I’ve been chatting to Alistair McGuinness recently. Me and Alastair have a fair bit in common. We were both born and bred in the UK, I grew up in a town 30 miles east of London and Alistair spent his years living 30 miles north of the English capital.
Both of us lived in the UK for four decades, me nearly 5 actually, before we both decided to move half way round the world to Australia.
And we both like to write about it.
The big difference though is that Alistair moved to the far south western corner of Australia whereas I settled on the east coast.
As you know, I’ve been over his way recently when I spent Four Days in Margaret River.
Alistair, on the other hand, has lived in the area for 13 years, so it’s safe to say he knows his way around the place much better than I do. So when he offered to write an article taking us on a guided tour around his patch, I jumped at the chance.
It’s a long post, so grab a tinny or whatever your favourite drink is, pull up a chair and enjoy the writings of Alistair McGuinness…
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.”
I love to travel, especially to new places and in a country as vast and diverse as Australia the choice of options can stretch your budget and imagination. When I first arrived Down Under, it was as a honeymooner and everything seemed magical; from the vast outback, to the cosmopolitan cities and breathtaking ocean roads.
After a whirlwind trip of the country, my wife and I finally decided to call Australia home and we now live in the South West corner, not far from Margaret River. This once quiet community still manages to retain a rustic ambience despite the growing number of visitors to the region. After spending time in the area, I can appreciate why Lonely Planet once voted Margaret River as one of their Top 10 Destinations in the world.
So what is the appeal? To some it is the chance to escape from the city, and to enjoy coastal walks along rugged cliff tops. For others, it is the world famous surf breaks and for many it is the rolling hills, ancient forests, pristine beaches and award winning wineries.
Like most travellers, I enjoy sharing travel tips and would like to share some secret, and not so secret spots, about the Margret River Region.
The majority of visitors to the Margaret River region come via the West Australian capital of Perth. From here, the trip to Margaret River is fairly simple. You just head, “Down South.” The upgraded highway from Perth along the Forest Highway will transport you to the Margaret River Region in under three hours, with little chance of getting lost along the way.
Like most big cities, Perth eventually wears you down. The heat, traffic and suburban sprawl can leave you feeling jaded and for many, a trip “Down South” is a natural tonic, whatever the season. Autumn and winter are a time for walks in the forest, followed by evenings snuggled up in a cabin, with log fire crackling. Spring brings the mountain bikers, hikers and whale watchers. Summers glide past, with sensational sunsets, lazy days by the ocean and the sight of surfers and travellers from across the world, mixing with the locals in the restaurants, cafes and bars.
As promised earlier, here are some of the places I enjoy visiting in the area.
1. Come face to face with wild Dolphins!
Visitors are often in such a hurry to get to Margaret River that they bypass a few special places along the way. Take Bunbury for example. It’s a small coastal city, built around an industrial port and despite its marketing attempts, hasn’t been able to capture the lure of Perth weekenders. But there are a few special places in the area that are worth sharing.
The first is Koombana Bay.
Nestled alongside the port, this family friendly beach is home to pods of dolphins, with many of them renowned for swimming close to shore, especially during the warmest months. A purpose-built Dolphin Discovery Centre adjacent to the beach is the best place to start. From here you can learn about the dolphins, book interactive tours (snorkel or boat) or take the path down to the beach.
Tip of the day. Arrive early, especially in the summer months, as the dolphins are wild and don’t keep to timetables. Don’t worry if the Discovery Centre is closed, the beach is open to the public at all times and you might find yourself alone in the water with a dolphin!
If you decide that dolphins are on your to do list and want to stay longer in the area, then consider the Ferguson Valley, just 20 minutes inland from Bunbury. It’s like a miniature version of Margret River. It has wineries, rolling hills, microbreweries, lakes and forests. What it doesn’t have, are many people. The roads are whisper quiet and there is no main town, just a few villages dotted amongst the farms. Maybe this is what Margaret River was like, many years ago?
In fact, there are more gnomes in Ferguson Valley, than people.
Where to find Gnomesville
There are gnomes of all shapes and sizes, from all across the world. You will find Irish gnomes, British gnomes, Australian gnomes, and Dutch gnomes. Some are without homes, and some are without clothes. They live in trees, bushes, and in little houses. Some live underground and new ones seem to arrive each week.
So now you have met the Koombana dolphins and visited Gnomesville, it’s time to continue our journey.
The next stop is Busselton.
This is my hometown, so I should be able to tell you a few tips and tricks for enjoying this family seaside town. The major icon is the Busselton jetty, originally built in 1865 to attract trading ships to the shallow harbour. Cattle, produce and logs from the nearby forests were then transported along the length of the jetty and loaded onto the boats. They say that jarrah supports are still found on the streets of London, a testament to the pioneering days and to the qualities of this hardwood.
Nowadays, the 1.8km jetty is a tourist attraction, with thousands of visitors per year. A train takes you to the underwater aquarium at the far end and along the way you will pass fishermen, patiently casting their lines into the azure waters. Depending on the season, you could catch crabs, squid, herring, mulloway or tailor. The jetty is not just for fishing. The marine life has earned the jetty a reputation as a top dive site in Australia.
Others come to snorkel, some kayak in the bay and the brave leap from a designated platform into the clear waters!
After a day by the beach, cast your eyes towards the changing skyline. If you are lucky, you will soon discover why Busselton has been voted the best sunset destination in Australia. With the sun dipping below the horizon, the view of the jetty and the bay can be magical.
In a small town, you do not have to travel far to find the best places to eat and drink. A short walk from the jetty and you are in Queen Street. Take your pick from Chinese, traditional, Thai, Indian or Pizza. The pubs in town range from the traditional Australian type, with large open plan rooms, betting shops and pool tables, to the smaller, boutique style selling craft beers and tapas. Live music can be found on selected venues at the weekend!
Tip of the day. If you are in Busselton on a Saturday, then take a trip towards Dunsborough and search for Harwood’s Cottage to enjoy morning tea under the shade of a 150-year-old fig tree. Cream teas, homemade cakes and scrummy sausage rolls are served in a quintessential setting in a heritage listed farm stay.
Busselton shares Geographe Bay with the small town of Dunsborough, which was originally a whaling station. This popular town epitomises the Down South feel. It has a laid back vibe, and is nestled alongside the calm waters of the bay. Nowadays, the whales are protected and visitors can book boat tours to get up close and personal with the migratory whales between September and December. Sometimes the whales get so close to shore that a walk along the shoreline is enough to spot them breaching in the bay.
Old Dunsborough is an ideal location to soak up the million dollar views, launch your boat into the bay, cast a line or swim out to the floating jetty. Many a Sunday afternoon is spent here, playing cricket on the beach, frolicking in the calm waters or chilling out with a good book!
Nearby, is Eagle Bay Brewery with awesome views, fine food and flavoursome beer.
Craft ales are a popular sight in the Margaret River Region
The Dunsborough country club has tennis courts, a golf course and a designated mountain bike track through the local forest. The next beach is Meelup. Once again it is in a pristine location and I have often arrived here at dawn, to find myself alone with kangaroos as I prepare for an early morning mountain bike ride. At full moon, Meelup is one of the few places in Australia where you can witness the moon rising over the water.
Yallingup is the nearest town to Dunsborough. Set on a hillside, each house in the small township seems destined to have eternal views of the wide sweeping ocean.
Now home to Taj Burrow, the world champion surfer; this small community has a big heart.
The whole escarpment is a labyrinth of caves, many of which are closed to the public. Those that are open, offer a wide variance of experiences. You can take a traditional self-managed tour into the main chambers, or for the adventurous you can take intimate tours where you get deeper and dirtier!
One of my favourites is the Ngilgi Cave Cultural Tour. Josh Whiteland is a traditional owner of the land and takes visitors on a tour of the area, explaining the seasons the bush tucker and the history of the cave. The highlight of the tour is a didgeridoo tune by Josh, deep underground, followed by a simple but hearty campfire meal when back on the surface.
Josh prepares the campfire, for a bush tucker meal
The epicentre is the Township of Margaret River. Weekenders come for the shopping, wineries and coffee. Hippies came in the sixties and never left. Surfers come for a season, fall in love and never leave.
It gets cold in winter, rains more than people think, is not actually on the ocean and gets jam packed in the peak of summer. But it is still, for many in Australia, a well-kept secret.
Giant mushroom in forests near Margaret River
Coffee time, Margaret River style
Each morning, a bush tucker tour takes visitors down the Margaret River on kayaks, where a guide transports you to a pristine wilderness. You will learn about the first pioneers, the wildlife, the local bush food and take a tour to a local cave. Lunch is enjoyed in the bush, with a wide range of foods to suit all tastes, including tasty and nutritional bush tucker.
Margaret River bush tucker kayak tour
I hope you enjoyed these travel tips on the Margaret River Region. Maybe they will entice you to come and visit!
As I mentioned earlier, I love to travel. I also enjoy writing. Combine the two and you get a travel writer.
My new book, Half a World Away: Surviving the Move to a Land Down Under, is a series of short stories about living, working and travelling in Australia.
“Since moving Down Under I have been on walkabout with Aborigines, worked on remote mine sites, witnessed the urban sprawl of modern Australia and forged new friendships in a world half a world away from the one I left behind. The stories uncover the yearning to migrate to Australia, the exhilaration of travelling to the outback and the realisation that emigration has changed my life forever.”