It's Only Natural
17 January 2012
This little pocket of paradise wins the trifecta in the 'beautiful beach' awards. To add to its accolades, the aptly named Little Beach in Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve doesn't have a person or a footprint on it. A five-day drive between Albany and Esperance puts the wild back into life.
According to my GPS, it's a mere 478km along Highway 1 from Albany to Esperance. It looks fine enough, but who needs fine when you can have fabulous! With so many things to see and do, I allowed five days to cover what could be done in five hours, and I still didn't see everything. So switch off the GPS, take the detours, smell the wildflowers, splash about in a whale nursery; it'll be one of the best travel decisions you'll ever make.
Located just 35km east of Albany on Western Australia's far south coast, Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve is not just a pretty face, it's also of huge ecological importance. It is home to Gilbert's potoroo, a pointy nosed, truffle-eating marsupial teetering on the brink of extinction. Burdened with the label of being Australia's rarest marsupial (and the one with the most exotic diet), this little critter was presumed extinct when neither hide nor tail of it had been seen for more than 100 years.
But in 1994, the world's last remaining colony (less than 40 hardy individuals) was rediscovered hiding out in the bush here. Since then, work by scientists and members of the Gilbert's Potoroo Action Group has seen the population grow to about 60 (buy a bottle of Gilbert's Potoroo Premium white or red wine and help the cause).
The Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve is the ideal starting point for a driving holiday between Albany and Esperance. The region is internationally recognised as one of the world's biodiversity hot spots, and by starting here you will be instantly immersed in its treasures.
Enjoy the one-hour walk along the Heritage Trail, ending at Little Beach, or the trail to Waterfall Beach where, as the name suggests, small waterfalls trickle down the slopes of Mt Gardner to seep into the bone white sand of the beaches. Keep your eye out for little Gilbert or his partner in crime, the equally rare noisy-scrub bird.
Camping isn't allowed in the reserve, so you'll need to head to Albany for the night, an easy 30-minute drive on sealed roads. Albany was Western Australia's first white settlement, and has enough historic attractions to keep you busy for hours. Stretch your legs on the Albany History Walk, an 800m walk taking in the Brig Amity, the Old Gaol, and Patrick Taylor Cottage, the Old Post Office and many other period building and interesting sights.
After a morning indulging in history and culture, nature will be calling. Head out along Frenchmans Bay Road to the Torndirrup Peninsula. This delightful drive should only take half an hour, but it is riddled with so many temptations, you'll need at least half a day.
First stop is the Albany wind farm, the largest and newest wind farm in Australia. The wind farm walk offers spectacular views of the 12 eco-friendly turbines along the Torndirrup Peninsula. The wind farm is open to the public every day of the year and is free to visit.
Other compulsory stops include the Natural Bridge; The Gap; The Blowholes; Frenchman's Bay; and Cable Beach (caution: getting down to this beach involves navigating large boulders). The final destination on this lovely drive is Whale World, situated on the site of the old Cheynes Beach Whaling Station. The Cheynes IV is Australia's only accessible whale chaser, giving visitors the opportunity to explore the whole vessel and experience a whale hunt through audio re-enactment, which is a good example of the folly of humans.
New to Whale World is 'Discovery Bay's Walk on the Wild Side' Australian Native Fauna Park. With over 30 species of Australian native marsupials and reptiles, you can embark on an interactive and educational journey into the world of some of the most highly endangered, rare or vulnerable marsupials in Australia. I signed up for the nocturnal tour and enjoyed a marvellous few hours getting up close and personal with eastern quolls, brush-tailed bettongs, spotted ailed quolls, Tasmanian devils and a cousin of Gilbert, the long-nosed potoroo.
The only downside to the nocturnal tour is the 45-minute drive back to Albany in the dark on a windy, deserted road. The other problem is food, as there is nothing until you get back into Albany, and it will be late.
From Albany, take the South Coast Highway to Bremer Bay, 160km east of Albany. This delightful drive leads you through a mosaic of rolling hills, forestry plantations and vast stretches of wildflowers before arriving at the seaside town of Bremer Bay.
The main beach is only a short stroll from town and has a sheltered cove for swimming (John Cove). Bremer Bay is famous for its fishing and offers a quality range of beach, rock and river options all within a short distance of town. Pretty as it is, Bremer Bay is best known as the gateway to the Fitzgerald River National Park and the whale nursery at Point Ann.
Point Ann is about two hours drive on gravel (72km) north-east of Bremer Bay. NOTE: caravans are not permitted on Pabelup Drive or Point Ann Road because of the narrow and corrugated roads (camper trailers are okay). A day entry pass costs $11 per vehicle and is payable at the park entry (self-serve).
The 330,000ha Park is recognised by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a world biosphere reserve because of its diversity of plant and animal life. More than 1800 bizarre and beautiful plant species have been identified, 63 of which are found nowhere else. Because of its weird and wonderful vegetation, the park has been described as Jurassic Park, Aussie style!
I love a good, weird plant as much as the next person, but today I'm on a whale trail. Point Ann is one of only two places in Australia where southern right whales consistently come to calve in large numbers (the other being Head of Bight in South Australia). Between July and November, up to 40 mothers and calves at a time can been seen visiting the beautiful calm waters in the secluded bays of Point Ann.
Today is a quiet day in the maternity ward; I count just five whales lounging about with their little shadows beside them. In the calm protected waters, the calves learn the life skills needed to make the long return journey to the Antarctic. The mechanics of spy-hopping, tail slapping and breaching are taught and practised, also the calves learn how to feed and utilise the tides and currents.
Point Ann is also famous as the start of the rabbit-proof fence. From the gravel car park there is an interesting 1.2km heritage trail, an easy one-hour return walk taking in remnants of the fence.
Camping is available at Quaalup Homestead Wilderness Retreat, in the middle of the Fitzgerald River National Park about 30km from Point Ann via Pabelup Drive. There is a delightful nature campground with solar powered and un-powered sites, as well as cabins and on-site vans (Note: caravans are allowed into Quaalup from the west).
From Quaalup it takes about one hour on dirt to reach the South Coast Highway and then another three hours (265km) to Esperance.
With four national parks within easy reach (Cape Le Grand, Cape Arid, Stokes and Peak Charles) Esperance is base camp for a whole raft of nature-based activities like hiking, mountain climbing, biking, swimming, snorkelling or, my personal favourite, kicking back and enjoying the serenity.
Offshore, the Recherché Archipelago is the largest group of islands in southern Australia, with 105 islands and 1500 islets spread over 270km of coastline. If you only have time to visit one, make it Woody Island. Mackenzie Island Cruises (www. woodyisland.com.au) offer half and full-day eco-cruises among the magnificent islands of the Recherché Archipelago with a stop on beautiful Woody Island. On the boat ride out there I spot sea eagles, cape barren geese, crested terns, black-faced shags and Australian sea-lions. The island offers guided bushwalks, swimming, glass bottom boat tours and includes lunch and morning tea. You can even stay overnight in luxury safari-style huts.
Back on the mainland, I finished off a perfect day by following the 38km Great Ocean Drive. Some of the highlights included Pink Lake, the wind farm, Rotary Lookout and kilometre after kilometre of beautiful beaches and secluded bays, including a stopover at Twilight Beach.
Three minutes to decide that this is the most beautiful beach in Australia – that's all it took!
ALBANY VISITOR CENTRE:
Old Railway Station, Proudlove Pde, Albany.
Ph: Free call 1800 644 088
BREMER BAY COMMUNITY AND VISITOR CENTRE:
Mary Street, Bremer Bay
Ph: (08) 9837 4171
ESPERANCE VISITOR CENTRE:
Historic Museum Village, Dempster St, Esperance
Ph: (08) 9071 2330
FEEL THE BREEZE AT ALBANY WIND FARM
– Just off Frenchman Bay Rd in the Torndirrup National Park
WATCH WHALES AND THEIR CALVES AT POINT ANN
– Two purpose-built whale watching platforms put visitors right above the action. Adjacent to the main car park at Point Ann
ASSIST THE GILBERT'S POTOROO ACTION GROUP
– Volunteers assist with research and recovery or fundraising activities
Ph: Val Hack 0409 443 331 or visit www.potoroo.org
SAY GOOD MORNING TO SAMMY THE SEAL
Located near the Tanker Jetty at Esperance.
CHECK OUT THE REMAINS OF THE RABBITPROOF FENCE AT POINT ANN on the 1.2km Heritage Trail. It starts near the whale-watching platform at Point Ann in the Fitzgerald River National Park
WHERE TO STAY
MIDDLETON BEACH HOLIDAY PARK
28 Flinders Parade, Albany
Ph: (08) 9841 3593 or Free call 1800 644 674
ALBANY GARDENS HOLIDAY RESORT
22 Wellington St, Albany
Ph: (08) 9841 4616
QUAALUP HOMESTEAD WILDERNESS RETREAT
Off Pabelup Drive, Fitzgerald River National Park
You can leave your van here and drive out to Point Ann
Ph: (08) 9837 4124
ST MARYS CAMPGROUND at Point Ann in the Fitzgerald River National Park costs $7 per adult and $2 for school aged children (under 16) per night – put your money in an envelope and drop it into the honesty box. You'll need to bring your own water and cooking facilities. No caravans – only camper trailers can access the road
ESPERANCE SEAFRONT CARAVAN PARK
Goldfields Road, Esperance
Ph: (08) 9071 1251
THE BRIG AMITY, ALBANY.
Clamber on board the replica of the ship on which Edmund Lockyer arrived in Princess Royal Harbour in 1826.
Open daily, 9.30–4 pm.
Purchase tickets on site. Adults $6, concessions $4, (fee includes audio tour.)
WESTERN AUSTRALIA MUSEUM, RESIDENCE ROAD, ALBANY.
Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day Entry by donation
DISCOVERY BAY'S WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Frenchman Bay Rd, Albany Day viewing; Adults $10, concessions $9.
Ph: (08) 9844 4021
WELLSTEAD MUSEUM AND CAFÉ
A pioneer museum with over 3000 exhibits. Peppermint Grove, 44 Wellstead Rd, Bremer Bay. $6 adults, $4 children.
ESPERANCE BIRD AND ANIMAL PARK AND CAFE
Coolgardie-Esperance Hwy, (only 10 minutes from town.)
Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 10am to 4pm, $10 adults, $8 concession, $7 children
Ph: (08) 9076 1067
The most direct route from Perth is via Albany Highway – a distance of 409km taking about 4.5 hours to drive. For a more scenic route, you can follow the coast through Mandurah, Bunbury, Margaret River, Walpole and Denmark.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY KERRY VAN DER JAGT ADDITIONAL IMAGES BY TOURISM WA & BRETT SHEARER