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Between the Capes

A dream destination for holidaymakers who don’t fancy the schlep overseas, Margaret River offers the tourist’s holy trinity: fine wine, great food and a bewitching coastline. One of only seven Australian regions with an eco certification, it’s impossible not to fall in love with WA’s coolest destination.

There’s a lot to love about Perth’s favourite beachside town. Built on a solid bedrock of old-school farming and big-wave surfing, Margaret River’s cool, ocean-loving culture feeds a soulful food scene that’s organic, biodynamic and makes it oh-so-easy to have a sustainable holiday. Music festivals and surf contests gather the town together and fill the beds of its many eco-certified retreats. There are yoga classes aplenty, permaculture workshops and organic tasting sessions in dozens of vineyards. But “Margs”, as locals affectionately call it, offers quite a bit more.

A few years ago, Margaret River become WA’s first certified Eco destination, one of only seven Australian regions now recognised for a community’s collective efforts to foster local sustainability. An entire town pulling together for the planet is a big tourism drawcard anywhere you travel, but when you factor in that Margaret River also backs onto one of the most bewitching coastlines in the west (with waves and dive spots to boot), it all amounts to a pretty strong elixir.

The adventure coast

There’s a grittiness among locals that comes from people going against the grain and carving out businesses they believe in. You’ll find them literally everywhere around Margs, on patches of regenerated farmland turned into biodynamic food gardens, down on the waves teaching grommets to surf, bottling their organic wines and walking and talking about wild foods on traditional Wadandi lands.

It’s what continues to inspire all these remarkable entrepreneurs that piques my interest, so while there are far more indulgent ways I could be spending my time around Margaret River, I strap on my hiking shoes and head outdoors.

Squeezed scenically between lapis-blue coves and a coastal fringe of fragrant peppermint trees, the Cape to Cape Track is a west coast classic. This rugged wander takes seven days to hike, following windswept ridgelines and friable limestone cliffs from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin, 135km away. Hiking this coastline reveals what most tourists miss: deep ravines where secret freshwater springs flow, sacred, Indigenous red sand blowouts and quiet, secluded coves where you can strip off in solitude and dive under crashing waves.

Walking the Cape to Cape

I touch the cool stone of the historical Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse and turn south through a sea of flowering pink pimeleas. The springtime heat has me constantly looking seaward, but there are plenty of distractions: red-tailed tropicbirds roosting on Sugarloaf Rock, a steely guard of helmeted surfers braving the break at Three Bears and a sneaky latte and body surfing session at Yallingup at dawn on day two.

I gather miniature, coloured shells at Moses Rock and fill my water bottles with sweet spring water high above Canal Rocks. With a mask and snorkel in hand, I shoot for the sea, plunging into the rare pocket of calm where Canal Rocks holds back the swell in Ngari Capes Marine Park. Nestled between twin ridgelines of rock that stretch far out to sea, I float above blooming soft corals and chase darting, vibrant fish. The water is cold by tropical standards but I find the perfect antidote afterwards, hauling out onto superheated rock slabs and sunning myself crisp again beside fishfilled rock pools.

Back on the trail, there are bobtails and tiger snakes, boggy heathlands and grunty patches of soft sand to trudge through. But I see breachingb humpback whales and brush my fingers over trailside wildflowers, and linger in all-to-myself sandy coves to watch the sunset.

Riding waves

After three days on the trail, I reach Cowaramup’s impossibly blue bay. I pause, joining onlookers gazing seaward as big-wave surfers brave the heaving, heavy-duty North Point break. Deep inside Cowaramup’s protected curl of tricoloured coastline, gentler waves beckon beginners to take their first tumbles in the soft swell. Just 20km from Margaret River, the scene here is all about the waves, even if it’s your first day and you’re lined up with all the other would-be grommets down on the sand.

Known for its best-day-ever waves, Margaret River gets its surfing cred from one rugged, ragged coastline. Great tendrils of billion-year-old rock and reef snag the sea as it rolls in across the Indian Ocean, fuelling 75 different surf breaks that work in all kinds of wind. Local riders have their favourites and I’m guided through the best by my own WA-grown surfer, photographer David Bristow. From the remote Three Bears and the challenging Rabbits, to Super Tubes (for edgy YouTube clips) and the consistent Car Parks, there are waves for all stages and for all kinds of surfers too.

The spectacular sweep of sand at Gracetown faces off into Cowaramup Bay, where waves offer more variety than almost anywhere on the coast. Gracetown gathers a crowd but that provides my ticket out too, so I shake off my shoes and stick out my thumb. It takes another four days of hiking before you can call yourself a real Cape to Caper, but the sunset glow signals it’s time for me to retreat to some cool, stone courtyard for a glass of Margaret River red.

Perfect provisioning

There are enough wineries in Margaret River to build an entire trip around. It might be one of the world’s youngest, most geographically isolated winegrowing regions, but Margaret River is home to more five-star-rated wineries than anywhere else in the country. Proving again that quality trumps quantity, its wineries produce a quarter of Australia’s premium vinos. Dozens of big-name estates plant their roots here, but it’s the organic and biodynamic vintners that continue to turn heads. Those who find their way to McHenry Hohnen, Voyager, Stormflower and Blind Corner wineries won’t leave empty-handed.

Some, like the certified biodynamic Burnside Organic Farm, have branched out to offer more than just wine tastings, with vegetable gardens, avocado orchards, caper groves and cabins for rent. Eco-certified Fair Harvest is a solar-powered permaculture farm located 5km out of Margaret River that’s renowned for its decades-old food gardens. It welcomes campers, has a yoga barn and farm cafe on-site and provides cooking and yoga classes.

There are dozens of other sustainable stays I could enjoy around Margaret River, all destined to keep me busy learning and practising everything from wild-food foraging to treetop yoga. I choose instead to spend my next sunrise camped beneath forest kings in Boranup Forest. But, before I leave town, I take a leisurely loop around Margaret River’s Sunday farmers’ market to gather fresh supplies and sample new favourite vinos, then head inland in search of solitude.

Watery wilds

Winding through giant karri and jarrah forests en route to the sea, the inky Blackwood River links picturesque townships and remote riverside camps. Stretching for 270km, it’s the state’s longest continually flowing river — and one of the most beautiful. The Blackwood’s significant wintertime flow could challenge expert paddlers for weeks. But when the rains finally falter and spring arrives in the Blackwood River Valley, yhe river’s pace slows considerably and gentle downstream drifts are possible.

I spend a day dipping my paddle across tranquil pools and spilling over miniature rapids, spooking emus and kangaroos with my sudden whoops of joy. Because it’s spring, the riverbanks are ablaze with wild, sunny jonquils and big, bright daffodils that shoot up in great, colourful clumps, seemingly overnight. I find them along dewy forest trails and surrounding my jarrah forest campsites, scattered across grazing paddocks and colouring the roadside too.

Flower power

It’s impossible to resist the urge to pull over and gather up big, fragrant posies that decorate my dash nand fill the car with an intoxicating perfume. I follow the Blackwood upstream to Nannup, whose auspicious name means “a place by the waters to rest”. Nannup has a long history of gathering people to its alluring riverbanks that started with southwest Indigenous tribes before becoming a creative hub for artisans and gardeners.

I arrive in Nannup to find the Flower and Garden Festival in full swing, and the main street planted with vast beds of crimson tulips and soft-scented lavender, jonquils and daffodils. The town is buzzing and there’s plenty to do: gardening workshops, art shows and prize-winning gardens to tour. There are street performers, live music and home-grown markets.

I buy up tulip bulbs and floral-scented honey, bflowerpots and organic potions, and pause for blavender-infused afternoon tea at the Nannup Lavender Farm. Accommodation books up early at festival time, so I drive 8km northwest to St John Brook Conservation Park to camp among swamp peppermint trees and riverside banksias on the edge of Workman’s Pool.

Searching for tigers

It’s a curious kind of legend but it has me hoping that the last park ranger to see a Nannup tiger was not mistaken. No one has taken a clear picture since the 1990s, but thylacine seekers are convinced that the tiger still roams around Nannup. Resembling Australia’s striped, doglike thylacine, the last of which died in captivity in 1936, the Nannup tiger continues to inspire forest wanders.

I set out along the historical Timberline Trail with eyes wide open, scouring the jarrah forest ahead of me, wishing and hoping. An easy 30-minute amble brings me to Barrabup Pool, where towering timbers are reflected in a deep, clear waterhole. I brave a chilly dip and haul out onto the pontoon to dry, spotting marron in the muddy shallows and red-winged fairy wrens in the fringing peppermint trees.

After a few quiet hours, I reach Cambray Siding, where the 1000km-long Munda Biddi mountain biking trail loops back to Nannup. I retrace my steps, watching for giant paw prints on the path around Sleeper Hewer’s Hut and pausing to read historical snippets about life in the old Barrabup Timber Mill. From 1910 until 1925 when the wood finally ran out, Barrabup was home to around 150 workers.

They gutted the jarrah forests and loaded its timber onto the wood-fired stream train known as “The Blackwood” for the slow trip to the coast. A sanctuary today, St John Brook Conservation Park is a quiet place to camp, with hiking and biking trails and cool, clear pools for swimming. An easy, 60km drive from Margaret River, it’s the perfect forest escape when the coast heats up and some tiger searching is on the cards.

After a week away from the sea, I loop back to where my journey began, to shake off my solitude and find music, food and community. The Margaret River region might be booming and more popular than ever, but time spent in its natural realms can prove endlessly soothing still.

Escape routes

Go Margaret River is located 290km south of Perth (a three-to-four-hour drive). Nannup lies 70km west via Mowen Road.

Visit Arrive in autumn for cool, dry weather and in spring for wildflowers. Expect hot, sunny days over summer and rain during winter.

Stay Ecotourism certified Margaret River Retreat offers two-night stays in studio rooms and glamping tents (from $440/ couple). Campsites beneath Boranup Forest’s giant karris, or on the edge of Barrabup Pool in St Johns Brook Conservation Park, cost $11/adult and $3/child (free entry, toilets).

Pack A surfboard, snorkelling gear, hiking shoes and a yoga mat.

Article Featured in WellBeing 209

Photography by David Bristow

Catherine Lawson

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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