I was told by the locals to keep this beautiful spot a secret, but truth is, I was quietly shocked that it has been off the radar for so long. How?
Nestled far away in the south coast of Western Australia is Woody Island. This small, unruffled eco-playground 715km south-east of Perth, will add a touch of magic to any southern coastal adventure. It’s a perfect springboard to partake in simple outdoor activities both above and below sea level. It’s an island that would excite both young and old, plus the lazy wanderer.
The existence of the 240-hectare island almost seems like an ideal film location. Think Lord of The Flies, Gilligan’s Island, or perhaps a future instalment of hit TV series Survivor.
It’s not a bad place to be stranded on for a few days, either. It’s a perfect add-on to any Esperance trip, with the island a short 15km boat ride from the coast, located in the Southern Ocean. Woody, as it’s known by locals, is the sole island out of 105 islands and 1200 rocky outcrops that form the Recherche Archipelago that boasts woodlands, hence its very literal namesake. At face value, it’s dominated by bold colours: an untamed greenlit wilderness escape, surrounded by the big ocean blue and wreathed with red-rusted rocky headlands. But at its core it’s an adventure park, with bush trails and docile animal encounters readily attainable.
Upon learning more about the island, it made me think that this could be a localised version of the Galapagos Islands — Western Australia’s own island utopia filled with an abundance of biological pleasures. And with that similarity embedded into the brain, I chose to channel Charles Darwin, quell the curiosity and venture out to uncover this ‘secret’ island.
THE CATAMARAN CRUSADES
It was a reasonable hour in the morning that I boarded the 17.5m Cetacean Explorer catamaran from Esperance’s Taylor Street Jetty to embark on my island quest. It was a family affair, travelling with my brother on the Woody Island Eco Tour vessel.
The boat was mixed with day-trippers and adventurous holidaymakers — families and couples — shaking with chills (or was it with thrills?) on the viewing deck, bidding adios to the mainland for lands less ventured.
Thankfully, the 9am departure gave me enough time to pick up the last-minute perk-me-up essentials — my second junket for a tasty tuna moray pie from the Esperance Hot Bread Bakery and a cup of the revered bean from Down Town Espresso Bar. I needed to brace myself for the ocean winds, after all.
A journey straight to the island usually takes 40 minutes; however, on the way over, the ferry ride takes 60 minutes with the boat crew weaving waters in a Galapagos-type spectacle. It made for an enjoyable two-in-one combination as we played ‘spotto’ with incredible wildlife in their native habitats — white-bellied sea eagles, dolphins, sea lions and seals — and got to our destination without the potential yawn fest of just eyeing off the endless sea.
The excitement factor went up a notch as the boat safari passed by almost-barren Gunton Island.
“Take a closer look everyone,” a team member announced, pointing to the tip of the island to what looked like a pile of sticks. That’s all it was, until it clicked.
“That’s the eagle’s nest!”
The greyish Gunton Island attracts a white-bellied sea eagle population. The team member soon whistled to lure an eagle over, dropping a goodie — a fish — when it was almost hovering over the boat. The giant bird of prey’s wingspan can reach up to 220cm and just watching it spread its greyish wings and soar from the island felt like I was observing theatre in the sky.
With one fell swoop the eagle’s beak dived into the calm sea, snapped up the fish and flew off with its lucky prize after a drastic U-turn in the air. We all gasped and clicked away with our cameras. Naturally, we waited for an encore performance, but it was only just the beginning of great things to come.
On our voyage to Woody Island, we would also encounter Seal Rock. They're straight to the point with names in this part of the world, as the rocky outcrop is populated with lazed New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions. What an easy existence they had, sunbathing on the rock and living their sun-kissed best life — a rock-solid tourist attraction.
A SIMPLE ISLAND WITH A COMPLICATED HISTORY
The boat crew were a wealth of information. Besides having a laser eye for spotting the archipelago’s wild residents, they also divulged the island’s extraordinary chronicles.
The archipelago’s seventh-largest island has experienced enough chapters to fill a paperback novel or two. The first European settlers used it as a remote sheep farm, and then both firewood collection point and notorious prison camp. During the 1940s, an avid boater and agriculturalist Don Mackenzie began to visit the island. Mackenzie grazed sheep until 1954 where the island was declared an A Class Nature Reserve. He found ways to still engage with the island, partaking in commercial fishing, servicing the Esperance Port and starting scenic island cruise operations.
In the 1970s, the island entered a new era when Mackenzie was granted approval to bring tourists to the island on his tug, Cape Le Grand. Tourism to the island would soon flourish for years to come with it becoming a generational affair with sons Hugh and Malcolm continuing his legacy over decades. The business eventually left the family with current owners Peter May and Les Andrews taking over in 2016 and rebranding as Woody Island Eco Tours. It is the only private company that operates tours and accommodation on the A Class Nature Reserve.
Local Aboriginal artifacts have also been found on the island, dating back thousands of years to when the island was still connected to the mainland.
A MUCH-WELCOMED ARRIVAL
Our David Attenborough moments out at sea soon came to an end. Life as a consenting castaway was about to start.
Since changing hands, the privately-run state reserve has been operating both day eco-tours, and overnight stays most popular with people in the region yearning for an island escape. Expect the bare basics with accommodation options — bring your own tent, rent a tent or stay in one of the island’s eco-friendly simple safari huts overlooking the coastline and campgrounds from its elevated hillside location. Up to 90 guests can stay overnight on the island, with ample communal showers and toilets.
It seems like everything here lives up to its name too. As catamaran slowly pulled into Shearwater Bay, it was precisely that. Shear, crystal-clear, calm waters. It was just glistening with coral colours and marine life beaming from below thanks to the sun’s fortunately timed emergence from behind the clouds. At that moment, I knew it would be a snorkeler’s Shangri-La. I couldn’t wait to put on my fins and mingle with its marine life.
The thing most visible when arriving into the bays is the island’s reddish-green rocky headland, and of course, the roof to its licensed Black Jack’s Kiosk and Bar, with a handful of people on its balcony greeting us from afar. The fins had to wait (and so did the holiday bevvy) for as soon as the boat docked, all visitors onboard are ushered to get the leg muscles pumping with walking from the jetty, crisscrossing the island boardwalk to go on walkabout.
WILDLIFE AND WALKABOUTS
Woody Island has two designated trailheads that form part of the day eco-tour. A small group including myself followed island caretaker Jen along the one-hour Island Top Walk loop trail.
We toured under canopies of various eucalyptus and sheoak trees that give the island a reddish shade. The tour covered small ground and hardly tested one’s endurance. Even the kids were showing adults how to combat the hike. Reaching the island’s peak was a highlight, as we got to be the human cherry on the top and look at this sweet island escape from the top tier. Jen highlighted areas of the island now made visible, including Twiggy’s Landing and — thankfully not in full view to us — Skinny Dip Bay. Cheeky! Yes, even a small island celebrates personal liberties.
What was also incredible about this spot was the panoramic vistas of the mainland staring right back at us. The Esperance-Goldfield region’s famed national park, Cape Le Grand and Instagram hotspots, Frenchman’s Peak and Lucky Bay were staring right back at us. It was a “wow” moment, alright!
The island also provides an excellent opportunity to get up close with native wildlife. It is home to several types of geckos and skinks. Its most famous residents include little fairy penguins — the smallest species of penguins — that can reach 30cm in height. Roughly 20 western grey kangaroos have also been introduced to the island, mixing in with the few mammals of the island — the rare ash-grey mouse and bush rat.
A variety of birdlife can also be sighted but none as entertaining as mutton birds. These birds have built a reputation on the island as putting on a nightly ‘muppet show’ just after sundown. You could almost grab the popcorn and watch this impromptu Nat Geo documentary from a park bench, as the birds dart and somersault into the bushes to bury holes in a nesting ground. Really, who needs TV when you have front row seats to a drama that ruffles feathers?
DISCOVERING NEW DEPTHS
I heard my brother call out from the jetty in the morning. Now, this was the type of alarm I could forgive going off. I could also forgive him getting it confused with a sea lion. Same same but different, right? Once we were told the island’s resident sea lions had a penchant for coming out to play in the bay, particularly a one-year old sea lion named Poppet, we had been on constant sea watch. I hurriedly rushed down from our ocean-view hut to the pier to greet him.
A smile was cast wide across his face.
“I just had the best snorkel of my life.”
My elder brother now a kid again, excitedly recalling his encounter with his surprise playdate.
He proceeded to show me the photos of the incredible snorkel he had, almost dancing with a sea lion under the wharf. How I had to have this moment. Hours later, with the sun out, I went in for my wishful moment to encounter a sea lion. The water was refreshingly cold, but tolerable. I ignored the shivers and went on about my snorkel.
The visibility of the water is brilliant, especially on a clear sunny day. It’s even better when you put the mask and fins on to see the world below amplified with an explosion of colour. Bright yellow and orange corals glistened; massive thunderbolt blue starfishes were spotted; an underwater museum monument — a sunken dinghy — exposed; and colourful fish varieties danced.
If that didn’t sound storybook enough, I soon spotted those dark brown eyes I had longed to see — those of a sea lion. Could this really be happening? As if this snorkel was not epic enough! My token sea lion friend would emerge and join me for a few moments under the jetty. For a split second, I was in eye contact, looking right into curious big brown eyes. Water aerobics followed, with the sea lion flipping its body in hamster wheel motion before it soon started to swim away. A shy thing. I followed it for a bit, but I was no match to its speed.
The holy grail moments just kept coming that day. It pays to get friendly with fellow holiday-goers as a licensed abalone fisherman got lucky and offered to share his catches, admitting that he and his wife were mostly hungry with their eyes. The beachside banquet included both fish and squid caught from the dock and the hotly sought-after abalone caught from the shore, all prepared on the communal kitchen barbeque.
We sat as a foursome, getting stuck into this fishy feast. It was my first taste of the costly abalone, and whoa, my tastebuds hit jackpot with that timely dinner invite.
As I waited for the boat to take me back to the mainland, I got chatting with a local man relishing the views from the café’s open windows, overlooking the island’s rocky terrain where it welcomes the crisp Southern Ocean winds. I told him I was documenting my experience with this hidden gem of the south-west, and he offered this affirmative piece of advice. “Tell them Woody Island is an underrated island. Make your own experience. Make your own magic!”
Of course, I believed his every word. Not only because he said it with such great conviction and enthusiasm, but because I had also been bewitched with the island myself. And it’s about time Woody enchanted others, too.
WOODY ISLAND ECO TOURS
Return ferry prices (including entry fee to Woody Island) from $95 per adult, $80 concession, $68 student (13–17 yr), $55 child, infants (under 2 yr) free
- $155 Safari Hut. Extra person $20 per night (sleeps 2 adults, 2 children)
- $135 Hassle-free Pre-set Up Family Tent. Extra person $20 per night (sleeps 4 people)
- $100 Hassle-free Pre-set Up Standard Tent (sleeps 2 people max)
- $50 BYO Tent and Swag Sites. Extra adult $20 per night (max 1 adult), extra child $10 per night (max 2 children)
- Departs Esperance at 9am sharp from Taylor Street Jetty (check in at 8.45am) and arrives back in Esperance at 2pm.
Ph: 0484 327 580
RAC ESPERANCE HOLIDAY PARK
- $49 Ocean View Site (sleeps 6)
- $45 Powered Site (sleeps 6)
- $40 Powered Tent Site (sleeps 6)
Ph: (08) 9071 1251