UNDERGROUND, OVERLAND, IN THIN AIR… THERE NO END TO THE ADVENTURES TO BE HAD IN THIS PART OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
WALKING BACKWARDS. Thatit, keep going.”Ion the edge of a 45-metre-high cliff, crafted over millennia in smooth, burnt-peach tones of granite. Behind me the Indian Ocean is sparkling like paua shell. I walk backwards – over the edge and down the wall the way flies do. My right hand, behind me, feeds the line through the carabiner; my left hand, in front, lets it run through. I love heights. They make me believe I can soar. Part way down I stop and hang for a while. Below me birds wing past the cliff face.
We are in the care of Drew who is as big as a tree and Gene whose unruly curls denote him the cheeky one. They are mates from way back; Morecambe and W ise, Laurel and Hardy – they finish each others sentences. As Cape to Cape Explorer Tours they take guided walks along the 135-kilometre coastline, mostly national park, from Cape Naturalistc to Cape Lecuwin. Its part of the Margaret River region in the south-west of Western Australia. Drewexpertise is flora and fauna; Geneis geology and marine. They call regular halts on our walk to draw maps in the sand and share their knowledge over five themes: geology, flora, fauna, ocean and history.
Wrc start off walking among granite which formed as part of Gondwana. formed when Sri Lanka and India were joined. It all broke up and a huge chunk basically rammed into the Australian coast,”says Gene. This coastline has a rare blend of limestone overlaying the granite, a combination which forms caves and surfing platforms. The soils are ideal for growing grapes such as semilion, chardonnay, cabernet, sauvignon, shiraz and merlot. Margaret River has about 100 vineyards, mostly boutique.
The ancient landscape has relatively few nutrients so the plants have adapted. One of the stars is the grasstree; itpossible to grind back the coarse bark on the trunk to see the fire history of the past few centuries. Our fauna highlights include marsupials, bird-life and lizards, but itthe poisonous snakes that catch our attention. The dugite likes dry areas and mice and tends to lie low or slither away from unwary hikers. The tiger snake likes wet areas and frogs and is more likely to defend. And this is Australia, mate, so there are flies – packed densely on our backs, abuzz around our faces. I declared there was no way Iwear the black veil from Tourism Western Australia but itbetter than swallowing a fly.
Offshore the Leeuwin Current, the worldlongest-flowing ocean current, is bringing warm water down from the Pacific, making it warmer than any other west coast in the southern hemisphere. The hiking season runs from September to May; the heat and flies peak in December and January so Gene recommends mid-September to mid-November and mid-March to mid-May as the best times. The wild flowers bloom from late August to early December.
We are doing a two-day highlight walk and enter the track near Canal Rocks. The walking is easy – running shoes rather than tramping boots. Initially our footprints fall in rich, red sand among rounded humps of granite. The December heat breaks a sweat on the occasional uphill slog and as the vegetation changes to scrubby bush that resembles manuka and pohutukawa we drop down to swim in the clear, sheltered bays. Further south we climb up to limestone cliffs through chest-high coastal rosemary and peppermint trees. The sea stretches west, all the way to India. The coastline disappears to the north and south.
When we arrive at Contos Campground Ireminded of the old joke that heaven has walled areas so that every religion can believe itthe only one thatmade it. Camp Contos uses trees to keep each of its five camp areas unseen by the others. The fairies have come in by road to pitch our individual tents and make them cosy with inflatable beds with matching sleeping bags and linen and baskets of goodies including locally made chocolate.
Some hikers, especially those doing the full 135 kilometres over seven or eight days, book the luxury option. At each dayend a bus takes their weary limbs to spa chalets and brings them back to the next stage of the track the following day. who do the seven-day trek are generally after a challenge,”Gene says.
want to meet other people, see amazing scenery and learn about the environment. Anyone can do it with some training but ita mental challenge because ita long distance. The other thing we notice is that couples have a lot of time to focus on each other. They say, e found our love again’.”The luxury option sounds nice but, as we dine on barbecued venison, kangaroo kebabs and vege patties served with local wine and followed by pavlova, wenot exactly roughing it.
At six othe next morning we ease awake gently with outdoor yoga. The teacher leads a meditation that takes us down into the earth, among the roots of the trees, into the love of the planet. After breakfast we set off through an enchanted forest of white karri gums in the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge. We are little people in the woods. After a couple of hours the bush becomes subtropical; the colours arc over-bright after a brief shower. We lunch at a hut before kitting up with helmets, miners lights and a safety briefing for Giants Cave.
But first, Drew and Gene have a surprise for us. As we descend flights of narrow, steep steps, the beat of drums begins to thud in our blood. In a cavern at the base of a limestone bluff are Lee Cummings and MJ of Upbeat Inspirations and a row of plastic chairs, each with a bongo drum. Lee takes us through a friendly version of duelling banjos. He gives an exuberant thumbs-up, shows us the clean, fingertip tap on the drum top, the dull thud on its sides – and he is yet to speak. I have not a single rat-a-tat-tat within me but Ilovin’it.
We ascend the steep track like a wiggly line of ants. Below us the drums start up again so we become a line of jivin’journalists at the mouth of a mountain. And then I tone a waiata: long, loud and clear. Sometimes when a mountain calls your name you just have to call right back.
The Giants Cave opens like a throat into which we descend. We check each others headlamps, giggle and jostle and pretend going underground isnjust a little freaky. The yoga meditation feels close. In a large cavern 83 metres below the ground we sit on the sand as a circle of lights. Gene asks us to hush ourselves and our lights and absorb the silence.
He organizes us for a game of Stealth. At each end of the cavern he half-buries a miners’light so that it is visible only from three metres away. Ion Geneteam. He casts Carly as the distraction and puts himself on defence. My job is to reach the other teamlight without being detected. The darkness is total. Carlyproviding distraction without even trying. Under cover of her squeaks and scuffles I get so close I can see the tiny glow but then Fleur is just centimetres to my right. you hear someone?”she whispers to Janie. Icrouched low. My calf muscles are screaming. Silence holds. Seconds pass. Then Fleur and Janie bump each other and giggle. I make an All Black tackle for the light. Wewon!
My swagger is brief. Headlamps back in place, Gene takes us further into the cave among stalagmites and stalactites hanging grimly on. He climbs up a ladder about six metres high but its top squeezes beneath an overhang. I peer ahead and see a tiny cavern, wrinkled like an ancient intestine. Panic lunges at my throat: my old phobia of small spaces. I quell it, squeeze through, and Gene sends me on ahead to help the others coming up behind me. Heconfused me with the gung-ho girl I was 10 minutes ago. He doesnknow Ia mess inside. In the tiny cavern, the ghouls have their lair. The only exit is a ladder to somewhere even tighter. I need a job. Carly is coming up the first ladder; shehating it. Gene is encouraging her. I tell her the cavern is amazing; shegoing to love it. My panic retreats.
Gene sends me on ahead again. Ita scramble up to a rocky ledge. The light from my torch throws whorls and shadows. Wre44 metres below the surface but we go down again, this time on a fixed rope. I focus on its wonderful strands. We reach 87 metres underground; I try not to think about the structures above. More scrambling, a long flight of ladders and we emerge to the welcome of trees.
We all have our challenges. Back on the bus, those who fear heights are dreading the abseiling. Matt says he wondo it; Janie says she will if he will. Near the cliffs at Wilyabrup we meet a laconic, pony-tailed Aussie: Mick Dempsey of Margaret River Climbing Co. He shows us how to thread our abseiling line into a happy sausage through our carabiners. He asks who wants to go first. My hand stabs high but Mattbeaten me to it. Janie cheers him on. Then Iclipped on with my happy sausage and walking backwards. The hardest part is stepping over the edge. Keep your legs straight, keep feeding the rope. There is so much friction through the carabiner that by the time I reach the bottom ittoo hot to touch.
Itmid-afternoon and wedone yoga, hiking, caving and abseiling and our day is yet to include a visit to the cafes and shops of the Margaret River township, followed by dinner at the friendly Must restaurant. Itamazing what you can do in a day at Margaret River.
Rebecca Hayter travelled to Western Australia courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.