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Australia's picturesque Golden Outback

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Lydia Vasko on 08 Sep 2019

The Straits Times

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Country towns in southwestern Australia are often overlooked by tourists, but the area's natural landscapes and quirky local fixtures are gaining likes for their picture-perfect qualities

 

It has been said people eat first with their eyes.

 

These days, it is true of travel too.

 

People see pictures of amazing-looking locales on Instagram or Facebook and go: "Ooh, I want to go there."

 

Which is great for quiet and kitschy country towns in the Golden Outback of southwestern Australia such as Hyden, Esperance and Ravensthorpe.

 

They might be overlooked by the typical tourist, but have found an audience on social media because their natural landscapes and quirky local fixtures are, well, perfectly Instagrammable.

 

Take Hyden, for example. It is a dusty, yawn-and-you-will-miss-it agricultural town 300km east of Perth with a population of 150.

 

Drive down the main street past a schoolyard, a gas station, grocers and a motel and you have seen it all.

 

Yet this tiny Wheatbelt town attracts 130,000 visitors every year.

 

They come to see Wave Rock, a 65ha slab of granite outside of town thought to be 2,700 million years old, more than four times older than Uluru, the giant sandstone rock that is a landmark tourist attraction in Australia.

 

Over thousands of years, the wind and rain have carved a 15m-tall, 110m-long wave into the northern face of the rock, now streaked and weathered with lichen and moss.

 

Ms Sheenagh Collins, 64, manager of the Wave Rock Motel, takes a few of us on a tour. Like most Hyden locals, her grandparents moved here in the 1920s to clear land and farm.

 

Wave Rock was simply known as "the rock" when she was a child. Then, in 1964 - a time when the locals joked that anyone who ended up in Hyden was either crazy or lost - a photo of Wave Rock taken by a visitor was published in National Geographic magazine.

 

Outsiders began trickling in to see the stationary wave for themselves and they have not stopped coming.

 

"A Chinese actress or singer came and took her wedding photos here a few years ago and, now, we get a lot of Chinese couples coming to (do the same)," says Ms Collins, as we walk below the curved lip of weathered granite.

 

It is late in the afternoon when we visit and the setting sun has cast its shadow over most of the wave, dulling its curve and colour.

 

A short concrete wall which was installed on top of the boulder a few years ago to funnel precious rainwater into a nearby reservoir also ruins my hope of getting a good picture for the 'gram if I want to #nofilter.

 

Still, there are a dozen people taking photos - many with bent knees, arms extended, pretending to surf. What filter will they use, I wonder. Paris? Oslo?

 

"It's best at 10am, maybe a little earlier in winter, when the sky is clear and the light hits the entire wave," says Ms Collins.

 

I will have to miss it, as we are off to see nearby Mulka's Cave, an important Aboriginal site, early the next morning.

 

As my eyes adjust to the cave's darkness, there is a slow, mesmerising reveal of dozens of 400-year-old hand prints which cover the walls and ceiling and I find that far more impressive than any rock.

 

Still, Ms Collins and her family keep visitors to Hyden entertained.

 

Her father, Mr Russel Mouritz, opened the town's first caravan park in the 1970s. The family then built the town's motel, a hotel with a mud and saltwater pool fed by natural thermal springs, a wildflower cafe and an eccentric Toy Soldier and Lace Museum.

 

Inside the museum, drawers, cabinets and display cases overflow with lace of all designs, dates and origins. There are bridal gowns and veils, pillow cases and table cloths - some of historical significance.

 

"It's one of the largest public collections of lace in the world," Ms Collins tells me.

 

It is also one of the last things I had expected to see in a town like Hyden, but the lace and dioramas of the toy soldiers, surrounded by World War II propaganda posters, certainly make it memorable.

 

I am learning that residents of the Wheatbelt have a unique sense of whimsy.

 

About an hour's drive west of Hyden, there is a 15km stretch of road called the Tin Horse Highway, which runs from the town of Kulin to Jilakin Rock.

 

There, among the vast shimmering fields of golden wheat and silver and pink trunks of mallees and salmon gum trees, the locals have created an open-air gallery of sculptures made of recycled tin and old barrels.

 

They are horses, mostly, but also an airplane and a passable attempt at a dingo, I think.

 

"Cheeky" is the goal, I am told, and the locals compete every year for best new tin horse as part of the annual Kulin Bush Races weekend.

 

I take some pictures for posterity. They are actually hilarious.

 

And rather surprisingly, they are not the only art to be found in these quiet towns and country roads.

 

In 2015, Form, a Perth-based non-profit organisation which promotes community creativity, started the Public Silo Trail (publicsilotrail.com), inviting Australian and international artists to paint large-scale murals on grain silos and agricultural fixtures to bring attention to Wheatbelt towns.

 

There are now six works of art - in Northam, Pingrup, Merredin, Albany and Ravensthorpe.

 

In Ravensthorpe, a 25m-high mural of banksia wildflowers by Fremantle-based artist Amok Island wraps around three gigantic silos.

 

I crouch to the ground and tilt every which way in an attempt to capture their beauty and grand scale in one frame.

 

Today, Ravensthorpe is adding another Insta-worthy claim to fame with the unveiling of what will reportedly be the world's biggest free-standing lollipop.

 

At 7.5m tall and 4m wide, the lollipop sign for the Yummylicious Candy Shack candy store is a gift to the town by the store's owner, Ms Belinda McHurg.

 

As she told a reporter from The West Australian newspaper: "Margaret River doesn't have a giant lollipop."

 

I have an Australian husband and quite a few Australian friends, but I feel like here, in the Golden Outback, I am finally getting the hang of the Aussies' wry sense of humour.

 

Though nothing anyone can say will justify tinned spaghetti on toast for breakfast.

 

I had heard rumours about this meal, but never seen it myself until it appeared on the menu at Ocean Blues Restaurant in Esperance.

 

I ordered it, of course. Not because I actually wanted to eat it, but because I knew it would get a reaction on Instagram.

 

It did and I appreciate the cultural experience, but I am sticking to avocado on toast.

 

Esperance is a cosy, semi-industrial port town of 15,000 people, which doubles its population in summer when Aussies descend on some of the country's best beaches.

 

Australia has thousands of kilometres of jaw-dropping coastline, but the beaches around Esperance are truly sublime.

 

To experience it for ourselves, my group takes a four-wheel-drive tour over the monumental sand dunes and coastal heath in Cape Le Grande National Park with Mr Mark Adamson from Esperance Eco Discovery Tours (esperancetours.com.au).

 

Here, the beaches are our highways and Mr Adamson expertly steers us over smooth sand and steep boulders to Lucky Bay, officially Australia's whitest beach.

 

The turquoise water is clear or creamy depending on the cloud cover, and the otherworldly crescent of sand is made of grains so fine and pure that it squeaks underfoot.

 

Almost as soon as we drive onto Lucky Bay, we are greeted by a picturesque sight of kangaroos lounging on the beach. They are a fixture here, and in the morning and late afternoon, you can often see them swimming or hopping along.

 

We find a mother and joey lying in the shade of a truck, so relaxed in the familiar presence of humans that we can get within 3m to snap a few photos.

 

I think the only way it could get more Australian is if the kangaroo was holding a beer.

 

Or a "kangacino" from Lucky Bean, a coffee truck which parks on the beach and serves a cappuccino topped with a maltezer, like a kangaroo dropping.

 

Lucky Bay is an ideal swimming beach, with views looking out towards the islands of the Recherche Archipelago which guard the coast.

 

The biggest among them is Middle Island, renowned for its pink Lake Hillier.

 

Unlike many of the rose-hued lakes on the mainland which change colour depending on their salinity, Lake Hillier is bright pink all year round.

 

It is about 130km off shore, so getting there means taking a boat tour like the ones operated by Esperance Cruises (esperancecruises.com.au) or joining a chartered flight by Goldfields Air Services (goldfieldsairservices.com).

 

I get myself one of the eight seats in Goldfields' Gippsland Airvan, a propeller plane with large windows which give me a full view of the turquoise coast and Lake Hillier in all its bubble-gum glory.

 

This is the star of the show and our pilot flies exhilarating circles clockwise and anticlockwise around the lake so everyone on board can get the perfect shot.

 

Surrounded by a woodland of paperbark and eucalyptus trees, the 600m-long, 250m-wide lake is a remarkable sight, so flat, opaque and picturesquely pink, it looks like something out of a surrealist painting.

 

I am awed again when outside Walpole, a town to the west, I climb 40m into the towering branches and silvery treetops on the Valley of the Giants (valleyofthegiants. com.au) canopy walk.

 

These enormous red tingle trees are a variety of eucalyptus found nowhere else in the world. Some are estimated to be 400 years old and can have a circumference of 20m.

 

On the ground, a pathway leads me to trees with hollowed-out bases, carved open like a picture frame by fungus and beetles so that I can stand beneath it and look straight through the trunk to the sky.

 

An hour north in Pemberton, there are forests of immense karri trees, a type of eucalyptus native to southwestern Australia, that can grow as tall as 90m, some of the tallest trees in the world.

 

In the 1930s and 1940s, some were used as fire lookouts, with iron rungs leading to viewing platforms at their pinnacles. Three of the lookouts are still open and those who dare can climb the open rungs - without safety equipment - into the canopy.

 

The largest of the three - the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree - is around 71m tall and I am shaky just watching a father and son aged about eight or nine begin their spiralling ascent up the hardy tower.

 

I hope they have their camera, I think, as they climb higher and higher into the tree tops.

 

What an incredible father-son experience. But I know that no picture could capture the joy and adrenaline of the moment, no matter the filter.

 

• Lydia Vasko, a former journalist at The Straits Times, is a freelance travel writer. Her trip was hosted by Tourism Western Australia.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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