Rockingham and Penguin Island
Our first stop on our Southwest road trip was Rockingham, which is only about 45 minutes south of Perth. The town is your typical little coastal town, but the big draw is Penguin Island, which is part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park. Penguin Island is, as its name suggest, an island full of penguins. It’s only a 15 minute ferry to get there, and you can actually walk across the sandbar from the mainland but it’s strongly discouraged because people have drowned when the tide comes in too quickly. You can get a ferry deal that includes a glass bottom boat ride, so we figured we’d go with that.
Penguin Island is special because of its population of Little Penguins, the largest in Western Australia. Little Penguins is not a nickname, it is actually what the species is called, named (obviously) because they are the littlest penguins. And they are pretty darn tiny and adorable.
Despite there being hundreds of penguins living on the island, the chances of seeing one in the wild are super slim because they generally spend the daylight hours out in the ocean hunting fish. Fortunately there is a small visitors centre on the island where there are ten rescue penguins that for various reasons can’t be released back into the wild. These are fed a couple times a day so you can go watch them swim around.
One of the penguins, named Lou, is the granddaddy of the group. The average lifespan of a Little Penguin is 7 years, but somehow he is 24 and still going.
Little Penguins mate for life, so there are a couple of cute mating pairs in the group. Awesomely one of them is a male-male pair, because apparently that can happen in the penguin world. Since they can’t have eggs of their own, the staff at the centre let them foster an abandoned egg, which turned out to be a rousing success.
After watching the penguins splash around we went on a short glass bottom boat ride, where we saw some dolphins and also visited the nearby sea lion colony on the aptly named Seal Island. The sea lions here are all males, so it wasn’t too exciting since we had already experienced swimming with the little sea lions and the big guys pretty much just lie around on the beach.
Before leaving the island we took a walk around its entirety, trying with no luck to spot some little penguins hiding in the bushes. The staff said it was possible at this time of the year, since it was moulting season and the penguins cannot swim when moulting because they are not waterproof. We saw about a million other birds, including a huge group of pelicans, but sadly no little penguins.
Bunbury and Busselton
From Rockingham we headed into the Geographe Region to Bunbury for the night. Bunbury is a sizable city but not too exciting. I’m told you can see dolphins up close here, but it sounded much the same as Monkey Mia, so we decided to give it a miss.
From Bunbury we headed to Busselton. Busselton’s claim to fame is this really long jetty, the longest in the southern hemisphere apparently. There is an underwater observatory at the end, but it was pretty pricey so we opted to just do the walk.
Next up was the Margaret River Region. At the north end there is the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, as well as a big costal rock formation called Sugarloaf Rock.
In the middle are about a million vineyards and some good areas for hardcore surfers. Since we can’t surf and don’t drink wine, we instead spent the day at Sunflowers Animal Farm feeding all the animals, like cool kids.
Driving south from Margaret River you head through the impressive Boranup Karri Forest, and also past a lot of caves. We though about visiting a couple of them, but you have to pay for each one and we figured nothing was going to be as exciting as our Sagada cave experience in the Philippines, so we gave it a miss.
We stayed in the cute town of Augusta (not to be confused with Port Augusta) for the night. It has a nice waterfront trail from the caravan park into town and a lot of windsurfers.
It’s also close to the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, which is the tallest lighthouse on mainland Australia and where the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean meet.
From there it was onto the Southern Forests Region, which is where the MASSIVE trees are. There are three fire lookout trees in the area that you are allowed to climb. This is pretty exciting because there are no safety ropes or anything, just a bunch of metal poles jammed into the trunk that you scale kind of like a ladder (there are a couple wires along the edge to stop you falling sideways, but nothing to stop you falling between the rungs). It’s interesting that they tell you not to walk across the Penguin Island sandbar but encourage this tree climbing, but oh well.
We started with the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree in Warren National Park, which at 75m is the tallest of the climbing trees. Tree climbing is a bit tricky because there are rules about how many people can be on the tree at one time, but it’s hard to tell how many are at the top because the trees are so tall. Also no one really wants to negotiate a pass on the climbing ladder, although the signs suggested that it was possible. Fortunately we arrived as another group was descending, so we knew they hadn’t died and that the tree was empty. We ascended with a nice German guy whose girlfriend chickened out about 15m up and opted to watch from the bottom. Pretty sure Chris would have also bailed if it wasn’t for his sheer determination not to lose face in front of these strangers. When we made it up to the first resting platform at 25m, he had to take a break because “[his] heart hurt”.
Anyways, we eventually made it to the top, which was actually less scary because there are platforms with actual ladders so you don’t have to look at the massive drop underfoot. After resting and taking some selfies we headed down, which was probably scarier than the ascent since you have to look down all the time.
After that, climbing the other two trees was much easier because they were shorter and we were hyped up on adrenaline. We did the Gloucester Tree in Gloucester National Park next, which was the busiest as it is closest to the town, and finished with the Diamond Tree. The last one seemed harder but this was probably because our quads had gotten quite the workout by this point.
After celebrating our climbing success we drove down to Walpole, home of the giant tingle trees and the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk. Tingle trees are these crazy trees that can basically be hollow, because if the inside is burned out by a fire the tree is perfectly fine since all the nutrients are carried in the outer layers of the trunk.
The Valley of the Giants is a touristy kind of place where they have built this massive walkway up in the tree tops, about 40m high. Even though we had already climbed almost twice that earlier in the day, it was pretty cool as the long walkway is a different kind of experience.
We also took a walk in the “Ancient Empire” of tingle trees below. Some of them reminded me of Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas.
Denmark and Albany
After exhausting ourselves with all the tree climbing we stopped for the night in Denmark. Denmark is right by William Bay National Park, where we went to see Elephant Rocks and Green Pool. Chris did not think the rocks looked like elephants, but whatever!
From there we continued on to Albany. Albany’s claim to face is that it’s where the ANZAC soldiers departed for World War I, so we took a stroll around to look at some of its many war memorials. Albany also had Australia’s last operating whaling station, which is now a big tourist attraction. It seems weird to celebrate whaling so we took a drive by the wind farm instead. It seemed clear to us that a few more places could do with having some wind turbines!
Porongurup National Park
That night we drove up to camp by Porongurup National Park. This was probably one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve been to so far, although my judgement may be biased because we arrived at golden hour and the campers next to us had a cute puppy they were playing with.
We had a relaxing night and got up early the next morning to hike to Castle Rock before it got too hot out. At the top they have built this metal walkway called the Granite Skywalk. It takes a bit of rock climbing and scrambling to get up there, but the view is pretty sweet.
From there it was back to Perth again!