Fields of dreams

Western Australia's stunning wildflower country is one of our natural wonders, writes Bruce Elder.

I will, with no apologies, admit that I know nothing about wildflowers. As far as I am concerned gardening is for people who enjoy being bitten by funnelwebs. When it comes to flowers I wouldn't know a wreath flower if it was lying on my coffin, and a "pom-pom everlasting" sounds more like an ageing cheerleader for the Boston Red Sox than an exotic Australian wildflower.

Still, ignorance is no excuse. Nor is it an argument for ignoring one of the natural wonders of this continent. Western Australia in spring (from late July to November) boasts one of the greatest floral displays on the planet and all self-respecting patriots should see it before they slip this mortal coil.

No matter what you have been told, nothing can prepare you for the sheer overwhelming scale and beauty of Western Australia's spring wildflowers.

How can it be described without collapsing into cliche and effusive hyperbole? Yes, the landscape really is "a riot of colour", "a blaze of wildflower colour", characterised by "spectacular floral treasures" and "a breathtaking array of different forms and colours".

Every conceivable combination of flowers awaits the traveller. On the road to Mount Augustus I stopped again and again to gasp in amazement at entire hills covered in yellow flowers. Every time I saw a spectacular new splash of colour I would dutifully bound out of the car with my camera at the ready only to find that the predominant colour (and, therefore, the predominant flower) merely masked the hundreds of less prominent blooms that awaited the alert flower lover who paused and looked with care.

Flowers that abound in some areas simply don't exist at all in other areas. There are places where banksia bushes line the roads. Other places are characterised by vast washes of colour produced by dense outcrops of everlastings or paper flowers. Some places appear to lack any kind of floral spectacle until you realise there are small flowers on the scrubby bushes and tiny flowers colouring the grasses.

The facts are amazing. There are, it has been estimated, more than 12,000 species of flowering plants scattered across an area of 2.5 million square kilometres stretching from the Pilbara in the north, around the coast to Esperance and inland across the wheat belt as far as Kalgoorlie.

If you want to get your head around the scale of the state's wildflowers, it is perhaps worth registering that Karratha in the Pilbara is 1557 kilometres north of Perth, Kalgoorlie is 597 kilometres to the east and Esperance is 721 kilometres to the south-east. Not every square kilometre of this vast area is covered in wildflowers, but it is impossible to drive more than 50 kilometres in any direction without either stopping to take a closer look or gasping as entire vistas are coloured by millions of flowers.

There is no image or description that could do justice to the wildflowers partly because, like all things of great natural beauty, the actual experience of an entire hill covered in everlastings is something that needs to be seen and partly because the diversity of experiences is so subtle, rich and complex that no single description can capture it.

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Perhaps the most resonant image is the juxtaposition of barren, red rocky soils (the sort of places where no self-respecting plant would choose to live) and the splashes of colour produced by the flowers. This is not just dry country. This is real desert: gibbers, red soil rich in iron oxide, tough, small bushes fighting for survival, and everywhere brightly coloured flowers.

So what do you do? Do you overdose or choose a small area? There are a number of sensible ways for experiencing the wildflowers.

The gardening tour

At Mount Augustus, while staying in the unique accommodation Western Australians affectionately refer to as "dongas" ("a shipping container with a bed in it" is how one customer described it), I came across a group travelling with the gardening expert Graham Ross (a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, he is also a regular on Better Homes and Gardens, has hosted GroundForce and has a regular gardening spot on 2GB).

The group had booked a tour that departed from Broome, made its way down through the Pilbara mining towns and wandered through the northern wheat belt and across to the coast before ending in Perth. The diverse clientele were all on the grey side of 50. Some were keen gardeners. Others were people who simply wanted an expert to point out the flowers. They were all excited at seeing landscapes covered with mulla mulla and Sturt's desert pea.

The other big advantage of this tour was that the group was relatively small (under 20) and the vehicle was flexible enough (ie, it wasn't a huge, air-conditioned bus) to stop whenever Ross saw something interesting. Group tours are not for everyone, but this one made sense and it had a spirit of easy camaraderie.

Doing it yourself

The advantage of simply hiring a car and driving yourself around is that you are your own master (or mistress) and you can stop as often as the impulse takes you.

All you really need to do is decide where you want to go, which requires about a dozen phone calls to local information centres and some reasonably careful route planning. It is worth noting, for example, that when I went to Western Australia in 1999 there were fields of red-centred and Sturt's desert pea in the Cape Range National Park south of Exmouth. Last year the rains in Western Australia were generally good but, according to Neil McLeod, who runs a superb day trip out of Exmouth through Cape Range and down to Ningaloo Reef, there were few desert peas in the national park in 2004 because the area around Exmouth had missed out, receiving less than a centimetre.

When planning a trip there are a number of simple rules:

* Contact the Western Australia Visitor Centre, Forrest Place, Perth (phone 1300 361 351) and ask for copies of the Wildflower Holiday Guide, a free 40-page brochure that covers all the attractions in all the wildflower areas, and Wildflower Country, which looks at the attractions and floral displays in the area north of Perth bounded by Leeman and Kalbarri on the coast and Yalgoo and Paynes Find to the east. This is an area rich in wildflowers and should be central to any trip.

* There is a tendency to say "but I won't know what I'm looking at" but there are many great books to help you. The best by far is Colour Guide to Spring Wildflowers of Western Australia ($25). Written by Eddie Wajon and published privately by Wajon Publishing, it comes in three volumes: Kalbarri and the Goldfields; Perth and the south-west; and Esperance and the wheat belt. The publication's design masterstroke is that the flowers are listed according to their colours and all the pages are colour coded. The company can be contacted directly on (08) 9310 2936. There is also Wildflower Country ($9.95), an old (1991) but useful book put out by CALM (the Department of Conservation and Land Management) that provides maps and detailed information.

Ask the visitor centre where you can get a copy.

* No one should ever underestimate the power of local knowledge. The wheat belt, probably because of declining wool and wheat prices and increasing salinity, has decided that spring wildflowers are good for the local economy and worthy of patronage. The whole process is still rather amateurish, but what it lacks in professionalism is made up for by sheer enthusiasm.

When I innocently asked at the local coffee shop in Morowa where I might see a wreath flower (which naturally forms itself in a circle like a wreath - particularly appealing to those with a morbid interest in death), I was pointed towards the information office. There I was advised to "drive down the main street until you see the road that crosses over the railway line, drive across the line and past the police station and fire station, turn right at the next road, continue up past the sheds for a couple of hundred yards [metres haven't arrived here yet] and you'll see some beside the road".

I headed off and, sure enough, three minutes later I noticed a sign on a fence saying "wreath flowers". They were looking pretty sickly, but at least I found them.

Morowa also publishes a leaflet entitled "Morowa Wildflower Drives" which, if you were thorough, could keep you in the area for a couple of days.

At the next town, Mingenew (which, for lovers of big things now boasts the big wheat stalk, known locally as Big Ears), the information centre was shut but still provided plenty of information. There were a map and a list of locations with details such as "20 kilometres on the Pingelly road on the left-hand side there are some excellent wreath flowers".

And at Watheroo there's a wonderful mud map with enthusiastic comments such as "heaps of banksia, grevillea, snake bush, etc, along the road" and, getting quite technical, "Rare and endangered. E. Rhodantha (rose mallee). Only large patch in the world".

* There is a logical route that can be trimmed or expanded according to the time you have. The best starting place, if you want to get a foretaste of what you are about to experience in the wild, is to visit Kings Park and Botanic Garden in the heart of Perth. Apart from offering sensational views over the Swan River and the business district, the gardens boast a 17-hectare area that has more than 1700 native species of wildflowers. This is, not surprisingly, rather pristine and not very wild, but it does allow you to develop a working knowledge of devil's pins, kangaroo paws, desert peas, everlastings, starflowers, grevilleas, firebush, a range of orchids and hundreds of other natives.

A better, and more natural, option is to drive 51 kilometres north of Perth to the Yanchep National Park. This is near where Alan Bond infamously tried to develop Yanchep Sun City in the 1980s. The park (entry fee $9) is outstanding. Apart from having pleasant tea rooms and some delightful modern sculpture beside a lake, it has an excellent wildflower garden (next to the koala boardwalk) with an impressive display of some of the best of the coastal wildflowers.

Beyond Yanchep there is a range of alternatives which basically involve driving up the Brand Highway at least as far as the Kalbarri National Park. (It has one of the best displays near the coast and it is easy, even for an amateur, to locate gold and orange banksias, kangaroo paws, featherflowers, starflowers and smokebushes.) Then head across to Mullewa and back towards Perth through Morowa, Mingenew, Perenjori, Three Springs, Eneabba, Carnamah and Coorow. This is the heart of some of the best wildflower country. Most of the towns are eager to help visitors and it is really no more complex than driving, stopping and admiring.

You don't need to be a flora expert. All you need are your eyes and a sense of wonder, because the Western Australian wildflowers in spring really are as remarkable and significant as Uluru, the Great Ocean Road or Cradle Mountain.

Wildflower enthusiasts wishing to join a Graham Ross garden tour should email info@safaris.net.au or phone (08) 9248 2355.

Next departure August 25.

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