By Roger ALLNUTT
It is fifty years since Dr Tom Cullity planted the first vineyards in the Margaret River area of south west Western Australia. Despite the failure of the first vintage in 1981, due to birds eating the fruit, the region has subsequently blossomed with over 200 vineyards and many award-winning wines being produced.
The advent of the wineries has led to a thriving tourist industry which has added to the many other natural attractions in the region.
The earliest explorers were Dutch and French and some of the place names reflect that history. From Cape Naturaliste (French) to Cape Leeuwin (Dutch) the rugged coastline stretches south to Cape Leeuwin which is where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. On a cold and windy day like I experienced at Cape Leeuwin the wind and rain was ferocious and makes you wonder how the lighthouse keepers managed back then in a remote and isolated place.
The south west of Western Australia is very large and to explore it all needs at least five days.
Busselton has a famous landmark with a pier stretching 1.8km into the bay. Worth the walk but alternatively you can catch a small train which takes you to an underwater observatory at the end of the pier.
From Dunsborough the road leads out to the lighthouse at Cape Naturaliste. You can climb to the top of the lighthouse however a ticket needs to be purchased for this walk. The spectacular view over the Indian Ocean and Geographe Bay will not disappoint you.
Nearby Bunker Bay and Eagle Bay on the more protected Geographe Bay side are especially attractive with long sandy beaches safe for swimming. The ocean side at Sugarloaf Rock is more rugged.
The coast down to Cape Leeuwin is known for its surf breaks with names like Windmills, Wildcat and Honeycombs. Surfers come from far and wide to test their skills. By far the most popular is around the entrance to the Margaret River where the swells across the Indian Ocean often develop into huge waves. They were enormous when I visited years ago and I marvelled at the courage of surfers risking their lives. On this visit the breaks were smaller which would have been disappointing for the surfers in the regional state championships, some as young as nine. Even the youngsters were very skilled and looked as though they had spent their whole life in the water.
The wineries of the Margaret River region are justly famous (the wineries stretch from Bunbury down the coast and across the southern region to Denmark and Mt Barker). Many of the wineries are open to the public for tastings and purchase of wine. The main varieties are cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, semillon, sauvignon blanc, merlot and shiraz although in recent years newer varieties like tempranillo and moscato are also being grown.
Although many of the wineries are open daily from 10am to 5pm, it is worthwhile checking with the tourist office for updated information. Many wineries have restaurants and cafes which have attracted top chefs to this region. I visited on a Sunday soon after harvest and the wineries were doing a roaring business with large groups enjoying a day out. Alternatively there are a number of companies that offer winery tours and many people find these a more relaxing option especially if you partake in the testing of the different wines.
The better known wineries established in the first ten years after Dr Tom Cullity pioneered the region at Vasse Felix have very attractive buildings and grounds with gardens – the rose garden at Voyager Estate is superb. However Xanadu, Cape Mentelle, Leewin Estate and Howard Park seem to be more elegant and sophisticated.
In addition to all the wineries there are a few places specialising in cheese and dairy products such as home-made chocolates and nougat. The region is also gaining a wide reputation as a producer of craft beers and I can attest they are very good. As with many country areas there are plenty of galleries of local arts and crafts.
Driving south from Margaret River area the scenic Caves Road unsurprisingly brings you four major caves that can be visited. Passes to visit single or multiple limestone caves can be purchased. The four main caves are Mammoth, Lake, Giants and Jewel. Mammoth is the most accessible for people in wheelchairs.
The road south to Augusta (320km from Perth) passes through areas of the lovely Boranup Karri Forest. The karri trees are very tall and giant which gleams in the sunshine (even the rain glistens on the trunks), it is definately worth stopping just to admire the trees.
From Augusta the road finally took us to Cape Leeuwin. The complex is run by Parks and Wildlife and the self-guided tour tells about the history of the still operating lighthouse, stories about the families who lived in isolation during the early years and information about shipwrecks. It is possible to expand your tour to climb the 39m high lighthouse (186 steps).
Built from 1895 to 1896 the tower and cottages are constructed from local limestone. The light house was manually operated until 1982 when it was converted to electricity replacing the clockwork mechanism and kerosene burner, one of the last in the world. This light was automated in September 1992.
The Bussell Highway from Bunbury to Augusta offers an inland route (alternative to Caves Road) which passes through towns like Vasse, Cowaramup and also Margaret River township about 10km inland from the river mouth. The latter is a very busy town with lots of tourist shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
There is much more to see in the south west region if you have the time. Continue on through wonderful forest country to Pemberton with the famous 72m high Duke of Gloucester karri tree which is the ‘highlight’. You can climb the tree to the viewing platform at your own risk – personally this is not my cup of tea.
Further on you come to the lovely towns of Denmark and Walpole before reaching Albany located on a huge harbour. North of Albany the highway back to Perth which passes through Mt Barker, another wine town, you can also divert to the expansive Stirling Range National Park, spectacular for wildflowers in spring.
There is a wide range of accommodation throughout the region, from upmarket resorts and hotels to many well located caravan parks.
For more information visit www.australiassouthwest.com