Bushwacker bonanza: Western Australia's wilderness

How do you entertain small children in the outback? Sebastian Hope trails from hot coast to cool creek in Western Australia's wilderness

All parents have moments when it seems there are some things, like sleep, they will never be able to do again. Revisiting Australia falls into that category. However, when newly migrated friends asked us to visit we suddenly found ourselves heading to Perth and 40-degree heat with three- and four-year-old boys.

There was a time when 40C would have meant taking a break from hitching and spending the afternoon swigging a cold beer. With children, other forms of climate control were needed. Cottesloe Beach was far too hot but Perth's air-conditioned aquarium, Aqwa, seemed the perfect answer - and also good preparation for our journey along the coast. The displays range from coral to kelp, but the showstopper is the tank of sharks and rays through which a perspex tunnel runs.

Our friends had moved to Yallingup, on the coast three hours south of Perth. The great swells of the Indian Ocean roll up on its reefs and crash on the sand. Luckily, at one end the reef forms a protective barrier around a pool of shallower water, a great place for the boys to try out snorkelling. On this coast they say "never turn your back on the sea nor take your eye off your kids", but on the other side of Cape Naturaliste there are beaches where vigilance can be relaxed slightly. Eagle Bay is at its best in the late afternoon with a rod and a boy eager to reel in small fish. After a week of fishing even my son was beginning to tire of going to the beach yet again. So we decided to take a road trip.

Caves Road runs south from Yallingup past Margaret River. While the town itself is a thriving, pretty little place, most of what has made Margaret River famous - food and wine - is to be found in the surrounding countryside. Caves Road passes the front door of umpteen vineyards, many with restaurants, but we were heading first for a different kind of meal on a Bushtucker Tour.

Mercifully, my boys are too young to associate 'bushtucker' with 'trial', so canoeing up the Margaret River for our picnic held no dread for them. We started from its mouth at Prevelly Beach and paddled past paperbarks to the place where European settlement of the region began. The meal consisted of nuts and berries, wild fruits and meats, but this being Margaret River the emu was lightly smoked, the fruits chutneyed, the grubs made into a mousse and served with focaccia. It was only the bread the boys disliked.

Caves were important places for the local Aboriginal clans. The whole coast here is riddled with hollows. The road passes over the top of Lake Cave, one of the prettiest, whose entrance is through a giant roof fall, out of which 400-year-old karri trees grow. Further towards Augusta the road twists through a stand of old karris at Boranup, a first taste of the Southern Forests.

Surprisingly for a logging town, Pemberton is surrounded by forest. It still has a working lumber mill, but logging has moved on and the old railway tracks now carry tourist trains. Well, one tram, which winds through the woods towards Northcliffe, and one steam-train. The latter runs only in winter: there's too high a risk of forest fire in summer, when the forestry agency carries out 'controlled' burns. One patch we passed through was still smouldering, and in the Gloucester National Park the blackened trails were closed. At least the Gloucester Tree itself was still open, towering well over 60 metres. There are steps, or rather spikes, driven into the trunk that spiral up to a platform 58m off the ground, although the climb is more exciting than the view.

Passing over the Lefroy Brook, our tram driver told us there were trout in it - as well as a native freshwater crayfish, the marron. A more tot-friendly version of the experience was to be had at King Trout, a sort of "catch-your-own" restaurant. The boys caught two each. You pay by weight for what you catch, and then you can have it dressed and cooked for another modest charge. Our mud-brick cottage was on Pump Hill Farm. Farmer Dan took the children to feed the animals every morning.

Our next stop was Big Brook Dam. The coast around Pemberton is accessible only by 4x4, and there are operators offering sand safaris through the vast Yeagarup Dunes, but you can't just pop down for a dip. Big Brook Dam is the place for that, a placid lake surrounded by old-growth karri forest, perfect for a boy to practise his casting.

We turned towards Walpole on the South Western Highway, only to be stopped outside Shannon. There was a fire at Broke Inlet up ahead. A burn had got out of control. We were about 100km from our next destination, Walpole, and now we would have to drive 260km to get there. We fuelled up and took Muirs Highway towards Mount Barker. In spring, the ground there is thick with wild flowers; but on this, the first day of autumn, the land was baked dry.

They say the town of Denmark is like Margaret River 20 years ago: the same mix of surf and turf. In March, big 4x4s with dinghies strapped to the roof and camping trailers behind head for the campsite at Parry Beach to join in with the Salmon Team. Every autumn shoals of salmon stream west along the south coast. Their arrival is eagerly anticipated by sports fishermen, though they are not rated as a table fish. "But", said Rob, owner of the Parryville Chalets, "if you get them 'fresh as', and fillet them, they go great on the barbie, and if you happen to be on Parry Beach when the Team is pulling in, they'll give you one."

Nothing was moving in the bay. The team lookout sat in his hut, scanning the sea for a shoal. Team members fished off the rocks for herring. The Bibbulmun Track, a 900km walking path that ends at Albany, rejoins the coast here and follows the curve of William Bay. Parry Beach was relatively sheltered, but beyond it on Mazzoletti Beach the surf was breaking in big, slow-moving lumps. Yet there is respite from this majesty. At the eastern end is Green's Pool, ringed in by vast granite boulders.

It was the presence of whales that brought Europeans to this coast, and Albany was their first settlement in Western Australia - founded in 1826. Its "Mayflower moment" is commemorated in a replica of the cockleshell, the Brig Amity, that brought them from Sydney. The town's whaling wealth is on display in its fine Victorian buildings, but there is a more curious relic of that era out on the Flinders Peninsula.

Whale World is on the site of Australia's last whaling station and an uncomfortable place to visit; we bunked off the rather grisly tour before the flensing deck and rendering shed. The kids headed for the playground and its whale-shaped slide. Looking up at the old whaling boat beached nearby, I noticed its harpoon was pointing straight at the smiling fibre-glass leviathan. Old habits die hard.

We'd saved the showpiece of the Southern Forests until last. In the Valley of the Giants National Park outside Walpole, an aerial walkway leads up to the karri canopy 40m above the ground. It was best, in the children's view, when swaying. At ground level the path loops through the grove of ancient tingle trees. The boys raced round that too, and finally, we pulled into Walpole after our long diversion, on a baking afternoon. We coolled off in a swimming hole on the Frankland River - welcome refreshment, until someone mentioned leeches.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Perth is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; www.singaporeair.co.uk) via Singapore; Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong; Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysiaairlines.com) via Kuala Lumpur; and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai. The writer's car hire was arranged through Trailfinders (0845 054 777; www.trailfinders.com).

STAYING THERE

Seashells Caves House & Restaurant, Yallingup (00 61 8 9750 1500; www.seashells.com.au). Doubles from A$175 (£71) including breakfast.

Yallingup Forest Resort (00 61 8 9755 2550; www.yallingupforestresort.com.au). Self-catered cabins from A$155 (£63).

Pump Hill Farm, Pemberton (00 61 8 9776 1379; www.pumphill.com.au). Self-catered cottages from A$105 (£42).

Parryville Chalets, Denmark (00 61 8 9840 9067; www.westnet.com.au/parryvillechalets). Self-catered chalets from A$140 (£56).

Houseboat Holidays on the Inlet, Walpole (00 61 8 9840 1310; www.houseboatholiday.com.au). Three nights' rental from A$580 (£234) excluding fuel.

EATING AND DRINKING THERE

Goanna Gallery & Cafe, Yallingup (00 61 8 9759 1477).

Simmo's Ice-Creamery, Yallingup (00 61 8 9755 3745).

King Trout, Pemberton (00 61 8 9776 1352).

Hidden River Estate, Winery and Restaurant (00 61 8 9776 1437; www.hiddenriver.com.au).

VISITING THERE

Aqwa (Aquarium of Western Australia), Perth (00 61 8 9447 7500; www.aqwa.com.au).

Bushtucker River & Winery Tours, Margaret River (00 61 8 9757 9084; www.bushtuckertours.com).

Pemberton Tramway (00 61 8 9776 1322; www.pemtram.com.au).

4x4 dune tours with Pemberton Discovery Tours (00 61 8 9776 0484; www.pembertondiscoverytours.com.au).

Pentland Alpaca Stud & Animal Farm (00 61 8 9840 9262; www.pentlandalpacafarm.com.au).

Valley of the Giants (00 61 8 9840 8263; www.valleyofthegiants.com.au).

Whale World, Frenchman Bay (00 61 8 9844 4021; www.whaleworld.org).

MORE INFORMATION

Southern Forests Region: 00 61 8 9771 1831; www.southernforests.com.au

Western Australia Tourism: 00 61 89 262 1700; www.westernaustralia.com

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