Driving the South West Capes, WA

Driving The South West Capes

WORDS Colin Kerr

This scenic drive through WA’s south-western corner has something for everyone.

In the far south-west corner of Western Australia, a broad peninsula with two horn-like capes jutting out into the Indian Ocean is host to some of the most dramatic coastal scenery, magnificent tall timber forests and beautiful underground caves to be found anywhere in Australia. These features, however, are only part of the magic that is drawing more and more people to this area every year.

This unique, far-flung corner of the Australian continent, stretching from Cape Leeuwin in the south to Cape Naturaliste some 110km to the north, is known as the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. Cape Leeuwin is about 320km south of Perth and, although this area is often referred to as Western Australia’s Limestone Coast, the area here is, in fact, a 600-million-year-old geological formation of granite, capped by limestone and sand dunes.

The earliest recorded European account of this area (some 150 years before James Cook’s discovery of Australia’s east coast) was made in 1622 – the presence of ‘Leeuwin’s Land’ recorded in the log of the Dutch East India Company ship the Leeuwin which, like many Dutch ships of the day, sailed across the Indian Ocean in the Roaring Forties winds before turning north to Java.

Today, the area between the capes is home to one of the state’s premier parks – the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. This long, thinly strung out park forms the nucleus of this splendid, ‘Cape to Cape’ adventure trail. Visitors to this appealing area often base themselves at one of the main towns, in the local caravan parks or the national park campgrounds, and make day trips to explore the attractions that most interest them.

CAPE NATURALISTE

In the north, the township of Dunsborough is a busy centre with a wide range of shops and services. Its beaches face the protected waters of Geographe Bay – no surf here, just beautiful clear waters to enjoy swimming, fishing, sailing, wind surfing or to simply laze on the beach and read a book.

As you head towards Cape Naturaliste (13km from Dunsborough), make sure to take the coastal route and call into some of the delightful spots such as Castle Bay (the site of an old whaling station), Meelup Beach, Eagle Bay and Bunker Bay, all still in the protected waters of Geographe Bay.

If you are interested in scuba diving, there is a splendid underwater dive site in 35m of water at the 114m-long wreck of the decommissioned naval destroyer escort HMAS Swan just 2km off the coast from here. Although it has only lain on the bottom for a relatively short time, growth is well-established on the wreck and the many species of fish it has attracted are constant companions of divers in and around the hull. On the other side of the cape, the rough and exposed Sugarloaf Rock is also worth checking out and is a nice spot to enjoy sunset.

At the tip of Cape Naturaliste, a visit to the lighthouse and the maritime museum in the old lighthouse keeper’s quarters is highly recommended. Originally three families lived here and worked in shifts to keep the lighthouse operating. These days the light system is powered by electricity and is fully-automated.

You can take a walk on the trails leading from the lighthouse and don’t miss the specially-built whale watching platform from where humpback, sperm and southern right whales can be seen during their annual migration. Around the headland is an area called ‘the other side of the moon’ – once you see it, you’ll see why!

For those energetic folk with some time on their hands, the 135km Cape to Cape Track sets out meandering along the coast southwards from here (with a number of overnight campsites along the way) and eventually leads walkers to Cape Leeuwin. Shorter, day and half-day walks along sections of the trail are also an option if the full trek sounds a little too much like hard work!

CAVES ROAD

Travelling further south, Caves Road is the main all-sealed drive trail to follow between the capes, with plenty of side trips available to places of interest along the route. The small township of Yallingup has a range of accommodation including cabins, caravan and camping options. A lovely beach and a generally good surf break are the main attractions.

Smiths Beach offers a more protected swimming beach – ideal for families – and at Canal Rocks enjoy the short boardwalk stroll and watch the Indian Ocean surge into the natural rock canal, which is quite spectacular during heavy seas. There is a boat ramp here with good reef fishing just a few hundred metres offshore. Nearby Injidup and a little further south, Moses Rock and Cowaramup Bay, are all popular surfing and fishing spots with lovely scenic beaches and headlands.

MARGARET RIVER

Situated around halfway between the capes, the township of Margaret River (‘Margie’ or ‘Margs’ to the locals), 10km from the coast, is the busiest centre in the region with plenty of accommodation, restaurants and general services as well as local food and winery tour options.

By this stage, you will have noticed quite a few vineyards and wineries and, in fact, this whole area has become known as the Margaret River Wine Region. Most of these wineries (around 200) are quite small and many produce high-quality premium wines. Many wineries offer cellar door sales and tastings and, increasingly, incorporate a restaurant, snacks or cheese tastings so visitors can enjoy top quality wines and delicious food as well.

Beer drinkers, by the way, have not been forgotten with a number of small breweries, such as the Bootleg Brewery and the Bush Shack Brewery, set in appealing and sometimes rustic surrounds. Food, wine and beer trail maps are available at visitor centres.

There are a number of other attractions in the area including olive oil production, a large forest maze, a couple of cheese and yoghurt factories (tastings available) as well as fudge, jams, preserves, sauces and a chocolate factory. Craft shops, galleries and studios dot the landscape providing anything from gumnut ornaments to jewellery, pottery and glass blowing, to craftsmen making solid jarrah tables, chairs and lamp stands. At many of these centres it is possible to watch the artists at work in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

For those interested in wildflowers, the area is home to more than 150 orchids and some 2500 different wildflower species, which are best seen during spring.

Out on the coast at the mouth of the Margaret River, Prevelly Park is renowned for its excellent waves and is the location of the Margaret River Surf Pro, attracting world-class competitors from around the globe.

ANCIENT CAVES

Travelling further south, signposts point to some quite different attractions – those that are underground and out of sight. This whole region has an extensive and quite extraordinary limestone system riddled with caves, ranging from small narrow tunnels through to enormous caverns.

Three of the main caves – Ngilgi (Yallingup), Jewel and Lake Caves – are open to the public with regular guided tours. These beautiful subterranean wonderlands include some world-class shawls, suspended limestone platforms, columns and the bizarre helectites which twist, bend and curl in all directions, defying the forces of gravity. In addition, there are several self-guided adventure caves including Mammoth, Giants and Calgardup Caves which are a lot of fun to explore – just remember to bring a torch.

Also of interest is that in several of the caves in this area, ancient fossils have been found – long extinct marsupial lions, Tasmanian tigers, sharks, koalas and a gigantic wombat-like creature the size of a horse. The cave systems here are among the oldest and most valuable archaeological sites in Australia.

BORANUP FOREST

Travelling southwards, Caves Road leads through a small section of the Boranup Forest. The unsealed Boranup Drive is a highly recommended alternative through the centre of this lovely tall timber forest, where the pale-barked karri trees tower above the drive and walk trails that lead through the forest – a sheer delight.

Within the forest there are several great national park campsites and picnic areas which bring you as close to nature as you can possibly get. Extensively logged between 1890 and 1910, the Boranup Forest as it is today is a wonderful example of a karri regrowth forest just over 100 years old.

HAMELIN BAY

Back in those logging days, Hamelin Bay operated as a port where timber was hauled out onto a long jetty from where it was loaded onto ships for transport around Australia and even to India, South Africa and Britain where it was purportedly used to pave the streets of London.

These days, only a small section of ruins remain of the old jetty, but in place of the huge timber yard operation here, there is now a delightful caravan park and campground set among shady peppermint trees on the edge of the beach. For those interested in history and diving, there is an excellent dive trail in the bay which leads around a number of wrecked ships, some dating back to 1880, which are still visible on the ocean floor.

If you are in this area between March and May, you could have the opportunity to enjoy some exciting fishing as the annual Australian salmon spawning run takes place along the coast. You might also be lucky enough to see the clockwork precision of a professional salmon team in action, hauling in tonnes of salmon in huge nets and loading them into trucks. It is a scene played out again and again during the season, right along this coastal strip.

AUGUSTA

Augusta, at the mouth of the Blackwood River, is another popular tourist centre with a variety of shopping and services available. For those with a sweet tooth, the bakery here has a great reputation.

There is a beautiful swimming beach and sailing area (also good fishing here in the river) in front of the Colourpatch Cafe. Other worthwhile options in Augusta include a nice boardwalk along Hardy Inlet, a whale watching boat trip or a boat cruise up the lovely Blackwood River where plenty of birdlife and, quite often, dolphins are just part of the scenic enjoyment. Nearby Flinders Bay offers challenges for adventure seekers with dive trails containing underwater caves, shipwrecks and colourful marine life.

CAPE LEEUWIN

Just 9km south-west of Augusta at the end of your cape to cape drive, the old Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, built in 1895 and the tallest on mainland Australia, is open to the public and is certainly worth a visit.

While visiting the lighthouse, don’t miss having a look at the old solidified water wheel located nearby, which was built to drive a pump to provide local spring water for the lighthouse keepers. The wheel was originally built from timber and has since fully calcified (from minerals leached from the water that still drains over it), giving it the appearance of ancient stonework

Highlights

  • Spectacular coastal scenery and top class surfing and swimming beaches
  • Underground limestone caves
  • World class wineries and boutique breweries
  • Historic lighthouses

Getting there

Dunsborough, near Cape Naturaliste, is 250km south of Perth via the Kwinana Freeway, Forrest Highway and Bussell Highway – around three hours’ drive.

Where to stay

For accommodation options in and around South West Capes, click here.