The Cape Naturaliste headland, overlooking Shelly Beach. (Photo: Andrew Gregory)

Cape to Cape Track

  • BY James McCormack |
  • October 20, 2010

Western Australia's rugged and beautiful Cape to Cape Track was forged from sheer determination.

THE WHALES ARE BREACHING in unison. Not just simultaneously - although minutes earlier five humpbacks were launching up out of the water at once. Now, in perfect symmetry, two humpbacks are arching high into the air, like synchronised swimmers or trained dolphins, with not a fin out of place. Even Bill Webb - a Wardandi elder who has been fishing here since childhood and has seen thousands of breaches - is shouting in excitement.

Bill and fellow Wardandi man Josh Whiteland have taken me along a track, well-defined at first then a scramble, to one of their favourite rock-fishing spots. They were fired up to get down here, and with good reason: it's a gorgeous location. A seal pokes its head up from beneath the placid water. Rainbows appear to sprout from the sea as sunlight strikes scattered cloudbursts to the east. Behind us, sea caves drip with so many stalactites it's as if the caves themselves are melting into the ocean. And the whales are breaching, silhouetted against a sky turned saffron by the setting sun. Maps show this place as Cape Naturaliste, but the Wardandi call it Kwirreejeenungup: "the place with the beautiful view".

This is the northern end of WA's Cape to Cape Track, in 19,092 ha Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. The 135-km track is a succession of similarly beautiful spots: spectacular headlands, high cliff tops, tall karri forests and long, lonely beaches. The track runs between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin along Australia's most south-westerly coastline, delivering fishermen such as Bill and Josh to their tried-and-tested sites, surfers to challenging and world-famous waves, cavers to exquisite formations and climbers to spectacular granite sea cliffs. And, of course, there are those who come simply to walk the wild stretch of coast - to trace empty beaches, wend through wind-pruned heath and stand on high, watching rocks being pummelled by swells that have surged unhindered all the way from Africa. 

Cape to Cape Track 
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Balance is perhaps the track's defining quality. The obvious point of symmetry is that between sea and land. Water - in turn sparkling and benign, then moody and raging - is not merely incidental to the track; it defines its character as much as does the land itself. But beyond this is the balance between beach and forest, comfort and challenge, wilderness and civilisation. Even the geology is balanced: much of the track winds over dunes composed of limestone less than 2 million years old; the rock beneath, and that exposed at most headlands, is largely ancient granitic gneiss (a type of metamorphic rock), that's 600-1500 million years old.

It's these contrasts that make the track special, says Jane Scott, president of Friends of the Cape to Cape Track. "It's not hugely spectacular with mountain scenery or really high cliffs, but you've got a great variety of landforms and fabulous vegetation. You can really feel totally remote and yet you're only a stone's throw from civilisation."

Walk a section of the track with Jane and you'll find it's the vegetation that gets her most excited. Despite having moved here 35 years ago, she's lost neither her clipped English accent nor the thrill of spotting wildflowers. "Ooh!" she cries, as we walk through heath near Redgate Beach. "A donkey orchid! Ooh, ooh, ooh! See that, that lovely flash of blue! Dampiera linearis!"

When you're walking through this park you just can't help but tune into the wildflowers; they're stunning," says Penny Morison, who travelled from Victoria in November to walk the Cape to Cape with friends and family to celebrate her 60th birthday. "They're so different from the ones out east. Each one is like a new, different chocolate treat."

Some of the flowers you'll find nowhere else. The exotic spider orchid, for instance - one of approximately 150 orchid varieties within the park - grows only in one 30 km stretch between Cape Naturaliste and Moses Rock. The plant diversity is due in part to the fact that Leeuwin-Naturaliste NP straddles several ecosystems, including the Swan Coastal Plain and jarrah and karri forests. The entire south-western region is recognised internationally as Australia's only biodiversity hotspot.

Wildflowers and beautiful vistas aren't all you'll see from the track. "If you're up on a vantage point, you'll see schools of salmon and tailor, and the pods of dolphins hunting them," says Leeuwin-Naturaliste NP ranger Gilbert Stokman, who has also worked as an education officer for the Department of Fisheries. "Walk the track through the migratory season and you'd be very hard pressed not to see humpback whales." You'll also see sea lions (mainly near the capes), New Zealand fur seals and the occasional leopard seal. And the rock pools, says Gilbert, are full of marine life: nudibranchs (a type of often extravagantly coloured sea slug), crabs, crustaceans, shrimp, abalone, striped zebra fish and sometimes even metre-long groupers.

THE CAPE TO CAPE TRACK was officially created in 2001, although the idea for it began to take shape as early as the 1970s. Jane and her friends were regular explorers in the region, walking on beaches or existing tracks where possible and taking turns doing car shuttles. As wineries popped up throughout the Margaret River region, they incorporated meals into their walks as well. Jane says it was during this time that she began thinking about a long-distance track. Neil Taylor, Leeuwin-Naturaliste NP's recreation planner and a caving mate of Jane's, was thinking the same thing. In the early '90s he approached her, and together they mapped out a route that linked long sandy beaches, existing and purpose-built walking tracks, and old four-wheel-drive routes gouged out by farmers, fishermen and surfers.

But without the Friends of the Cape to Cape Track, the successful completion of the track would have been "near impossible", says Leeuwin-Naturaliste NP head ranger Glenn Willmott. By the late '90s, the national park had commenced the track's construction, but they lacked the money to continue. In 1998 the Friends group formed to attract grants and funding the national park couldn't. "[They] were critical in carrying the idea of the track through," Glenn says.

There are now more than 400 Friends, whose small annual subscription contributes much-needed funds for the track's maintenance. Roughly 35 Friends have "adopted" a section of track, usually 3-5 km in length. Anywhere between once a year and every couple of months, these people will head out to prune, check guideposts, collect rubbish and do minor maintenance. Many Friends are retired or semi-retired. "It's an important thing to do," says 70-year-old retiree Jim McLachlan, a Friend for nearly 10 years. "I can keep a track open for the general public, and it's more fun than a bad round of golf."

Not all track adopters are retired, however. The Margaret River Surfrider Foundation has taken on a 6 km section between Ellensbrook and Lefthanders, and 33-year-old Blair Darvill - strong, fit and bronzed - is one of the dozen or so members who actively participate. "There's quite a bit of impact that surfers have on the track," says Blair, in the quintessential surfer's cadence.

"It's a pretty famous stretch of coastline. There's at least half a dozen surf breaks along it. You can access the breaks [by walking along the beaches and coast], however the Cape to Cape Track is quicker. But from the track you drop down the ridge, which is fragile; so is the coastal heath. And it's got a limestone base that tends to crumble and erode pretty quickly." The result, says Blair, is a series of "goat tracks" the Surfrider Foundation is trying to convert to recognised paths. Part of the plan is to build stairs and place signs to educate surfers. They're also working on a face lift for an old 4WD car park.

As with so many who now live in the area, Blair didn't grow up here. Originally from New Zealand, he arrived eight years ago and it was love at first sight. "I got here at night, arriving at Gracetown, and woke up in the morning with my first sight being these point breaks peeling down either side of the bay, and there were whales jumping down the back of the waves," he says. "It just blew me away. I was hooked. But even though I'm not from here, working on the track has made me feel a real belonging to the place. I'm a lot more attached. It's a good feeling."

Cape to Cape: spectacular scenery

IT'S AN EASY START to the track from the north, virtually in the shadow of Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse. The first 3 km is hard-surfaced, with sections of boardwalk, and winds gently down to Sugarloaf Rock, where red-tailed tropicbirds have chosen to nest. In spring, there's a riot of wildflowers, their scent so strong that even with an ocean breeze you can't smell the salt air. Conveniently placed benches allow walkers to sit and gaze at the sea or migrating whales, or spy on fluttering wrens. Even south of Sugarloaf Rock, when the path turns to sand, the track maintains its easygoing nature, continuing a gentle descent through wizened heath.

It wanders sedately along limestone cliffs, past fantastically shaped, pockmarked rock, and above coves, beaches and reefs lapped by pale blue water to arrive at The Three Bears (named for its surf breaks: Poppa, Momma and Baby Bear).

While these opening sections are pleasant, the track is a lot more challenging than people expect. The proximity to towns and lack of long climbs lead many walkers to underestimate the track. There are long sections of calf-burning beach walking - more than 20 km in total - and even the formed track is often soft and sandy. It's also the first place in Australia to bear the brunt of gales whipping up off the Southern and Indian oceans.

"I know this will sound crazy but I found the Cape to Cape more strenuous than Kokoda," says Peter Pereira, 51, of Margaret River, who walked the Cape to Cape's length two years ago. Whereas in Kokoda walkers can hire porters, here, "you're carrying the weight, trudging through the beach sand".

And while he appreciates the historical significance of Kokoda, Peter says he found it too crowded. "Here you're out there by yourself. I much prefer that," he says. "To me, the track adds another layer to the area. Yes, there are great wines and food and scenery, but to walk it gives you a physical appreciation as well. And you can scale it down and do a day walk; you don't have to do the whole thing."

Jane estimates 300-400 people walk the track from end to end each year, but many more complete it as a series of day walks. Track access is made easy due to numerous roads running down to the coast and the shape of Leeuwin-Naturaliste NP itself. It's a sliver of a reserve, just 120 km long and a mere 100 m - 5 km wide, although 21 covenants protecting 450 ha of land abutting the park create a sense of greater width. "Even though you're [often] only 5 km from a main road, it feels remote," Jane says.

If you wanted to, you could walk the entire track without coming into contact with civilisation, although it's becoming more difficult. The area has been transformed by the growing popularity of the Margaret River wine region and a local economy boosted by the WA resources boom. Margaret River and Busselton have flourished from increased tourism and subsequent population growth. In Yallingup, Prevelly and Gracetown, fibro shacks and ramshackle cottages have been replaced by sleek houses. Cafes and restaurants are chic.

Fifteen years ago, about 900,000 visitors came to Leeuwin-Naturaliste NP annually. Now, approximately 2.3 million make the trip out to its beaches, forests and caves, making it the most popular national park in WA. "Managing people is probably the biggest issue we've got," Glenn says. "We've had to put in car parks to protect vegetation. Over the last 15 years, we've probably put in at least 16 toilet blocks, maybe 10 staircases, and six or seven major road improvements. All those things are based on increased visitation."


THE FURTHER SOUTH you head, the wilder the Cape to Cape becomes. Vehicle access becomes increasingly limited. The number of walkers thins. From the high cliffs of Conto the track turns inland, towards the Boranup Forest, where karri grow straight and tall. After days of walking on windswept coastline, the contrast is striking. The wind dies, and in the forest's cathedral stillness, birdsong resonates. Despite tales of a resident devil, the Boranup is often named by walkers as their favourite section.

Perhaps it's because the track here is firm, for the long, wild beach sections aren't far away. "Coming...on to Boranup Beach, you've got 8 km of soft sand, a pack on your back and a sou'-westerly in your face," says Perth resident Rob Dickson. "It tests your mettle."

A day's walk further south and you hit a 500 m rock platform as holey as Swiss cheese; if the waves, wind and tide are right, blowholes will rocket water up to 30 m into the air. Rounding the headland, you gain your first glimpse of your destination: Cape Leeuwin. For walkers, it's a sweet, sweet sight. There's a remote, pristine, empty beach immediately before you, and in the distance, the tallest lighthouse on the Australian mainland, reminding you that civilisation is not far away. On the Cape to Cape Track, it's all about balance.


Source: Australian Geographic, issue 98 (April - June, 2010)