wealth of the place, but mainly by how everyone seems to be having fun.
By day, the city is even more inviting. The wide streets are clean, although a little empty and under-used compared to the crowds and traffic you get in Melbourne’s or Sydney’s CBD. Locals proudly tell you it’s the most isolated city in the world – this makes it seem exotic and lonely at the same time and perhaps a little insecure?
For all its beauty, the city is not a huge place and to make any trip worthwhile you need to get out and about beyond the CBD. My first picks would be a day trip to Rottnest Island where you can walk, enjoy the beach, ride bikes and watch the friendly little quokka marsupials play around tourists, hoping for an easy meal. My second pick would be to head out to Cottesloe Beach before dinner in the very trendy suburb of Subiaco, where you’ll find some fabulous places to eat and drink.
The City is defined and made by the meandering, sparkling blue water of the Swan River. Like Sydney, this is a city made for the waterfront and a stroll along the banks of this waterway on Riverside Drive and through Langley Park does not disappoint, the city’s growing collection of office towers a testament to its new found wealth. It’s a beautiful and dramatic location to end a first trip to this gleaming and isolated jewel on the Indian Ocean.
Robert Burton-Bradley travelled with Nullarbor Traveller, which offers a diverse range of touring experiences through the south-west of Western Australia, the Nullarbor and the Eyre Peninsula. For more information about the The Secrets Of Esperance camping tour, check out thetraveller.net.au