No sooner had I sat in my canoe on the grassy edge of Australia’s Margaret River than I was told to get out again, quickly.
I spot something black darting across the bottom, and yelp as my guide Sean scoops up the large Huntsman spider.
“You can get back in now,” he says.
My heart is racing from the close encounter with the rather creepy crawly, but soon the tranquillity of the river soothes me.
I’ve joined a tour with the Margaret River Discovery Company, led by owner Sean Blocksidge, across some of the region’s most beautiful and remote parts.
Today brings the windiest weather seen in eight years which makes it a workout on the water. Even the wildlife seems perturbed; we see two Baudin's black cockatoos flee a grove of billowing eucalyptus. “Rarer than polar bears,” Sean says. “They could well be extinct in our lifetime.”
Sean estimates these particular birds are about 50 years old, so I feel lucky to have spotted them. They certainly would have witnessed the phenomenal growth here. Despite now being famous for producing world-class wines, the area wasn’t well-known until the 1980s when local winery, Cape Mentelle, won a prestigious wine trophy.
We stop at Fraser Gallop Estate for lunch, sampling local produce set up banquet style in the barrel room. Kiwi-born Australian winemaker of the year, Clive Otto, chats about the upcoming vintage. He says the light rainfall is welcomed, but not if it steadies, as excess water dilutes flavours. That night, I lie awake listening to the drops become faster and heavier on the rooftop of Cape Lodge, hoping it won’t affect the wine.
I can almost hear the winemakers breathe a sigh of relief when the following morning dawns clear.
The Margaret River region seems to have it all: vast beaches perfect for surfing, mild weather great for grape-growing, and, driving south through Boranup Forest, plenty of nature for adventure.
Roads are lined with towering jarra and marri trees, rows of ripening grapes and signs cautioning drivers about kangaroos. This area is home to fascinating geological formations too, including Lake, Jewel and Mammoth Caves.
Descending into to Lake Cave, I’m struck by how old this beauty is: the entrance was discovered by a local girl looking for cattle in 1867, though it took another 30 years for the cave to be fully explored. The underground hollow was caused by rainwater seeping into the limestone rock. Thousands of delicate stalactites and stalagmites adorn the cave ceiling and floor like an old woman dripping in precious jewels.
I make my way back north, stopping at Eagle Bay Brewing Co on Cape Naturaliste for a bite to eat. I notice the brewery out the back of the bar and learn that washing beer kegs is the bar staff’s worst nightmare, so they have developed a handy hack: horizontal tanks in the brewery are connected straight to the front-of-house tap.
Settling in poolside at the nearby Pullman Bunker Bay would be the easy choice for the afternoon, but I’m keen to explore the beautiful coastline. Joining a Cape to Cape walking tour is the best way to go; with guide Gene Hardy sharing knowledge about Aboriginal history and geological landforms.
The next day I board a miniature train which takes me up the Busselton Jetty, the second longest in the world, which stretches almost two kilometres out to sea. At the end lies a treasure chest submerged amongst the bright coral: an underwater observatory. More than 300 species of marine life, including New Zealand fur seals, have been spotted here. I circle down the underwater concrete cylinder, pressing my nose to cut-out windows and marvelling at fish and pretty tropical coral attached to the jetty pillars.
Back above sea level, I climb back into my rental car and continue north along the coast toward Perth, stopping in sunny Mandurah for lunch. Nicknamed Western Australia’s ‘Little Venice,’ restaurants and art galleries line Mandjar Bay. The picturesque setting is made even more spectacular by a show of playful bottlenose dolphins dancing in a boat’s wake.