GREAT SOUTHERN LAND
WESTERN AUSTRALIA’S GREAT SOUTHWEST IS A HIKER’S PARADISE WHERE THE RAW POWER AND BEAUTY OF THE SOUTHERN OCEAN CAN BE WITNESSED UP CLOSE
“Go to West Cape Howe National Park,” he told me. “Shelley Beach.
“One day when we were there, a bodyboard surfer kicked a salmon and it landed on his board... so he brought back a nice salmon to eat.”
Graham had worked at Albany, 30km to the east of West Cape Howe, and being a keen hiker he had plenty of tips to pass on.
With that, he handed me the keys to his car. And that was why we were parked at the lookout above Shelley Beach one day in late February.
This is a place of sea cliffs and sand beaches, of whales, dolphins, seals and carnivorous plants.
Here, you witness the raw power and beauty of the Southern Ocean as it crashes against dramatic cliff and rock formations. Then turn a corner and find a beautiful cove with squeaky sand.
From the lookout car park, you can see the clean, white stretch of Shelley Beach curving beneath the steep limestone hills that drop sharply into the sea.
Twenty metres away is a ramp for hang gliders to launch themselves off a perfectly stable rock face into the air.
Away to the southwest is Dunsky Beach and Torbay Head. Beyond that, there’s nothing between you and Antarctica – only ocean.
Torbay Head is the southernmost point of Western Australia. And Dunsky must rate as one of the more remote beaches in the world.
A small stretch of golden sand surrounded by cliffs and heathland. That’s our destination. It’s a 15km round trek from Shelley Beach. The only vehicle access to those areas is high-clearance four-wheel drive. Even then it would need an experienced off-road driver, as some of the tracks can be quite cut up.
We recognised the walk would be a challenge on such a warm day but the breeze was cool enough, so we decided to give it a go.
Fifty metres away from where we parked the car was the Tarbotton Track – part-boardwalk, part-sandy path.
Where the boardwalk ends, the sandy path continues along a limestone ridge before meeting the Bibbulmun Track and offers views down a rocky valley to Shelley Beach and the ocean.
The Bibbulmun Track is one of the world’s great treks: a long-distance walking trail of 1000km from Albany to Perth. The name comes from the Bibbulmun, or Noongar people (indigenous Australians from the Perth area).
The marker, with its Waugul symbol of a black serpent on a yellow background, would be the start of this day’s trek.
We had water, hats, long-sleeved shirts and trousers to protect us from the sun, the sharp native grasses and bushes.
What we hadn’t fully expected was the grandeur of the national park.
Make the time to fully explore the wild coastline, Graham had said. Get off the tracks most taken. It’s rugged but worth it.
If you can’t explore this region in the time you’ve allowed, then stay longer.
Don’t come back until you’ve experienced it. Cancel flights and make sure you see what’s around you.
Only in Esperance, further to the east, can you find a better beach than those around Albany. Forsyth Bluff, the eastern-most point of the national park, gives a wonderful view out over the top of the bluff.
On the southern side of the outcrop is Dingo Beach: a 900m long southeast-facing strip of sand.
From the high points, look to the east to the peninsula of Torndirrup National Park with Albany and magnificent King George Sound beyond that.
West Cape Howe is remote, sparse and has little mobile phone reception.
It was a chance to escape the world of “having to” for a while – having to do this, having to do that.
Instead, you just had to take in the unfolding natural landscape and the ocean – no telephone towers, no traffic lights, no fast food shops. And it’s so fulfilling walking in the clean air. You feel like you are at the end of the world.
Not long into the walk, you leave the Bibbulmun and head south through the undulating heathland – always with the lure of the cape in the distance.
Unlike the Bibbulmun, this trail is overgrown in parts so we chose to follow Dunsky Rd. It was more direct but the soft sand and rutted areas made it hard going at times.
As well as tyre tracks, there are those of different native animals in the sand.
With the dramatic views, especially from the ridges, you get to further comprehend the vastness of the land, the untamed coastline, the surge of the sea.
The four-wheel-drive tracks have rubber matting in some sections to prevent erosion but it is surprisingly slippery when scattered with sand.
The surf break at Golden Gates Beach is off to the right. But be careful: the southern coastline is a dangerous place. It has a notorious record for accidents and deaths from people slipping or being washed into the ocean by unexpected waves.
The park’s scenic landscape includes dramatic cliffs of granite and black dolerite, rock islands, rugged limestone outcrops and complex patterns of vegetation.
Nearly 500 species of plants are found in the West Cape Howe park including banksias, trigger plants and more than 50 species of orchids.
Yet swampy areas form a habitat for the carnivorous Albany pitcher plant.
A couple of hours into the walk, we reached The Steps: the car park area favoured by fishermen and rock climbers.
Here, looking towards Old Man, we sat and enjoyed a lunch of sandwiches and fruit we had carried with us. Old Man is one of the main attractions of West Cape Howe.
The 50m high semi-detached sea stack of rocks is as daunting as it is spectacular.
Further out on the cape are such features as The Southern Ocean Wall, Throne of Gods, Black Wall and The Book Ends.
The colour of the ocean is remarkable: the brightest of light blue at the base of the cliffs and the deepest blue beyond the fringe of the coastline.
Seabirds soar on the wind – a wind that lifts the spirit and refreshes the soul.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Beautiful West Cape Howe, near Albany; looking towards Old Man, a 50m high semi-detached sea stack of rocks; waves crash against the coast at West Cape Howe during a storm.