"I'm headed Down South.” It's a typical holiday expression used by many West Aussies opting for a swift getaway within the state. But defining where exactly Down South is another thing.
The South West's most famous (coastal) towns include Busselton, Dunsborough, Margaret River, Albany and Esperance. More often than not, what is overlooked is the heartland of this truly unique region – a world away from life by the shore.
Instead of breathing in the salty ocean air, I enlightened my senses with a myriad of forest scents, garden-fresh fruits and tributaries. I put aside my beach towel (briefly) to travel along South Western Highway 1 via Bunbury (two hours south of Perth) to embrace the serenity of the region's inland gems.
Countryside landscapes of bright apple-green rolling hills, towering woodland giants, enchanting forest roads and ribbons of water flowing between charming townships were the new scenic norm.
It was time to encounter life in the countryside visiting quaint towns Donnybrook, Balingup, Bridgetown, Manjimup and Pemberton. Despite the towns' close distance from one another, I soon discovered that each offered a distinctive pleasure-seeking escape – and not all necessarily tied with a hefty price tag.
Donnybrook has its own kind of zest. Located only a half-hour drive southeast of seaside Bunbury, Donnybrook is populated with picturesque English oak trees and colourfully dotted with famously juicy exports — apples. And doesn't the town play on its fresh produce offering!
The 'apple capital of the west' champions its label almost comically with larger-than-life apples beautifying its lamp posts along the main strip, Collins St. Donnybrook is also home to Australia's largest free children's playground, Apple Fun Park. It is both a vibrant and educational affair with apple and pear varieties sweetly characterising its new-age play equipment. Oh, how the times have changed! The simple set of seesaw and swings of yesteryear now share space with rock climbing zones and interactive soundscapes. My inner child was envious at the sight.
For the adults, Donnybrook is more than just a drop-off point for the kids to amuse themselves. Just a 12-minute drive away, nearby town Kirup's local favourite Lady Marmalade proved to be the perfect pit stop en route to Balingup. The quaint Federation-style tearoom offers guilty pleasures in the form of freshly baked goods on-premise, including its famous lemon meringue pie. I got more than I bargained for when I realised my cake portion almost took up half the plate with a potential sugar high beckoning.
Balingup takes full ownership of being one of Western Australia's quirkiest towns. Dress up Balingup in whichever way, what will immediately grab your attention is the greeting you are met with; a scarecrow in familiar stance but not in an ordinary fashion. The town's keen affection for switching wardrobes on its outdoor mascots is a charismatic move setting the town apart from its neighbours.
Each winter Balingup hosts its Medieval Carnivale with people opting to step back in time and don medieval regalia for the festive weekender. I may have been out of costume, but I still managed to experience Balingup's other unique offering.
I enjoyed a sundowner from the region's highest peak (245m) at Balingup Heights Hilltop Forest Cottages. The accommodation's lookout area is open to the public and encouraged too by owners Deb and Brian Vanallen. Home of misty mornings, gently rolling hills and winding roads, Balingup is a living storybook setting. Sitting on one of the two log chairs provided, I took my time to cherish the fairytale-like landscape with a glass of Willow Estate's award-winning shiraz.
Nearby the magic of Balingup is an other-worldly setting, the Golden Valley Tree Park. What began over 100 years ago is now Western Australia's largest arboretum, covering 60 hectares. The park's World Collection is an ecological venture around the globe via tree types. It is home to more than 250 varieties of exotic species including Redwood, Douglas Fir and Giant Sequoias — although not as big (yet!) as the ones found in California's Western Sierra.
Closer to home, the collection also includes a what's what of Australian native trees with labels there to help out the tree bingo.
Proper winters aside, Bridgetown knows how to embrace the crisp. What started as a longing for old-fashioned English cider by Brit expats is now one of the region's great pubs, The Cidery and Blackwood Valley Brewery. It's not just apple fever that gets the pub brewing as its unique truffle beer and cider concoctions are a distinct taste.
Innovation does not only run through Bridgetown's keg pipes as the town is also a hub for creativity. Rabbithole is a space for artistic vision with its nine working art studios. Visitors can make their way around the working gallery free of charge – only after going down the rabbit hole’s spiral basement staircase.
A short walk away from the town's main strip is WA's longest continually running river, the Blackwood. It is an understandably great spot for canoe and kayak enthusiasts with the river seemingly underutilised leisure-wise. A flock of galahs gave the sky a touch of rose as I opted to stimulate my senses by having an urban adventure on foot via the Blackwood River – Town trail. The scenic trail stretches out between 5.3km or 5.7km if inclusive of the town's loop.
"This is our secret," Tall Timbers’ restaurant manager Andrew cheekily told me as he slowly poured a glass of Batista Estate's pinot noir.
He wasn't just talking about this seemingly perfect rouge drop, he was referring to the Manjimup as a whole. It feels apt the town is named after the Noongar word for 'Manjin' — a broad-leafed edible reed. The area yields high-quality produce and culinary delights thanks to it being one of the most fertile lands in the country. Not only the birthplace of the Pink Lady apple, Manjimup is also Western Australia's biggest food bowl and home to some of the world's most sought epicurean delicacies — black truffle and freshwater crayfish, marron.
Luckily I just made the tail-end of the limited truffle season, usually between June to August. The Southern Forest's central hub is one of the world's biggest producers of black truffle. As I surfed the menu, Andrew revealed the restaurant churns through an impressive 2-3kg of truffle each week when in season. With that said, I chose a moment of double indulgence, spoiling myself with grilled marron with truffle-butter. Fork work aside, it was worth the effort to get to the marron’s flesh for its mouth-watering delicate taste. No dessert needed.
However, donuts were on the mind the next morning as I floated along Fonty's Pool, a freshwater pool and local landmark. It was a perfect moment of solitude, basking in life's simple pleasures in lush green surrounds. Little did I know this wasn't going to be my only moment of seclusion…
PEMBERTON AND THE KARRI VALLEY
"Welcome to Tall Tree Country," the receptionist warmly greeted me as I checked into the recently-refurbished RAC Karri Valley Resort.
he greeting felt like a homecoming of sorts. Earlier in the day, I had brazenly clambered my way up the 72m Gloucester Tree in Gloucester National Park. The feat is not for the faint-hearted as 153 metal pegs are mounted to the tree to reach the viewing platform at 61m. Before it became Pemberton's star attraction and well before the times of spotter planes, it was one of eight fire lookouts scattered across the south west forests.
Combating my fears proved worth the sweat endured. Standing atop the world's second-highest fire-lookout tree, I was awarded sweeping 360-degree views of centuries-old karri trees.
What goes up must come down, and the climb down was just as nerve-racking as the ascent. Back at ground level, I went along the 400m Jim Fox adventure trail, which was beautifully decorated with native flower, purple flag iris.
I eventually made it to the heart of Tall Tree Country — Karri Valley — 323km from Perth. My insignificance was magnified as I stood amidst the state's woodland giants — jarrah, marri and karri trees from the fringes of Lake Beedelup (next to RAC Karri Valley Resort).
It is rare to see such a pristine backdrop almost untainted with mass tourist activity. After checking in, I took advantage of the resort's activity day pass (from $10 per person) and hired a canoe for a late afternoon paddle along the rainbow trout-filled lake (fishing is permitted on the lake).
Remarkably, I had this tranquil setting to myself. The only disruption was from my paddle strokes, causing small ripples in the otherwise placid lake. It was even possible to catch a glimpse of Beedelup Falls' rock-strewn cascades from the canoe. Alternatively, the Falls can also be accessed via a 300-metre walking trail from the nearby car park via a suspension bridge.
I dined at the resort's newly revamped Lakeside Restaurant which overlooked Lake Beedelup and its now illuminated timber skyscrapers at night. I salivated while surfing the restaurant's modern-Australian menu. My choice was a wise one as the double-baked smoked trout souffle with walnut and apple proved to be a heavenly dish.
En route back to Perth, deep inside the Ferguson Valley lay an unusual outback sighting. What started as a once-off local gimmick has now spawned the birth of the grassroots tourist attraction, Gnomesville.
Gnomes have slowly been taking over the Ferguson Rd junction since the 1990s with an estimated 10,000-plus gnomes calling this portion of the valley home. It's a peculiar sight but also an amusing one , exploring a community of gnomes in the bushlands, donated by locals and far-flung tourists alike wanting to be a part of the area's folklore. I made a mental note to BYO gnome next visit to this Gnome-madic community...
Within a 10-minute drive is a family-run vineyard, St Aidan Wines. Feeling sweet, I tried their fortified wine, Zena. "It's Christmas pudding in a glass," the wine attendant gleefully told me as I slowly smelt and sipped my wine. Christmas had come early.
How bittersweet it was to leave the breath-taking scenery that I had become accustomed to. However, it was time to flirt with the sea.
Travelling 20 minutes from St Aidan Wines, I reached my first port of call along the coast, Bunbury Back Beach Cafe. I tucked into a seafood platter while feeling the fresh ocean breeze sweep across my face.
Along the revamped Bunbury foreshore is the newly opened Dolphin Discovery Centre. The centre's 90-minute Eco-Cruises offer a one-of-a-kind experience to get close to Bunbury's famous residents. Much to my delight, around eight dolphins were sighted. In a movie-style ending, two dolphins just a metre away jumped out of the water almost in unison alongside the boat as it headed back to the shore.
That was the moment I realised my southwest experience had come full circle, and I could now fully appreciate the attractions of this wonderful part of the state both inside and out.