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Rottnest Island

Winelands, wildlife and Wadandi culture: a journey into southwest Australia

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By Sophie from our Australia team

Though its deserted stretches of beaches and surfer towns have their own languid charisma, there’s more going on in Australia's southwest than first meets the eye.

Here, Sophie — freshly back from her travels in the area — shares her standout experiences. From the artisan food revolution sweeping Fremantle, to tasting menus at boutique Margaret River region wineries and intimate bushwalks with a local Aboriginal Wadandi guide, she suggests ways to explore this overlooked corner of Australia.

Take an offbeat food and drink tour of Fremantle

The historic P&O Hotel, Fremantle

The historic P&O Hotel, Fremantle

This port town just south of Perth reminded me of the Wild West, with its cache of colonial heritage buildings from the 1800s (complete with balconies and wrought-iron railings). In truth, though, I didn’t come here for the architecture. In recent years Fremantle has been reinventing itself as a hub for non-commercial, small-scale producers and microbreweries in much the same way as London’s East End or Oregon’s Portland. 

The best way to get a feel for the town’s burgeoning underground food scene is to take a tour with a local guide, who’ll lead you to several off-the-beaten-track eateries and stores. The seafood shacks, as you might expect, are well-loved, but what really sticks in my mind are the drinks.

We visited a bottle shop to try several delicious local craft beers (apparently, no one drinks mass-produced beer here anymore). Then my guide took me through a deli and into a hidden courtyard, where a former contestant on Australia’s MasterChef has a pop-up coffee shop. He encouraged me to sample a range of brews and explained the subtleties between them.

Spot quokkas on Rottnest Island

Quokka, Rottnest Island

Quokka, Rottnest Island

From stingrays flapping in the surf of a secluded bay, to rocky outcrops busy with sea lions and pelicans, there’s a lot of wildlife to observe in this area of Australia. My top recommendation, however, is to take the ferry from downtown Perth to the car-free Rottnest Island. This 19 sq km (7.3 sq mile) nature reserve is an unspoiled isle of sand dunes, pines and salt lakes. Its jagged perimeter is riddled with several shipwrecks, some of which can still be seen poking forlornly out of the water.

Peacocks strut around, but what you’re really here to see are the quokkas — marsupials roughly the size of two squirrels, which are naturally extremely tame. I cycled around the island, jumping off my bike whenever I spotted one in a bush. They would scuttle out and approach me, inquisitive to see whether I had any food. It was easy to see why they’re such easy prey, and are now endangered.

Go wine-tasting in the Margaret River region — via seaplane

Sophie wine-tasting with her guide Cameron from Cape Mentelle

Sophie wine-tasting with her guide Cameron from Cape Mentelle

This is great option for anyone flying into Perth who’s short on time, but who still wishes to explore the Margaret River region’s wineries.

The 45-minute seaplane journey begins on the Swan River in central Perth. Within minutes after take-off, the city’s cluster of shiny skyscrapers is left far behind. Soaring south down the coast, you’ll soon see how sparsely inhabited this area is. You’ll pass over wide, empty beaches pounded by plunging breakers and bordered by thick bushland, and calmer coves where the ocean is a shade of bright sapphire.

Turning inland, you fly over dense jarrah forest. Then the winelands of the Margaret River region spread out before you, a patchwork quilt of vineyards, groves, paddocks and fields, before you land on a tiny airstrip in the middle of the vines.

If you’re taking the seaplane, your guide will lead you on a tour of several boutique vineyards, but they can also be easily explored by car if you’re planning to spend a few days in the Margaret River region. Avoid the larger brands and make for the cellar doors of the smaller, family-owned wineries, where you can have more informal, intimate tastings of their local cabernets and chardonnays.

I had misgivings about the chardonnay, a wine I’ve always associated with yellowy, oaky unpleasantness — wrongly, as it turns out. The chardonnay grown here is a dry, refined wine. It’s even better sampled (as I did) as part of a degustation lunch, where various wines are paired with a selection of surprise, complementary dishes. 

Walk a stretch of the Margaret River Cape to Cape Track

Canal Rocks, Yallingup, Margaret River

Canal Rocks, Yallingup, Margaret River

This 41 km (25 mile) trail snakes along the granite and gneiss Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, a vast land formation that begins 250 km (155 miles) south of Perth. I spent a day walking a section of it that hugged the coastline, stopping to rest occasionally at wild, windswept beaches and coves with blowholes.

The walk can be done unaccompanied but if you go with a guided group, they’ll be able to give you a sense of the rich flora that grows here all year round (although spring — September to November — is the best time to see the wildflowers). My guide showed me a spiky yellow plant called shark’s tooth acacia, and pointed out which plants were edible.

Learn about Aboriginal culture with a Wadandi custodian

Josh playing the didgeridoo outside the spiritual Ngilgi Cave

Josh playing the didgeridoo outside the spiritual Ngilgi Cave

Being slightly claustrophobic, I was wary of entering 500,000-year-old Ngilgi Cave. Long a spiritual place of pilgrimage for the area’s indigenous Wadandi (their name means ‘forest people by the sea’), it was only discovered by the Europeans in 1899. Its cavern roofs drip with stalactites; some formations have even been given poetical names such as ‘Mother of Pearl Shawl.’ We listened to a digeridoo performance there, its primal, earthy drone amplified by the cave.

Back in the daylight, Josh, our Wadandi guide, showed us a mosaic of stones by the cave entrance. He explained that it had been created by his grandfather, who was the first person to transcribe the oral legend of how the spirit Ngilgi first entered his eponymous cave.

Then Josh took us on a bushwalk, explaining how traditional skinning tools (still used today) were made from wood, with resin as a glue. He also showed us how to identify which bends in trees would make the best boomerangs, and which local plants had medicinal powers.

Finally, he took out three digeridoos and produced sounds I’d never known were possible to make — the belching of a frog, for example, or the call of a crow.

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