A whale of a time in the wilds of western Australia

Lisa Young enjoys the stunning beaches and rare wildlife of stunning western Australia.

TUCKED away in the isolated south east corner of western Australia is the far-flung Shire of Esperance. The small coastal town is somewhat cut off from its well-trodden westerly neighbours – the touristy towns of Albany and Denmark – by 476km of farmland. But is it worth venturing the extra distance to see what’s happening in the recently labelled “SuperTown” of Esperance?

My journey starts on a cool October morning in Perth, when I board a 1hr 40 minute Skywest flight heading south.

Despite being small, “SuperTown” status was given to Esperance because of its potential for growth thanks to the mining boom north of the town at the Koolyanobbing iron ore mine and Koolgorlie gold mine. Vast amounts of money have been invested to develop the town’s infrastructure and to prepare residents for the future boom.

It’s a 20-minute drive along a coast-hugging corridor from Esperance airport to Blue Haven Beach, where I check into the Esperance B&B by the sea. Gentle white tipped waves roll onto Blue Haven beach below. Guests are spoiled with uninterrupted panoramic views of the Recherche Archipelago.

To experience this far-flung corner of Australia, I join specialists Esperance Eco Discovery Tours, who offer small tours showcasing the region’s spectacular natural sights, which my guide Mark Adamson prefers to call, “my back garden.”

The region enjoys a Mediterranean-style climate, with warm dry summers averaging 16 to 26 degrees C, and with wet, cool winters averaging eight to 19 degrees C.

We rendezvous at the charming Taylor Street Jetty Café overlooking the town’s bay. I watch passengers disembark from boats operated by Esperance Island Cruises; they run exclusive wildlife cruises to Woody Island, which lies 17km from shore and the rest of the 110 Recherche Archipelago, and where you can also camp for a real Robinson Cruiso experience. Apart from the café, there aren’t any other places on the water inviting people to enjoy the views. Perhaps this will change with the town’s growth plans.

Esperance has over 400km of stunning coastline stretching from the Recherche Archipelago, to the sheer cliffs of the Australian Bight. Some of the most beautiful Australian beaches and gentle undulating bays fall within its boundaries, which extend from Munglinup to Israelite Bay and north to Daniell rail siding.

The Shire’s most spectacular natural offering is Cape Le Grand National Park, with its granite rock formations, wild costal scenery, wide sandy beaches, and lots of wildlife.

Our route involves off-roading, so I abandon my ill-equipped rental car and clamber into Mark’s very capable Land Cruiser, then head towards Cape Le Grand National Park to see Le Grand Beach, Frenchman Peak, Hellfire Bay, Thistle Cove and Lucky Bay.

At the park entrance, Mark tells me that he often sees whales close to shore. Right on cue, two huge southern right whales rise out of the water. “They’re on the payroll today”, says Mark.

Four-wheel drive enthusiasts will enjoy the exciting ride along the beaches and driving up and down the dunes. At Bandy Beach, row after row of foaming waves tumble onto shore, and fur seals play among rocks.

Surfing is popular around Esperance. There’s a world famous reef break called Cyclops about 5km off shore, with some of the heaviest waves in the southern hemisphere. Even extreme surfers question their ability against the powers of Cyclops and the razor sharp reef that awaits them below.

We drive swiftly along 21kms of continual white sand that makes up Le Grand Beach. A fisherman drives past in an old truck. “There’s nothing flash about him, but he’s probably the richest man in Esperance these days”, says Mark. The fisherman catches wild abalone, an ear-shaped shelled mollusc. They are considered a delicacy and export to the Asian market fetches around AU$200 a kilo.

If you order fish and chips in western Australia, nine out of 10 times you’ll get flake (aka shark meat). “A lot of people are put off by the idea of eating shark, but when you get a nice piece of gummy shark, it tastes fabulous”, says Mark.

Unluckily, heavy October rain sets in as we reach Lucky Bay. The bay is famed for having the whitest sand in Australia, and for its lounging kangaroos. I can see the potential, but today the kangaroos are huddled together looking wet and forlorn.

Camping is permitted next to Lucky Bay, with guaranteed views of some of the best beach scenery in Australia. You can also access the national park by way of a surfaced road that takes 20 minutes from Esperance, but it’s nowhere near as much fun as the beach route.

Dinner awaits us at the diner-style Loose Goose, which, as advertised, serves “a dam good meal”. The menu includes local sashimi scallops, fresh oysters and chilli squid and dishes start from AU$45. The less atmospheric Bonapartes restaurant is another good dining option, where it serves delicious fish and seafood dishes.

WESTWARDS TO ALBANY
It takes approximately five hours to drive the 476km west along the South Coast Highway from Esperance to the closest biggish town of Albany. I pass swiftly though the rural towns of Ravensthorpe and Jerramungup, stopping only to refuel. You need to keep your eyes peeled for kangaroos and emu that notoriously wander onto the roads, especially around sunrise and sunset. The route passes through farming areas growing wheat, and acre upon acre of brilliant yellow rapeseed, which, in the breeze, resembles a rippling yellow sea.

Founded in 1826, the port city of Albany is the oldest European settlement in western Australia, located on the King George Sound and 418km South East of Perth. The climate is similar to Esperance, with July being the wettest month. The region’s cooler climate helps produce some exceptional local wines, and tasting it is part of the Albany experience.

I stay at The Rocks, a restored six bedroom, five star heritage hotel that was once a residence for state governors. It’s now owned by Nolene Evans, who painstakingly and lovingly brought the once run down historical property back to its original Victorian elegance. The Rocks is conveniently close to restaurants, shops and attractions including Tree Top Walk, Mount Romance and Whale World.

Heavy rain falls as I drive along Frenchman Bay Road towards Whale World, Australia’s last whaling station that closed on the 21 November 1978, the day after it caught its last whale. The rain adds a sombre touch to the guided tour. Whale World remains decidedly neutral about whaling; it’s here to tell people what happened in the past: after all, the place was an integral part of Albany’s history.

Driving back to town, it’s worth stopping along Frenchman Bay Road to visit The Gap and Natural Bridge, two unusual ancient rock formations that stand out against the dramatic rugged coastline.

Dinner at the 100 year-old Lavender Cottage restaurant is a must on a Friday night. French owners, Eli and Joel Kuhl serve lunch and afternoon tea during the week. Every Friday night the place is transformed into a French fine-dining experience. There’s no liquor licence, so bring along your favourite tipple. Dishes cost AU$80 for three courses and bookings are essential. Another good dining option is Lime 303, at the Dog Rock Motel located at 303 Middleton Road, where modern Australian style main courses start from AU$28.

TO DENMARK
Denmark town is a 51km drive (30-minutes) west of Albany. Out of Sight Tours offer bespoke trips around the stunning south west coastal area that’s located near the famous Margret River wine region.

Lunch at Pepper and Salt restaurant, located in the middle of Matilda’s Estate Winery, should not be missed. Influenced by his Fijian-Indian heritage, owner and chef, Silas Masih creates delicately spiced and beautifully presented, good value modern dishes. His creations are complimented with wine produced from grapes grown just a few feet from the restaurant.

My afternoon is spent horse riding. Rides pass through untamed forest where huge kangaroos hop across the trail and along the pelican dotted shore to small remote beaches. This natural form of horsepower is the best way to experience the countryside; it’s quiet, doesn’t get stuck in sand and still works after riding through water. Rides start from two hours hours for AU$100.00, three hours AU$150 and four hours AU$200.

TO PERTH
I complete my journey by driving 450km (280 miles) to Perth along the Albany Highway, a long straight, and sometimes tiresome road. It passes farming land full of colourful crops and fenced pastures holding cows and alpacas.

At the small town of Mt Barker, I duck into Plantagenet Wines to look at their award-winning selection on offer, then stop at Kojonup for lunch at the Black Cockatoo Café. Williams’ Wool Shed provides another interesting break, too.

The south western corner of western Australia is spectacular and Esperance is well worth travelling that extra distance for.

It may not possess the buzzing charm of historical Albany, but the progressive town has a lot to offer.

And as one of the lowest population densities in Australia, you won’t find any crowds. That’s a treat these days.

WAY TO GO
australia.com
westernaustralia.com

Getting there:
Qantas/Emirates flights:
Qantas Airways fly from London Heathrow to Perth. Economy fares start from £996 for a return ticket. For the latest fare deals and conditions, visit qantas.com.

Please note that flights are via Dubai (subject to regulatory approval) and the Dubai - Perth flight will be operated by Emirates

Package price with Qantas and Austravel:

Austravel (0800 988 4834, www.austravel.com) has a nine night holiday from £1,499 per person. The price includes return flights from London Heathrow with Qantas, a night’s accommodation in Perth at the Somerset St Georges Terrace, two nights at the Karma Chalets in Denmark, two nights at The Rocks in Albany, two nights at the Best Western Esperance with a final two nights back at Somerset St Georges Terrace in Perth. Eight days car hire is also included. Based on departures from 10 May 2013.

Skywest Airlines: www.skywest.com.au

Esperance:
www.visitesperance.com

Esperance Eco Discovery Tours: www.esperancetours.com.au

Esperance B&B By the Sea: www.esperancebb.com

The Loose Goose, Esperance: www.loosgooseesperance.com.au.

Esperance Island Cruises: www.woodyisland.com.au

Albany:
The Rocks Hotel: www.therocksalbany.com.au

Whale World: www.whaleworld.org.

Lavender Cottage: ekuhl@westnet.com.au; tel: +61 8 98422073.

Denmark:
Pepper & Salt Restaurant; tel: +61 8 9848 3053; www.matildaestate.com.

Out of Sight Tours/Equine Discovery Tours: info@denmarkecotours.com; www.outofsightstours.com; tel: +61 8 9848 2814.

Guide books:
www.lonelyplanet.com

Lonely Planet Australia (book £18.99 and ebook/pdf £13.29.

Guide book for kids: Not for Parents, Australia: Everything you ever wanted to know (£9.99).