Scoop’s Renee Bergere discovers the joys of walking The Cape to Cape Track by day, and by night enjoying the region’s creature comforts.
I’m centimetres away from a 40m drop into the frothing blue waves of the Indian Ocean. Winds whip at my hair and fill my nostrils with the heady scent of ocean brine and herby coastal scrub. I inch closer to the precipice, belly down on a slab of sun-warmed granite, stained orange with lichen. Below me, waves crash against the cliffs and thunder in my ears. Maybe it’s the dizzying height of Wilyabrup Cliffs, the long climb, or the fact that I’ve just spotted the resident pod of dolphins, but my head is spinning in the most deliciously delirious way.
It’s my third day on the Cape to Cape Track, a 135km coastal hiking trail stretching the entire coastline of the Margaret River region, from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south. My calves ache and my sunburnt shoulders sting, but I’m ecstatic – I’m seeing a whole new side of Margaret River. Instead of cellar doors, chocolate factories and rollicking tour buses, here are pristine beaches, wildflowers, breaching whales, ancient forests and remnants of the region’s European settlers.
My guides are married couple Simon Mendelawitz and Emily Pinkus, owners of local guiding company Inspiration Outdoors. They’ve completed the track more than a dozen times since taking over the company in 2011, and despite having walked – and now guided – many of the state’s most beloved tracks, the Cape to
Cape ranks as one of their favourites.
“We never get tired of this walk,” says Emily. “We’d do it every week if we could! It’s just so beautiful and it changes so much with the seasons. Plus our clients are the best people – bushwalkers always are. This one trip, there was an older lady with us. She’d literally gasp at each bend, oohing and aahing over the view. That’s what I love about this job. Our guests love the track as much as we do.”
Knowing my time was limited, the couple suggested I tackle the first half of the track – a four-day walk covering the 68km stretch from Cape Naturaliste to Gnarabup.
“The first half is stunningly beautiful, but it’s also easier,” explains Simon. “The logistics are simpler for a start, since there are so many access points and heaps of accommodation nearby, but the distances are shorter, too.
There are no long beach sections, either, which is a huge plus. No matter how fit
you are, 6km beach walks are tough!”
“Personally, I wouldn’t say the first half is better than the last,” interjects Emily.
“They’re just so different. The second half is really wild and remote. The first half goes through a lot of settlements. It depends what you’re into, really.”
I know what I’m into: finishing a day’s walk with a hot shower, chilled local chardonnay, a proper meal (nothing reconstituted or coming from a can) and a soft bed. Maybe even a foot massage thrown in, if I’m lucky.
And that’s the beauty of the Cape to Cape Track, I learn – you don’t have to rough it if you don’t want to. Yes, there are campsites and water tanks along the whole track if a week of self-sufficiency and seclusion is what you’re after, but with world-class wineries, gourmet restaurants and plush hotels a stone’s throw from the track, why wouldn’t you want the best of both worlds?
My dual-world adventure starts at Pullman Resort Bunker Bay, 2.5km from the trailhead. After spending the previous day lazing on postcard-perfect Bunker Bay Beach, I’m feeling energised. Laces tied, sunscreen slathered and backpack judiciously filled with only the bare essentials, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. We snap a few photos at the iconic and century-old Cape Naturaliste lighthouse and then we’re off.
With a spring in my step, the first 3.5km to Sugarloaf Rock are a breeze; the track was recently made wheelchair- and pram-accessible thanks to a generous Lotterywest donation. We stop at the rock so I can take a couple (ok, a couple of dozen) photos.
“It’s such a shame that most people don’t see beyond the car parks,” laments Simon, gazing on at the scenic lookout, crowded with families and couples who have driven in. “It just takes a bit of effort and you can see some of the most spectacular scenery. The views are so much more rewarding when you’ve put the effort into reaching them on foot.”
As we continue south, I understand what he means. The sandy track snakes through the low scrub, offering unobstructed coastal views to Yallingup Beach and Canal Rocks beyond. It’s glorious. Same goes for the cool headwind.
The last 2km of the day follow the length of gorgeous Smiths Beach. I chuck my sneakers in my bag and walk barefoot. Turns out there’s no better remedy for sore feet than soft sand and cool ocean. Before I know it, I’ve reached Smiths Beach Resort, my home for the night. I check in and – still barefoot – relish the cool cement stairs on my now tender feet. My luggage is there waiting for me (thanks to Simon and Emily), as is an evening spent enjoying dinner at Lamont’s, a bubble bath and a soft king-sized bed.
Waking up to sweeping views of Smiths Beach from my balcony, I’m itching to hit the trail. Simon and Emily warn me not to underestimate today’s walk – it might be shorter in terms of kilometres, but it’s much harder work than the previous day. There are rocks to scramble over, soft sand to trudge through, and stairs to climb.
The challenging terrain begins immediately. As we climb the headland past Smiths Beach, we pass large granite towers through which I spy Canal Rocks beyond. Then there’s the steep, 100-stair descent to Wyadup, during which Emily points out local flora like Cockies’ Tongues, kangaroo paws and pigface – a ubiquitous succulent whose edible fruit tastes like a slightly salty fig. Delicious. Next, we walk along beautiful wine-glass shaped Injidup Beach where, my guides tell me, Taj Burrows can often be spotted. If he’s there today, I can’t pick him out of the group of wetsuits. After a quick and refreshing swim, we spend the rest of the arvo trudging along the dusty 4WD track that Emily says is good for “mostly just MP3 players and deep thinking”. Sensing my fatigue, Simon offers lollies and words of encouragement. Before long, we reach Moses Rock. I’ve never been more exhausted. What exactly have I got myself into?
The very luxurious Cape Lodge is where I’m staying tonight – and it’s just what I needed. I swim off my soreness in the pool, sip Cape Lodge shiraz on my balcony overlooking the lush gardens, and finish with a five-course meal. After today’s effort, I deserve a bit of indulgence.
Today’s walk is mercifully easier. It starts with a g’day from the resident mob of roos whose furry faces peek just above the thick brush. The track follows the clifftop and Emily gives me a geology lesson, pointing out layered gneiss, crumbly limestone and the crimson, Pilbara-esque granite.
Mid-morning, we pass the boundary of the Cullen family’s farmland and I suddenly feel like a glass of Cullen’s delicious petit verdot. Reading my mind, Simon announces it’s time for a break, leading us to the shelter of a gnarled melaleuca grove before unveiling a homemade banana cake. Where did that come from? It hits the spot like no wine ever could.
Continuing on, we pass Wilyabrup Brook, which I’m told can be difficult to cross in
winter. Then it’s a steep ascent – and a short diversion off the trail at the top of the stairs – to Wilyabrup Cliffs, a popular spot for abseiling, whale watching and dolphin spotting. I soak up the views and breeze while stretching my sore legs. Luckily it’s not long till we reach Gracetown for a well-deserved swim and an ice-cream from the general store. Maybe this walking gig isn’t so bad after all.
Tonight I’m staying a short 7km drive away at Merribrook Retreat. And a retreat it is indeed, with its manicured gardens, lake, pool and spa. Lovely owners Lorraine and Richard Firth have been lifelong supporters of the Cape to Cape. “We
used to take groups of school children on the Cape to Cape before it was even
a trail – before there were markers, even,” remembers Richard. “Yes, we love the Cape to Cape. In fact, the reason we chose this piece of land is because it’s so close to Wilyabrup Cliffs,” says Lorraine. “It’s one of our favourite spots.”
I savour my breakfast overlooking Merribrook Retreat’s gardens and lake, laughing as a couple of blue wrens flit from one table to the next, pilfering crumbs. Lorraine and Richard wish me luck on my last day on the track, reminding me to keep my eyes peeled for dolphins, surfers and wildflowers.
I see all three in abundance, as well as evidence of 2011’s tragic bushfire that claimed – among other things – the historic Walcliffe House. Luckily, the equally precious Ellensbrook House survived unscathed. My guides have another lovely homemade surprise for me: scones and hot tea. I eat as they recount the fascinating history of the Bussell family, and the Aboriginal legends connected
to nearby Meekadarabee Waterfall. We chat with the German groundskeeper, who welcomes us to go for our lives on the property’s mulberry and fig trees. We happily stain our fingers and tongues purple.
Then it’s back on our feet for the second half of the day, following the sandy, rock-strewn coastline. We pass a limestone outcrop called Joey’s Nose and then the steep headland of Cape Mentelle. My guides point out a limestone stack upon which sits an alleged 100-year-old osprey nest. Soon after, we round the bend and Prevelly’s Rivermouth Beach, where Margaret River empties into the ocean, comes into view. I can hardly believe it – I finished!
Running on fumes but deliriously happy, I drag myself to the Prevelly general store for a bottle of bubbles. And there, on Monterey House’s spacious verandah overlooking Gnarabup and the Indian Ocean beyond, Simon, Emily and I toast a fabulous trip.
After the Walk
My walking may have been over – hallelujah – but I wasn’t about to leave the southwest until I had met with one of the Track’s greatest champions, Jane Scott. She’s the affable author of The Cape to Cape Track Guidebook, the definitive guide to the track that is now in its fifth edition.
Like Lorraine and Richard, Jane remembers the track before it was The Track. “Thirty years ago, I used to go walking with my girlfriends along the coast,” she says. “Back then, the Department of Parks and Wildlife always had a plan to create the track, but there wasn’t a budget. So back in about 1990, a friend of mine who worked for the department, Neil, suggested we put our heads together to create a route little by little.”
With help of school groups, volunteers and labourers, the track began to take shape. However, there was always a big section in the middle that needed creating, so in 1998 the organisation Friends of the Cape to Cape Track was formed. Jane was immediately nominated as the president, a role that she’s held ever since.
“Because we were an incorporated not-for-profit, we were able to access donations through various sources,” says Jane. “The funding has helped immensely, but it’s never enough.” At the end of the day, it’s the members of the Friends of the Cape to Cape that maintain the track, helping to prune, check signage and clear the area of rubbish.
“The Track’s popularity has just skyrocketed in the last three to four years,” says Jane. “The word’s getting around and the track is known all over the world now. It’s a really great drawcard for the region and it’s wonderful that the tourism bodies realise this. I’ve heard of a new tourism app that will feature the Cape to Cape as a real highlight, which is great.”
Gregarious local Sean Blocksidge, owner of The Margaret River Discovery Company, reckons it’s a travesty the trail is so little promoted.
“The Cape to Cape Track is one of the most spectacular coastal walks in the world. I’ve had dignitaries, oil sheiks and walking fanatics on my trips, and they all say it’s the most beautiful walk they’ve ever done. But it’s seriously underutilised. I’m not pointing fingers – and it’s obviously great for the walkers to have the whole track to themselves – but it could be a bigger attraction.”
“The majority of people who visit the region don’t know about it, but many of the guests we take to the track leave saying it was the highlight. The beauty is you come for the wine but you discover so much more.”
Simon and Emily’s Top Tips
- Before your trip, spend a few weeks preparing yourself physically. Walking on uneven terrain will accustom your body to the track and help you enjoy the experience much more.
- Look after your feet. Wear shoes that are comfortable and that your feet are used to. If you do feel discomfort, treat it immediately. It’s much harder to treat a blister than prevent one.
- Walk north to south. The northern sections are shorter and easier, and therefore offer a better start. Plus, the sun will be behind you and you’ll have a nice breeze on your face.
- Get hydrated before you leave. Depending on the weather, you should be drinking at least two litres per day, and more on hot days.
- Pack light and keep to the basics: water, lunch, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, lightweight hiking poles and a basic first aid kit.
- The Cape to Cape Track can be swalked any time of the year, though autumn and spring are the most popular seasons. In autumn, the weather is mild and the rivers are low and crossable. Come spring, the trail is blanketed with wildflowers.
- Ask your accommodation to pack a lunch for you. It’ll save you the time and hassle of preparing it beforehand or on the track.
- Don’t always stare at your feet. Remember to look up around you, and also stop to glance back at the amazing views behind.
- Always tell people where you’re going and how long you’ll be.
- Take your time. Enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the destination. It’s not a race!
For more information about Inspiration Outdoors, visit inspirationoutdoors.com.au.
Tours To Suit All Tastes
Why struggle with heavy packs, sleeping bags and dehydrated food? These operators will show you the best of the Cape to Cape without missing out on creature comforts.
For the self-sufficient | If you’re keen to walk independently, but also be supported along the way, self-guided trips are the way to go. Companies like Inspiration Outdoors, Aus Walk and Cape to Cape Explorer Tours will create customised itineraries, provide maps, and organise for your car or a driver to be waiting at the end of each day. Merribrook Retreat offers a similar service, ferrying guests to and from the trail, and providing packed lunches.
For the big spenders | Is money no object? Then a trip with new tour operator Walks into Luxury is for you. Their all-inclusive tours include limo transfers from Perth, five-star accommodation, champagne awaiting you after each day’s short 10km walk, spa treatments, degustation meals and a helicopter ride over the track at the end of your trip. Not too shabby.
For the want-to-do-it-allers | Multi-activity day tours are great for people who aren’t as familiar with the Margaret River region and want to see and do as much as possible, whether it’s walking under Boranup Forest’s towering karri trees, canoeing the Margaret River or exploring caves. Cape to Cape Explorer Tours and The Margaret River Discovery Company’s tours are the most popular.
For the social butterflies | If you want to walk the full Cape to Cape in company without having to worry about a single detail, then end-to-end tours from Inspiration Outdoors, Aus Walk and Cape to Cape Explorer Tours are for you. Along with walking with you, they organise the food, accommodation and schedules, so you can focus on enjoying the walk.
The Cape to Cape Track stretches 135km from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin and takes around six to seven days to walk. Scoop hiked the first half of the track, covering 68km in four days. “The first half is a good way to get into the track, particularly for someone who hasn’t done much walking,” says Simon Mendelawitz of Inspiration Outdoors. “Breaking the trail up into halves is great for Perth people since you can do it over a couple of long weekends.”
1. Day Before
Stay: Pullman Resort Bunker Bay
This large, family-friendly resort is located on the calm, turquoise waters of Bunker Bay. For an extra challenge, start tomorrow’s walk from the resort itself, a short 2.5km from the Cape Naturaliste Walk Trail Network. 42 Bunker Bay Road, Naturaliste (08) 9756 9100
2. Day One
Walk: Cape Naturaliste to Smiths Beach, 17km
Stay: Smiths Beach Resort
Located right on Smiths Beach just steps from the track, this self-contained accommodation is not only convenient for walkers but also beautifully appointed, with large balconies and ocean views. 2 Smiths Beach Road, Yallingup (08) 9750 1200
3. Day Two
Walk: Smiths Beach to Moses Rock, 15km
Stay: Cape Lodge
One of the region’s most luxurious hotels, five-star Cape Lodge sits on a peaceful vineyard a short drive from the track. Opportunities to indulge abound: spa treatments, multi-course meals and some of the region’s best wine. You won’t want to leave. 3341 Caves Road, Yallingup (08) 9755 6311
4. Day Three
Walk: Moses Rock to Gracetown, 16km
Stay: Merribrook Retreat
This villa accommodation is located on an idyllic 62ha estate, complete with a lake, flower-filled gardens, pool and wood-fired sauna. With room for just 28 guests, staying at Merribrook Retreat is the perfect refuge. 114 Armstrong Road, Cowaramup (08) 9755 5599
5. Day Four
Walk: Gracetown to Gnarabup, 20km
Stay: Monterey House
This beautiful two-bedroom holiday house sits atop a hill overlooking Gnarabup
and its crashing surf. Fresh flowers, a large kitchen (complete with a Nespresso machine), fireplace and a spacious verandah make it the perfect haven to recover from a hard day’s walk. 44 Riedle Drive, Gnarabup. For information,
ring Private Properties on (08) 9750 5444