Man at His Best

Destination: Perth

Our writer-at-large takes a road trip through Western Australia to discover a land of kangas, quokkas and wine.

BY Lestari Hairul | Aug 28, 2017 | Travel

The quokkas are everywhere on Rottnest Island, and so is their pellet-sized poop. Crushed and smooshed by the various vehicles and footfall, some have even flattened under the weight of tourists laid out, sun-tanning on the green. The poop, that is, not the adorable creatures.

A few months before this trip, two men were charged with abusing a quokka that they’d caught. On camera, one of them was seen kicking and flinging the terrified animal about. But it’s not a recent thing. The ’70s and the ’80s were filled with stories of “quokka soccer”, according to the guide on the bus tour. During the years when Rottnest was used as a prison for Aboriginal men under the racist colonial administration, quokkas were game meat for consumption. Our ride around the island, relatively shielded from the blazing sun outside, revealed several quokkas hiding under the shade of low shrubbery. And the tourists hunting them for an Instagram picture.

Beautiful as the island is, all sparkling azure seas and stark landscape of brushes across the land, it all gets pretty depressing after a bit of history and seeing the thin, patchy fur of the quokkas caused by tourists feeding them junk for a selfie. On the ferry ride to Fremantle, I chat with an older lady who regales me with stories of her travels, changing my earlier impression of the island. She’s been visiting Rottnest since 1965 and has choice words for the quokka abusers: “Ten minutes in a pen with dingoes as sentence. Good luck!” The island is best experienced over a couple of days, according to her, and as far away from the day-trippers as possible. Perhaps another time.

On the road
Perth is the place you go to retire. Or so the Singaporean cliché goes. We landed in the capital of Western Australia at the tail-end of the Easter holidays, with shops shuttered and streets empty. Three days later, in Fremantle, it is no different. A quiet city greets us on our ferry from Rottnest, a ghost town of shops already closing up for the day and people going home. It is the third-biggest port after Melbourne and Sydney, but doesn’t quite feel like it. We’re a long way from Singapore, five days by boat, to be specific.

A view of Elizabeth Quay.

The capital has its charms, of course. Perth city with its beautiful, colourful graffiti that lifts up the drab, squat buildings. Peeling posters advertising delights, which you could never publicly advertise in Singapore, are plastered on buildings sandwiched by Asian restaurants of different cultures. The crisp, fresh air of King’s Park and the moderate bustle of Elizabeth Quay reveal more of the city’s inhabitants of the Swan Valley, including a lavish encampment for the rich by the river aptly dubbed Tuscany on the Swan.

Settled in 1829, Fremantle is touted as the “best preserved 19th-century port streetscape in the world” by the tourism board of Western Australia. Historic buildings housing trendy shops and restaurants, including a gigantic H&M in an old post office in Perth City, are practically de rigueur in Perth. And Fremantle, in particular, has that aplenty. We have a hearty breakfast, the start of many more of this Australian institution, at Moore & Moore café, which operates out of the 177-year-old Moore building. A promenade through the streets to meet our ride reveals many more of the quirky bookstores and the cool eateries that populate the city, with plaques proudly carried on the building’s façade explaining its history.

We finally meet Gloria Mischewski of Perth Luxury Tours, our driver for the rest of the trip. Jovial and utterly hilarious, this Kiwi grandmother has many years of expert driving all over Western Australia. It’s a long drive, about three hours, to our stay for the next two nights in Margaret River. Western Australia is massive, and the best way to really experience it is to be on the road with several pit-stops along the way.

Our first outside Perth is the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre. A purely non-profit, it’s been devoted to dolphin research and conservation since 1994. It is in the process of refurbishment, to better serve the needs of the community with a larger venue and more space for visitor education about the pods of over 200 wild bottlenose dolphins living in and around Koombana Bay. Set to be completed by 2018, the centre, nonetheless, continues to operate as usual with the highlight of its activities being a cruise.

Frolicking on a beach at Rottnest Island.

Barely a moment out at sea, and we spot a mother and her calf swimming away from us. The day is bright, sunny and beautiful, and soon enough, we spot more dolphins frolicking in the sea. A group of (human) father and sons stands on a rock wall fishing for salmon, attracting much attention from the seagulls, the dolphins and the humans aboard the viewing vessel. A little while later, we sight the spectacle that we’ve all been unknowingly looking for: dolphins surfing. Not on boards, of course; they ride the waves, leaping out and into the surf as the surge propels them forward. They’re hamming it up for the spectators in rapt attention with our cameras out. There’s a small boat with tourists having a little swim out at sea, and one dolphin appears fixated on a man who’d earlier jumped off the boat to greet the dolphins. Man and cetacean curiously inspect each other at a respectful, safe distance.

Many miles later, we are back on the road again to Busselton. Its historic jetty is the main attraction here. Built in 1853, it is the longest wooden pier in the world, stretching almost 2km out into the waters of Geographe Bay. We have a quick lunch and I taste kangaroo for the first time at The Goose. I’m not sure I like its gamey nature, but after crocodile in Zimbabwe, it’s certainly not the worst meat that I’ve ever tasted, and at least, it’s definitely the healthiest, according to a range of experts.

A train ride takes you to the Underwater Observatory, with sights of the endless blues of the seas and charming seagull resting points along the length of the jetty. It is Australia’s greatest artificial reef with a diversity of more than 300 species of marine life that you can observe from the Observatory. Lucky ones spot a sea lion amongst the colourful corals curiously peeking into a window at the human gawkers. A pod of dolphins bids us farewell with a couple of leaps as we ride the train back to firm ground.

The sun is setting as we make our way to Margaret River town. A blaze of oranges, reds and purples peeks out through gaps in the dense forest as dusk starts to take over. The beauty of the scene prompts our guide in Margaret River, Brianna Delaporte of Australia’s South West tourism, to do a detour just to catch the sunset.

We make it just in time to Gracetown’s North Point where we watch the skies in silence. “Look! There are so many dolphins surfing!” An enthusiastic member of the team gesticulates excitedly at the sea where a group of surfers is riding the last waves of the day. Perhaps it is the magnificence of the scene—or the long day that we’ve had—for in a fit of beauty-drunk exhilaration one could possibly mistake humans riding boards as dolphins. If you squint enough, anyway. The Wardandi people consider this area a sacred site, where the gifts of their creator god Wardan in the form of whales would come to shore during the right season. It’s not difficult to imagine why; the breath-taking environment inspires respect.

Heyya, big fella!

Wild in nature
During the right season, between May and September, whales can also be seen near where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean. Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in mainland Australia, was constructed from local limestone in 1895 and is still in operation today since it is a dangerous zone for vessels to navigate through. From here, you get the best vantage points for whale watching, and to see much of the region from the top of the 39m-tall lighthouse. Named after the first known ship to have sailed the cape in 1622, the Dutch ship Leeuwin (meaning lioness) was built after 22 ships were wrecked in the treacherous area. Thereafter, only one ship sank to a watery grave with no casualties thanks to the presence of the lighthouse.

The place is barren, windswept and dangerously beautiful in a way that might have inspired Romantic literature. Just watch out for the venomous snakes slithering in the heathlands and the thick scrub, and stick to the designated paths. This is Australia, after all.

Along the way, we pass Witchcliff, a charming, little town with witch-themed decorations all over. There’s even a full-sized witch hanging out at the petrol station for seemingly no particular reason other than to represent its town well.

We reach Hamelin Bay with its friendly, massive stingrays coming to shore. A silly one comes far too close and there is talk of stingray barbecue amongst the Asians in our group, naturally, before it finally manages to swoop out of the sand and back into the waters. It is soon back again, floundering on the beach, attempting to propel itself out of the sucking, wet sand. There are several pretty beaches in the area, Hamelin Bay included, but Delaporte describes the prettiest by far nearby as only accessible by four-wheel drive. Alas, our snazzy, black limo-van is more suited to touring, and possibly covert surveillance, so on we drive for another spot of nature.

There are 24 national parks in the southwest region of Western Australia and we visit the Boranup Forest in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. The “place of the male dingo” is the Wardandi meaning for the name Boranup, the suffix “up” means “place of” in the language. Pale-barked Karri Trees populate the forest and the scent of eucalyptus permeates the air, making for a refreshing pit-stop before we head for a boozy lunch. It is a secondary forest. The trees were all logged in the early 20th century, but they were found to not be useful wood, and so were allowed to grow again. Massive as they are now, they are still young’uns and can still grow even bigger vertically and horizontally given more time.

Underwater down below the Busselton Jetty.

In wine country
Margaret River is best known for its wines and food, especially to Singaporeans just starting to get on the wining bandwagon. Naturally, a spot of each is what we need to make the trip a complete one. Down at the expansive, beautiful Voyager Estate, with its blooming red rose bushes guarding the lines of grapes, we are treated to a sumptuous lunch with wine pairing. I have a bottle from the Estate still sitting untouched on my desk thanks to my frequent travels and, here, I finally get to taste it.

The wines of Margaret River are not done with us. We carry on to Bettenay’s Margaret River, famed for their handcrafted nougat and wines, and this is where we fill our bellies some more with bites of nougats and sips of wine. With a basket in hand, I get a little too liberal with the sweeping of bars of nougat into my grasp and a shot of chilli-infused rosé brings me to my senses. It is an experiment by the Bettenay family, but possibly a mite too strange for my tastes, even if my love for chilli caused a little meltdown in the kitchens of the restaurant where we had breakfast earlier.

For a short spell, we return to Olio Bello—our luxury glamping grounds for the two nights in Margaret River—digesting all the food and the booze on a hammock by the lake. The ducks are quacking, the birds are singing, the wind’s rustling leaves, and the cool weather tempered by a little heat from the sun makes for a nice, quick snooze before we head on to our last activity for the day.

Koomal Dreaming conducts tours in the region and, this evening, Josh Whiteland, the Wardandi proprietor of the company, takes us into Ngilgi Cave. Nearing twilight, we begin with a bushwalk as Whiteland points out and explains the different trees and plants that provide bush medicine. The Aboriginal people possess vast knowledge of the myriad products of nature that can do anything from providing food to medicine for upset bellies, fevers and wounds. We then descend into the sacred cave of crystals, stalactites and stalagmites, where the good spirit Ngilgi lived, and Whiteland tells the story of Dreamtime, concluding with a hypnotising performance using a handmade didgeridoo gifted to him by an elder.

Recycled car tyres and PVC make up the steps and the handrails in the cave. It is cool inside, between 19°C and 21°C, but it gets progressively more humid as you go deeper. I am the only one to go through the kids’ crawlspace, fun for teacup-sized humans but, for an adult, it can get a little claustrophobic. The view is well-worth it though, and nothing beats the feeling of exploring the semi-dark unknown and being treated to views of natural formations running pareidolia on overtime. Here’s an elephant; there’s a woman with a child; here’s an oddly-shaped action figure.

Wine, wine, all around!

By the time we emerge above-ground, twilight has set. Our ride back to Olio Bello is in pitch darkness, with the odd, lone kangaroo on either side of the road silently hanging about, undecided about crossing the road. We reach the campgrounds but are unfortunately felled by a faulty, newly-installed gate. As our guides rally about, frantically figuring out a way to get us in—so remote are we that there’s nobody around for miles; the only inhabitants being us occupying the six luxury lodges and the owner’s sister who lives on the grounds—and end up performing an impromptu dance show by the gates to keep us entertained in the cold.

We eventually find our way in through a back gate, the owner’s sister guiding us from her car as we wind through the olive groves where numerous kangaroos bound about in the dark. A massive, muscled kangaroo stands silent by the vegetable patch, in the company of his friends, the rooster and the chickens, watching as we drive past.

The little adventure only served to heighten our excitement for the place. The stars are out in full force now, and being so far away from any source of artificial light, save for the meagre lights of the cabins, means we can see practically the entirety of the Milky Way splashed across the sky. It is an awesome sight, in the truest sense of the word. A few of us choose to forgo a bit of sleep—the wine and the food that we had at dinner still percolating in our bellies—for some star-gazing with blankets and mugs of hot tea on the back porch.

Wine in the belly, with stars in our eyes; the quiet only occasionally punctuated by our laughter or the hoots, the chirps and the rustle of wildlife. What better way to end a day than to wish upon shooting stars and swap stories in the wilds of nature?

Final stretch
Red sky in the morning greets us for our last few laps of the road trip. We do an early drive, just light enough that we see sleepy juvenile kangas hopping about to settle in for a day’s rest. They are not fully grown, but not joeys in need of mummy’s pouch either. We pass them by, occasionally spotting emus, and even the odd camel here and there, grazing in the mists as the sun rises, spreading blue all around.

Passing through another cute little town, this time called Nannup, we reach Pemberton. Gloria the expert driver that she is, manages to get us there in double time. Enough for a quick visit to a neighbouring café serving purportedly the best beef pie in Australia to refuel. We don’t quite agree with that assessment, but we’ll take their word for it. Next door is Pemberton Discovery Tours and we are booked to do the Beach and Forest Eco Adventure Tour with the proprietor himself, Graeme Dearle.

Josh Whiteland of Koomal Dreaming.

In a four-wheel drive—the requisite off-road vehicle needed to get through the three very different environments of the D’Entrecasteaux and Warren National Parks—Dearle first takes us through the old-growth Karri forest. These are the gigantic, older cousins of the ones we’d seen in Boranup. He points out the black, burnt bark, a result of the Manjimup bushfires in Pemberton three years ago that lasted two-and-a-half weeks. We take a little walk, exploring the massive trees which, unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to climb. A few poses by a big tree hollowed out at its base, and we are on our way. Dearle busts out his drone and videos a few cool shots of us from almost as high as the height of the trees.

A little while later, we drive into a completely different environment of the Yeagarup Sand Dune System. Years upon years of shifting sands have buried, uncovered, and reburied trees of the landscape. Out in the distance, we can see the smoke from controlled burn-offs meant to prevent more of the devastating bushfires that Australia often sees during the dry, hot months.

Romantic, alternative history declares that Yeagerup means a place of love. Whiteland back in Ngilgi Cave had described something similar. Yallingup was also referred to as a place of love by Europeans in the early 20th century. Many honeymooners visited it, and there’s even a Cupid’s Corner inside.

Yeagerup, in truth, means place of the wandering rainbow serpent spirit, the all-important figure in the Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology. It’s not a stretch to think of the place imbued with such depths of meaning, the rolling, pure, white, powdery sand dunes give way to the beach of the Great Southern Ocean in a glorious crashing of waves. We watch the awe-inspiring natural environment in silence, munching away on fruit picked from Dearle’s orchards.

On our way back, in Dearle’s campgrounds near a still lake, we have the best meal of the entire trip. A very simple, cold lunch consisting of do-it-yourself sandwiches with Pemberton’s best smoked salmon, chicken, patês and fresh vegetables, and mugs of hot coffee or tea. Amidst nature, with friends, good conversation and the best tomato relish that I’ve ever tasted, simplicity is elevated to a level greater than any fancy dinner I’ve ever had.

We visit our last stop of the day, passing through Denmark. Almost at the end of opening hours of the Valley of the Giants Treetop Walk, we commence another jaunt through nature, this time 40m above ground. The design of the park was actually modelled after a similar national park in Pahang, Malaysia and features a 600m stroll amidst massive trees that are hundreds of years old. Keeping as quiet as I can, and far away from the noisy crowd taking selfies and giggling, I finally spot what I am looking for. A well-fed quokka, with a thick, healthy coat doing its quokka business at the foot of a giant tree metres below me. He crouches, occasionally nosing about the undergrowth, utterly unafraid. Quokkas don’t only exist on Rottnest, though the numbers are certainly greater there. You can spot the rare creature in the shrubbery of the Valley of the Giants, as long as you are quiet with keen eyes and hearing.

A few moments later, the spell is broken as a pair of Korean tourists gambol towards me, scaring Mr Quokka away.

Return to the concrete jungle 
In Albany, we visit its charming Farmers’ Market. Quaint and local, anything from fresh produce from the sellers’ own farms or orchards, to jams and honey are for sale here. A changing roster of street musicians entertains the weekend crowd, the one attracting the most attention is a nine-piece band made up entirely of elderly women playing cheeky songs.

Unforgiving, rugged beauty greets us at Torndirrup National Park. Just a couple of minutes’ drive from the market is a place that was once joined at the hip to Antarctica for almost 1,300 million years. Granodiorite and gneiss rocks featuring prominently on the windswept landscape were formed as a result of the collision of the Antarctica and Australia tectonic plates; they are the “roots” of the mountain belt formed by the convergence, though many thousands of millions of years have done their work in eroding the mountains, leaving what you see now.

The Gap and Natural Bridge has claimed many lives and the sheer ferocity of the environment inspires both awe and fear. It beggars belief how one man managed to survive his own stupidity after being swept away by the surging of waves under The Gap.

We head on to another Albany local, Oranje Tractor Wines, for one last moment of quiet before we make the final four-and-a-half-hour journey back to Perth. An afternoon spent foraging and snacking on fruit freshly plucked from the orchard is nicely wrapped up with a tasty ploughman’s lunch and a small tasting of the winery’s finest paired with delicious morsels of cheese and olives. We linger longer than expected at the cosy and lovely Oranje, and have to make the final, long drive a speedy one. Stomachs and hearts full, the luggage compartment of our secret service
vehicle is packed to the brim with fresh fruit, wines and other delicacies.

On the highway through Bannister into Perth, a dead kangaroo lies by the side of the road. We’ve spotted a number of roadkill throughout the trip, but this is the first massive kanga that we’ve seen dead on the road. A solemn silence descends, a mixture of deference for the dead and, realistically, our now-fatigued bones from the last eight days of travel at breakneck speed. We enter the city of Perth and the lights begin to look familiar in the fast-approaching twilight. People are starting to head out in full force for the vibrant nightlife; the serenity of wide, open spaces all but a whisper in our memories.

Perth as a place of retirement? Surely, there’s far more to do out in Western Australia that’s catering to more than those recovering their hard-won CPF monies. If it’s escape that you’re looking for in a holiday, there’s no better place than in the multi-faceted WA.

This article was first published in Esquire Singapore, August 2017.