Western Australia’s six-day Cape to Cape Track attracts hardcore hikers and dedicated nature-lovers alike to its unspoilt charms. John Lethlean tackles the (slightly) softer option.
About an hour into our first bite of the Track, an hour of gentle coastal ambling – thank goodness – we leave the official Cape to Cape path and make our way from the bluff down a gnarly limestone firebreak over boulders to The Aquarium, a kind of natural amphitheatre rockpool on the surging edge of the Indian Ocean.
Nothing worth finding should be easy.
It’s early winter. That’s relevant because the seaweed and salt this time of year are more intense than in summer and add to the extraordinary sensation of walking into a just-opened oyster. Seriously. Warm and sweet in the absurdly mild 20°C afternoon sun; briny and pungent to the nose and tongue, heady in a most pleasing manner.
It’s a swim of a lifetime, both sensory and sensual.
And as is the case for most of the 40-odd kilometres we trek over the next few days, we are alone. Completely. If, by national standards, Western Australia’s beaches are wonderfully unpopulated, the Cape to Cape Track is an immersion in rejuvenating coastal isolation, hour after hour. Every day.
We are cherrypicking the trail, a collection of disparate fishermen’s paths, surfer tracks and bushwalks first linked in 2001 to provide a route for walkers wanting to explore the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, a coast-hugging and highly biodiverse slice of Australia that links two capes in the south-west of this enormous state: Cape Leeuwin to the south and Naturaliste in the north.
Sugarloaf Rock in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park
It doesn’t hurt that between these two lighthouses are ridiculously lovely beaches, internationally famous vineyards and some farmland, all collectively and conveniently bundled into the “Margaret River region” suitcase.
The truth is a little more nuanced than that and indeed the obvious delights of the region are well documented. The Cape to Cape Track is about those windswept parts of the coast where cars don’t belong.
It’s where your guide earns his – or, in this case, her – keep. Whippet lean and with the kind of knowledge only a lifetime spent growing up in this area can hone, Anne Guthrie from Walk into Luxury moves along the path with effortless grace. One minute she’s telling us about the flora, the next regaling us with stories about riding a horse into a surf break as a kid or flying around the South West in her old man’s Cessna. She’s like a Tim Winton character come to life.
Typically, her groups range from six to 10 (with a maximum of 12). Because it’s the off-season we’re just two, both lovers of the region yet naive about a lot of the Capes’ secrets.
For some, the 120-plus kilometres of coast is a kind of pilgrimage/challenge that will take the fit and limber six straight days of hard walking, usually camping overnight. That’s a significant minority. For the majority, it’s about dipping into the botanical diversity that will have you among nuggety, resilient scrub one minute and karri forests the next, or the stunning geological forms that skirt this coastline, from sheer limestone-capped sea cliffs to ancient granite outcrops and white-sand beaches.
But you don’t need a special interest. Anyone who appreciates coastal beauty, fresh air, stretching their legs and the ever-present curve ball of nature gets something powerful from the Track. An emu here; a mob of roos there. Dolphins almost everywhere.
Many hikers opt for trips that offer the best bits within the time they have, leaving the tour company to organise accommodation and transport to drop-off and pick-up locations. That’s how Walk into Luxury operates and, as the name suggests, there’s a fair bit of pampering along the way.
At the core of its offering is a stay at Injidup Spa Retreat, a remote base camp overlooking a rarely busy beach (Injidup) and magnificent Cape Clairault. The clifftop villas are private and well appointed.But it’s the tour company’s commitment to making the experience a taste – literally – of the region itself that makes such a difference. From the (Yallingup) granola at breakfast and amazing sandwiches and snacks provided on the trail to the Cambray cheeses you may enjoy in front of the fire before bed, the promise to source locally is fulfilled. Food, you will quickly realise, is even more important than usual: this walking caper is no appetite suppressant.
Secluded Injidup Beach
Day one, with that swim in The Aquarium, is a benign introduction: we leave the van at Smiths Beach in Yallingup around noon and for the next three hours walk south towards our destination, Injidup Spa Retreat. Some is familiar territory for me, most of it new, but all is spectacular and accessible only by foot. It doesn’t hurt that the district is experiencing extraordinary winter sunshine and all the colours – sky, water and land – pop.
It’s even more vivid in spring.
And you can play your trek whichever way works for you. I’m up front in Guthrie’s ear with a million questions about the area, its history, flora and fauna, even its gossip. My wife, Kate, hangs back. “I’m just trying to have some moments of quiet reflection,” is a phrase I hear more than once.
But from the first step – you’ll need good hiking shoes – several things reveal themselves as obvious. First, it’s not about the kilometres, per se; it’s about the foot time. A mere five kilometres of coastal track takes three hours across a diverse mix of surfaces. For most, this is a good introductory hit-out. The combination of sunshine, endorphins and a sense of achievement produces the kind of high worth paying for.
Second, this track keeps your senses stimulated at every turn. You expect the rugged and unspoiled ocean coast; less expected is the continuous – reassuring – aural rush of the waves’ rhythmic crashing on rocks as the endless corrugations of the sea make their way ashore. There is an ever-present, almost visceral energy. Ditto the heady, herbaceous smells of soil, salt, succulents and low-rolling tundra of aromatic plants, including wild rosemary, acacias, lichen and grasses. The national park is home to more than 2500 species of plants and they play on your mind with every breath.
Guthrie and her colleague, Elise Parker, who joins us most days, introduce us to some native culinary plants of particular interest. “Smell this,” she says as she rubs a handful of coastal rosemary (Westringia dampieri) between her palms. Or “taste this” as we tentatively nibble a piece of sea celery (Apium prostratum) that grows in abundance beside a sea-bound brook. So much of what she points out has either an edible or medicinal use.
This first coastal leg ends with a glass of local sparkling wine on a clifftop, tired legs and a very welcome slump into a heated plunge pool at Injidup. Day turns to night quickly this time of year; it makes for a golden sunset over the Indian Ocean from your private deck.In-villa dining is catered by chef Andrea Ilott; the food and wine is excellent – a Middle East-inspired feast that ends with a sublime rendition of Persian love cake with local yoghurt – and more than you can probably handle. It’s a leitmotif for the trek.
Day two begins at Cape Naturaliste, a 25-minute drive north from Injidup, and finishes at Yallingup, a one-time surf village that’s now home to some of WA’s most valuable real estate. For a bloke whose idea of exercise is walking the dog, this five-hour, 14-kilometre stretch, taking in beach and bush, is a big ask but who’d have missed watching the boys in black work the swell at the Three Bears, a famous and inaccessible (by conventional car) trio of surf breaks? Or the pod of perhaps 12 dolphins we see near Sugarloaf Rock?
Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse
Dinner is in-house at Injidup, this time in the retreat’s dining room, where Ilott again conjures a superb meal of mammoth proportions. There is way too much Vasse Felix wine for someone who’ll do it all again the next day. Some of us never learn.
Day three covers a similar distance but different territory: driving south from Injidup, we hit the trail at Redgate Beach, another renowned surf break, and trek to Conto’s before moving into the Boranup Karri Forest. From there, mid-afternoon, it’s on to Windows Estate in the van to try some exceptional and slightly unpredictable wines before showering back at the retreat and heading north to Dunsborough for dinner at Yarri, a buzzy, stylish bistro popular with the town’s Perth visitors. The sleep is profound.
The Boranup Karri Forest near Margaret River
Lamb with pumpkin, onion and saltbush from Yarri Restaurant + Bar at Dunsborough
Day four – our last – starts at Moses Rock, taking us from low scrub on to the beach and then up to the top of the Wilyabrup Sea Cliffs, a dramatic granite escarpment much sought after by abseilers. We’re close to Yallingup’s Wills Domain, one of the best and most inventive vineyard restaurants in the country, where we eat wild-harvested food and drink delicious wine for as long as we walked this very morning. It seems a just reward.
“You walk into luxury,” says Guthrie at some point during this memorable four days. “That’s the whole point.”
More amazing hikes to take on around Australia
NSW: Mount Gower, Lord Howe Island
Rising 875 metres above sea level, Mount Gower is Lord Howe Island’s tallest peak. The trek to the top involves rope-assisted climbing and vertiginous drops so it isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s certainly beautiful, taking in some of Lord Howe’s rare plants and animals along the 14-kilometre route.
TAS: Three Capes Track
Embrace the raw beauty of Mother Nature on this 48-kilometre hike, located in one of the southernmost corners of Australia. Follow the boardwalk, stone steps and gravel trails by day and at night relax in one of the cabins that provide all the creature comforts.
NT: Larapinta Trail
Quickly becoming a favourite for trailwalkers across the country, this track meanders through 223 kilometres of distracting, marvellous landscape on its way from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder. If you don’t want to take on the whole trail, choose a couple of the 12 sections, which range in length from 9.1 to 31.2 kilometres. The best time to set out is between May and August.
VIC: Twelve Apostles Walk
Experience one of Australia’s most iconic natural wonders on this eight-day, 104-kilometre walk from Apollo Bay to Glenample Homestead. The journey traverses clifftops and beaches and stops at designated camping sites along the way. It’s definitely one for the bucket list.