WA praise

 

My trip to the south west region of WA left me with bruises all over my legs and reduced me to tears - for all the right reasons. Located down the bottom of Australia where the country looks like it’s had a big bite taken out of it, the south west is a backpacking hotspot for two very good reasons. The first is it is home to one of Australia’s best wine regions - offering plenty of seasonal work for backpackers on a working holiday visa.  But more importantly, protected and preserved by desert on one side and ocean on the other, the south west region provides a living window to a natural environment not found anywhere else in the world.

 

The whale watching isn’t that bad, either. On the day we go out, there are at least 50 whales splashing in the bay off Augusta. Located at the tip of the country where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, Augusta plays host to the whales for three months during their annual migration north - with great whale watching in Geographe Bay when they start their migration down as well.

 

I tear up a little the first time I see them up close. Three humpbacks surface in unison, calm black shapes rolling in the water. It’s humbling to be in the presence of such ethereal creatures. For two hours we’re treated to displays of tail fluking, flipper slapping and spy hopping, with the whales surfacing just metres from the boat.

 

It’s hard to imagine, but Augusta has gone from whaling to whale watching in less than 40 years. Given that 50 humpbacks will be hunted and killed for scientific purposes this summer in Antarctica, it sends shivers down my spine that the whales we’ve seen today might not return next year to these waters.

 

In the background another pod of attention-seeking juveniles leap, desperate for recognition. Eventually we head over, much to the delight of the bloke next to me, who’d been out whale watching 12 times in 6 days in search of the elusive “breaching whale” photo.  A full breach is the spectacular moment when a whale becomes airborne, leaping out of the water like an obese acrobat. 

 

But if you like to have a play in the water yourself, the surfing spots between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin are some of the best in Australia and include the world-famous Margaret River break. On the day we’re out, there are enough 8-10 ft liquid tubes to make a surfer melt his wax. Back home, I think to myself, there’d be fifty guys in the water jostling for them. Here, the waves are empty at break after break, save for the occasional pod of dolphins. But my local mate Dave explains it casually with a shrug, “The surf’s just better somewhere else”.

 

Back on land, there are plenty of other natural delights on offer. A short drive from Augusta is Jewel Cave, one of four major caving systems open to the public in the region.  Above the caves is a giant Karri tree forest. Rare, wild, intimidating and beautiful, Karri trees grow to over 70 metres high with 12 metres of earth, mulch, reconstituted seashells and Karri tree roots separating the ground from the cave below.

 

Karri trees are only found in an area near Augusta just a few kilometres wide.  The Karri trees are important part of the area’s unique ecology and help make the south west of WA one of only 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world.

 

This classification means that this small area hosts species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the globe. Unfortunately, the classification also recognises that 70 percent of the natural habitat has already been lost. Inside the caves below, even if you don’t know your stalactites from your stalagmites, you’ll be left speechless by what you see in side. Some of the formations are the size of trees and the shape and colour of cauliflower that’s been left at the bottom of the fridge for a bit too long.

 

Descending the steel walkways the formations warp to look like frozen streams, caramel-coloured jellyfish tentacles and washed-out sandcastles. We pass a camel and what looks like a screaming face stuck in the wall. Obligatory girlish giggles greet the very distinct human shapes that penetrate the cavern at suggestive angles, long before the guide cracks jokes about them.

 

Discovered in 1967, Jewel Cave was originally flooded with chest-deep water, but nowadays is almost completely dry. Fossils have been found of animals who have dropped through from weak points in the cave roof, including one of a giant, prehistoric wombat with big chomping teeth.

 

In a more serious tone, the guide explains that farming, forestry, drought and tourism have all contributed to putting extra pressure on the water table. Instantly, I feel guilty for lingering under the hot water at my hostel that morning.  The fact that this cave has dried up in less than 40 years is a bit shocking- but comic relief is on hand. With a little warning, our guide hits the off switch and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see a damn thing. Ever the wise guy, he turns the lights back on quickly, and we all look like lunatics waving our hands frantically in front of our faces.

 

The south west region of WA is a part of Australia not to be missed, giving the visitor an incredible geographical snapshot of just how fragile Australia is.

 

Disclosure: The writer travelled courtesy of YHA Australia. yha.org.au

 

 

 

by Shaney Hudson