Gigantic caves, 60-metre-tall trees, world-renowned wineries and some of the planet’s best beaches – a road trip from Perth through Western Australia’s South-West region uncovers some extraordinary sights.
This area of Australia is so sparsely populated that it’s possible to secure a pristine white-sand beach all to yourself at any time of year, leaving possible the only footprints of the day.
WA’s South-West is renowned for its surfing. But for those of us who can’t stand upright on a board, there’s adventure to be found by descending deep into one of its dozens of caves, or climbing up to a viewing platform atop a monstrous Karri Tree, which dominates the forest in the gorgeous Valley of the Giants.
Wind down by eating truffles, succulent steak or fresh seafood while sipping on world-class wine looking out over a beautiful vineyard.
When travelling, they say you should do as the locals do. Well us Perth residents spend a large chunk of our lives either “heading down south” or daydreaming about “heading down south”.
Perth is almost universally described as a laidback city, and a modern metropolis with a small-town atmosphere. Yet it is positively frenetic compared to the coastal communities to its south, where life moves at a pace so gentle it lulls you into a state of tranquillity.
Perth to Byford – 43-kilometres
Once you’ve had your fill of Perth, simply load up your car and go south. There are numerous driving routes from Perth to WA’s South-West region but I would highly recommend starting inland through the small town of Byford.
Here, just beyond the edge of Perth’s urban sprawl, about 45 minutes from the city centre, lies a quintessentially Australian experience. One which can’t be replicated overseas – the chance to cuddle up to the country’s extraordinary native animals.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to hold a koala bear, play with a baby kangaroo or stroke a cute little Wallaby, then Cohunu Koala Park is made for you. Even for someone born and raised in Australia, this park is impressive. It’s not a flashy operation – the infrastructure is quite basic. But the level of access given to its animals is remarkable.
Some of these creatures roam freely across the 14-hectare bushland property and are happy to be hand fed. Or you can enter one of the park’s large enclosures, where dozens of kangaroos, wallabies and deer of all sizes wander around. So accustomed are they to the company of humans that, as long as you approach slowly, they’ll let you stroke them as they recline in the shade of a gum tree.
There are no staff standing around supervising or warning you what not to do – it’s just you and the animals. Which is what makes this experience so special. Entrance to the park is very cheap at just $15 for guests aged 13 years or older, $5 for children aged 3-12, and free for kids under the age of 3.
For an extra $30 the staff will fetch one of the park’s 25 Koalas from inside their enclosure and allow you to hug it for a few minutes while posing for photos.
Byford to Shoalwater – 37-kilometres
After being delighted by your close encounters with Australia’s curious animals, you have two fine options. The first is to continue on down the South Western Highway from Byford and make a bee-line for the beachside town of Bunbury. The second is to double down on wildlife experiences and drive half an hour towards the coast to the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park.
I’m fortunate enough to live right on the beach facing this park and there’s not a day that passes that I don’t wonder how it isn’t one of Perth’s biggest tourist attractions.
This sheltered bay, just under an hour’s drive south of Perth, is home to a wide variety of breeding seabirds, playful dolphins, and two truly rare ocean creatures – the Australian sea lion and the little penguin.
The latter is the world’s smallest penguin species, with adults only about 40cm tall. More than 1,000 of these penguins live on Penguin Island (main image), slightly more than one kilometre off the coast. Visitors can watch the penguins and dolphins frolic in the bay’s translucent waters as they cruise in a glass bottom tour boat or paddle a kayak.
The boats and kayaks can also get you within metres of the shore of the park’s other main land mass, Seal Island. Visitors are not allowed on this tiny island, which is the private domain of a colony of endangered sea lions, who can be seen sunbathing on its beach. Tourists are, however, allowed to spend the day on Penguin Island, where there is a visitor centre which holds wonderfully entertaining penguin feeding sessions three times a day.
The marine park is closed from June to mid-September due to penguin breeding season, but, is a treat at any other time of the year.
MORE STORIES YOU’LL LOVE …
- 4 epic Australian road-trips
- Tasmania by motorhome
- The Great Australian road-trip
- Best self-drive holidays in the world
Shoalwater to Bunbury – 179-kilometres
From Shoalwater, it’s almost a two-hour drive to Bunbury. One of WA’s largest towns, home to about 33,000 people, Bunbury has been an important gather place for the Noongar Aboriginal people for more than 40,000 years.
European settlers arrived in 1838 and gradually it developed from a tiny hamlet into a thriving regional centre, the biggest in WA south of Perth.
The town centre has a range of charming heritage buildings used as pubs, hotels, restaurants or shops. The Rose Hotel and Burlington Hotel are brilliant spots for a meal and a drink or two, the kind of old-school Australian bars which feel paused in time. But first, you should work up a hunger with a swim at one of Bunbury’s gorgeous beaches, like Back or Koombana Beach.
Bunbury to Busselton – 52-kilometres
As stunning as the Bunbury beaches are, they cannot compete with Busselton. So clear and calm is the water of Geographe Bay which fringes this town that it almost doesn’t look real. It feels like you’re in a swimming pool. The Town of Busselton has made the most of this extraordinary natural gift by limiting development along the main stretch of sand. There are no towering hotels or resorts, just Norfolk Pines swaying in the breeze.
There is, however, one enormous manmade structure here – the 1.8km-long Busselton Jetty. The longest timber-piled jetty south of the equator, it has become a quirky tourist attraction. It is not lined with kiosks and cafes, like the UK’s Blackpool North Pier, rather its appeal lies in its simplicity – people come merely to admire the majesty of Geographe Bay while traversing the jetty on foot or from the comfort of a cute little train.
Busselton to Margaret River – 49-kilometres
Where Busselton beguiles visitors with its intoxicating peace and natural splendour, its neighbours Yallingup and Margaret River are less subtle. They woo tourists with adventure and hedonism.
These two towns, further down along the WA coast, draw the fury of the sea. Ocean swells steadily gather in size before exploding on the reefs off the coast of Yallingup and Margaret River, much to the delight of surfers who travel from all over the world to ride these waves.
Yallingup Beach doesn’t just cater to adrenalin junkies, though, it also boasts a sheltered lagoon perfect for swimming and snorkelling. Bordered by the seacliffs of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, the beach owns a spectacular setting.
So, too, does Margaret River, WA’s chicest town. What was one a sleepy holiday hamlet has become perhaps the hippest, most desirable location in the State outside of Perth.
Margaret River and its surrounding areas are home to many mansions built by wealthy Perth residents who holiday down here whenever possible. There’s also a generous array of upmarket resorts catering to the well-to-do tourists which Margaret River courts. Not to mention an ever-increasing number of top-class wineries, many of which not only produce world-renowned wine but also attract visitors with their stylish on-site restaurants and bars.
It’s a millionaire’s playground, though not in the sense that it has little to offer anyone whose wallet doesn’t bulge. Not all of the accommodation is upmarket and expensive. The same goes for the wineries, some of which ignore the five-star market and aim for middle-class tourists. Most importantly, the Margaret River region’s extraordinary natural beauty is there for everyone to explore and savour.
Margaret River to Pemberton – 135-kilometres
This beauty extends below the region’s lush forests to its many famous caves. Just 20 minutes’ drive south of Margaret River town, Lake Cave is a truly extraordinary place. The forest gives way to a giant sinkhole, which visitors descend into via a series of staircases. Then, the trees disappear from view as you continue down into huge cave chambers embellished by elaborate stalagmites and stalactites.
The sheer scale of the forest and the cave it hides are breathtaking, reflective of Australia’s overwhelming size. Nowhere is this better embodied, though, than in the ominously-named Valley of the Giants, 90 minutes’ drive south-east of Lake Cave.
This loosely-defined area stretching from Pemberton more than 150-kilometres east to Denmark is spiked by thousands of gigantic Red Tingle and Karri Trees, which can soar more than 50 metres into the sky. Some of these giants can be conquered by tourists thanks to ladders drilled into their monumental trunks. These include the Gloucester Tree and Diamond Tree, both near Pemberton, which reward climbers with sprawling vistas from their 50-metre-high viewing platforms.
From up there you can see across the tree canopy in every direction, soaking in the vastness and magnificence of WA’s South-West region. This jaw-dropping view is a reminder of just why you travelled all this way.