Margaret River: explore the wild west
All paths lead to wine in Margaret River, but there are many adventures along the way.
Cam O’Beirne is cool, calm and collected. I’m a little flustered. The crab whose home my hand just invaded is distinctly put out, if the strength of his nip is anything to go by. “Grab a hand hold.” Cam’s directive is distinct. I try again. No crab this time. Bingo. Secure just in time for the foaming push of ocean to safely wash over me.
This is coasteering, a sport where wetsuits, life jackets and helmets are de rigueur, as is a sense of adventure and a competent guide. I’ve got the kit and the courage; Cam, Margaret River Adventure Company tour guide, Westpac helicopter rescue alumnus and life-saving veteran, has competency covered. Which is lucky, because an adventure activity defined by jumping off sea-encircled rock ledges into the wild Western Australian ocean could be intimidating without the right support.
Leeuwin Estate's vineyards at dawn
“Right here now, we are looking due west,” Cam says. The two of us have swum from rock ledge to rock ledge, through foaming surf, to climb onto an island rock formation jutting out of the ocean around 35 metres offshore. We’ve followed a single-track path from North Point at Gracetown, a small coastal township near Margaret River, to arrive at this patch of isolated coast. I’ve lived here since November 2015 but have never seen this spot before. Standing on a rock face surrounded by water, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so small, and been so happy to be insignificant.
“Nine thousand kilometres that way is South Africa,” Cam says, and points out to sea. It’s an incredible viewpoint, free of any markers save for the plumes sent up by humpback and southern right whales during their annual migration north from June to November.
Whales are another marker pointed out by tour operator Sean Blocksidge during a late-afternoon stroll on a remote section of the Cape to Cape track. Different day. Different outing.
This iconic 135-kilometre walking trail skirts the coast between the lighthouses at Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin, Australia’s most south-westerly mainland point. We’re at Wilyabrup, part of the Margaret River region that’s home to some of the region’s oldest wineries.
The secret of Margaret River lies in the passion, heart and community generated by those who choose to live in and be inspired by the landscape.
Sean’s been walking these tracks for years. (When he’s not out canoeing the Margaret River or mountain biking the local trails, mind.) As a one-man show at Margaret River Discovery Company, he knows the landscape intimately. And loves it.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a man caress a boulder before, but when Sean explains that it’s the breakdown of the 250-million-year-old granite and gneiss rock we’re sitting on that creates the ideal soil structure for the region’s famed grape vines, I feel like giving that boulder a little cuddle too.
Coasteering, canoeing, camaraderie and the cape – it might not seem like the way to explore south-west wine country, but then it absolutely is. This is the secret of Margaret River: to understand why around 20 per cent of Australia’s premium wine comes from a region that produces barely two per cent of its grapes, you must look beyond the obvious. Climate. Of course. Soil. Absolutely. But also, the passion, heart and community generated by those who choose to live in and be inspired by the landscape.
Fraser Gallop Estate.
Contos Beach, Margaret River.
People like Francine Davies, who spent years working in the local wine industry before branching out to open Margaret River Collaborative, a city-chic, gallery-style space that serves up some of the town’s best Margaret River Roasting Company coffee, while providing room for local artisans to sell, show and workshop their wares.
“Wine is everywhere in the world,” Francine says. “What makes our region special is that here you can talk to the creative people who make our town special, get out on the river, and actually have contact with the winemakers themselves.”
Winemakers like Amato Vino’s Brad Wehr. A peek into his rustic “office” (an impressively large shed in a paddock) offers a close-up version of the cellar door experiences to be had at nearby Leeuwin and Voyager Estates. This is wine tasting under the microscope. Brad’s appointment-only tour is a chance to talk to the winemaker as he pours tastes of small-batch nebbiolo rosato and teroldego (uncommon wine styles for the region).
If you want to really appreciate and understand what makes Margaret River so special then you need to fully experience the Margaret River region.
It’s a different feel to Cullen Wines, one of the region’s first established wineries, where Frenchman Nic Cleradin pours Vanya Cullen’s award-winning, Bordeaux-style wines to soft jazz and the pleasant clank of cutlery from happy diners in the intimate glass-and-timber dining room that overlooks Cullen’s best chardonnay vines. And yet it makes sense that two such divergent wine experiences exist in the same small area.
Forest and bush. River and ocean. Red and white.
Experiencing these different styles of adventure and artistry means that, when Sean does pour out tastes of Fraser Gallop Parterre cabernet sauvignon in a cellar tasting with Fraser Gallop winemaker, Clive Otto, that glass becomes more than a sip of smooth tannin and ripe berry. It is a drinkable expression of the region’s contrasts.
“Wine from every region tastes different, smells different. That’s the joy of wine,” Sean says. “But if you want to really appreciate and understand what makes Margaret River so special then you need to fully experience the Margaret River region. You need to connect.”
Good idea. Dive deep. Just mind the crabs.
- Throw a line in at Colour Patch in Augusta’s Blackwood River (opposite the fish and chip shop) and haul in whiting for dinner.
- Pat the giant stingrays at Hamelin Bay
- “Get up before the sun, drive into the Boranup Karri forest and listen to the birds wake as the sun comes up.” - Cam O’Beirne
- “Hike the Contos cliff section of the Cape track.” - Sean Blocksidge
- Head to Rendall Weir at Margaret River in the summer and join the local kids jumping off the bridge into the river.
- Take in a Western Australian sunset at Surfers Point, south of the mouth of the Margaret River. Tuck into dinner served by the local food vans.
Need to know
- Getting there: Flights from Melbourne to Perth take a little over four hours. Airport car hire is available for the three-hour, 270-kilometre drive south to Margaret River via the Kwinana, Forrest and Bussell highways.
- Road-trip tip: Stop at Miami Bakehouse in Pinjarra on the Forrest Highway for old-school cakes and pies.
- Must-do experience: Yalgardup Waterfall. A touchstone of the Margaret River and a connection to 50,000-plus years of Indigenous history.
- Essential travel tip: Scenic Caves Road is a hot spot for kangaroo crossings at both ends of the day. Be sure to drive alert.
Go your own way
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Eat and drink
- Miki’s Open Kitchen for intimate Japanese degustation (131 Bussell Highway).
- The Greenroom for great $10 burgers with the kids (113 Bussell Highway).