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South West Australia: Sunshine Down Under

Josh Whiteland, a Wadandi elder, gazes at the setting sun
Photographer: Courtesy Western Australia Option

The Margaret River region in Australia’s South West is gorgeous all year round, but particularly brilliant in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer


I can’t see my hands.
I can feel my heart thudding.
Around me, the darkness is almost absolute. I could be all alone except for the ragged breathing I hear around me, but these are strangers I’ve just met, so no comfort can be sought there.
Then, in the far distance, a light illuminates a forest of stone. Glistens on pools of water on the floor. Reveals a magnificent suspended table of limestone in the tentative brightening.
We are in a subterranean wonderland. Frances Bussel was riding through the forest rounding up the family’s cattle when her horse came to a standing stop and refused to go on. If it hadn’t, she would have pitched 85 metres into this collapsed cavern. It took another 30 years before her brother John and his friends let themselves down with ropes. Caving enthusiast Tim Connelly was the first man in. The darkness around him glowed in the light of his candle. It was 1897. He landed in water. I’m happy to be dry today. The fact can’t be escaped, though: we are a long way down under.

The sun is shining over Margaret River the day we decide to follow those first explorers’ footsteps into Lake Cave, one of Western Australia’s most stunning limestone caves on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. No ropes or candles are now necessary. A series of stairs takes us ever downwards, first to a stopping area from where we get an ant’s eye view of the 150-year-old karri trees forming the periphery of this cavern that cocoons an incredible amphitheatre of stone. Gothic-looking crystal formations, algae growth, blackening by fire, all lead the eye ever upward to a ragged circle of blue sky at the top.

We climb down further, past Titanic Rock, past Headache Rock (duck or find out why) and Splitting Headache Rock (more, much more of the same) into Deep Cave. Clutching the railings while descending this last steepish ladder is recommended; railings are the only thing we’re allowed to touch down here – along with the no-selfies-tripods-food-and-drink rules.

The cave is 62 metres long, and alive; we hear it steadily dripping away as we walk gingerly on the boardwalks into the deepening darkness at the end. In this, the only cave on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge that has a permanent lake, the beauty of the limestone formations is stupefying and ethereal. A recent investment in atmospheric lighting makes it easier to appreciate flows and shapes; we hold a “sacrificial” egg of limestone (no touching otherwise, remember), and spend that breathless-wish-it-would-get-over-already moment in ‘cave darkness’.

Outside again, past the two Headache Rocks, you are reminded again that this is Western Australian’s deepest tourist cave. It’s a long way down (376 steps), and a long way up (also 376 steps, duh), but there are landing places every 20 steps at which, as advised by the kindly guides, I pretend I’m stopping to take photos.

I’m taking lots of photos.

We drove two-and-a-half-hours from Perth down the Bussell Highway to get to the Margaret River region. The sky was very blue with white puffy clouds, the yellow blossom, beloved of the native birds, bright on the red gum trees. We passed Mandurah, known for its half-submerged thrombolites, living fossils dating back 570 million years that are believed to be one of the first life forms on Earth, and its well-submerged, friendly dolphins.

In Busselton, at the north end of the Margaret River Region, we got our first look at South Western Australia’s glorious ocean, here showing off with its foam caps a-sparkle, edged by 30km of white sandy beach. Geographe Bay is an aquatic playground, made for those who like to immerse themselves in the deep blue (read: everyone in South West Australia). If, like us, you’ve come unprepared to jump in, walking the Busselton Jetty is the coolest way to get deeper into the ocean with your clothes on.

Busselton has always been known for its timber industry, centred around the karri and jarrah wood it exported. Some of that wood found its way into the Busselton Jetty that jutted out into Geographe Bay, starting right from the middle of town. In 1978, a cyclone destroyed 900 metres of the jetty, but the locals were having none of that. They raised funds and built it again, and then decided to make it the centre of their lives.

This bright morning, Mayor Grant Henley tells us about how the foreshore will soon be transformed, even as Busselton becomes increasingly popular as a cruise ship stop for a day trip into Margaret River. The former car park is now a space for locals and visitors to enjoy the ocean; already in place are a restaurant, performing arts space, award-winning playground with a clipper ship for kids to climb onto, and a netted area for safe swimming and snorkelling. More food options, a railway station to house the historic Ballarat engine, and a micro-brewery are coming soon.

It seems quite a lot of locals have decided to make the most of a good day: as we trundle down the heritage-listed jetty in a little tourist train, we see children jumping into the water from sections of the original jetty that abuts the current one. Men languidly cast lines, and, because everyone should be able to fish, facilities for wheelchair-bound fishermen are well marked. A head or two bobs in the water; an annual 4km jetty swim in the first weekend of February for solo swimmers, duos and groups is a popular event on the regional calendar.

Our train finally comes to a stop by the Busselton Jetty Underwater Observatory, almost at the end of the jetty, and we troop downstairs into another world. In the dim light, we find ourselves bang in the middle of an artificial reef teeming with a recorded 300 species of marine life, seemingly put there for our pleasure, but actually present due to three factors: the jetty decking overhead provides shade, allowing telesto white soft coral – otherwise seen only in underwater caves – to flourish, the pillars holding up the jetty are ideal for animals to attach themselves to, and the Leeuwin Current from the west coast of Australia is a magnet for a temperate marine biodiversity. The whole is a fascinating microcosm that non-divers might otherwise never be privileged to see.

Back up, we walk to the end of the jetty, almost 2km from the shore, over life-sized murals of the different whales that pass this way first in May and then in August-September. I stand beside a massive blue whale and feel very small.

Enjoy the Australian summer beyond Perth;  to find out more about this trip, check out LPMI’s  October 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter