In some ways, the stunning South West of Western Australia feels like the land that time, and tourists, forgot.
The landscapes you’ll encounter in this far-flung neck of the Aussie woods have an almost prehistoric feel (and indeed, according to the WA Parks and Wildlife Service, the origins of some plant, animal and insect species that reside here can be traced back 65 million years). Groves of giant karri and tingle trees tower high above the forest floor, an ancient mobile inland dune field marches slowly but steadily across the landscape, and the pounding Southern Ocean continues its tireless work to carve the coastline into spectacular sculptural creations.
So where are the masses of visitors soaking up all this natural splendour? Well, that’s a good question. Having recently completed a five-day road trip from Perth to Albany, via Bunbury, Margaret River, Nannup, Manjimup, Pemberton and Denmark, it’s remarkable just how much of the time you feel like you have this corner of the country all to yourself. Sure, in peak periods crowd numbers swell. But even if you must travel then, don’t despair; there’s room for everyone in Australia’s South West and Great Southern!
Road tripping is the perfect way to explore the region. The roads are excellent and you’ll have complete freedom to nip off the beaten track as you want to. And trust us, there’s always something breathtaking to discover around the next bend.
Here are ten of the best things to do in South West WA.
Two hours’ drive south of Perth, the bustling regional city of Bunbury basks by glittering Koombana Bay. Holidaymakers would once have bypassed what was largely an industrial port, but Bunbury has undergone a transformation in recent decades. A revamped foreshore, vibrant street art programme and $12 million upgrade of the popular Dolphin Discovery Centre have all played a role. If you are travelling with kids, plan on spending a stack of time at the Dolphin Centre. A number of wild bottlenose dolphins call the bay home, and they regularly cruise up to the front of the centre to meet visitors. You’ll hear the bell ring when a pod is sighted, at which point everyone hightails it down to the foreshore. In between times, there’s a huge amount to do inside the centre itself. Check out the amazing aquarium, digital 360-degree dolphinarium, kids’ activity centre, marine wildlife hospital and more.
A further 40 minutes’ drive south will bring you to Busselton — one of Western Australia’s most popular coastal towns and the gateway to the uber famous Margaret River wine region. Stretching for almost two kilometres out over the protected waters of Geographe Bay, the heritage-listed Busselton Jetty is a must-see-and-walk-the-length-of. It’s the longest timber jetty in the Southern Hemisphere, and hosts the Busselton Jetty Underwater Observatory at the far end. Descend beneath the waves and take in this octopuses’ garden of vividly coloured plant life (complete with ‘trees’ — aka old pylons completely covered by sea foliage) and hundreds of species of marine life. Keep your eyes peeled; you may catch a flash of a silver tail and flowing hair, courtesy of Southwest Mermaids. If you can’t face the trek back to shore, hitch a ride on the jaunty Stockton Preston Express tourist train.
It would be remiss to visit Margs River and not sample a selection of the region’s best drops. The options are many, but two winery experiences we can highly recommend are those at Amelia Park Wines and Cullen Wines. Under the stewardship of winemaker Jeremy Gordon, Amelia Park in Wilyabrup is best known for its semillon sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cab merlot. Enjoy a tasting in the architecturally stunning cellar door, or push the boat out on lunch and matching wines in the equally beautiful onsite restaurant.
One of the most respected names in Margaret River wine production is that of Vanya Cullen — chief winemaker and head honcho at family-owned Cullen Wines in Wilyabrup. This organic and carbon negative winery has pioneered bio-dynamic wine production in Australia. The rustic cellar door offers seated tastings seven days a week, and visitors can also do a self-guided tour of the garden. The onsite restaurant champions (unsurprisingly) the use of organic produce in its set four-course lunch and dinner menus.
From here, you’ll delve deep into the South West proper. We chose to travel through Nannup and Manjimup (if you follow this route, call into the fabulous Tall Timbers cafe/cellar door/brewhouse for lunch) en route to the picturesque timber town of Pemberton. The region is characterised by rolling farmland, pretty vineyards and pockets of soaring karri forest. Those with a head for heights may like to live out their Ewokian fantasies by climbing one of the famous fire lookout trees. The Gloucester and Bicentennial trees are both open for climbing, but it’s not an experience for the faint-hearted. A karri forest butts up against another of the region’s natural highlights: the Yeagarup Dunes. Driven by strong winds off the Southern Ocean, this landlocked ten-kilometre-wide field of massive sand dunes is moving a distance of around four metres a year. One of the easiest and most informative ways to see it is on a half day 4WD tour with Pemberton Discovery Tours, which will also take care of your national park entry fees.
Beautifully integrated into its natural setting by Lake Beedelup, RAC Karri Valley Resort outside Pemberton has to be one of the most atmospheric places to stay in the entire region. Don’t go expecting anything super flash; the accommodation is fairly basic, but clean and comfortable, and ranges from motel-style rooms to rustic self-contained chalets. However, waking up to see mist rising from the surface of the lake as it reflects a mirror-like image of the surrounding karri forest is a top shelf moment. The Lakeside Restaurant occupies an airy pavilion that juts out over the water, and is the perfect spot for sundowners.
While they are among the tallest trees in the world, karris aren’t the only giants that inhabit the South West. Red tingle trees are also impressive in height and girth, and can reach up to 75 metres in height. The must-visit Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk is situated in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park (1.5 hours’ drive south-east of Pemberton) and will see you taking to the tingle treetops on a series of suspended walkways (and no, that is not your imagination; they do indeed sway!). The 600-metre-long walk is accessible to all, and can be followed by a walk through the forest at ground level on the Ancient Empire boardwalk. Many of the oldest trees have burnt out butts (bases), which provide for some awesome photo opportunities.
It’s time to soak up the beauty of the South West’s remote and dramatic coast line. Set a course for William Bay National Park — home to the Greens Pool and Elephant Rocks. This stretch of coast is famous for its turquoise waters edged by huge granite boulders. Greens Pool is protected from the swells of the Southern Ocean and is a popular spot for swimming, snorkelling, and general rock hopping. You’ll be sharing the pool with myriad sea creatures, which will delight younger visitors. It’s a short walk from there to the Elephant Rocks — a set of huge granite boulders that resemble a herd of elephants enjoying a paddle. There’s a trail between the rocks that leads to an idyllic cove and sandy beach. A short wade/swim is involved to reach the beach, but the currents can be unpredictable. It looks inviting, but exercise caution.
The drive from William Bay National Park through to Albany takes less than an hour, but you’ll need little excuse to break up the trip anyway in Denmark. This delightful town offers access to a number of cool climate wineries and is also home to an array of gourmet food producers. Knock off two complementary birds with one stone at Ducketts Mill Wines and Denmark Farmhouse Cheese — two parts of the one family-run business. The cellar door is stocked with tempting cheeses, fudges and preserves, and offers wine and cheese tastings. They also offer grazing platters that groan under the weight of local produce and foodstuffs. This is the perfect lunch stop.
As you cruise into Albany, hang a right at the main roundabout and continue out to Torndirrup National Park for another taste of salty, windswept coastal magnificence. Here the Southern Ocean has created what are known as the Natural Bridge and The Gap, the latter being a plunging ravine where the waves rush in with incredible ferocity. State-of-the-art viewing structures provide safe views of the icy drama far below you. The noise is deafening and the wind can whip the best fitting of hats clean off your head (and you won’t be getting it back!). You have been warned!
We wind up this whirlwind tour of the South West and Great Southern in amazing Albany, which offers no shortage of ways to fill a three or four-day stay. One of the absolute highlights is the National Anzac Centre, which sits on a headland overlooking the tranquil waters of King George Sound. Try to visualise the sight of close to 40 troop frigates preparing to set sail from here in November 1914, bound for the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East in World War I. Forty thousand Australian and New Zealand soldiers made the journey, and many would not return. The centre tells their story by melding multimedia with displays of historical artefacts. It’s a moving tribute to all those who have served their country in combat.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia.
For more information, visit www.australiassouthwest.com.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in South West WA? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism Western Australia
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.