Cape to Cape Track in words
Cape to Cape Track – a writers view
“On a long-distance walk, time moves at the pace of your steps, quickening along a level fire trail, stuttering over a path of loose stones, slowing almost to a halt in the relentless sucking pull of soft sand. Around you, the earth marks its own rhythms: the sun processing across the sky, clouds looming and clearing, flowers opening to the dew. And, always, under your feet is a still slower beat, of the great tectonic plates that move continents and other landforms around the globe.
“You’re walking on part of India,” says our guide on day one of Western Australia’s 135-kilometre Cape to Cape trek. The hard orange-pink granite forming the backbone of this wild and beautiful coast was dislodged from the sub-continent during continental manoeuvring several hundred million years ago. Around two million years ago, the granite headlands were adorned with limestone formations created from wind-packed sand. The two lighthouses that bookend the seven-day walk – Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin – are built of that younger, softer stone.
There are other timescales in play here too. Over millions of years, evolutionary forces have produced an astonishing array of plant and animal life in the south-western corner of the continent, the only Australian region on the list of the world’s original 25 biodiversity hotspots. We’re told there are more species of plants in a single hectare of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park’s coastal heath than in the whole of Western Europe. Orchids alone number 150 species, including the delicate spider orchid, which grows only along a single 30-kilometre stretch on the northern part of the track.
The 200 years of European colonisation of this ancient place is a blip in comparison to the intimate knowledge of the land build up by the Wardandi people over the more than 40,000 years they have walked its forests and beaches, harvested its foods and told its stories.
In 1831, the first Europeans to trek from Cape to Cape did the walk in six days, around the same time it takes today. The speed of their journey makes it likely they were following paths established by the Wardandi. The Euopeans reported much of the country appeared to have been burnt, probably as a result of the controlled burns that were part of Indigenous fire management technology.
Today’s track, officially opened in 2001, alternates between cliff-top heathlands and long deserted beaches, all against the backdrop of the blue-green Indian Ocean. In this landscape sculpted by rain, wind and ocean, it’s rare to see other walkers once you get away from the intermittent access roads.
It’s November when I set out to spend a week walking the track from north to south. It’s near the end of wildflower season though the coastal heath is still colourful with pink pimelea, the blue fans of scaevola and dozens of other flowering plants, all of it punctuated with the tall spikes of grass trees. Not wanting to carry all my own equipment, I’m doing the walk with Cape to Cape Explorer Tours, a local company that provides a base camp, catering and friendly, knowledgeable guides for each day of the walk. The other walkers in my small group are raising money for the Gidget Foundation, a charity that supports new parents experiencing perinatal depression, prompting many discussions along our journey about mental health and the ways nature and physical activity contribute to our wellbeing.
The eight of us set out from Cape Naturaliste, touching the lighthouse ritualistically before heading south. As we walk through low cliff-top heath, exclaiming at the big views of the rugged coastline and wild seas below, we soon discover a less welcome aspect of the region’s abundant flora and fauna: flies. Our guide tells us to grab a swatch from the flowering peppermint trees – peppies, as the locals call them – to wave as an insect repellent. The leaves release a strong peppermint smell when crushed but, appealing as this natural remedy may seem, it has no noticeable effect on the flies. The many lizards we see along the track – bluetongues, dragons and goannas – also don’t seem to be doing much to keep the fly population down.
Still, the odd swallowed fly seems a small price to pay to be in this region of superlatives. Along the track, our guides will tell us at various points that it boasts the world’s youngest limestone, biggest gumnuts and “crappest soils”. And that’s not to mention the plants so toxic they can liquefy your insides (though the kangaroos can eat them, no worries), the venomous dugites (we see two curled together in sleep beside the path), the ocean’s deadly rips and currents, and the surfer-loving sharks. The greatest danger of them all, though? We’re told to keep our eyes pointed downward as the biggest threat to walkers is the trip hazard posed by exposed roots.
On day two of the walk, we head south from the coastal hamlet of Yallingup and come across our first sight of farmland, bordering a narrow coastal strip of national park and temporarily breaking the illusion of wilderness. Much of the coast was once like this, we’re told. Livestock grazed to the cliff’s edge, causing erosion and loss of biodiversity, but the establishment of the park in 1957, combined with active replanting and rehabilitation, has allowed the natural vegetation to recover.
The rest of the day is lonely beaches and rocky headlands until, in late afternoon, we turn away from the ocean into the deep, soft sands of the Quininup Blowout. Ahead of us, stands a steep mountain of sand. It isn’t that high, really, I tell myself, but I’m already tired from trudging through soft sand in heavy hiking boots and my feet are beginning to blister. “It’s best to run it,” says one of the fitter members of the group. “Ha,” is all I can respond as she surges up past me without apparent effort. For me, it’s a painfully slow climb, my weighted feet sliding backwards with each step I take, but the reward for reaching the top is the relatively easy clifftop walk to the day’s end point at Moses Rock.
It rains heavily that night, drumming on the canvas of our tents. In the morning, it is still spitting and we set off in rain gear under low storm clouds. The heath looks different under grey skies, darker, more brooding. A mob of kangaroos crashes through the brush. A large male stands proud beside the track, displaying his pecs to us.
The third day alternates between sun and light rain as we walk high above the ocean along the Wilyabrup Cliffs. We sit for a while to watch a pod of humpback whales migrating south for the summer, repeatedly breaching as they pass. From the cliffs, the track drops back down to wild Cullens Beach, passing Gallows and Guillotines, two of the many challenging surf breaks along this wild coast.
Apart from the few small towns along the way, most of the access points to the Cape to Cape track are dirt roads used by surfers. We can tell when we are approaching one of these as exotic species start to appear among the heath. While some locals favour eradication of introduced plants such as the pink flowering pelargoniums, others argue these have found their place in the coastal ecosystem and should now be considered part of it.
On day four, we set out from the previous day’s endpoint at Gracetown, passing first a sign about a shark warning system and then the memorial to the 1996 cliff collapse that killed five adults and four children attending a surf carnival, a reminder of the fragile nature of the crumbling limestone cliffs.
As we head towards Ellensbrook, one of the first settler houses in the district, I reflect on the many ways nature can still pose a threat to us humans, despite our delusions of omnipotence. The humble limestone cottage (built 1857) and nearby beach are named for Ellen Bussell, whose marriage to settler Alfred Bussell had been arranged by relatives when she was just 16. Ellen bore a dozen children in this isolated place, while she and her husband established a farm on what had been the lands of the Wardandi. Their daughter Grace, herself 16 at the time, later became famous along with Indigenous stockman Samuel Isaacs for riding out into the surf to rescue survivors of the 1876 shipwreck of the Georgette.
We leave the homestead behind, heading back into the coastal heath where limestone sentinels stand like bowed humans in bulky coats. At Cape Mentelle, an osprey nest sits at the exposed tip of the point, a pair of birds taking it in turn to wheel away on the hunt. One returns with prey grasped in its talons. A fish or a small rodent? We can’t be sure against the glare of the sky. From there, it’s a short walk to the mouth of the Margaret River, shallow enough for us to wade at this time of year, and then to our campsite at Prevelly.
Day five begins with a big loop inland, up and down rolling hills with views to the east, before we descend into the shady valley of Boodjidup Brook, a sacred women’s place for the Wardandi, we’re told. We cross the brook and follow a narrow path downstream to Boodjidup Beach. To the roaring sound of the ocean, I watch flocks of hooded plovers fly down onto the wet sand as each wave recedes, then sweep back up again in a glittering curtain ahead of the next surge of water. Once common along this coastline, the plovers are now under threat due to their practice of burying their eggs in the soft sand near the dunes, our guide says. In their shallow burrows, the eggs can be dug up by feral animals and are easily crushed by vehicles or even walkers. Walking as close as possible to the water line is the best way to protect them. Happily, this is also where the sand is firmest under foot – as long as you don’t mind getting your feet wet occasionally.
Smoke from burning off is beginning to fill the afternoon sky as we finish the long walk along the beach and turn inland, following a red earth track into the Boranup Forest. The towering karri trees are the world’s third tallest hardwood species, we’re told, and their shade is welcoming after the glare of the sun along the coast
On day six, we climb steeply out of the forest, traversing woodlands of peppies and bullich before descending a steep dune onto the white sands of Boranup Beach. We take our shoes off and tie them to our packs in preparation for the seven-kilometre trek along the beach. It feels like an endless stretch of white sand, blue sky, green waters and gentle wind. Tendrils of green-brown weed wave in the shallows. Petrels stroll along the water line. There are no footprints but theirs and ours.
It’s a shock when civilisation, in the form of the Hamelin Bay caravan park, reappears at the end of the beach walk. Here, the remains of a ruined timber jetty strut across the sand and we swim in the cool waters as manta rays sweep through the shallows.
Our last day begins with a descent to the limestone platform at the eastern end of Cosy Corner Beach. We pick our way past pillars of upstanding stone and deep round holes in the rock where water surges below. In a high sea, these are blowholes, but not today. As we pass Cape Hamelin, we get our first glimpse of our ultimate destination, the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, tiny in the distance.
For much of the day, we’re walking straight into a powerful southerly. We cross granite headlands between beaches of shoe-sucking sand, the wind blowing grit into our faces. Blisters are rubbing and we’re all tired and keen to get to the end. There are more dunes to climb too though, with my now toned legs, I’m surprised to discover it is easier to run than walk up them.
After seven days and 135 kilometres, we arrive at Cape Leeuwin, a sweaty, footsore, exhilarated bunch. I touch the lighthouse, thinking time is playing tricks with me. It seems an age since I touched that other lighthouse to the north. I feel as though I have been out of my normal fast-paced life for three weeks, rather than one. But, at the same time, the walk seems to be over too soon.”
Copyright Jane McCredie 2018
Jane McCredie is a writer, journalist and a former book publisher who is now CEO of Writing NSW. She is a former science publisher and a writer and journalist with a special interest in science and medicine. She is the author of Making Girls and Boys: Inside the science of sex and was co-editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2013.
Incredible views, knowledgeable guides, flawless catering, and all without carrying a heavy pack. There are also ample options for half day / rest day if you feel the need – it is your holiday!
This experience is based at your own apartment at the fantastic Margarets Beach Resort.
WALKING DISTANCES: 16-21.5km
ACCOMMODATION: 4 star luxury accommodation at Margaret’s Beach Resort, which includes your own room, own bathroom (with a bath), free WIFI, a clothes washer & dryer, an iPod docking station & balcony ocean views.
PRICE: $2,700 including GST per person based on twin share ($450 single supplement, payable at time of booking).