Southern Western Australia - An Eco Paradise

At the point where an ancient land spills into the Southern Ocean, nature has been cruel to be kind. Waves generated by the Roaring Forties have sent Southern Ocean swells smashing into south-facing headlands - breaking them apart - splintering granite, scarring rock faces, gouging tunnels, and leaving behind the debris of uncontrollable destruction.

This is the fractured coastline of the Fitzgerald River National Park near Esperance, where the forces of nature - wind, waves, flood and colliding land masses - have combined to leave behind a rare and spectacular environment on Western Australia's south-east coast.

Rugged South  Coastline of Western Australia
Rugged South Coastline
Forests in Western Australia
Forests in Western Australia

What started with a spectacular bang 1000 million years ago when the Australian and Antarctic land masses collided - an action which formed the Fitzgerald River National Park's Barren Ranges - has become one of the prized assets of Western Australia's eco-bank. Many of these assets are held in the regions south and south-west of the capital city, Perth.

From the Peel region, centred on the holiday resort town of Mandurah, right through to the aptly-named Cape Arid in the far east of the State, Western Australia has an abundance of eco-attractions whose diversity has been moulded by the violent forces of nature. Increasingly, a land scoured by time and tide is attracting tourists to experience its pristine beauty.

At Mandurah, the experiences might be crabbing or fishing in the Peel estuary; taking a dolphin sightseeing cruise; or exploring the Yalgorup National Park, 12,888 hectares of coastal lakes, swamps and woodlands.

The chain of lakes that runs through the middle of the park supports a large seasonal population of common water birds and the surrounding woodlands are home to a variety of native mammals.

Further south - beyond Bunbury - wetlands have been reclaimed from former mineral sands mines, while an ancient tuart tree forest provides an imposing entrance statement to the fast-growing resort town of Busselton. The wetlands are one of the attractions linked by the Living Windows eco project, which encourages self-drive tours of the leading nature-based attractions in the South West. The attractions also include the breathtaking Tree Top Walk in Walpole, the Ngilgi Cave at Yallingup, the Dolphin Discovery Centre at Bunbury and the Perup Forest Ecology Centre at Boyup Brook.

Defining the borders of the Margaret River wine region is tricky. These days, its parameters have extended along the vine plantings. A rough guide, which could serve as a good three or four-day self-drive route of Western Australia's South West, would begin at Busselton, then take in Dunsborough, the upmarket surf resort of Yallingup, then south via the vineyards of Caves Road to Margaret River and Augusta. Then on to the tall tree country around Pemberton, Nannup and Balingup. Stops at Bridgetown on the Blackwood River, Donnybrook - Western Australia's apple production centre - and back to Perth via the Ferguson Valley and Bunbury, would allow visitors to see the best of the South West.

For city kids, the South West offers an insight into rural Australia. The Yallingup Shearing Shed on Wildwood Road is part of a working farm. Visitors can watch traditional shearing demonstrations and a display of working sheepdogs. Canoeing on the Blackwood River, horse riding in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, abseiling and rock climbing, or four-wheel-drive tours of the karri tree forest near Pemberton and the steeping south coast sand dunes are available from regional towns.

Whale watching begins in June in Augusta, a resting haven for humpback and southern right whales until early September. The action moves to Geographe Bay at Dunsborough in September, where humpback whales pause for three months before continuing their migration to the summer feeding grounds of the Antarctic.

Today, the 19th century American whaling fleets of Nantucket, which came to Australia to ambush the whales on their migration, have been replaced with eco-friendly vessels which operate supervised whale watching trips for tourists. Whale watching charter operators recognise that their livelihood depends on the continuing survival of the whales, and many are now linking with whale research organisations in an effort to find out more about these magnificent, often mysterious mammals.

In 1964, when humpbacks were given protection by international treaty, the species had been over-exploited to a point where it no longer made commercial sense to continue searching for them. Today, the whale industry is thriving again - thankfully as part of Australia's tourism industry.

At Whaleworld, a museum complex at the site of Australia's last whaling station at Albany, the 960-tonne whaler Cheynes 1V has been restored as a popular tourist attraction. Whaleworld's operators want to know more about the history of whaling and they want to improve their knowledge of these hugely loved animals. Even those who don't enjoy what they see at Whaleworld accept its historic importance. Those who sign the visitors book share a similar message: they don't like the blood and guts of whaling but they feel the museum keeps it in the public eye and helps to ensure that it will never happen again.

East and west of Esperance - a town protected and enhanced by the islands of the Recherche Archipelago - are the remote, rugged and richly-endowed national parks of the southern region.

The Fitzgerald National Park - accessible from the east via the seaside town of Hopetoun - has been recognised by the Australian National Commission for UNESCO as one of only two model biosphere reserves within Australia. Biospheres - there are more than 320 worldwide - are linked in a network to assist in the conservation of the diversity of species and their habitats in a manner that is compatible with the needs of a growing world population. To qualify as a biosphere reserve, an area must include a large undisturbed core area that has an adjacent buffer zone where some human activity is permitted. Lastly, it requires an adjoining transition zone where more intense human activity takes place.

Fitzgerald River National Park meets all of these criteria, with the majority of human activity in the park focusing around the areas of the park which are accessible by most conventional vehicles. On land, the area provides some of Western Australia's richest botanical diversity. There are more than 1800 different varieties of plants in the park, 72 of these are endemic, another 350 are very rare. As well, the Fitzgerald River National Park has more vertebrate animal species than any other conservation reserve in south-western Australia, many either threatened or requiring special protection. The park also supports more than 190 bird species, including migratory wading birds, ducks, birds of prey, pigeons, parrots, whistlers, wrens and honeyeaters. Mammals found in the park include the chuditch, quenda, dibbler, red-tailed phascogale and the tammar wallaby.

Offshore, the untouched marine environment of the Fitzgerald region, combined with its wealth of marine life, is opening up new opportunities for nature-based tourism activities. A 1997 Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) expedition to survey the inshore waters and remote islands between Hopetoun and Bremer Bay found new and rare species of fish, together with rarely seen New Zealand and sub-Antarctic fur seals, breeding Australian sea lions and sightings of the elusive Recherche Cape Barren goose.

In all, there are six national parks in the south-east region. As well as the Fitzgerald River and Cape Le Grange national parks, Stokes Inlet, Cape Arid, Peak Charles and Frank Hann offer superb beaches, wildflowers, whales at certain times of the year, coastal and inland walks and great views.

CALM, which manages all six parks, has an office centrally located in Esperance, where information on the parks, including camping facilities, is readily available. Stokes National Park, 80-kilometres west of Esperance, embracing the wildlife-rich Stokes Inlet, is an area of long beaches framed by rocky headlands, behind which lie sand dunes, low hills and heathland.

Peak Charles National Park, 100-kilometres inland from Stokes, protects a pristine area of dry woodlands, sandplain heaths and salt lake vegetation, in the centre of which rise 650-metre Peak Charles and 500-metre Peak Eleanora.

Cape Arid National Park, 120-kilometres east of Esperance, protects around 280,000 hectares of sandplains and heathland vegetation, which give way to rocky headlands and magnificent beaches.

Each of the six parks offer unique experiences, but it's the Fitzgerald and Cape Le Grand which are the most diversified and have good access to the beaches. Cape Le Grand National Park, 31,000-hectares of coastal scrub overlooked by large granite outcrops, was named after a young officer on board L'Esperance, who climbed up the mast during a storm and guided the ship through reefs to find a safe haven offered by the high peak and cape.

Cape Le Grand's coastal walking trail extends to Rossiter Bay via Hellfire, Thistle Cove and Lucky Bay - a 15 kilometre day's hike for an experienced walker over rock and beaches. Explorer Matthew Flinders named Lucky Bay after preparing to beach his vessel in a storm. These days, locals say that visitors see this beautiful spot and declare: "Wow, I'm so lucky to be here."

The walk will give some idea of the conditions faced by explorer John Eyre and his aboriginal companion, Wylie, when they walked across from South Australia. The two men were eating the last of their provisions at Thistle Cove - a spoonful of flour boiled into a paste - and were considering killing one of their horses for food. According to Eyre's account of the journey, they spotted the masts of a large barque anchored in the bay, which Eyre reached by galloping his horse along the beach. It was the whaler Mississippi, commanded by Captain Rossiter, after whom a grateful Eyre named the bay where they met. Rossiter fed and clothed the two men for several days, and gave them an enormous amount of provisions when they resumed their journey towards Albany.

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