From Fremantle it was a two hour drive down the coast to the Margaret River area of Western Australia. The area has been famous for a long time for its wineries but it is a major tourist area due to it having a lot more to offer to its visitors than just its wine tasting. It has surf beaches, amazingly beautiful caves to visit, 40,000 years of Indigenous habitation and not to mention the great food of the region. We were staying at a resort called Cape Lodge that originally started its cultivated life as a Protea Farm before being swapped over to 12 acres of vineyard. It was then converted to a B & B before all its qualities were converted to the resort it is today. The view from our breakfast table on the first day speaks clearly of the quality of the time we spent over our two days here.
There was plenty of wildlife around Cape Lodge but I was particularly impressed by the bird bath outside the lodge’s restaurant. I had to look twice to be sure that I was looking at an art piece, not a gathering of Black Cockatoos at bath time.
On the way in to Cape Lodge the previous afternoon we had driven along Caves Road past the sign to the Ngilgi Caves and I had immediately proposed this be our first stop the next morning. Having spent time at the Jenolan Caves in NSW in my student days, I was keen to compare the WA caves with the famous Caves of the Blue Mountains. While the Ngilgi Caves didn’t have the mysterious valley hiding the Swiss style village of Jenolan Caves, everything else about the presentation of this self-guiding cave spoke of quality development of the facilities here.
Caves like the Ngilgi Cave are described as ‘Karst’ caves, the scientific term to indicate they are caves in limestone or dolomite rock that have been carved out by the action of water. To create a cave like this one, you need the action of water over half a million years to not only carve out the tunnel but produce the amazing decorations of stalactites, stalagmites and helictites that adorn the walls of limestone caves. Another sign of the great age of this cave is the presence of fossilized bones of careless Tasmanian Tigers who ended up trapped in the cave. This cave is more like a giant sinkhole created by a conglomeration of tunnels carved out by the persistent water flow.
The cave is described as Western Australia’s first tourist attraction given its popularity in the late 19th century. It was discovered by a European farmer in 1899 who was looking for stray horses. He then went on to act as a guide to the cave for the next 37 years. But what has been made clear by the prominent information provided on site is that the cave has been well known to the local Wardandi people for thousands of years and it has featured in the stories handed down around campfires for many generations. In the area before the cave entrance where visitors gather before being led into the cave, there is a series of murals that have been developed to tell this story.
It begins… “Ngligi and the spirits of the waves, the wind, the rain, thunder and lightning created a terrifying storm. Thunder rolled, lightning flashed across the sky, the fierce wind and rain raced over the sea, huge waves formed. A fierce battle followed with Ngilgi driving Wolgoine further and further into the cave….”
Since this is a cave that basically goes straight down, there is very little room for gatherings of more than two or three people and so the guide gets the group started and then we just follow the arrows. The guide follows along to assist visitors when needed. There are plenty of boardwalks and steps and the lighting in the cave has been well developed.
There are advantages and disadvantages in following a family group with three children. One advantage is the enthusiastic gasps and cries as new shawls and columns are encountered. The exuberant response to the magic of the cave means that our own inner child was confirmed in his views…this is a spectacular place.
A slow tour of the cave takes about an hour or so and we were very impressed by what we saw. Our second destination for the morning was to head to the coast not far down the road to Yallingup.
Yallingup is a well known surf beach very popular with Perth residents and their holiday houses are built on the slopes at the back of the beach. I have been told that locals refer to it as ‘Chiropractic’ Beach because the surf is so strong and the water so cold. However there were so many local out and about on the swell who didn’t seem to be worried by this reputation.
The ‘Welcome’ sign above the beach gave a much more nuanced view of the features of Yallingup apart from the surf. “Ngari Capes Marine Park is situated in one of Australia’s most diverse temperate marine environments. As warm tropical waters of the Leeuwin current mingle with the cool waters of the Capes current you can find high finfish diversity, as well as internationally important seagrass diversity in Geographe Bay. Humpback and Southern Right Whales migrate through and utilise the waters of the marine parks. You can often see resident seals and dolphins feeding and playing along the rugged coastline.”
It was a busy day when we arrived with lots of cars stopping at the side of the road to take in the views out over the bay and the ocean. The headland was a great place to stop and ponder the view and we noticed a statue sitting on the rocks also taking in the ocean scenery. One of the consistent issues we noticed during our day in this area was how much the local indigenous culture was emphasised on the information boards. In the case of our silent companion on the rocks overlooking Yallingup, she was another character from the Wardandi songlines of this area. She was Korrianne, “looking out towards Kurranup – meeting place of the spirits of the people who have passed – the horizon. She sits weaving shells into her hair…waiting…kanya wiring kordadjanga kayogul…waiting…for the hearts and souls to be united forever.”
Another guide to our time along the coast of Western Australia was, if there was a lighthouse to see, it was compulsory to visit it. From Yallingup, we headed back to Caves Road and followed the edge of Geographe Bay to Cape Naturaliste. This Cape stretching out into the Indian Ocean ensures that the waters of Geographe Bay are much more sheltered on the other side of this headland. The first peoples of the area, the Wardandi, had already named the cape “Kwirreejeenungup (“place of beautiful view“) but they made no large signs or had influence in planning when places were named after Europeans arrived. The Cape is named after the second ship (Naturaliste) of the French navigator, Nicolas Baudin (1754-1803), who stopped here in 1801 as part of his job of mapping the coast of ‘New Holland’. Geographe Bay is named after his flag ship, Geographe.
This trip of Baudin’s to New Holland was encouraged by Napoleon Bonaparte and also included a stop off at the British colony at Sydney cove. Recent research has found material in the papers of the botanist on board Baudin’s ship that he had developed a plan for the possible invasion of the Sydney colony by the French and it was sent to Napoleon for consideration. The Emperor of France must had decided that geopolitically it was more important to invade Russia than Sydney Cove. Perhaps Australia’s food heritage would have been better if the Sydney plan had been taken up.
My musings on an alternate modern Australian history were interrupted by the real reason we were visiting Cape Naturalitse; to visit the lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1903 from limestone quarried from the area and its lighthouse keepers served the mariners of this coastline well throughout the twentieth century but today its light runs on automatic. We hadn’t booked a tour so we were unable to climb the 23 stairs up to its top balcony where I have been assured the sea views are superb. We were able to have a look at the Lighthouse Keepers’ cottage as well as take in the coastal views from the boardwalk that led away from the lighthouse.
Apart from the lighthouse and the sea views, there is another reason that folk come to Cape Naturaliste. We know this as we saw a group of hardy windblown souls trudging past us as we arrived in the car park. They were at the start of their 135 km trek along the Cape to Cape Track. It is apparently a spectacular, challenging walk that extends the length of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Park and the sign at the entrance to the car park promised them “breathtaking views of oceans, peaceful bays, rugged headlands and soft sandy beaches.” I had the less than heroic feeling that I was glad I didn’t have to walk all the way to visit the next lighthouse on my list at Cape Leeuwin. The map at the start of this section on Cape Naturaliste shows the route of the Cape to Cape Walk as far as Yallingup.
We decided to stop at Dunsborough on the way back to Cape Lodge and have some lunch. It was early afternoon on a Saturday so the main centre was very busy but we managed to find a café with good food and a view from a table out front that enabled us to ‘people-watch’ the good citizens of the town. After lunch we went for a walk and quite accidentally came across a park that clearly had been recently developed along a small stream that ran away from the main street. Apart from providing lots of play equipment for the local children, it also presented plenty of information to passing tourists like us about the history and life-style of the First Australians of the area. There were a series of wood-carved boards in this park giving a description of the life of the local ‘forest & saltwater families’ of the region. Such information about this life-style, particularly the use of fish traps, goes a long way in cancelling the image of a people stuck in constant, arduous journey of the hunter gatherer. There was a lot of information in this park about local indigenous culture that many of us travelling older Australians would not be familiar with.
Another major information board gave a broad summary of the calendar of the Wardandi People of the area and how their connection to tribal lands was closely governed by their understanding of the six seasons of their year.
It was time to head back to Cape Lodge as it was likely we would need a rest before our late afternoon activities. We had been invited to a walk in the estates vineyard with the opportunity to sample some of their wine. For dinner that night we had been given a picnic basket for a romantic sunset meal at Moses Rock on the Coastline directly west of Cape Lodge.
The wine tasting perhaps went on a bit long as the sun had started to set before we were able to hit the road towards the Indian Ocean. My strongest memory of this drive was the straight dirt road to the beach with a clear view of the sun going down with the silhouettes of road-crossing kangaroos highlighted by both the sun and our headlights. We made it to Moses Rock, grabbed our hamper and headed down the considerable steps towards the beach. The romance of the occasion started to deteriorate as the wind and rain started to whistle around us so the champagne and salmon were hastily consumed before we beat an early retreat to the car and back to our warm lodgings for the night.