After taking in the extraordinary ANZAC heritage of Albany and fantastical rock formations of Western Australia’s South Coast, I pointed the car north, for a foray with timber country, in the Southern Forests.
Skyscraping karri, marri, jarrah and tingle trees soar above the many snug towns and villages that are scattered through the region. Winding country roads crisscross through green hills, iridescent lime pastures, ancient forests and the majestic watery ribbon that ties the region together – the glorious Blackwood River. (Western Australia’s longest continually flowing river, at 300km.)
My first stop was in Walpole, in the evocatively named Valley of the Giants, which is home to the highly acclaimed Tree Top Walk. Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of experiencing California’s Redwoods Highway and the Avenue of the Giants.
Tootling through this valley and the entrance way to the Tree Top Walk is powerfully reminiscent of the tall timbers of northern California, where the roadside is bracketed with colossal trees, lined up like missiles on a launch-pad. Their lofty might, age and grandeur is utterly uplifting. Warmly greeted by Ryan Smith, the Tree Top Walk manager, we strolled above the verdant 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 magic and intrigue of the tingle forest. Tingle trees are a type of eucalypt, dating back to Gondwanaland, unique to the Southern Forests of Western Australia. Years ago, people used to drive their cars right inside a hollowed out old tingle tree, within the valley. 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 22 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, Ryan also introduced me to the Ancient Empire Walk, where jarrah decking and bitumen paths wind you through the giant tingles forest, which throbs 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.
Ryan pointed out to me such a specimen who has been nicknamed Grandma Tingle. She’s straight out of a fairytale with a wrinkly and wizened old face, which is instantly perceptible. She’s a 450 year old matriarchal delight. The great dame of the forest. Ryan also pointed out to me the irregular bulges protruding from many tingles.
They’re called burls, caused by an insect or fungal attack. The tree fights back by forming a protective growth around the wound, a bit like a scab. Clever trees. I also spotted some of Western Australia’s tallest trees, karri, within the Valley of the Giants, before immersing myself within the full glory of karri tree heaven, 90 minutes up the road, at 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. It’s just 5km from the picturesque timber town of Pemberton, which is refashioning itself as a riveting base for eco-adventure. The area also has a thriving arts and crafts scene so be sure to browse local art galleries and savour some Aboriginal bush tucker (food.)
The Pemberton region is also cultivating a solid reputation for producing fantastic wines and gourmet produce, with many cellar doors on offer. 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. Let’s hope tourism can power and sustain Pemberton’s renaissance. Two such trail-blazers are Graeme & Toni Dearle. They were ahead of the curve, establishing Pemberton Discovery Tours nearly 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 fiendishly delicious picnic lunch before we sauntered back to Pemberton, regaling us with tales all along the way. It’s a cracking tour that must be added to any self-respecting holiday check-list, if you’re planning a trip to the Southern Forests. www.pembertondiscoverytours.com.au
A great spot for dinner is Café Mazz, at the Best Western Pemberton Hotel. The convivial wood-panelled bar and restaurant, on Pemberton’s main drag, exudes a turn of the century charm with open wood fires. I enjoyed a pub style meal from the a la carte menu, plumping for the local Pemberton Whole Fresh Water Trout. Just divine.
Where to stay? Forest Lodge Resort is a secluded and elemental delight, situated on the edge of the township, wrapped in dense forest. The dreamy setting is an absolute heart-stealer with the gracious old lodge perched above its own lake, complete with pavilion, flanked in beautifully tended lawns and gardens.
A variety of well-appointed accommodation options are scattered around the property, from standard guestrooms to studio suites and villas. Kangaroo and bird-lovers are in for a treat. The effervescent proprietor, Ingo Maas, is also a distinguished chef, with his stirring culinary delights adding the cherry on top to an indelible stay. www.forestlodgeresort.com.au
Air New Zealand offers year-round direct services from Auckland to Perth, and non-stop flights from Christchurch with its seasonal summer service between December and April. Go West in style and comfort. A variety of inflight product choices are available including; Seat, Seat+Bag, The Works, as well as Premium Economy and Business Premier. Connections are available ex all Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports. Bag a seat to suit at www.airnewzealand.co.nz
For more tips and insights on exploring the great temptations of Western Australia, head to the regional tourism site. www.westernaustralia.com