Escaping Manjimup – A Margaret River Road Trip

Escaping Manjimup – A Margaret River Road Trip

We had our first day off in three weeks and it called for a celebration: a mini road-trip to Margaret River, one last jaunt in our Holden Commodore, which is currently more dust than car, before it moves on to owners new.

Sheer blue skies with a sponge stamp moon still brightly defying the suns jurisdiction, heralded a beautiful day for our adventure. No matter how many roads I drive around WA I will never be sick of the contrast of red, dusty mud against the succulent, dripping greens of the Karri trees against the brilliant blue skies of a clear day. The peeling Karri trunks turn creamy when lavishly painted by a rising sun’s rays, with deep chocolatey stains where patches of bark still cling on. Most properties in this area have their own dammed water for domestic use and the morning sun teases light clouds of mist from these bodies of water, which hang over them as an ethereal fog in an otherwise crisp landscape. All of this, either side an undulating strip of stained tarmac, crumbling at the edges: a scar bulldozed through the forest stretching into the distance as if framed. Obviously the eyes will wander, and after two months these views can still cause a near crash when I’m behind the wheel. Luckily there was very little other traffic on our chosen path!

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An hour and a half east, Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was to be our first stop. Pausing for a breakfast pastry in Augusta, we were unimpressed by the sea side town; windswept greys with a retirement village feel. We passed on. We emerged from the forests into a landscape of weather beaten scrub, of wearily subdued pastels. Rolling along the undulating roads we could have been in a desolate British moorland. The pristine white of the lighthouse protruded above the scrub and made an impressive sight against the sky which had turned thunderously grey as we’d approached the coast. It stood with calm obliviousness to the elements attempting to battering it from all sides.

Our $8 entry gained us a rambling audio tour that filled us in on every minute detail of the lighthouse’s history and access to the grounds. A $20 ticket gave you a tour up the lighthouse too, but I figured if I was here to see the lighthouse, the best view of it was going to be from outside it! Cape Leeuwin marks the most South Westerly point of Australia, and is also where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean meet. There is no distinct current or ocean colour change to mark this, but the fierce, crashing of turquoise waves against the promontories’ jagged edges with spray that leaps high into the air, is very impressive. We spotted wild dolphins navigating the rocks to cross the oceanic boundary. Visit around the month of June and you could be lucky enough to see humpback whales coming close to shore to calf. (With a sickening fear of whales I count myself lucky not to have seen any of the barnacled creatures.)

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The lighthouse promontory is fairly small, two board walks view points and the area around the lighthouse. Venomous snakes rule the grassy hummocks around the path so you’re recommended not to stray. As a result we continually bumped into two boys, also visiting the lighthouse, one Welsh and one English, the first company our own age since we moved to Manjimup two months ago. We parted ways in the car park and watched their Ute drive away, left to our own company again.

On a windy Friday morning the lighthouse had been far from packed with tourists, so what were the odds the caves would be the same? Our rusty social skills had let us down, but not to fear, life in Manjimup has not put us above the use of stalking. We couldn’t miss out on this opportunity for some company. Exceeding the speed limit, we caught their Ute just before Augusta where luckily, they pulled in for petrol – we were running too low to head back into the bush. After a ridiculous song and dance where we both pulled in on the wrong side for our petrol tanks and some banter about our stalker habits, we were back on the road in pursuit of Jewel Cave, Carrywin and Rhys trailing us close behind. Success!

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Caves Road offers a scenic alternative to the quicker highway 10 from Augusta to Margaret River, and also provides access to several caves of different personalities. Jewel Cave turned out to be a $22 guided tour which wasn’t what we fancied. You can get an Ultimate Pass for $70 that gains you entry to Lake Cave, Mammoth Cave (self guided and cavernous), Jewel Cave, Cave Works and Leeuwin Lighthouse. Deliberating in the gift shop of Jewel Cave, we decided the “free to roam” style of Mammoth was more for us and headed back onto the road. Both of us had previously had another cave in mind that we had read about, but with no one having written its name down, we couldn’t find it! That is until we drove right past it; Giant’s Cave. Not included in the Cave Works pass, and cheaper at $18, we pulled over.

After a quick safety chat: follow white reflectors and keep away from red ones, we donned hard hats, switched on our torches and descended into the damp mouth of the cave. In the hour long adventure, we saw only two other tourists and no guides. You are entirely free to roam the caverns, walk ways, scrambles and vertical ladders. At one point we walked into a wide open cavern with soft sand (or bat droppings) underfoot. We each took a corner of the open space, plunged ourselves into torch-free blackness and played underground Marco Polo! I had scraped knees and a sweat on when we climbed out the other end. I’ve never experienced a cave with such freedom to explore, not what you expect in the health and safety conscious first world, but I’m not complaining. $1 bought us a cheesy certificate of achievement, witnessed by the lady on the front desk; something for the travel scrap book.

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Intrepid cave exploration is hard work, so lunch and a St Patrick’s day refreshment was up next on the list; one ended up much more enjoyable than the other. The Town of Margaret River was bustling with tourists and particularly unattractive after a morning of comparative seclusion, none of us were impressed. A soggy chicken roll from Chicken Treat could have been missed but The Settler’s Tavern provided an airy beer garden in which to enjoy our Guiness before heading our separate ways. I’d give the town a miss; even its namesake river is full of supermarket trollies.

I doubt the boys would have been surprised should we have turned up in Perth behind them, but our thirst for company satisfied, we abandoned our stalker antics and headed for the salty sea spray of a beach. Our first attempt failed when Google Maps advised ‘engage 4×4’. We’ve taken the Commodore off-roading before when we got lost on the logging roads to Pemberton and nearly tore the bottom of the car off. More embarrassingly, I got stuck on a hummocky verge, trying to get closer to an emu, less than a meter from the road and yet I was stranded. Third time lucky? The car had to be sellable in a week’s time, we didn’t risk it.

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Attempt number two, Prevelly Beach; a tarmac road and painted car park, more our style. There were even other backpackers doing yoga on the incredibly windy cliff top, although their view was more of the car park than the ocean. Ignoring the warning board, I leapt down the stairs and onto the white sand, immediately cutting my foot on the sharp rocks lying beneath. Rocky ledges beneath the waves had marbled the water with lithe patterns of deep blues, almost black, cool turquoise and hints of seaweed green. A stretch of transparent aquamarine lead down a wide sandy path created where two ledges dropped away into the seabed, inviting you to walk down into the waves. With the shark tales I’ve heard and the rough swell I stayed well clear, sticking to racing the shore break and jumping the white horses.

Prevelly’s salty, surfer feel took me back to Indonesia. When we stopped for a cake in a surf board lined cafe I half expected to be served by Asian waiters. I’d even abandoned my shoes in the car, not a good idea on this weather beaten, rough tarmac. The weather wasn’t on its best behavior so a comparison to somewhere like Newquay would probably be more apt. With cake filled stomachs we began the journey home.

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Just for good measure, we threw in a whistle stop vineyard tour of Voyager Estate, after all what kind of tourists would we be if we visited Margaret River and missed everything wine related? But there is little that interests me in wine other than drinking it, and I was a pint down and needing to drive so a gawp at the estates oversized flag and a gander at the rows of delicate vines was enough for me. Manjimup has several beautiful vineyards of its own, so the wine tasting of WA’s finest can still be crossed from the list.

As we reached the crest of the last hill before Manjimup a fire was blazing angry russet on the horizon, dirty plumes of smoke drifting across the landscape. Fires are so common here, but I would never be able to get used to the nagging worry in the back of my mind if I settled amid these forests with blackened scarred trunks everywhere reminding you of their vicious side. We had been lucky with the sun behind us for our road trip now that autumn and it’s rains have set in, so hopefully we won’t see many more fires before I escape small town life and head East.

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