Waves and wild places

Wild west ... aerial view over Sugarloaf Rock.
Wild west ... aerial view over Sugarloaf Rock. 

Twenty years after falling in love with the south-west surf, Michael Gordon returns on foot on the Cape to Cape Track.

Consider the quandary. You're a keen surfer standing before a perfect line-up on a stunning stretch of coastline, with only a couple of board riders in the water. Only trouble is, you don't have your board.

Multiply the problem 10 or 20 times and you have some idea of what it is to undertake Western Australia's Cape to Cape Track on an organised tour with a group of friends. If you are prone to nightmares, this has the potential to be a recurring one.

In the right frame of mind, however, it's bliss. You are an explorer and your assignment is to cover every centimetre of one of this country's most remarkable, rugged and varied stretches of coastline, complete with limestone caves, massive granite boulders, plentiful fauna and giant karri eucalypts.

All the while, you're making mental notes of the best surf spots, places with evocative names like Moses Rock, Guillotine, Gallows, The Womb and Supertubes, and whether they are accessible by car when you return, board in hand, for a paddle. Herein lies the beauty of the Cape to Cape walk. Whether you surf or your interest is in the wineries that are as famous and plentiful as the waves, with a little planning you can do it all.

Our group comprises five couples whose friendship stems from having daughters at the same school and our appetite for coastal walks, which was whetted during a joyous trip to the Bay of Fires in Tasmania three years ago.

Our plan is to walk the 124kilometres from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin over five days, with a night of luxury at Cape Lodge to kick it off and an indulgent weekend at the Bunker Bay resort to recover.

We stick to it more or less or, to be honest, less. We end up walking for 3½ t days, not five, but are more than satisfied with the balance struck. Cutting back on the walking means more time for wine and waves.

As Richard, the other surfer in our party, and I sample the surf at several of the area's best spots, from Smiths at Yallingup to South Point at Gracetown, the rest of the gang explores the wineries, from Clairault, near Cape Lodge, to the renowned Cape Mentelle, less than five minutes from the Margaret River township; and from Vasse Felix and Leeuwin Estate, with art collections as pleasing to the eye as their product is to the palate, to the friendly vibe at Juniper.

Cape Lodge is the launching pad and it is difficult to imagine a more idyllic setting, with its highly acclaimed restaurant, accommodation, celebrity endorsements from the likes of Sting, secluded vineyard and manicured gardens, all surrounded by a forest and just minutes from the beach and the wineries.

Our experience here is diminished slightly by a point of protocol. Because we are leaving early the next morning to embark on the walk, we're told that if someone wants a cooked breakfast (at $33 a head) then everyone will have to have the cooked breakfast. Otherwise, we are told, it is not worth bringing the kitchen staff in an hour early.

This seems just a touch mean-spirited, given we are paying top dollar for the privilege of staying at a place described as one of the world's best boutique hotels. For the record, we maintain solidarity and all tuck into the cooked breakfast and can recommend it.

At the designated 8am, we are picked up by a World Expeditions mini-bus, introduced to Rene and Paula, our guides, and Craig, our driver and host for the next five days, and drive to the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse to begin the walk.

We cover less than 20 kilometres, much of it along the clifftops, pausing for a snack at the Three Bears, a surf break accessible only by four-wheel-drive from Sugarloaf Road and one of the better-known A-grade waves along the stretch. A slight sea breeze is beginning to chop up the wave faces but there are still about 40 surfers spread over the three breaks.

That afternoon the pattern for the rest of the week is set. Craig meets us after the walk and takes the non-surfers to the wineries. By 6pm we regroup for drinks and nibbles at our quarters.

Over dinner, we enjoy the wine bought that day and identify the targets for the next day, making use of the Margaret River Map & Guide, a double-sided sheet that is packed with essential information. Some 95 wineries are identified on the map and it also shows the surf spots. The quality on both fronts is world-class but the most pleasurable wine experiences are at the establishments that go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome.

We discover that some wineries choose to deny visitors the privilege of tasting their premium drops, presumably on the grounds of cost, while others opt to reward those who have made the trip by offering exclusive "museum releases" at the cellar door. Voyager, just south of Margaret River, is such an example and the winery's 2003 Tom Price Cabernet Sauvignon is judged by our group to be very special, even at $130 a bottle.

Other wineries, such as Clairault, have cellar-door discounts, with white wines under $20 a bottle. Clairault also has an outstanding restaurant, with a menu to suit all tastes and appetites (Tasmanian salmon on sticky white sweet potato comes with a fennel salad and can be ordered as an entree, $19, or main, $38).

Wineries don't have much in common with surf spots but there is one striking similarity: if the vibe on arrival is warm and inviting, you are much more likely to enjoy the product.

My first surfing trip to the west was in the mid-1980s and there were two overwhelming impressions: the sheer beauty of an undeveloped Margaret River area and a distinct lack of any antagonism from the local surfing population towards intruders.

More than two decades of development later, the essential beauty of the region remains, as does the disposition of a much-increased surfing population. Before paddling out at Yallingup, for instance, I chat with a bloke who is about to enter the water with his son. I ask if there are any tips for getting in and out across the rocks and he invites me to paddle out with the pair of them. He suggests catching one of the right-breaking waves in when I'm finished because coming in off the left can be hard work.

Lefthanders was the spot I fell in love with in the '80s and its appeal remains, though it does get crowded. There is, however, one night when the waves are in the four-to-six-foot range and there are only four others in the water. What I consider my WA highlight is described neatly by one of the boys in the water as merely a "cruisy" pre-dinner surf.

A couple of days later, when the swell has grown, I bump into Ian Cairns, perhaps the region's most famous surfing export, at the Gracetown store and end up following him to Yallingup and having a surf. One of the pioneers of pro surfing, Cairns lives in the US now and has returned to coach a couple of the competitors in a contest at the main Margaret River break, a qualifying event for the world championship tour.

World Expeditions grades the Cape to Cape walk as "introductory to moderate", with some steep ascents and descents and a few stretches on soft sand. The daily schedule involves six to eight hours of walking, punctuated by a leisurely lunch once we are well past the halfway point for the day. One modest improvement would be to replace the supermarket-bought picnic ingredients with a few local delicacies, such as the wood-fired Yallingup bread, and consequently turn fuel into fare and to add a thermos to the backpacks for a cup of tea along the way.

The terrain varies each day, the one constant being the stunning views from the clifftops and the potential to see wildlife on land and dolphins in the water. It is one thing to see a kangaroo bounding across a flat, grassy paddock; it is quite another to watch a big western grey glide across a rugged coastline, totally unhindered by the thick vegetation.

One of the appeals of the World Expeditions package is its flexibility. It is possible to undertake the entire walk in five stages, returning each night to the same accommodation, and still enjoy the wineries. Adding surfing to the itinerary necessitates hiring a car for the week. (I did this and it doubled as transport from Perth to the walk's start in Margaret River and return.)

There are, of course, other ways of doing the walk. One option is to carry a heavy pack and camp along the way without outside assistance. Another is to hire a car, rent accommodation and undertake out-and-back walks at leisure. Whatever option you choose, The Cape To Cape Track Guidebook, by Jane Scott and Ray Forma (Cape to Cape Publishing, 2006) is an invaluable resource.

Beyond the marked track are attractions including the Jewel Cave at the walk's end the most extraordinary of the many caves in the area. Just inside, a straw stalactite hangs 5.4metres from the ceiling. The empty lake in the cave and the generally stressed condition of much of the vegetation along the walk reflect the lack of rain and suggest the impact of climate change.

A perfect end to the walk comes with a weekend at the Quay West Resort Bunker Bay, sampling local restaurants such as Food Farmacy at Dunsborough, chilling out on the Bunker Bay beach, enjoying breakfast at the Bunkers Beach Cafe and sipping some of the region's finest wines while watching the stunning sunset at Sugarloaf Rocks.

There is also time for a solo return for a wave at Yallingup and the satisfaction that all dilemmas have been resolved.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Perth is the nearest major airport, a three-hour, 270-kilometre drive from Margaret River. Virgin Blue flies to Perth for $185 one way, including tax, from Melbourne and $209 from Sydney. Qantas charges $252 from Sydney. Tiger Airways charges $128 from Melbourne. Southwest Coachlines has a daily service from Perth from $34 one way.

Walking there

World Expeditions' five-day Cape to Cape walk costs $1895 a person, including meals, wilderness guide and support staff, support vehicle, four nights' accommodation in twin-share farmstays, entrance and camping fees, plus transport from Margaret River. The next scheduled trip is in October. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.

Staying there

Suites at Cape Lodge in Margaret River cost from $475 a night, including breakfast, to $2400 for the residence, which can house up to five couples. See capelodge.com.au.

Quay West Resort Bunker Bay accommodation costs from $195 for the first night (a Friday) and $375 for the second. See mirvachotels.com.

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