The great southern shore is a mosaic of textures and tastes, where the dark and rough balance and blend with the light and smooth. Story and photos: Don Fuchs
Saturday night must always be a big one in Albany, and tonight York St, the city’s main drag, is buzzing. Parking is hard to find, and so are tables in restaurants. The impressive Town Hall, a fine example of Victorian free classical architecture, is lit. The day has been quite hot but now there is a pleasant coolness drifting in from the ocean while the darkening night spins a cocoon over the town and creates a feeling of cosiness. The fact that Albany, once designated to be Western Australia’s capital, lies on one of the remotest edges of the continent, with the expanse of the Southern Ocean at its doorstep, doesn’t register at all.
Albany, a town of about 36,000 people, is the first piece of a jigsaw puzzle that will eventually form a complete picture of what the people in the west call the Great Southern. For a more expansive view of this southern greatness, I drive up Mt Adelaide to the Princess Royal Fortress Military Museum, site of a fort built in 1893. Up here you get a deep sense of history and geography, as the fort was established to protect one of the world’s finest natural harbours. From a lookout, the view is over sweeping Middleton Bay, with secluded Oyster Harbour in the hazy background. Directly east sparkles King George Sound. Then there is Princess Royal Harbour itself, almost enclosed by land.
Albany’s coastal scenery is blessed with a rare beauty and adds the second piece to the jigsaw. What protects the town’s harbour from the fury of the Southern Ocean is a long finger of land ending in a narrow tip called Flinders Peninsula. This peninsula is part of Torndirrup National Park and most of this dramatic reserve faces the open ocean, which has worked over the ages to form the likes of The Gap and the Natural Bridge, bulwarks of granite constantly battered by huge swells and raging waves. Even on calm days, the interaction of sea and rock creates a mesmerising drama. In foul weather, this turns into a fierce and epic battle.
Not that this magnificent coast completes the jigsaw. Far from it. Inland from Albany is a wonderland of rare wildflowers and ancient ranges, about which I have reservations because a morning mist is shrouding Albany as I drive out. However, by the time I reach Porongurup National Park, 50km north, the sun has done its duty and burned the mist away. The small reserve is like an island in a sea of rural orderliness. Wooded hills, some adorned with massive granite tors and domes, rise over the undulating surrounds and form a playground for walkers, rock climbers and all those who get a kick out of interesting flora – 750 native plant species is a good argument for that.
The highlight, however, is the Granite Skywalk, a stunning construction of steel ladders and walkways high above the karri forest. From here the views are practically unlimited. To the south a grey layer of sea mist marks the Southern Ocean, while just below stretches a patchwork of farm paddocks interspersed by islands of bushland.
The outlook to the north is similar except that the expanse comes to an abrupt end at the base of the Stirling Range, a row of prominent peaks circled by a botanical wonderland. Protected as Stirling Range National Park, wildflower fans find everything from tiny rare orchids to the brilliant red Albany banksia. With this piece of the jigsaw added, the full picture is starting to emerge.
This area is blessed with a climate that geographers call Mediterranean: warm summers and cool winters. January, statistics tell, gets an average eight hours of sunshine daily. Perfect climate, however, is not constant sunshine. It needs rain, dark days as well as bright ones. This is so the next day. What better conditions in which to disappear into the forests.
I follow the scenic South Coast Hwy west, through the town of Denmark, and into a region with a slight alternative tinge that is not so apparent around Albany. My destination is the Valley of the Giants near Walpole National Park. Giant red tingle trees, a eucalyptus species with an extremely restricted growing range, form an enchanted grove. While on the ground, the enormous trunks dwarf visitors. Their canopies, about 40m above the lush forest floor, form a different world, accessible by the bold Tree Top Walk. The steel walkway high above the ground sways slightly as you walk through the crowns of these mighty trees. Some are flowering, producing a mass of tiny white blooms, very much in contrast to the enormity of the plant itself. This time the puzzle piece I add is all green.
Driving through the Great Southern Region reveals a delightful lack of pretentiousness. Success has not spoiled the region. People are genuine, prices acceptable. And you’ll find a great deal of enthusiasm and inventiveness. In Denmark, chocolatier John H. Wade has a tiny shop called Darkside where he creates fine pralines and chocolates, adding surprising flavours and matching them to wines of the region.
John is a good example of how, if the landscape forms the pieces of the puzzle, the glue that keeps it locked tight is its glorious produce. I had begun to see this in Albany on the first day, at the farmers markets. Here, happiness mixes with intellect and swarthy hands. It is virtually impossible not to get drawn into the food culture in the region. Places such as Oranje Tractor or Singlefile produce not only wonderful wine but also memorable lunches. At the foot of the Porongurup hills, a wine festival is underway, with a cooking competition and a wine stomping event. In Albany, the Oyster Festival in March draws large crowds.
After a day in the Denmark area, I return to Albany. The day is far from over.
That night, at the London Hotel, the Tin Dog Trio, with Tim Winton’s brother Andrew, is playing blues and rags. That pleasant foot-stomping injection of culture is an unexpected piece of the jigsaw. Now the picture is complete.
www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au – search for the various parks.
Don Fuchs travelled as a guest of Tourism WA.
RACV can help
RACV shops stock all sorts of products for a driving holiday. See the shops list or buy at racv.com.au/shop. RACV Emergency Roadside Assistance covers you Australia-wide. Call 13 RACV or visit any RACV shop.
For a fly-drive holiday, RACV members get special rates on car hire and campervan/motorhome hire. Just go to racv.com.au/travel or call RACV on 13 13 29.