Friday morning saw the Notre Dame crew with Martin and Tania leaving bright and early early. We once again packed into a van and headed off, this time down south out of Perth. Just like our last time out of the city, buildings and other people fell away pretty quickly to give way to red dirt, scrubby bushes, and sort-of-tallish eucalyptus. The difference this time was that the infrastructure stayed much more constantly built up, as we were headed into the holiday area of Western Australia- Margaret River. This is a region known for vineyards and wineries, chocolate factories, good food, surfing, and beaches. We were heading down south to see where WA goes to play.
Miller’s Dairy Farm- Cowaramup, WA
Our touring began with a visit to a place called Miller’s Dairy Farm, a family run farm that produces milk mostly for in-house ice cream production. It is conveniently and hilariously located right outside the town of Cowaramup, who fully embrace their bovine identity with cow statues and jokes everywhere. I fully approve. We spoke to the farmer and owner, Paul, and learned about agriculture in Australia, and the issues they face today. It’s been especially interesting to hear about these kinds of issues from Australians themselves, especially because the upcoming election in May, in which many of these things we are learning about will play a role. After talking about agricultural issues, we got to help bottle-feed a few week old calf, and watch as a cow was milked by hand. This was followed by a visit to the ice cream parlour on the property and some partaking in excellent homemade ice cream and sorbet. Exactly the ticket for 10:45 in the morning. After bidding our goodbyes to Paul, we headed back to the van and were off in the direction of the coast towards Yallingup.
Yallingup is home to a breathtaking series of limestone caverns formed about 1 million years ago under the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge. Our guide for this was Josh, a member of the local Noongar Wadandi people. We started above ground, doing a short bush walk through the flora above the caves, where Josh identified many of the local plants and explained the traditional Aboriginal use for them, included with tips of what we should do if we ever find ourselves stranded in the Outback, including what to eat and how to search for water, and encouragement to chew on some eucalyptus leaves (which were refreshingly minty and fresh). We then descended into the Ngili Cave to see beautiful stalagmite and stalactite formations, hear the Dreamtime story of the cave formation by the spirits, and heard Josh play a didgeridoo for us, amplified by natural cave acoustics. We headed up the many stairs to be aboveground again, and Josh showed us how to start a fire using bush materials, passed around traditional Aboriginal tools and weapons, (including the boomerang, obviously) and then played his handmade didgeridoos again while encouraging us to accompany him with percussive instruments. I’d like to think that what we lacked in natural musicality, we made up for in enthusiasm.
Margaret River Town, WA
Our next stop was the town of Margaret River, where our accommodations for the weekend were. After quickly checking into our cabins, we met with the Town Planners at Margaret River Town Hall. Being from a relatively small town myself, it felt pretty familiar, and very much like my own town hall the few times I’ve been there (thanks, grand jury duty). Many of the issues and initiatives they spoke about resonated with what I’m familiar with from home, like rural schools losing ground to larger, better-funded suburban schools, agricultural issues and changing climates, working to better infrastructure, and more. It was obvious that the planners were proud of their hometown and were happy to share it with us, and it was nice to hear such passion and caring from public servants. Dinner that night was at the Settler’s Tavern, a popular restaurant in touristy Margaret River, followed by an early bedtime in preparation for a looooooong day tomorrow.
Redgate Beach, WA
Wakeup time- 4:30. Why? We had to catch the surf, of course. Yawning and rubbing eyes, we headed off the Redgate Beach, a well-regarded surfing location. After a van ride that included an a capella round of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, then Jack Johnson on the Aux to get us in the right frame of mind, we met our surfing instructors. After changing into wetsuits, and carrying (surprisingly heavy and bulky) surfboards a good half mile down to the beach, we were on the sand learning how to stand up on a surfboard. Before the sun was even up, we were in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean trying and sort of succeeding to surf. All of us caught at least one wave (usually with the help of the instructors), and had plenty of spectacular falls. Even though I wasn’t particularly good at it, it was an amazing time. It’s rather hard to put into words, but being in the beautifully clear waters on a board as the sun rose over a beautiful beach with just our group of people there, it was a truly amazing experience. After being in the water for about an hour and half, we bid farewell to our great instructors, changed, and were off to the next stop.
Bramley National Park- Margaret River, WA
We went back inland to Margaret River to meet Katie from the Margaret River Conservation organisation. She and some other team members took us into Bramley National Park while talking about the issues of invasive species invasion they are fighting in the area, and then sprung on us that we were going to be helping and getting our hands dirty. She produced shears, saws, gloves, and chemicals, explained what the invasive tree Pittosporum looked like, then told us to go and kill them. Katie, the other members, and our ND squad spread out and must have uprooted over 50 trees. After becoming Environmental Vigilantes (TM), we were still only halfway done with the day. Our next stop was off to explore a world-famous part of Australian culture that we hadn’t really explored much yet- the wineries.
Domaine Naturaliste- Wilyabrup, WA
Margaret River is one of many regions throughout Australia that is well-regarded for its vineyards. This southwestern region is known specifically for its production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends. Passing through rolling hills of vines that began to look a lot like Italy, complete with Mediterranean climate, we found ourself not at the cellar door (the wine tasting and sales room on the property of a vineyard), but in the production centre of Domaine Naturaliste Winery in the company of head winemaker and owner Bruce Dukes. Clad in khaki slacks, work boots, and a loudly patterned shirt Tan France would be proud of, he somehow looked exactly what I would have expected an Australian winemaker to look. With him as our guide, we were walked through the wine making process step by step, included with tastings at each different step. A shipment of grapes had come in that very morning and had just finished being pressed, so we tried freshly pressed pure grape juice with a sugar content of about 200 g/L (that’s about 2x the amount found in Coke). We saw the massive pressing machines in action, then followed the process into a large room containing the fermentation vats, massive stainless steel vats that stood several meters high. Here. we tasted a white wine that was about 6 months into its year long fermentation. It was very bubbly from the fermentation, and kind of tasted like sparkling cider. After learning all of us students were STEM of some kind, Bruce happily talked more about the chemistry and physics behind the process.
We were then lead into the massive storage warehouse of Domaine Naturaliste that contained hundreds of French oak barrels containing hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, dollars worth of wine. Our final tasting of wine was taken directly from the barrel using a pipette-like tool Bruce called a “barrel thief”, and we tried a red wine that was a few years into its ageing process. Bruce so clearly loved wine and the winemaking process, and he clearly had his heart and soul in the whole enterprise. Although he obviously had opinions on the techniques that go into creating wine, he reminded us at the end that the best wines are those that are experienced well, with the right people in good times. He wished us farewell and we headed across the vineyard’s estate to the cellar door of Domaine Naturaliste for an official tasting of some completed, bottled wines. After tasting five wines (deciding on a buttery, oaky Chardonnay as my personal favourite) and eating some charcuterie, we left for our final stop of the day.
Redgate Lime- Witchcliffe, WA
Heading back towards Redgate, where we had surfed earlier that same morning, we instead pulled off the road towards the beach into a limestone quarry. We met with quarry owner Richard and got to hear a unique perspective on mining and primary production in the region, especially in conflict with the amenity and tourist aspect of much of the surrounding land. It certainly is interesting to see the large pit dug for the quarry right across from a beautiful, unimpeded view down the hill to the coast, as well as consider the vast utility of the minerals from the quarry and the jobs it provides. In addition to being a quarry owner, Richard is a volunteer firefighters and taught us about bushfires in the area, both controlled and uncontrolled. Like many other forest ecosystems, the Australian bush has evolved to need occasional burns to fully grow and develop, and many people are only more recently learning this and putting it into practice.
For a region known for its surfing, it obviously has to have its fair share of surfing competitions as well. The Margaret River Pro is in fact one of the 11 stops on the World Surf League World Championship Tour, one of three Australian legs. Apparently infamous for its difficult conditions and- here it is, classic Australia- shark attacks. The 2018 event was in fact cancelled because of shark attacks at nearby beaches, with “Shark” making the leadership board as the winner of the competition for the year.
Margaret River, WA
After this long, exhausting, and fun day, we returned to our cabins in Margaret River and with Tania and Martine, put together a barbecue for dinner that night. It may very well be the most Australian meal I’ve had to date, as it marked the first time I ate kangaroo meat. It was an interesting flavour, kind of like a cross between venison and buffalo, with a little of beef thrown in. Certainly less gamey than venison, and with a leaner texture that reminded me of venison, yet slightly rubbery like a scallop? Definitely interesting, and glad I tried it. The meal also included Australian barbie classics of grilled haloumi cheese and sausages. Our group ate our food, drank beer and cider, and discussed our thoughts about the day, lead by an enthusiastic Martin (who, as an educational anthropologist and sociologist always wants to hear our impressions of Australian society).
Basically, over the past two days I had heard my first didg (as the cool kids call the didgeridoo apparently) performance, surfed the Indian Ocean while the sun rose, helped to fight off invasive species, drank lots of local wine, and ate kangaroo meat off the barbie. I think I may have passed the first half of the Australian citizenship test? Maybe I just have to start calling flip-flops ‘thongs’ and meet a Hemsworth brother, and I’ll be fully Aussie.
(Note: turns out that we missed Christ Hemsworth visiting Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth about a week after our own visit in mid-March. We were so close!)
Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse- Augusta, WA
We left our cabins and headed to Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, on the most south-westerly part of the Australian continent, meaning that I was also the closest I’ve ever been to Antarctica. It was an appropriately windy day to visit a lighthouse, meaning that at the top of the structure, the winds were reaching speeds up to 75 kph. Strong enough that we could lean into the wind and feel it keep us upright, it also gave all the girls ~great~ naturally tousled hair styles. The lighthouse and the cape also offered a great vantage point of the place that the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. This was followed by a morning tea break, and between the rugged coastline, lighthouse, and tea, I felt like I needed to don a cable knit sweater, rubber boots, have a dark and mysterious past, and write the next Great American Novel (even though I’m in Australia. A confusing feeling).
Canal Rocks and Boranup Karri Forrest
Next, off to the Boranup Karri Forrest. Karri is a eucalyptus tree that only grows in south western Australia, is one of the tallest hardwoods in the world, making this forrest a pretty awesome sight.
Finally, Canal Rocks, a series of rugged granitic gneiss rocks in banded red and grey colours that form beautiful cliffs and inlets that the Indian Ocean crashes over. This was our last stop before heading all the way back to Perth, concluding a most Aus-some trip full of natural beauty, classic Australian recreation activities, and learning from people from all industries and walks of life.