Having a whale of a time in the tree-mendous SW

Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 16, 2008

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Friday, September 5, 2008

After our last camping adventure which in true Wicked style was rather back to basics, we decided that our next road trip would be in a little more luxury (and much less interesting paintwork). We met Olive, our latest travelling companion and were introduced to all her useful features like cupboards, electric hook up, fridge, kettle, microwave (in a camper van honestly!), lights, wheels, engine... well you get the idea.

Julie, being a girl, was especially pleased about the cupboards because they meant she could hide all the useful/edible things and know that Paul, being a bloke, would never find them. We called her Olive because within half an hour of picking her up there was oil pouring out of her and we spent the whole trip having to feed her every other day. Sunflower just didn`t suit the mood and vegetable simply sounded daft.

Dwellingup - A beautiful little township whose aboriginal name means 'place of nearby water' but to Julie it means happy memories of childhood family summer holidays, which without fail included a visit to at least one lovingly restored steam railway. A holiday just isn`t a holiday without the smell of burning coal, the hiss of steam, the whistles and the "chuff chuff" sounds of a hundred year old loco working hard to haul her eager passengers out of the station.

Like many historic railways, Hotham Valley is run by enthusiastic volunteers and funded by equally enthusiastic visitors. The 8km line from Dwellingup Station to Etmilyn Siding
was laid to service the highly productive logging industry which until about 30 years ago harvested wood from the ancient Jarrah forests of the area. The track was purely functional and even in its restored state has tight curves, steep gradients and a few somewhat bumpy sections, but that's what gives WA's last surviving pioneer railway its character.

We clambered aboard the open air carriage - all the better to absorb the sights, smells and sounds of our journey - and Julie was like a kid at Christmas as Locomotive G123, originally made in Glasgow in 1897, blew her whistle and inched out of the quaint little station. The wooded valley through which the line passes contains some huge trees, believed to be around 300 years old, as well as the smaller regrowth establishing itself in the now protected forest.

It wasn't hard to feel a million miles from anywhere with the rattle and rumble of the carriages and the steady pulse of the steam engine the only sounds. The return journey on this fantastic little railway was over all too soon, but at least now we can say we've had a proper holiday in Australia. We disembarked windswept, covered from head to toe in ash and soot and grinning from ear to ear - Julie's her father's daughter alright. And Paul and Scruffy quite enjoyed themselves too.

On to the 1841m long Busselton Jetty, the longest wooden pile jetty in the southern hemisphere and second only to Southend (UK) in the world. We took a lovely leisurely stroll to the end in the sunshine and visited the Underwater Observatory - a great way to see what's going on 8m down nearly 2km out to sea without getting the tiniest bit wet.

The visibility was remarkably good and we saw schools of herring, colourful wrasse, sponges and corals growing on the wooden piles supporting the jetty and even a rather enchanting white barred box fish, which was pretty cool!

Back at the campsite a couple of cheeky kookaburras kept us entertained, getting us in the mood to make some more feathered friends at the Eagles Heritage wildlife centre near Margaret River. The centre is home to an impressive collection of native birds of prey, many of which we've seen hunting or scavenging on our various trips around the country so it was really good to get closer to them.

The pair of magnificent wedge tailed eagles were just gorgeous and we could have looked at them all day, but if we had we'd have missed the equally impressive free flying display, involving four beautiful black kites and a wild but almost always present whistling kite circling overhead and showing off their skill at grabbing chunks of meat in the air and from the ground without missing a beat.

The highlight of the show was the opportunity to have one of the black kites, called Red Dog, sit on our arm and pose for photo's. Pretty groovy!

The Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk took us on an elevated path up to 40m high amongst the Red Tingle tree canopy. The lightweight, low impact structure sways about quite a bit when you walk on it but you do get a feeling for just how enormous these trees really are, especially when you combine it with the Ancient Empire boardwalk (on solid ground) which actually takes you through the trunk of one of the huge naturally hollowed out tingle trees.

While we were in tall timber country it would have been a shame to shy away from the challenge of climbing the Gloucester Tree. At 61m, it is the world's tallest fire lookout tree and its platform can be reached by climbing the metal bars which spiral up the trunk. Only a quarter of the people who visit the tree actually make it to the top and we were determined to be in that minority.

Julie went first, slowly and very, very carefully making her way up past the lower branches, into the canopy and finally onto the lookout platform. Everything on the ground looked very small and the view across the surrounding forest was pretty amazing. Then came the inevitable downward climb, but by now adrenaline had pretty much taken over so it wasn't so bad. Absolutely thrilled to have conquered the climb but relieved to have something more than an inch wide to stand on Julie passed the challenge to Paul - not much pressure then!

Determined not to be beaten by a girl he started the climb fairly confidently and it was around the half way mark that he started to think "This is a stupid idea!". After a moment or two telling himself how much ribbing he'd get if he wussed out now, he carried on further up the winding metal stakes until he reached the top, quite chuffed that the fear had been overcome. A few moments to take in the view and then came the descent which was much easier than going up.

We both felt a real sense of achievement at having reached the top, especially as there were lots of people there who either chose not to climb or only got a little way up before nerves got the better of them.

The next day, having just about stopped shaking we visited the Bicentennial Tree - similar thing, although never used as a fire tower, the tree itself is slightly thinner which means the spiral is tighter and the 130 metal rods are spaced a bit further apart making it, in our opinion, harder and even more challenging to climb.

Pushing aside all "why are we doing this again" type thoughts we made the ascent together this time, and on reaching the rest platfrom at the 25m mark took a moment to gather our thoughts before pressing on to the top. Up and up we went, finally reaching the platform where a series of ladders took us to the final lookout, a whopping 75m above the ground. An exhilarating climb, slightly nerve wracking descent and a feel good factor that lasted the rest of the day - as our certificates say, we climbed with courage, dignity, decorum and SURVIVED!!

Next stop on our South West tour was WhaleWorld in Albany. The ex whaling station which ceased operations in 1978, is now a fascinating but somewhat gruesome museum. On our guided tour of the facility we were told about the methods of catching and processing the whales - we won't go into too much detail because it's quite horrible but let's just say it's a good thing the photographs on display are in black and white, so you're not completely put off your dinner.

The three enormous oil storage tanks have been converted to theatres showing interesting short films, including one in 3D which was cool, and the Cheynes IV whaling ship is open for inspection, exactly as it was when she was working. The skeleton exhibition contained a sperm whale, humpback whale and a pygmy blue whale which even at 22m long is only about two thirds the size of a normal blue whale - absolutely enormous. Gave us some idea what we were looking for on our visits to various lookout points over the next few days.

We visited several sites in and around Albany on the lookout for whales with little or no success. We did see a few big splashes and a dark shape jumping out of the water about 8km from the shore, which we knew was a whale, probably a humpback, but wasn't the most satisfying of encounters. We were seriously considering putting ourselves through a whalewatching boat trip in desperation when we were given a hot tip by the owner of our campsite (where the wild kangaroos become very friendly if you've got bread) that a female southern right whale had been hanging around in the waters off Cheyne Beach, about 60km away.

As this was basically our last opportunity we raced off full of anticipation and hope but still not really expecting our luck to change. To our absolute amazement roughly 100m from the beach a mother and calf were basking in the sunshine and there was no wiping the smiles from our faces as we watched them splashing about.

We spent about an hour watching tail lobbing, body rolls, spy hopping (poking their head out of the water) and fin slapping and were overjoyed with what we'd seen. To get a different perspective we moved round to some large rock that allowed us to look back across the bay towards the beach we just left. We nearly fell off the rocks when we saw how close we now were to the frolicking whales - no more than 50m away, well have a look at the picture and judge for yourselves! We could hear the splashes as their tails and fins hit the water and even hear them breathing they were so near.

They played around some more and we were about to leave them to it when they started to move even closer to us but into deeper water. We stuck around, not really expecting to see much more, when the baby decided to put on a rather spectacular show for us. We were in danger of getting wet from the splashes as the little one started throwing him (or her) self out of the water - a behaviour known as breaching.

This just blew us away - there aren't words to describe how special and magical and experience that was. What a way to round off our trip! Think we're on a mission to make "wow" the most used word of the year.
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