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Onwards to Margaret River

The journey is the destination, and a driving holiday to Perth’s premier holiday spot is exceptionally rewarding, providing a myriad adventures at beginning, middle and end. 

Words: Lyra Deanna      Photography: Adam Lee

The burnt orange clouds blaze gently across the evening sky, the trees rustle in a brisk breeze and the birds have turned up the volume. I’m bouncing gently across the uneven terrain of Neil McLeod’s family holding in Margaret River, Western Australia’s premier wine country and one of its most popular holiday destinations. 

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     I’m safely ensconced in the back of McLeod’s 1962 four wheel-drive Bedford truck, specially outfitted with outwards-facing benches. The mission today is to spot kangaroos – those happy hoppers and an Aussie icon, on a Sunset Kangaroo Safari.

     It’s a mission not only possible but probable, as scores of the marsupials skip across our fi eld of vision in a sea of grey and brown, placidly staring at this noisy, scarlet beast in their midst, and the curious little people staring and clicking from its canopied back. I say ‘little’ because some of these kangaroos grow to two metres tall! 

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A billycan and tin cup await hands of an outback brewer.

     The safari culminates in metal mugs of strong black tea and a fragrant, still-warm orange cake, courtesy of McLeod’s wife, Coralie – all enjoyed in a rustic shelter complete with a picnic table hewn from hardwood, overlooking a deeply, mysterious green pool. Part of the experience is watching McLeod ‘boil the billy’, making the tea in a billycan (a lightweight cooking pot); he swings the open-topped can in a wide arc at high speed. I have utmost faith in his skills, but it still takes a lot of willpower for a first-time witness not to duck while watching. 

     This is just one of the adventures I enjoy on a laidback road trip from Perth, which began the day before. When Emerson said that ‘Life is a journey, not a destination’, perhaps he had a road trip in mind; one of the secrets is to break the journey up with bits of beauty and glimpses of wonder, another is to arm yourself with a reliable steed and take joy in meeting a lot of people. 

From The Magazine, Cover Story,Travel 3Sixty,AirAsia,Inflight Magazine,Australia,Margaret River,Mandurah,Cruising,dolphins

Cruising in Mandurah will allow you to spot lovely homes, a plethora of bird life and elusive, playful dolphins.

CRUISING IN MANDURAH 

The first nibble of adventure peeks over the horizon as I reach Mandurah, after just over an hour of driving through a scenescape packed with rolling forests and vaulted by brilliant, cloudless blue. 

From The Magazine, Cover Story,Travel 3Sixty,AirAsia,Inflight Magazine,Australia,Margaret River,Lamb Shank

Margaret River is the source of amazing produce, much of which finds its way onto local restaurant dining tables, like this lamb shank.

     This waterfront city is a well-known weekend escape from cosmopolitan Perth, with crabbing being a favourite activity from November to April; Mandjar Bay is the hub around which restaurants, bars and galleries congregate.  

     Mandurah is also Western Australia’s fastest growing regional city, and its answer to Venice, with stately houses flanking ‘liquid’ streets. Here, we take a cruise along the canals, starting from the Mandurah Cruises and Gift Shop, owned by Rod and Cheryl Bishop; with five boats in their fleet, the couple offer everything from crabbing cruises, with a BBQ picnic stop on Boundary Island, to sunset cruises with drinks.  

     Today’s journey sees me at the coveted foremost point on the bow, ogling at and envying the lovely houses fronted by gardens, many of which have a boat docked out front.  

     Sailing out of the canals, it’s into the Peel Inlet, where the sight-seeing shifts to bird-watching. Peel-Harvey Estuary, part of which is formed by the inlet, is home to a huge number of birds, including fairy terns and blue-billed ducks. Ever-endearing dolphins are to be spotted here by the sharp-eyed; a shout from our skipper has me nearly falling overboard to glimpse one.  

     Seafood maestros Cicerello’s has an outlet here in Mandurah, its second after the mainstay in Fremantle, another of Perth’s popular seaside towns (but much closer to the city). After a quick lunch of far too much fish, prawns and shellfish, I’m on the road again.

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Busselton Jetty is the longest timber-piled jetty in Australia.

JETTY WITH A VIEW 

This time, the destination is Busselton, two hours from Mandurah. The waters of Geographe Bay, stretching from Cape Naturaliste to Bunbury, border its pristine white beaches. I stop to stretch my legs, get a cone of Simmo’s orange chocolate chip ice cream and wander and wonder at the Busselton Jetty and its Underground Observatory.  

     The Busselton Jetty is the longest timber-piled jetty in the southern hemisphere. Construction began in 1865, with it having been lengthened over 90 years, it now stretches 1.8kms out to sea. The length of the jetty is no mere whim. The bay is very shallow, so the jetty had to be built to this length to allow boats to dock.  

     I hop into the charming railway car, which slowly trundles the length of the jetty, passing fishermen angling off the dock and strolling people less lazy than me; there are benches at strategic intervals for those walking.  

     The jetty’s furthest point is the Underground Observatory, where a staircase spirals down into the darkness, illumination coming from the 11 glass viewing windows lining one side of the circular structure. They provide a breathtaking view of the artificial reef outside, and its denizens – some 300 different marine species – frolicking in the ebb and flow of the water.  

GOURMET PARADISE  

After the Busselton stop, Margaret River is less than an hour’s drive away. Book-ended by the river from which it gets its name and, the Indian Ocean, this is wine country perfumed by a briny breeze. Its beaches, forests and caves, wineries, breweries and artist studio-galleries make it a haven for lovers of all things beautiful.  

     The blazing sun is softening to russet and gold as I drive through a darkening town, round the coastal road that leads to Margarets Beach Resort, where managing director Lee Burkett is ready to welcome me to the four-star apartment resort. An effervescent, well-known personality, Lee actually lives on the property – how’s that for service!  

     Dinner is at the award-winning, cosy Gnarabar at the resort, which comes complete with a fireplace to warm chilly evenings. Chef-owner Ben Bishop serves up the local, seasonal produce that lends a distinctive touch to the greatest of the Margaret River eateries; his Mod Oz approach places the produce as the star of the show, dressing it with lashings of chilli and coriander, soy and lime.

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The fantastic formations of the Ngilgi Caves.

     The next day sees a bright and early start at the Ngilgi Caves in nearby Yallingup limestone caves that extend deep under Cape Naturaliste. It’s named after the good spirit in an Aboriginal legend, who battled the evil Wolgine (and won, obviously). Semi-guided tours are available, as are adventure and torchlight tours. 

     These caves have seen spelunkers ever since they were discovered in 1899. It’s pretty fantastic to imagine day-trippers coming down here in the long skirts and trousers of the period, which according to my guide, is just what they used to do. Apparently, the Ngilgi Caves were popular with wedding parties of the time too. 

     Fantastic limestone formations lit in every colour of the rainbow – and beyond – fire the imagination. They range from delicate lacy formations to ponderous stalactites and stalagmites that inspire thoughts of the might of the earth, patiently building such natural sculptures over the centuries. The caves show careful planning as well, with solid hardwood stairs and banisters making ascent and descent a breeze. The air is thinner in here though, so it’s natural to feel a little more out of breath than usual. 

     Emerging from the humid recesses, it’s now time for the indulgent portion of this trip. Long stretches in Margaret River are bordered by the wineries that have made it famous, interspersed with stops like Gabriel Chocolate, where commercial lawyer-turned-chocolatier Gabriel Myburgh will take you through his chocolate-making process and – importantly – a tasting of his wares.

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     The first artisanal chocolate-maker in Margaret River, Myburgh does all the sorting of the cacao beans by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll drop by when a roasting is taking place and the air is deliciously fragrant. You can buy his chocolate in the store outside, and there’s even a range of chocolate toiletries made by one of Myburgh’s friends, using his own cacao liquor. 

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     Olio Bello is another good stop for a gourmet; peek out the back of the store and you’ll see organic olives that have been handpicked and loaded for pressing by hand. In the store, you’ll fi nd spiced dukkah and dips, and olive oils of all persuasions – including excellent cold-pressed basil, lemon and mandarin oils. 

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One of the installations at Vasse Felix’s FIRE: Some Kind of Energy exhibition.

     One of the most iconic wineries in Margaret River is Vasse Felix, and not just because it’s Margaret River’s first commercial vineyard, established in 1967. Owned by the Holmes a Court family, it’s also responsible for some remarkable, award-winning wines – Vasse Felix is one of the most decorated wineries in Australia, particularly known for its Chardonnay. The smooth roundness of the Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and the pure structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon are to be viewed with appreciation too. 

     Vasse Felix’s grounds are scattered with sculptures. Within the main building, the art gallery houses seasonal collections showcasing artworks from the Holmes a Court collection. On my visit, the collection is ablaze, fi guratively. The FIRE: Some Kind of Energy exhibition features works built around the theme, and even records recollections of the November 2011 fi res in the area that caused much damage. 

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A cellar door tasting at Vasse Felix is a must on any Margaret River itinerary.

     It’s worth remembering that for the most part, free cellar door tastings are a relic of the time of more innocent and less opportunistic visitors, and rightly so, I believe. Nowadays, most wineries and breweries ask you to pay a nominal fee for tastings, which can usually be redeemed against any wine purchases you make after that. 

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     Further down the road lies the Cheeky Monkey brewery, where artisanal beers and ciders come to life. In the spirit of fraternity that informs Margaret River, the brewers here sometimes acquire Myburgh’s cacao nibs and shells, by-products of the chocolate-making process, to brew a chocolate beer, as does the Gage Roads brewery. 

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A simple, crisp pizza with strips of roasted red pepper and goat cheese at the Cheeky Monkey dining room.

     Most of the wineries and breweries in Margaret River have restaurants attached, which boast sweeping views of rolling vineyards, and Cheeky Monkey is no exception. Its owners also started the Ferngrove and Killerby winery, and both share a cavernous, quirkily-decorated dining hall whose most coveted seating is outdoors in sunny weather. There are no cellar door tastings here – instead, you get a wooden paddle bearing five tasting selections for AUD$12.50. The Southern Wailer Apricot ale is recommended, a tangy brew made from organic local apricots.  

     It’s been a lazy day of driving along the meandering roads of Margaret River, getting a feel for the place via my taste buds, drinking in the verdant foliage along with sips of wine and ale. Just prior to calling it a day though, I have to hop on a truck and go see a man about some kangaroos. 


ROADTRIP DIRECTORY

MARGARET RIVER WITH NEIL MCLEOD
(+61 8) 9757 2747
www.toursmargaretriver.com.au

MANDURAH CRUISES & GIFT SHOP
(+61 8) 9581 1242
www.mandurahcruises.com.au

CICERELLO’S (MANDURAH)
(+61 8) 9535 9777
www.cicerellos.com.au 

BUSSELTON JETTY & UNDERWATER OBSERVATORY
(+61 8) 9754 0900
www.busseltonjetty.com.au 

MARGARETS BEACH RESORT
(+61 8) 9757 1227
www.margaretsbeachresort.com.au 

NGILGI CAVE
(+61 8) 9755 2152
www.geographebay.com

GABRIEL CHOCOLATE
(+61 8) 9756 6689
www.gabrielchocolate.com.au 

CHEEKY MONKEY
+61 8 9227 0055
www.cheekymonkeybrewery.com.au 

VASSE FELIX
(+61 8) 9756 5000
www.vassefelix.com.au

OLIO BELLO
(+61 8) 9755 9771
www.oliobello.com

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