Perth, Australia, as the locals will proudly tell you, is the most isolated capital city in the world. And tucked away, as it is, in the bottom left hand corner of the country, you’re not likely to stumble across it by accident. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of overseas tourists still manage to find their way to this sun-kissed city on the edge of the balmy Indian Ocean every year.
Clearly, if you find yourself in Perth, you haven’t arrived by accident. Great, there’s plenty to see and do. Endless pristine beaches spread north and south, warmly beckoning the travel weary to lounge on golden sands. And there’s a seemingly limitless array of excellent cafes and restaurants waiting to tempt your tastebuds with every sort of cuisine imaginable. If you’re a little more adventurous however, and keen to leave most of your fellow tourists behind in the big city, may I suggest a delightfully quieter spot even many West Australians have yet to discover.
The Porongurups lie about 375kms (233miles) south-east of Perth, well off the beaten track, but fortuitously still accessible by sealed road. That’s a good thing because by far the easiest way of reaching them is by car, preferably one hired in Perth if you have no local contact willing to lend you a private vehicle. And the directions? Simple. Drive south down the Albany Highway. When you reach the small town of Mount Barker turn left, and in another twenty minutes or so you’re there.
So what are the Porongurups? A nature lover’s paradise that’s what. Broadly speaking, the name refers to a natural park, at the centre of which stands one of the world’s oldest yet smallest mountain ranges. A mere 15kms (9.5 miles) from end to end, the smooth-domed granite rock dates back over 1,200 million years to the Precambrian age. The small village of Porongurup sits at the feet of its northern slopes, but the saying “don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” is not an exaggeration in this instance.
Once you’ve arrived in the Porongurups, that hire car will only be required to ferry you from point to point. The park is riddled with waymarked trails, most of them leading you to, up, around or over the mountain range. Most of these will usher you through a thick forest of jarrah and marri trees, but as you gain height you will encounter the altogether rarer karri trees, arboreal giants which grow to around 40 metres (120 feet) here, but can reach almost double that in their larger enclaves further west.
One of the shortest but most popular trails still requires at least a moderate level of fitness. The Castle Rock/ Balancing Rock walk involves a fairly steep climb along a forest path before finally it emerges onto smooth rocks and boulders. A word of warning here however. You will be required to scramble over, under and through a good many of these before you reach your goal – a sturdy metal ladder fastened to one side of Castle Rock. The final effort required to scale it will be amply rewarded. Bolted around the summit of the rock is a steel observation platform known as the Granite Skywalk. As the name suggests, the views it affords are sensational. Looking south, rolling farmland stretches away to the coastal town of Albany, 45kms (28 miles) distant. Turn your gaze further east and mounts Gardner and Manypeaks jut up from the horizon, all the more dominant for the largely flat countryside that surrounds them.
For anyone who has followed in the footsteps of the renowned fellwalker, Alfred Wainwright, traversing the bald rock summits of the Porongurup Range will be a delightful adventure. The highest is the Devil’s Slide at 670 metres (nearly 2,200 feet) from which, once again, the views are spectacular. Several other peaks closely brush the 2,000 feet mark and will require a good deal of stamina to reach. The Hayward and Nancy Peaks walk for instance is only 5.5kms long (3.5 miles), but will need between 3 and 4 hours to complete. A good pair of walking shoes or boots are essential and a pair of trekking poles highly desirable. Many of the paths can be uneven and/or covered well-rounded pea gravel. The potential for a fall cannot be ignored, especially on the downhill leg of the journey.
Walking apart, keen naturalists will be in their element exploring the Porongurups. There are well over 700 different species of native flowering plants, including many orchids, and at least ten plant species that are endemic to the region. Botanists would be well advised to time their visit for Australia’s spring or early summer when most wildflowers are in bloom.
For those who prefer their nature to be moving about, native fauna abounds, almost literally in the case of the Western Grey Kangaroo. Keep a wary eye on the path ahead too as lizards, skinks and goannas occasionally sun themselves in the open when they think the coast is clear. A walk through the trees at night may also afford the opportunity of spotting a Western Ringtail Possum clinging monkey-like to overhanging branches. A powerful torch is most likely to reveal these nocturnal herbivores munching on leaves, bark or flowers.
Ornithologists need not feel left out either. Almost eighty species of bird call the Porongurups home. These range from the majestic Wedgetail Eagle, through several species of cockatoo, to the tiny Splendid Fairy Wren. Its bright blue plumage is so vivid it almost appears electrically illuminated. If you’re very lucky you might also come across an owl-like Tawny Frogmouth. You’ll be doing well to spot him though as this master of disguise is almost indistinguishable from the branches he perches on.
And when you’ve finally had your fill of nature and want to put your feet up, what then? Well, there are several picnic areas scattered throughout the park, including the Tree-in-the rock site featuring a karri tree actually sprouting from a boulder. Or, and this is a personal favourite, you could hop back in the car, take the 23km (14 mile) scenic drive that takes you right round the Porongurup Range, then finish up at one of the many excellent boutique wineries that cling to its northern slopes. You can then drink a toast to absent friends – and the absent hordes.
Accommodation in the Porongurups is plentiful and ranges from a camping and caravan park to luxurious spa retreats. The author stayed at the extremely comfortable and well-appointed Ty-jarrah at the Porongurup Chalets, right in the heart of the park. Wine buffs may like to know that the next annually held Porongurup Wine Festival will be on Sunday, 2 March 2014.
You may also like to visit www.porongurup.com for more information.
For travel to Australia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Australian Sky.