Nature’s paintbrush has sculpted a landscape of extraordinary beauty and mystery in the Great South West Edge, tucked away in the corner of Western Australia. Vibrant wildflowers, ancient towering trees, living fossils, unique animals and diverse marine ecosystems form part of a biological richness that is second to none.
Stretching for more than 1000 kilometres from Bunbury, two hours drive south of Perth, to Esperance in the Great Australian Bight, this great southern landscape encompasses more than 100,000 square kilometres of national parks including the Fitzgerald River National Park; Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park; Stirling Ranges National Park; D'entrecasteaux National Park and Cape Arid National Park; each showcasing a different perspective on the diversity of the region.
You will need plenty of time to explore them all fully, but one that should not be missed is the stunning Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park. Here you can climb to the top of mainland Australia's tallest lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin then follow one of the short tracks to the lookouts, where in season you’ll be rewarded with the sight of migrating whales and local dolphins surfing the waves below. Beneath the limestone ridge which forms Cape Naturaliste lays the intriguing formations of Ngilgi Cave, providing a fascinating interplay of Aboriginal legend and nature.
Nature-lovers will definitely want to spend some time in the midst of the awesome giant jarrah and karri forests, especially at the Diamond Tree Lookout, the only wooden treetop tower in the world; and the 600 year-old King Jarrah tree and 100 Year Old Forest; while the tranquillity of the Maidens Tuart Forest hides one of the last remaining stands of Tuart trees in the world.
Close to Albany is Torndirrup National Park, with good reason the most visited national park in Western Australia. Take a short walk to the famous Gap, Natural Bridge and blowholes; or hike the more difficult coastal walk to Bald Head, which once guided explorers into King George Sound.
The Stirling Range and Porongurup National Parks are a must for birdwatchers. Another not to be missed is the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve-listed Fitzgerald River National Park, one of the most botanically significant in Australia with more than 1,800 plant species.
For vast white beaches, camping out under a star-filled sky, and swimming at secluded bays, Cape Arid and Cape Le Grand National Parks are a must. You will need a 4WD to access most of the tracks; however access to Cape Le Grand is on fully sealed roads.
Self-guided walking trails take you deep into native bushland and along coastal heaths with views over the Southern Ocean. These parks are important for the conservation of birds in Western Australia, with more than 160 species including a number of listed as endangered.
Denmark is where towering tall trees meet the ocean, and you’re sure to fall in love with its magical southern forests, especially the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park. The park has spectacular landscapes with estuaries, forested hills dissected by rivers, and extensive areas where you’ll feel like you’re the only person on Earth.
As a further example of the diversity within this landscape, in the D'entrecasteaux National Park near Pemberton, the Yeagerup Sand Dunes are one of the finest examples of landlocked dunes in Australia; while the calm waters of Geographe Bay are perfect for just about any water sport you can imagine. Divers won’t want to miss the untouched coastal islands teeming with aquatic life in the Recherché Archipelago near Esperance, or combing the depths of shipwrecks such as the HMAS Perth Dive Wreck near Albany, the Sanko Harvest off Esperance, or the HMAS Swan at Dunsborough, one of the most popular dive sites in Australia.
If you don’t fancy getting wet, drop into the Underwater Observatory at Busselton, where you can view a sample of the region’s astonishing marine diversity, before walking the length of the longest timber pier in the Southern Hemisphere.
For pristine white beaches and getting off the beaten track, Esperance is hard to beat. This place is so relaxed even the kangaroos sun bake on the beach at Cape Le Grand. One of the best spots here is Lucky Bay, twice declared Australia’s whitest beach.
From September to November is the best time to see nature's palette explode in a profusion of multi-coloured wildflowers; but with thousands of plant species there is always something in bloom throughout the year across this landscape. Around 80% of the plants in this region cannot be found anywhere else and around 96% of all protea species, thought to have originated when the giant supercontinent of Pangea was formed more than 140 million years ago, are endemic to this region. They range from small shrubs and striking bushes through to imposing trees, with colours of striking reds, pure apricots and mottled whites.
The Great South West Edge is one of six regions in the world that has a wet‐winter and dry‐summer Mediterranean-style climate - one of the reasons the region sustains such a unique collection of flora and fauna.
This landscape is also rich in history, from the 1850s style architecture of Busselton, twice voted Western Australia’s top tourism town; to the early European settlement and whaling heritage of Albany, Western Australia's original capital. Here Australia’s dramatic convict history can be retraced through the jails, old taverns, whaling ships, settlers' cottages and the beautifully preserved Whale World museum. The best way to take it all in is to follow the Amity Trail, a self-guided walk that takes you past historical buildings of note including the Brig Amity - a replica of the ship that brought Albany its first settler and convict cargo.
Earlier still, Western Australia boasts an Aboriginal history that dates back more than 40,000 years. The first inhabitants of Australia’s South West were the Noongar people, who today represent one of the largest populations of Indigenous Australians. The land has always been of great importance to the Noongar, and this connection with the earth is reflected strongly in the local art. Two cultural centres: the Wardan Aboriginal Centre in Yallingup and the Kodja Place at Kojonup provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about past and present Aboriginal life. Aboriginal owned and operated Kepa Kurl in Esperance provides visitors with cultural day tours of the region.
This landscape is also one of the best places to don your hiking boots or jump on your bike. Cyclists will love the Munda Biddi Trail (which means ‘path through the forest’ in the Nyoongar Aboriginal language), a world-class, nature-based off-road cycling experience.
Then there’s the 1,000km Bibbulmun Track, which runs from Kalamunda near Perth to Albany. It’s the quintessential Australian bush experience, but you will need around eight weeks to complete the whole adventure. If that seems a bit far, don’t worry, there’s a variety of shorter walks catering for all levels of hikers.
No trip to Western Australia is complete without a pit stop at Margaret River. Originally a chilled out surfie town, this coastal town has evolved into the ultimate smorgasbord of fine wine, good food and spectacular scenery. Most visitors will want to add at least a few more days to their journey to fully explore the more than 120 world-class wineries spread throughout the area. Locals head here in winter too, responding to the lure of cosy log-fires, brisk walks along the beach, horse riding through the bush and awesome surf breaks.
A master class in history and ecology, in this landscape you will uncover some of the country’s best-kept secrets and world-class experiences as diverse as the landscape itself.
Author: Kris Madden on behalf of Tourism Australia. This article is copyright free and may be reproduced.