Amid the Southern Forests’ natural skyscrapers, the abundance of fresh produce and artisanal verve is a sensory treat for the visitor.
Pointing the car south from Perth, I jaunted my way on a journey of discovery in Australia’s South West. The Southern Forests and Valleys sub-region is an exceptionally verdant, scenic, fertile and prodigious food bowl. Amid nature’s vast skyscrapers of karri, marri, jarrah and tingle forests, the abundance of fresh produce and artisanal verve is a sensory treat. Winding country roads crisscross through green hills, iridescent lime pastures, ancient forests and the majestic watery ribbon that ties the region together – the mighty Blackwood River. (Western Australia’s longest continually flowing river, at 300km.)
My first stop was in Manjimup, formerly a timber town, but now fostering a red-hot reputation for its fresh produce, intermingling with wondrous karri forests. Home to some of the most productive soils in Australia, the surrounding farmlands spawn a thriving fruit and vegetable industry, where seemingly everything grows here. The variety of pursuits of phenomenal, from avocado farming to green tea and finger limes. But Manjimup has become a byword for truffles – it is Australia’s truffle heartland.
90% of the Southern Hemisphere Perigord Black truffles are produced in these parts, highly sought after by Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. Prices fetch up to $3000 a kilo! Winter is truffle hunting season – they even have a Truffle Kerfuffle festival in Manjimup. Unearthing the pungent, earthy black gold in winter, this lucrative delight was ever-present on restaurant menus during my visit, generally as shavings or slivers, to complement a dish. Another great sampling option is to head to Tall Timbers in Manjimup, which serves up a ravishing array of tasting experiences in truffle products, gourmet nuts (magnificent macadamias), alongside sampling local beer and wines. It’s like the tasting centre of your dreams!
Next stop, Ampersand Estates, which has breathed new life into what was the area’s oldest winery, Donnelly River Wines. It’s a knock out picnic setting with undulating vineyards, backed by old-growth karri giants and gin-clear ponds, where ethereal fingers of mist coil their way across the landscape like morning magic. You can taste a variety of beautiful wines, including pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. But it’s the on-site distillery, Rainfall, that absolutely seduced me. Rainfall creates distinctly unique artisanal vodkas and gins that pay homage to the centuries-old art of distillation, while partnering with local producers to showcase contemporary, fresh seasonal ingredients.
Every vodka and gin is vintaged following the seasons from year-to-year, with the infusion of Southern Forests’ rainfall as the constant in every bottle. The vivacious Vikki Brown led me through a fabulous distillery tasting, which lustily reinforced how so much local produce is heroed into their spirits. There’s a vodka infused with honey and roasted macadamias, but my absolute favourite drop was the Rainfall Gin infused with Southern Forest cherries. Seasonal releases include a gin infused with Ampersand Pinot Noir.
Then it was on to the storied timber town of Pemberton, which is refashioning itself as a riveting base for eco-adventure. With a population of 900 residents, Pemberton suffered a huge blow in 2016 with the closure of its timber mill – the biggest mill in the Southern Hemisphere. Graeme & Toni Dearle were ahead of the curve, establishing Pemberton Discovery Tours over 20 years ago. Offering a variety of experiences, their award-winning Beach & Forest Eco-Adventure is an enthralling and entertaining half-day journey of discovery, principally off-road. I joined their 9am departure, where Graeme led us through a plethora of magnificent sights and experiences, in his trusty 4WD.
First up, we ventured into Warren & D’Entrecasteaux National Parks, to marvel over more old growth karri forests. Graeme’s passion and knowledge spilled forth, keeping me spell-bound over the course of the four-hour romp. He remarked that karri timber built much of the Trans-Continental Railway. We spotted some tingle trees, that start their lives rocket-straight, like match-sticks, before later gaining middle-age spread with their stouter buttressed trunks. We ogled jarrah, marri and the delightfully named snottygobble trees, which had just started flowering. The green berries are prized by Aboriginals for medicinal purposes.
Between September and November, the region is ablaze in wildflower techni-colour, particularly the coastal heath. The runaway highlight was dune bashing, mounting the monumental quirk of nature, the Yeagarup Dunes. I felt like I had been suddenly teleported to the Sahara. This humungous land-locked mobile dune system (the biggest south of the equator) is slowly extending its march inland. Moving at 4 metres a year, they are also the fastest moving dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, swallowing the forests and wetlands in their path.
The dunes start 6km east of the coast. The sand is powder is soft with some incredibly steep ascents. I was pleased that Graeme was driving us – he’s mounted these dunes hundreds of times. Finally we reached the unpeopled, untamed ocean splendour of Yeagarup Beach, where all manner of ocean-bobbing detritus washes up from the deep blue Indian.
After sizing up the mouth of the Warren River, emptying into the ocean, Graeme treated us to a delicious picnic lunch before we sauntered back to Pemberton, regaling us with tales all along the way. It’s a cracking tour that you should add to your check-list, in the Southern Forests. www.pembertondiscoverytours.com.au
For a blissed-out stay in the heart of town, lock in a booking at Jaspers, where a clutch of luxury cabins tick all the boxes as indulgent holiday havens. The architect-designed studio spaces feature kind-sized beds, ensuite bathrooms with rainfall shower, gorgeous bathroom amenities and free wifi. They are a stylish statement in boutique luxury accommodation. The cabins are conveniently located behind the wildly popular contemporary whisky bar and restaurant, Jaspers. Boasting a range of small and large plates to share, you can’t go wrong with the Garlic Butter Marron with Shaved Truffle, in a bed of mixed leaves and topped with avocado salsa. Jaspers also offer chocolate pairings and decadent desserts. www.jasperspemberton.com
After a great night’s sleep, I had a hot date with the evocatively named Valley of the Giants, home to the highly acclaimed Tree Top Walk. Tootling through this valley is powerfully reminiscent of the tall timbers of northern California’s Redwoods Highway and Avenue of the Giants, where the roadside is bracketed with colossal trees, lined up like missiles on a launch-pad. Their lofty height, age and grandeur sent my spirits soaring, too. Strolling above the canopy of the magnificent tingle forest, on the 600 metre long elevated boardwalk, I felt like I was floating on air, wrapped in the whisper quiet finery of the tingle forest.
Tingle trees are a type of eucalypt, dating back to Gondwanaland, unique to the Southern Forests. Years ago, people used to drive their cars right inside a hollowed out old tingle tree. They loved it death, until the shallow roots couldn’t withstand the impact – and the valley giant fell down in 1990. That prompted a wave of pressure to safeguard the tingle forest and the Tree Top Walk opened 25 years ago, in a bid to showcase their giants, while also protecting them. 40 metres above the forest floor, the boardwalk has been sensitively designed, with some ingenious touches. The pylon platforms and trusses were designed to mimic the shape of the tassel flower and sword grass, which feature prominently in the forest understorey.
The spans are deliberately designed to gently sway as you walk across them, accentuating the sensation of being high up in the canopy. Down on ground floor, strike out on the Ancient Empire Walk, where jarrah decking and bitumen paths wind you through the giant tingles forest, aflutter with birdlife. We spotted western rosellas, cockatoos, scarlet robins and firetail finches. Yellow tingles grow to 35 metres in height, while red tingles are the real stars of the show, reaching a height of 75 metres, over their 400-500 year life span.
With a base circumference of up to 20 metres and expansive buttressing, their gnarly trunks groan with character. The most photographed specimen has been nicknamed Grandma Tingle. This 450 year old matriarch is straight out of a fairytale with a wrinkly and wizened old face. She’s the grand dame of the forest. Then there is King Tinkle, where a lion-like face can be made out on the side of the tree. Mountain bike trails are currently being constructed to broaden the palette of outdoorsy delights in this revered slice of the Southern Forests.
Immersing myself with the full glory of karri tree heaven, I then jaunted to Gloucester National Park. The starring attraction is the opportunity to bask in the canopy of the karri forest, by climbing up the pegging ladder of the 58-metre-high Gloucester Tree. It’s not for the faint-hearted – you’ll have to scale 153 pegs to reach the top. Before the introduction of spotter planes to look out for fires, a network of lookout trees spread out across the south west forests. From the top of these trees, foresters would scan the landscape vigilantly keeping watch for any sign of a fire breaking out.
The Gloucester Tree was selected by foresters as a fire lookout in 1947, named in honour of the then Governor General of Australia, HRH the Duke of Gloucester. Today, the Gloucester Tree has been retired from its service as a fire sentinel, now publicly open for visitors to enjoy as the ultimate tree climb, ascending to its crowning lookout structure, for a knock-out view across the karri forest. There’s also some great forest trails, like the short and sweet Dukes Walk, to rev up your reverence of the emerald vegetation and stately karri – one of the world’s tallest trees.
Air New Zealand has daily direct flights between Auckland and Perth. If you want to lie flat and get some rest in Economy, the Skycouch is the way to go, especially if you’re travelling with the family. Sit, spread out, or lie down and snooze. Share the space with a partner or children, or keep it all for yourself. Bag a fare and seat to suit at www.airnewzealand.co.nz
For more tips and insights on exploring the great temptations of Western Australia, head to the official tourism site. www.westernaustralia.com