Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Margaret River

13/09/08 Perth – Mandurah – Bunbury – Margaret River 267 (12580) kms

Margaret River main street
We drove down from Perth to Margaret River yesterday. Our pack up was made difficult by the strength of the wind, the rain and Sue’s inability to do anything now with a back that was lurching from one set of exercises to the other and just surviving, like an addict between hits. I was buoyed by the success in setting one of the big tarps over our tent and living area and it surviving heavy rain and winds up to 70 km/h without a failure. For those who know me when I’m camping, you will appreciate what a buzz that was.

A windy day from first light and beyond but at Bunbury our planned lunch at the seashore below the checker board lighthouse was the worst disappointment. Sitting in the carpark trying to decide whether to risk the weather, the wind was buffeting us so much that Sue got seasick. Instead, we sought shelter on the leeward side of the information building in town – a former railway station. It was less than pleasant to start with but the poor fellow who got off a bus (or was pushed) and proceeded to have a psychotic episode somewhat soured our flavoured milk. We asked at the information centre if they could arrange some help for him because we were seriously concerned about him self harming.

The rest of the way to Margaret River the landscape changed. More trees, more agriculture, farm animals, good roads and lots of wind.

Margaret River is one of our most anticipated points of interest on this tour. In truth, it was the catalyst for wanting to come to the West. We had both read so much about the place, it’s possible we had made the mistake of a first year husband and placed it on a pedestal. That said, our first impressions are that we have seen this before so many times on the east coast: sleepy places of untold natural beauty and a charming laidback lifestyle one day wake up with cash in hand and tourism kissing them on the cheek as they dash out the door.

The night was windy plus – probably 6 on the Beaufort Scale (40-50 km/h) with gusts up to 20km/h higher - and after assessing the movements in the large box tree above us at about 3:30am, we shifted from the tent to the car for safety reasons. Slept well after that!

14/09/08 Cape Naturaliste 130(12710) kms

We woke to the same gusty winds we had listened to gust and roar above us in the night and started our day with church at the local Anglican Church. It was quite an experience and an unusual combination of the very old and the liberal wind of change which has blown the Holy house down in WA. It was only a small and very old church building and the congregation threw themselves into the service. The hymn books we were singing from were printed in 1937 so that should give you some idea. We were led by a female assistant minister and yes almost everyone one was over sixty. However, the sermon was brilliant. Delivered by a lady with a thick Scottish brogue, she talked on Romans 14, where Paul urges us to not be a stumbling block to one another (thanks Paul Kelly for the modernised version in song). We are all different and we need to accept our differences and remember who is in charge! We had a nice cuppa and a chat afterward. Sadly, there were no kids to be seen - seems to be a trend over here.

Into the village for a coffee - first of many I reckon - and some planning for the week. Lunch at home, gulped down and then on the road to Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse. Built in 1903 after twelve shipwrecks in the area in the previous twenty five years, it has worked continuously since. It was originally fired by whale oil and then kerosene but then in the late 1980's, electricity replaced the keepers. The lens still floats on a sea of mercury but it took eighty years until authorities discovered that changing or cleaning it caused their lighthouse keepers to go slowly mad from mercury poisoning. Many were let go in the belief that they were going mad from the isolation. The wind was howling at 33km/hr (according to instruments inside the lighthouse) when we stepped onto the gantry high up at the top of lighthouse. We were warned we could step to the leeward or windward sides of the lighthouse. Naturally, I chose the windward and just as naturally, I was the only one - except for my lovingly, supportive wife ... who also likes a buzz.

After the lighthouse, we travelled south to the chocolate factory, driven on by Sue’s stated needs - personally, they sounded more like wants to me. Sue purchased a few indulgences and I abstained ... well, I don't like chocolate that much anyway and certainly not at those prices. Future Pimples and I moved on to the Cheese Factory for some real needs this time: nice, very, very nice. Back to the campsite for conversations and blogging and cooking and laughing and discussions on life at the camp kitchen. An interesting mix of national backgrounds: Irish, Malaysian, English, Kiwi, Ukrainian and us of mongrel Australian breeding. Sometimes I think sitting about with a red and good tucker and a few folks to talk with is the main reason for touring.

Going south tomorrow to find a case of wine to ship home.

Cape Leeuwin - the tallest lighthouse
in Australia?
15/09/08 Cape Leeuwin – Jewel Cave – Karri Forest - Leeuwin Winery 200(12910) kms

"Lighthouse tall and strong ..." our day started with the trip to the southern most point of the southwest, Cape Leeuwin and Australia's tallest mainland lighthouse (although Victoria's Point Hicks is currently challenging the claim). Built in 1895 from local limestone and imported English steel and technology, this bad boy stands 39 metres from front door to weather vane and we climbed about thirty five of them on the narrow, internal, steel, circular staircase. Although there were three staging platforms between climbs, it was still stiff work against gravity for me and even harder work against vertigo for Sue, but we made it. As we climbed, a knowledgeable guide gave us the usual stats and stories of the hard lives the lighthouse keepers and their families endured.

The precision of the machinery is worth a mention. Everything in this hundred year old lighthouse is as original apart from the source of the light and the energy which rotates the lens. Electricity didn't come to Cape Leeuwin light until 1982, so a kerosene lamp sat at the centre of it's magnifying lens for more than 80 years ... the longest term under the blue flame of any Australian lighthouse. This was despite the fact that generators were supplying electric power to keeper's cottages more than 25 years earlier. The mechanism used to turn the light was two counter weights - each 150 kg in weight - which had to be wound up half the height of the lighthouse every two hours. These "falling" weights drove the circular motion of the light through a series of gears. The keepers had no such geared luxury when they wound the weights up into position. Theirs was a dead weight - a 1:1 ratio wind using a thirty centimetre long crank handle and when they were sick or unfit for duty, their wives had the task! Today, a small half horse power electric motor does the same job.

It’s dramatic coastline and dramatic weather conditions which have shaped it. Although it was virtually still when we were there, Leeuwin holds the claim as the windiest place in Australia (where they take weather readings at least). Their highest recorded wind speed is 172 km/h. Although there has only been one shipwreck since the light first started beaming - as compared to 23 in the twenty years before - eleven men lost their lives in 1945 when they were washed overboard from the Australian destroyer HMAS Nizam, in heavy seas off Cape Leeuwin. A rogue wave pushed the destroyer to an angle of 65 degrees before she righted herself. By then, the men were washed from the deck Some say the rough seas here are because Leeuwin  marks the angry junction of the Southern and Indian Oceans.

The Jewell Cave
With the morning gone, we started north again, this time along the scenic Caves Rd where our first stop was the Jewel Cave. Discovered several times but remaining unexplored until 1957, this is a spectacular limestone cave with many large chambers and a whole host of dramatic features for the step-aerobic mob. Five hundred plus steps down and not surprisingly, the same number up but it doesn’t really matter as you puff in unison with your fellow amateur speleologists. There were all the usual tricks the guides in these underground theatres perform - turning out the lights to see how dark it is and then pretending to have lost the switches; ghost stories; tales of lives lost - but above and beyond that, our guide had a plethora of facts and figures and was just as good when questioned as when sticking to the spiel. The formations were beautiful, particularly the long "straws" ... long, thin, hollow formations of calcite where water drips down the inside of the tube and adds to its length at about 5cm every fifty years (its quicker to watch grass grow). There were tites and mites and all sorts of variations in between but my favourites remain the wonderfully shaped and richly coloured flowstone "veils". When we climbed out of there, our guide Sarah was happy enough to show us some spots on the map only the locals know about.

Next there was organic maze, built about twenty years ago and last maintained about a year later. This was the quaint work of a now distant family whose surname started with Z. Not sure who is still collecting the $2.50 we popped through the slot of the converted half-gas bottle by the entrance. We had fun anyway, even though we could clearly see through the at times threadbare hedge and found the "centre of contemplation" without too much mystery. The wild flowers growing in the hedge were worth the entrance money, not to mention the two breaks in the hedge under the signs "cheat’s entrance".

The Karri forest - just like Endor
From the maze, we went north again - "we went a little further north each trip" - and drove through the karri forest. Karri is the third biggest tree species in the world and trust me, it is not an overestimated claim. Stopped by the side of the road taking pictures, I expected Luke and Leia to come zooming through the landscape on speeders with Imperial Stormtroopers in hot pursuit. Cool place. Not long after, we turned off Caves Rd to Conti Campground, one of the places we would have stayed if not for the bad wind and rain conditions of the last few days. It was green and sheltered and looked fantastic. Just a pity that the national parks over here don't choose to share the information with you on their websites! On the advice of our caves guide, we found the sandy track at the end of the road and after about ten minutes of adventure driving, including some low range stuff, we found ourselves overlooking Conti beach and the two points either side and its wild, wild surf. Big waves in the four to five metre range thumped and dumped in all sorts of places off and on shore. It’s here that the legendary break called Cow Bombie is ridden by the locals. The wind was whipping the waves into a fury. It was a scene from Moby Dick or The Piano but we didn't have to lose a leg or a hand to participate. Really pumped you up to stand there and watch whilst nature lifted her skirts and kicked up her heels. Brilliant!

Our last port in this emotional and physical storm was Leeuwin Winery where we sampled, although Sue refused to spit. A little red treasure came home for dinner.

Back to camp where Sue did dinner preparation and I bought in the clothes from the clothes line I had MacGuyver repaired earlier in the day. Before dinner, we went to a local tavern - constructed in the traditional English style - and I had a few pints of Guinness (thanks John Lally for the introduction) and Sue a couple of champagnes. A nice steak with our bottle of Leeuwin's adult soft drink helped us close out a wonderful day.

16/09/08 Beaches – Prevelli Beach - Ellensbrook Farm 70(12980) kms

It was another pretty laid back day here in the land of milk and honey ... well, red wine and cheeses actually. We managed to lounge about the campsite until 11:00am until finding a local physiotherapist to make appointments for Sue (back) and myself (neck). After that, we went in search of the famed Margaret River surf beaches. The problem was, we were looking through the eyes of easterners. Over here, you have to look at the surf in a different way. For instance, the sand only extends for narrow reaches into the sea and is made mostly of decomposed limestone and shells, so it tends to be much rougher than the fine silica particles of eastern shore beaches. Secondly, much of shoreline has sometimes large coral shelves which extend out into the advancing water in wider strips than the sand which preceded them. This creates waves which break suddenly rather than advancing to the beach and gradually toppling over. Meanwhile, large waves in the four and five metre range, form a long way from shore, break and then reform to break as small waves on the coral shelves.

The western shorelines are on the whole, dramatic and often fierce, with the powerful swells of the Indian Ocean interrupted by mainland Australia. From spring, the Leeuwin current brings warm water from the north which the fish follow. Where you have abundant bait fish, you have larger predators in search of an easy feed. Big waves, warm deeper water, egos under curly blond hair and sharks - nice mix.

We looked at Prevelly Beach and Rivermouth today. Prevelly seemed more of a kid’s beach to us, even in the rougher conditions which are prevailing in the current weather pattern. Rivermouth was impressive and three or four surfers were plying their watery trade this afternoon, on small but strong waves pretty close to shore. Rivermouth is what it sounds ... the place where the Margaret River flows into the Indian Ocean, but don't get any romantic ideas based on river systems back east.  I could just about step over the Margaret River only twenty metres from where its small cut through the sand becomes surf. Mind you, 100 m inland of that point, the river was forty metres across but fairly shallow. Still, it’s an awesome thing to stand where a river meets the sea and fulfils promises made as raindrops. It was here at Rivermouth beach where an old school mate of John Hildred and I became an accomplished board rider. Girl of Gould ... Shane I think her first name was.

Lunch was taken at a reserve on the northern point of Prevelly and would have proved sickening for most of you. In fact, it will when you see the photos. It would have to make you sick to see where we are! Our lunch table was positioned to give us a 180 degree view of the ocean and after days of looking, we spotted our first whales. They were way out but their spouts were evidence enough but when one of them breached in a spectacularly long way, no doubt was left.

Ellensbrook Farm
During the afternoon we visited Ellensbrook Farm, which was built at the turn of he twentieth century and is only a few hundred metres inland from the beach. A natural spring emerges from a limestone cave less than a kilometre from the site of the farm house providing a continuous source of fresh water. Never the less, it was adventure stuff when this was settled.

During the day I was able to add further to my suspicion that the Forester had a worn rear wheel bearing so I lined up the Subaru dealer in Albany to do the repairs under warranty next Monday. A bit surprising after only 29000 km but the last 13000 have been a bit taxing!

Raining tonight. Up to ten mm predicted and then thunderstorms in the morning. We move on Thursday and on Friday we'll be staying with Sue's Uncle Wal and Aunt Faye in Denmark, whom she hasn't seen for more than thirty years. I'm expecting that to be a highlight. Time to shut down and listen to the rain on the tent roof.


A quiet day. Sue and I attended to physiotherapy sessions for some relief. Fish and chips for lunch and coffee late in the day. We are moving tomorrow after a delightful stay in Margaret River. Its not utopia, so don't come here expecting it is but if you steer away from the tourist traps, there is much to see which is exciting, interesting and will add to your life's experiences significantly. Certainly better than Kalbarri or Carnarvon!

Tomorrow it’s Pemberton and tall trees.

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