This is a guide for independent travellers wanting to experience more of Margaret River than wine and food. There is a diverse community here, with a strong and lively sense of place. The coastline and forests are famous for a reason, and I’d really encourage you to get out there and explore some of the wild spaces, away from town and all the glitz.
Margaret River has changed a lot since I first came here as a child in 1982. In the 1980s the vineyards were only just starting up. Most locals were then farmers, alternative lifestylers, or surfers, and the town had a different atmosphere. As a teenager I roamed the area on horseback. We’d amble through the forests around town, gallop down to the Rivermouth, and even venture on the odd foray up the main street. That’s hard to imagine these days, but there’s still a lot of the old Margaret River around if you know where to look.
Where Margaret River actually is can be confusing. “The Margaret River Region” refers to anywhere from Busselton (50km to the north), to Augusta, (40 km south). In this article I’m talking about the town itself and it’s surroundings, somewhere in the middle.
For anyone visiting or living in Australia, acknowledging the local custodians is important. They are the traditional owners. Here, in Margaret River, it’s Wadandi-Pibulmun country. Learning about Aboriginal culture and their deep relationship to the landscape is about the most rewarding and respectful thing you can do in Australia.
I grew up on the local legends, and studied Aboriginal culture at uni way back in the 1990s. However I don’t appropriate or share stories about country. Local legends are theirs to tell. There are Wadandi tourism operators you can look up. They are all based to the north of Margaret River. The Wardan Centre in Indjidup is not always open, but if you are passing by call in and check. They sell local art and organise tours about bushfoods and culture. Koomal Dreaming is based in Yallingup, and Josh does culture tours and gourmet local foods. The Undalup Association in Busselton also run workshops about Wadandi culture.
Connecting with people
It can be hard to find locals on the main street in busy times. Likewise at the beach. If you are lucky enough to chance upon a local, don’t be afraid if they seem gruff. Some are testy if their space has been invaded. If you really need help or advice persevere. Margaret River has a great community and everyone looks out for everyone else.
If you really want to connect with the the local atmosphere, try the cafe at the Organic Gardens next to the Farmers Market. It only runs on Saturday mornings. Many long term locals meet there for home made cakes, and the classic old-time Margs vibe. It feels more like a garden party than a cafe. The White Elephant Cafe down at Gnarabup Beach is the only beach side cafe around (most of our beaches are National Park) and also has a healthy local vibe.
The guides at any of the caves are a wealth of information and are the best conversationalists in town. They’ll be happy to share lots of seasonal info about local food and wine, places to visit, directions, and tips for where to hunt wildflowers and orchids. I know, because I used to be one!
The Margaret River
The river itself is one of the healthiest in the south-west. Much of the native vegetation in the catchment is still intact. There are problems with invasive plant and animal species out-competing the locals, which could have tragic results. The Margaret River has been isolated from other river systems for a very long time, and has evolved some unique species like the endangered hairy marron. The pools in the upper catchment around Canebrake are of high conservation value for the number of rare species that depend on them.
Nature Conservation Margaret River Region have prepared action plans for all the catchments in the area, and it’s worth checking out their website if you are interested in looking after country.
The river only flows in the winter months. It’s a highlight of the year when it breaks through to the sea at the Rivermouth. For years people were digging a channel to the sea to hurry it up, with some devastating consequences to water levels and the ecology of the estuary. But finally that seems to have stopped, and the river is now finding it’s own more winding and natural way out to sea at the northern end of the beach.
The river really has a unique personality, and it’s worth spending some time with it. The Wadandi people call him Wooditch, a dreamtime ancestor. The Undalup Association have made a short video called Bloodlines: the Story of the River if you’d like to know more. Thanks to the elders for sharing their wisdom in this video.
Margaret River is surrounded by forest. Although much of it was cleared for farmland in the 20th century, and most of it has been logged, there is still a vast area of wild forest. We have lots of different forest types, depending on the soil and water supply. Western Australia is a remnant of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, and hasn’t been under glaciers for almost 300 million years. Plenty of time to evolve into one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.
If you’re just passing through but want to get a feel for the place, call in at Rotary Park at the north end of town. There are fantastic walk and cycle trails along the Margaret River through karri and jarrah forest. You can step across the footbridge to the Old Settlement, a museum run by the Historical Society. It isn’t always open but you can still admire the outside of the historic jarrah buildings from the Group Settlement era.
Boranup is famous for a reason. It’s only a regrowth Karri forest, but the logging mostly finished over a century ago and it is recovering. It’s not an intact virgin forest by any means but full of character due to it’s situation on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge; a series of wind blown limestone dunes cemented by rain. This means there is a mosaic of forest types, with hills and gullies everywhere, like a three dimensional labyrinth. Just be careful not to fall down any solution pipes into the caves below. Many animals have become fossils just like that. For this reason it’s a good idea to stay on the tracks!
If you’re more adventurous there is a huge area of jarrah forest to the south and east. Like Boranup, this has been logged heavily over the years but still feels like a wild area. I’ve been exploring looking for remnant old jarrah trees to photograph. You can see some of the results in the article Wooditjup Jarrah Gallery. There are lots of places to get lost out there, if that’s what you’re looking for. Many of the forest tracks are out of mobile range, so keep that in mind.
For people who really want to get out there and experience the wild forests but would prefer to be guided, I offer a small personalised tour by 4WD. You can read more about it here, and please don’t hesitate if you have any queries or want to design your own route.
Wild caves aren’t an option I’m afraid, unless you stay long enough to join the local caving club. Margaret River has over 100 caves, in a narrow limestone ridge that runs for 100 kilometres along the coast. They are very sacred places for Wadandi people. And being made from soft wind blown limestone they are also very fragile. So all are off limits: unless you visit one of the tourist caves, go on an adventure tour, or know someone with a caving licence.
The caves run by the visitor centre are the attractions that first started drawing visitors to Margaret River in the 19th century. Lake and and Mammoth are both fantastic and very different from each other. Lake is deep, divine, and delicate, so you can only visit with a tour. Mammoth is self guided, a little bit lighter on stairs, and has an amazing fossil history. Jewel Cave has a fascinating tour, but is bit further south towards Augusta. I worked at these caves for five years, so I know them inside out in case you have any further questions.If you like your caves dark and spooky, go to Giants or Calgardup. They are managed by Parks and Wildlife as self guided caves, and are slightly cheaper. Neither has lights, and the staff will set you up with a helmet and torch. Calgardup is fairly easy going and has a boardwalk. Giants doesn’t and is bit more adventurous, involving a bit of rock scaling and climbing. It isn’t open during quieter periods over winter so check first.If you are after a bit more depth than a cave tour but don’t want to head off by yourself, come on the “Cave to Coast Tour.” We explore the history and geology of the coastal landscape and visit some of the most spectacular locations in Margaret River by 4WD.
Personally I can’t imagine Margaret River without caves. The coastline is characterised by a combination of granite outcrops capped with limestone. Look out for sculptured, weathered shapes all along the coast but please be respectful and don’t climb around on it. It’s dangerously crumbly and very delicate!
There’s a full range of accommodation types in Margaret River: luxury hotels, chalets, farmstays, caravan parks, and of course Airbnb. If you want to feel close to nature but like your comforts there are loads of glamping options available. But if you really want to feel at one with nature you can’t beat camping in amongst the trees with the rest of the wildlife.
There’s a great range of government campgrounds in the state forests and national parks around Margaret River. Just be aware there is no free camping anywhere, unlike other regions in Western Australia where local shires make facilities available for travellers passing through. This is a real shame, and I hope it doesn’t make us seem unfriendly.
Locals can get a bit wild or upset if they come across people camping freestyle. During peak times in summer, and grape harvest in autumn, illegal camping becomes a real problem. From our point of view it’s a bit rough finding campers lighting fires in the bush during fire bans, and toilet paper lining our favourite walktrails. The rangers are really onto this in busy times, and will show no mercy!
So plan ahead if you can. The wild campgrounds are managed by the Department of Parks and Wildlife, and they like you to book ahead online. During school holidays this is an absolute necessity, as they will be booked out. Fires are banned during summer and autumn, but at other times you can enjoy lounging around the firepits. Try and take your own wood, as the supplied millends are often green and it really isn’t cool for everyone to pull kindling out of the bush. All of these campsites are way out of town so of course take plenty of water and munchies.
The coastal campsites are centered on Boranup Forest. My absolute favourite is Contos. It’s about 20 minutes drive south of Margaret River in one of the most beautiful areas of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. It’s a bit of a monster, with 116 sites. But they’re all good, and there’s a range of types, from cosy private nooks under the trees to more open coastal dune-scapes. The older part of the campground on the eastern edge is cosier. The western side is more open but allows caravans and has new camp kitchens and toilet blocks.
Contos has a resident murder of ravens, who are extraordinarily clever and mischievous. They know all about you and what you’ve got to eat before you even arrive. I really enjoy their company, but make sure you contain rubbish securely or you’ll be cleaning up after them. Hanging it in a bag on a tree just doesn’t work, trust me!
Point Road in Boranup is just down the hill from Contos, but only accessible by four wheel drive. It’s small and beautifully nestled under peppermint trees. Mid week in off-season you might be lucky and only have to share it with the possums. Boranup campground is right on Boranup Drive, but as the traffic is minimal this shouldn’t be a problem. Jarrahdene is a new campsite in regrowth forest, at one of the old millsites from the timber logging days. All the sites are gorgeous with loads of space for privacy, and new facilities.
The inland campsites feel a lot wilder. Chapmans Pool, Sues Bridge, and Alexandra Bridge are all on the Blackwood River. The river starts hundreds of kilometres inland, and is the longest in the south west. Unfortunately much of the upper catchment has been heavily degraded. Landcare organisations like the Blackwood Basin Group are working hard on restoration. The lower reaches closer to Margaret River and Augusta are in an almost pristine condition.
Alexandra Bridge is the best for canoeing, with three good access points to the water and a long wide, cool river to explore. Chapman’s Pool is on a tributary just before it joins the Blackwood. Sues Bridge is the wildest of them all. This is a place where you can really feel immersed in a wild natural space. Canebrake is on the upper Margaret, and the pool isn’t big but it’s one of the wellheads for the river so very significant for Wadandi culture.
We have a fabulous climate in the south west. It’s mild, temperate, and comfortable for most of the year. Here, in the far south west of Australia, we have felt the effects of climate change differently to other parts of the globe. Rather than warming, our climate is drying. Over the last 30 odd years Margaret Rivers rainfall has declined by 25 to 30 percent. The smaller waterways are flowing for shorter periods; watertables are dropping, and the forest ecosystems are feeling the effects.
Margaret River is lucky that we have a million years of climate records stored in the limestone caves of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. The first evidence for this appeared in the early 19th century, when cave guide Tim Connolly found fossils of extinct megafauna in Mammoth and Museum Caves. Archaeologists and climate scientists have since worked to reconstruct past climate change from cave deposits. Have a read of my article on The Palaeoclimates of Boranup if you’d like more information.
Most of the year the weather is fairly gentle, but there are some extreme conditions to be aware of. In summer, the sun can scorch if you forget your hat. On the really hot days (over 35 degrees celsius) during January, February, and March, heat stroke can be a problem. Especially if you aren’t used to the heat. Brushing up on the symptoms could save your life.
Any time of year, we can have wild storms coming off the southern oceans, formed around Antartica and the south pole. They mostly come from May to August, and you can get for feel for that time of year from my article Chasing the Winter Blues. Sometimes in summer, we get the tail end of cyclones from the tropical north. If there are severe wind warnings in force think carefully before heading out into the forest, as eucalyptus trees love dropping branches and even a flying stick can knock you out. In a big storm trees and debris will come down over the roads so take it easy if you are driving in these conditions.
If unsure of upcoming conditions check the Bureau of Meteorology webpage for Margaret River. Wild weather can move in fast so don’t get caught out!
With a drying climate, water is our most precious resource. But there’s no need to buy it in plastic bottles. Tap water in Margaret River and Gnarabup townsites is perfectly safe to drink, if you don’t mind a faint taint of chlorine. I filter mine at home and always feel blessed to live in a place with a good water supply. Town water comes from the Ten Mile Brook dam a few kilometres south east of town. The catchment isn’t big enough and I’ve heard the dam leaks, so top-up groundwater is pumped from the Yarragadee aquifer. This may have an impact on water tables in the wild forests, so please use it wisely.
Smaller towns use various supplies, mostly rainwater or groundwater. There are no diseases to worry about. But if in doubt, ask someone. Accommodation places out of town will be using damwater, rainwater, or borewater. If it’s coming out of the kitchen tap it’s probably safe to drink, but once again if in doubt, ask.
Water in the wilder creeks, remaining springs, and rivers is generally safe when they are flowing in winter. I drink it. There’s nothing like tasting pure water from a stream to make you feel at one with a place. Standing pools and weirs are not so clean. In inhabited areas there is a chance that even flowing streams could be polluted by run-off from farms, vineyards, and road side spraying. Still, it’s unlikely to kill you so if you have a choice between dying of thirst or drinking the water, go for it.
All the beaches here are clean and fabulous, so I’m not going to bore you with a list. Only a few have sealed access roads. We like it like that, it means no matter how busy it gets at the Rivermouth or Gnarabup, there is always somewhere out of the way. If you want the security of other people, stick to beaches on sealed roads. If you want to explore but don’t have a four wheel drive, or don’t feel confident on an unknown and unsealed road, the best thing to do is walk.
The Cape to Cape Track runs all the way from Cape Naturaliste in the north, to Cape Leeuwin in the south. It’s easy to find from any of the main beach carparks if you do a bit of online research first. If you’re prepared to walk a few kilometres, you’ll find long sandy beaches with granite headlands and rockpools and often no-one else in sight.
If you do head out onto the Track, make sure you have plenty of water, and watch out for snakes. Many parts of the track are out of mobile range, although if you try from a high point you’ll almost always connect. If you really run into trouble, someone is bound to come by within a few hours, or a day at the most.
All of our beaches are subject to heavy swells, freak waves, sharks, and rips. Don’t let that put you off. Just choose your dip zone wisely, and keep an eye out for everyone else. There have been some fantastic rescues over the years!
If you want to visit some of the wilder beaches but prefer company, come on my Cave to Coast Tour. The limestone coastline is a defining landscape for Margaret River and is rich with character and history and I can never resist sharing it with visitors.
Margaret River is justly famous for wine and food. The wineries offer fantastic gourmet food, often organic and locally produced. If you are here for a while and prefer to be independent in your food foraging, there are other options!
It’s a strange fact of life that Western Australians have very few local foods on the menu. Indigenous local plant foods have never been adapted for domestic production. Most locals don’t know what plants are edible and would starve in the bush, surrounded by food. If you want to want to learn more about bush foods, follow the links to the Wadandi websites I provided in the Aboriginal culture section.
The first European colonists followed the example of Wadandi locals and ate meats like possum, kangaroo, cockatoo, and emu. But now, European animals are almost exclusively preferred over wildlife. You can see the evidence for this in the number of kangaroos around town, as they aren’t hunted and have plentiful water supplies and choice introduced grasses.
If you’re keen to try some Australian meat, you can find a few varieties at The Deer Farm on Caves Road. They make delicious kangaroo and emu salami, which you can also source from IGA supermarket deli in Margaret River.
The only supermarkets within 40km are in the town centre. Don’t count on finding what you want anywhere else, especially after 5 pm. But there are plenty of small local producers around. If you’re in town on a Saturday morning, don’t miss the Farmers Market. It’s at the TAFE education campus on the main highway, at the south exit of Margaret River. Organic and local meat, honey, olives, condiments and vegies are so fresh you can stock up for a week.
The Margaret River Bakery at the bottom of town has fantastic food and a comfortable, eclectic verandah to relax with a coffee. The JahRoc Gallery next door, and the Bridgefield Guesthouse just down the hill, are the only two original buildings left on the main street. Food for the soul.
The Woodfired Bread shop near the Boodjidup Rd roundabout has the best bread in the region. Perhaps in the whole country. It’s made from West Australian biodynamic flour and baked on lava stone from New Zealand. Go just after three when the bread is hot out of the oven and you might never want to leave town again! They also stock eggs from Margaret River Organic Farmer, twice as rich and tasty as what you’ll find in the supermarket.
Fair Harvest, a permaculture farm just outside Margaret River, run a cafe during warmer times of the year. Check the website first, to see if they are open. They use their own produce grown on the farm, and have just opened a farm style camping area. They also host workshops and seminars about sustainability, spirituality, and the environment. And the food is the best!
Western Australia has strict regulations on the fishing industry, so if it’s locally caught it will probably be sustainable. But nothing beats getting out there and catching it yourself.
There are good fishing spots everywhere along the coast. The time of day will make more of a difference to your catch, so here is a link to the local solunar times for Margaret River.
Before you choose your spot, check for local fishing exclusion zones. In April 2019 the new Ngari Capes Marine Park came into effect. My dad actually wrote up the first marine parks plan for Western Australia, at Ningaloo. Marine Parks have now been extended to other locations around WA. The parks are designed to protect fish breeding areas, thus ensuring a good supply of fish for everyone into the future, including the wildlife. Some of the old-timers favourite fishing spots like the point at Kilcarnup and Cape Mentelle are now exclusion zones.
You don’t need a licence to fish from the beach, but there are bag limits on most species. Some delicacies like abalone and crayfish are protected. You’d need a licence to catch those, and then only within a short season. You can check fishing regulations and the zoning map supplied by the Department of Fisheries.
Now I don’t want to put anyone off, but please take a lot of care out there. Many people have been drowned whilst fishing off rocks around here. One of the early tragedies was James Merchant, a worker for the Davies timber empire at Karridale. He was washed off rocks at Cape Freycinet in 1895. This was probably at the popular fishing spot now named Merchant Rock.
The usual culprits are the waves. The sets are not regular, and every so often a ‘King Wave’ will roll in. They can leap out of nowhere. In a big swell they will sweep the rocks clear, and anyone unfortunate to end up in the water on such a rugged coast would be lucky to survive. At many places you can see the evidence for past tragedies in the bright orange life-buoys attached to the rocks. If you see one of these it’s a clue there’s a dangerous fishing spot close by. Look for the bolts in the rocks for fishers to anchor to. Take care and keep your eyes on the ocean.
There are plenty of rough roads in Margaret River, so beware if you drive out into wild spaces on your own! All the main roads are good but there are still a few things to be aware of.
Firstly, wildlife! Kangaroos move around at dawn and dusk and have a tendency to leap across the road in front of cars. Many accidents are caused by people swerving or hitting roos. Get in the habit of driving slow at these times, and scan the sides of the road ahead. Kangroos are the same colour as the trees, so look for movement. If you see one, beware of others close behind.
Don’t miss Caves Road! It’s a beautiful drive and many of the regions best attractions lead off it. It is however, narrow and winding so drive slowly, take care, and enjoy the scenery. Some drivers can be impatient so if you feel under pressure from the rear, pull over where it’s safe and don’t let them ruin your day.
It’s not suitable for really wide caravans. I’ve nearly been sidewiped off the road into a cave doline by one of these myself. Likewise for cyclists: best to take another route. Caves Road is currently being considered for state and national heritage listing. Locals hope to keep it safe for users while preserving the natural beauty and old world charm of the journey. If you’d like to read more about it you could check out my article on Caves Road.
If you’re planning on taking any unsealed roads away from inhabited areas, ask around first. Many old logging tracks are still out there, but can disappear from under your nose, leaving you no-where to turn around. Backing out through a narrow tunnel of scrub is much harder than it sounds. Wider unsealed roads are usually fine (except for creek crossings in winter) but most of the coastal tracks are 4WD only. Deep sand, erosion gullies, blind corners, and limestone rocks are the main issues.
There is absolutely no public transport in Margaret River. Seriously. If you don’t have your own transport it will be hard to get around. Touring by bike would be an amazing wild adventure. Not that many people do it, which is a shame!
The only creatures that will eat you alive are the sharks. There were no attacks in Western Australia for most of the twentieth century, but with the return of whale and seal populations the sharks are also returning. This is a sign of a healthy marine ecology and some of us locals actually like them.
Although there have been deaths over the last twenty years, the vast majority of people make it out of the water safely. Don’t worry about it too much. Surfers constantly face their fears and head out onto the ocean breaks. You’ll hear plenty of exciting spook stories if you ask around in the surf break carparks. Also lots of tips about minimising the risks and loads of information about shark ecology. Ask the surfers, they know all about it!
And yes, we have some deadly snakes too. Tigers and dugites are the main species to watch out for. Both can kill you but prefer to slither away at every opportunity. They only pose a danger if you come into contact before you see each other, or if you corner them. Taking pictures of any snake you encounter without a good zoom is not recommended. I always wear long pants and enclosed shoes when walking along coastal tracks or in the bush, and it’s a good habit to scan the track as you walk. There were seven snake bites in the area last year, please don’t add to the statistics. Amazingly, none of them were fatal, but it’s a good idea to brush up on current snakebite first aid.
There’s not much to fear from people either. There were stories years ago about a guy jumping out at people from behind bushes at Gnarabup, but other than that I can’t recall many instances of threatening behaviour towards strangers in public or wild spaces. Follow the usual precautions of course. Very occasionally there are thefts from vehicles in coastal carparks. Don’t stress, but lock up and take your valuable stuff with you just in case.
One of the worst dangers you could face is lack of water. In summer, there is water around in the bush but you’d really have to know how to find it. Aboriginal people know the trees that hold water in cavities all through the summer. Cockatoos know all about those as well. But most people lost in the bush these days without water will be in serious trouble. Likewise on the coast, there are springs where underground water emerges on the beach but they are all dry now for most of the year. Even a couple of hours without water on a hot day can be dangerous.
Wildfires are a major hazard and can happen at any time of year if conditions are dry. On the worst days in summer the volunteer fire brigades go around putting out one fire after another. Most of them are contained quickly. But in 2011, a bushfire swept along the coast from Ellensbrook to Redgate. 39 homes were destroyed, including historic Wallcliffe House.
Many of the fires are caused by careless people. Please don’t let that be you!
The Australian bush has adapted to the prevalence of fire, which can be a positive force for regeneration in the landscape. Some plant species depend on it for germination. Aboriginal people wielded it skillfully to encourage fresh green regrowth as fodder for food animals like kangaroos.
Frequent cool burning in a mosaic pattern meant that there were diverse habitats available at any one time. It also meant that if a wildfire started up, there wasn’t enough fuel for it to really take off across country like fires these days can do. Early colonists often recognised the benefits of Aboriginal burning (when it didn’t take out their house or farm) and many carried on the tradition. As time wore on, people became more suspicious of fires, and stopped burning off. This sometimes had terrible consequences, like the fire that burned through Boranup in 1961 and wiped out all evidence of the the timber industry and the townsite of Old Karridale.
Now, the government carries out extensive prescribed burning and sometimes the smoke drifts across the whole south west. This might seem like drastic action, but if it isn’t done the fuel load builds up. A fire taking hold will then be much more catastrophic; endangering townships, travellers, and forest ecologies. People are starting to look to Aboriginal burning practices and there are new projects emerging right across the country.
During the hot, dry summer there is a total fire ban. The bans usually extend from December to April, sometimes longer if it is a dry year. If you happen to see or smell smoke, be suspicious. If it’s hot and windy and you’re downwind from the smoke, be extremely suspicious. Sometimes it drifts from 100km away but it’s always wise to check the Fire and Emergency Services website to see if there is a bushfire in the vicinity. Be mindful that if no-one has reported it yet, it won’t be on the website. If you’re the closest person, that could just be you!
The Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade have a seriously entertaining and informative facebook page. An extra bit of local colour can just save your day!
Did I miss anything? I’m happy to be quizzed with comments. If you have any questions about traveling in the region feel free to send me a message. Or come on a tour, you can quiz me all day if you like!
Thanks for visiting!