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Wild wonder Down Under

Western Australia's south-west region is not often on a traveller's radar, but its fresh air, nature and seafood are not to be missed

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Lydia Vasko on 16 Feb 2020

The Straits Times

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Stepping out of the airport, it was the air I noticed first. Mint-crisp and resinous, the scent of eucalyptus perfumed the cool night.

 

It was a true breath of fresh air as my husband and I packed our rental car and headed to Mandurah, a coastal city an hour's drive south of Perth.

 

I have never been a fan of Australian cities. Not that there is anything wrong with them. I just think they pale in comparison to the wonder that is the Australian landscape.

 

I would much rather be on the beach, in the bush, among the vines or driving through dusty red earth than walking the city streets. Connecting with nature is what I crave.

 

Mandurah is neither here nor there, a sort of liminal space of low-rise offices, seedy suburbs and expensive holiday homes between Perth and the rural south-west.

 

Some of my friends from Perth scoff at any mention of Mandurah.

 

They dismiss it as bogan, an Australian term for the low-class and unsophisticated. Maybe parts of it are, but for seafood lovers, I think it is worth a day trip or a night or two. It is an ideal place to ease into the outdoor Australian lifestyle.

 

Around Mandurah, the Indian Ocean and inland estuary at the end of the Serpentine River are teeming with seafood and, a year ago, I joined Mandurah Cruises' Wild Seafood Experience (www.mandurahcruises.com.au) for a taste of it on a most pleasant half-day cruise.

 

We started the sunny morning with the sea breeze in our hair, venturing into open water where guests helped haul massive crayfish pots on board.

 

One after another, the cages emerged from the seabed loaded with Western rock lobster, or crayfish as they are commonly known, and my fellow guests laughed and screamed as they reached their hands into the cages to extricate the alien creatures bigger than their forearms.

 

We turned back to shore only when we had caught enough for lunch. The crew filled our glasses while we sat back and enjoyed a cruise among the city's canals, watching dolphins play around our boat, sipping wine and drooling over waterfront homes worth millions.

 

Before long, we were served a feast of salmon sashimi, oysters, chilled prawns, grilled barramundi and greens. But the crayfish was the star, served raw and thinly sliced, sashimi-style in the shell, or grilled with garlic, herbs and butter. It was divine and, a year later, I still relish that meal in my mind.

 

On that trip, we were in season for Mandurah's famous blue swimmer crabs, which our friend's parents caught by the dozens the morning after we arrived.

 

We joined them for lunch on the balcony of their apartment overlooking the estuary, a giant bowl full of freshly caught crabs, cooked and chilled for our cracking. The flesh was tender and sweet, and we ate it simply with buttered white bread.

 

As our friend Matt poured a crisp chardonnay, he said: "Welcome to country."

 

He was echoing the traditional speech, song or dance given by Aboriginal people when receiving foreigners to their land. It might have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it warmed my heart to hear it.

 

At Lake Clifton, just south of Mandurah, I visited the thrombolites - beach ball-sized, bone-coloured mounds which look like rocks, but are 2,000-year-old photosynthesising micro-organisms.

 

Their 600-million-year-old ancestors are thought to have produced the oxygen which made life on Earth possible. It was mind-boggling to think people owed their existence to these unremarkable "loaves".

 

They are found in only a handful of places in the world and the thrombolites which stretch along the shores of Lake Clifton are some of the best examples alive today, despite being threatened by human activity around the lake.

 

MAN V NATURE

 

Driving south to Yallingup, I nodded as I read Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton. The author of more than two dozen books, Winton has made it his life's work to capture the environment and vernacular of the Australian south-west and there is no one better at describing the country.

 

"Australia remains a place with more land than people, more geography than architecture," he wrote. "Few landscapes have been so deeply known. And fewer still have been so lightly inhabited."

 

I saw this push and pull between man and nature as we exited the highway and turned onto two-lane roads which tunnelled between eucalyptus trees. Native bush divided pastures and rolling hills. Trellised vines were covered in nets to keep kangaroos from eating the grapes and fresh leaves.

 

Until recently, people living in the eastern states were fighting raging bushfires, and now they are facing floods.

 

But in Western Australia, the sky was a high, bright and cloudless antipodean blue as we pulled into Wild Hop Brewing Company (www.wildhopbeer.com.au), a wildly popular family-run restaurant and brewery on a 20ha property in the Yallingup Hills, 250km south of Perth.

 

Since opening in February last year, the Scott-Malcolm family has served seasonal menus of food and small-batch beers to rave reviews.

 

It was the Australia Day weekend when we were there and every table and chair across the tree-shaded patio was taken. The brewery was bustling and everyone was happy and enjoying beer among the green hills and gum trees.

 

Children were playing rough and tumble in the sandpit playground. Live music percolated through the sound system overhead.

 

The food arrived and it was deliciously rustic, fresh and full of flavour. We had roast pumpkin with pesto and soft buffalo-milk cheese, a salad of green beans and sauteed zucchini, golden and crusty duck-fat potatoes, and a tender herb-roast chicken.

 

Our friend's children smothered their faces in chocolate ice-cream pops for dessert. The sun was strong, but there was a pleasant breeze. Sitting here among friends, I could not think of a better way to spend a summer's day.

 

A few days later, we visited Beerfarm (beerfarm.com.au) in nearby Metricup, another brewery which has opened in the Margaret River wine region. This one is a working farm with black Angus cattle, pigs and chickens. The bar-restaurant, housed in an old barn, looked out across its pastures.

 

The vibe is more homely than Wild Hop, with low-lying lounges made of wood pallets and rows of bar tables. I am not much of a beer drinker, but the cider, made with fresh Manjimup apples, quickly became my favourite drink for the week.

 

It was scorching hot in the day, but at night, the temperature dropped into the teens. Yet we stayed outside in the brisk air, now wrapped in sweaters, blankets and scarves to stare at a sky luminous with stars.

 

Above us was the broad belt of the Milky Way, the night sky sparkling with planets and distant suns.

 

We mistook satellites and planes for shooting stars until we saw a real one with a golden tail streaking across the sky.

 

I stayed up, gobsmacked by the beauty of it all, until I could not keep my eyes open any longer. What a thing to miss, living in the city.

 

WILD YET PEACEFUL

 

Rather than return to Perth, we headed 40km south of Margaret River to Augusta, a cosy family-friendly town at the south-western corner of the cape, located on a protected estuary where people often kayak, fish and swim. It is near Cape Leeuwin, the most south-western point of the continent, and the historic Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, which marks where the turbulent Southern and Indian Oceans meet.

 

Up the coast at Hamelin Bay, a long crescent of soft white sand gives way to turquoise water where friendly stingrays often come to swim with beachgoers.

 

It is wilder down here, more peaceful too. As my husband and I drove through the national park which lines the coast, we were often the only ones for kilometres of beautiful beaches.

 

To get to Augusta, we took the scenic route along Caves Road, the serpentine tarmac taking us past wineries and cattle farms and into the bush.

 

All of a sudden, we were in a shadowed valley among a cathedral of trees, some towering over 60m high in Boranup Karri Forest. We drove this road multiple times over the next couple of days and, each time, the karri forest took my breath away.

 

The benefits of forest bathing have been extolled in recent years and I was wondering if walking among trees this size would magnify their health effects.

 

Occasionally, the silence broke with birdsong and the sound of the wind rattling the silver-green leaves. It was, for me, a spiritual experience to be beneath this ancient arbour, the dappled trunks spaced like columns supporting the vaulted boughs.

 

In Island Home, Winton said: "I am antipodean enough, and perhaps of sufficient age, to wonder now and then whether architecture is, in the end, what you console yourself with once wild landscape has been subsumed."

 

In the Australian countryside, I felt the truth of this - in the height of the trees, the expanse of the sky, the meeting of oceans and a thousand twinkling stars.

 

Above me, a kookaburra sat in an old gum tree and I laughed. I did not miss the city at all.

 

• Lydia Vasko, a former journalist at The Straits Times, is a freelance travel writer.

 

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

 

 

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