For a sense of the real Margaret River, you can’t beat sleeping out under the stars with the rest of the wildlife! Our campgrounds are all unique natural environments with a history and sense of place all their own.
There are private camping options available, but here I focus on government campgrounds in the National Park and State Forests. There’s already plenty of information online about facilities: travelers these days are generous with sharing their experiences! This article aims to provide more of an insider view. Some have been campsites for many thousands of years, and they all play a role in the lives of adventurous locals.
For online bookings and information about fees and facilities, visit the DPAW Parkstay website All the campgrounds will be busy over school holidays, but midweek at quiet times you might just have them all to yourself!
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 wherever they like. 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!
The old bridge
Travelers have been camping at this lush bend of the Blackwood River since the bridge was built in 1897. It was designed by the same engineers who built the Leeuwin Lighthouse. In 1969 the current Alexandra Bridge was built, and the Brockman Highway re-routed. The old bridge became a favourite recreation hotspot. I can just imagine kids jumping off it on hot days. But the Blackwood has a large catchment area and swells with the occasional massive flood, and in 1982 the old bridge was swept away.
But the bend at Alexandra Bridge has an even longer history. In 1831, the peninsula where the campground is was claimed by English colonists. The Bussell brothers had arrived in 1830, settled in Augusta, and chose 40 acres of land 19 kilometres upriver from the townsite. It’s amazing that educated, middle class newcomers ventured so far upriver into an unknown land. The Adelphi was one of the very first colonial homesteads in Western Australia. Only two years later it caught fire, and today nothing remains to be seen except a thicket of young trees.
It’s possible that the farmland you see on the way into the campsite was originally cleared by the Bussells, making it the oldest cleared land in the south-west, outside of Augusta. Alfred Bussell, the youngest of the brothers, went on to build his own homestead at Ellensbrook, which has been recently restored by the National Trust. Ironically, Wallcliffe, the second house he built at Margaret River, was destroyed by a bushfire in 2011.
Alexandra Bridge campsite is large, open and sociable, but still feels cosy and sheltered under the graceful peppermint trees common to campgrounds in the region. And you can really feel why the Bussells chose this place for a farm, with the beautiful white paperbarks reflected in the sheltered black water of the river.
The southern end of Boranup forest is a maze of miniature hills and gullies. It’s also a mosaic of different forest types, due to the undulating, underlying layers of limestone. The campground is sheltered behind the northern end of the Boranup Sand Patch, a giant shifting sand dune stabilised with marram grass in the 19th century. A big bank of sand lurching about the countryside was too unnerving for the timber cutters of Karridale. Once the marram took hold, other vegetation moved in and now the west face of the dune is covered with trees.
Boranup campground is quite close to the site of old Karridale, which was destroyed by a bushfire in 1961. There is a small creek running close-by, a sign that the area may have been a campsite for a long time. Just a kilometre away over the dunes is an archaeological site, a tool manufacture and living area dating back 11 000 years. The shifting dunes create the perfect shelter, which you’ll discover if you stay awhile in one of the secluded nooks yourself!
This campground is right next to Boranup Drive, a small unsealed road. Usually it’s quiet and peaceful but it’s closeby an access to the only 4WD beach for miles, so there might be a bit of local traffic when the surf is up or the fish are biting.
Canebrake is a small campground on the upper Margaret River. It’s alongside just one of a series of unique pools along the river as it flows downstream through the State Forest. Canebrake Pool is the largest of them, and has been a campground for Wadandi people for many thousands of years. It’s also the first recorded mention of the river made by a European colonist, when John Bussell wrote up an exploration by four men and a few dogs from Augusta to Vasse in 1831. You can read more about that in Wooditch, or the Margaret River.
The small floodway upstream from Canebrake is Rapids Crossing, used by colonists traveling between the two first settlements in the region. It was already part of a Wadandi trail network existing well before any Roman roads were made in Europe. If you’re into exploring on foot yourself, have a look at the Augusta-Busselton Heritage Trail. Going south it takes you through some spectacular jarrah forest. It was logged over a century ago but is now protected by the Rapids Conservation Park. If you’re really keen you could try walking all the way to Augusta, although many of the trail signposts are missing or overgrown, and a bit further south parts of the trail disappear as well!
Nature Conservation Margaret River Region have liaised with researchers to produce river health action plans. Protecting Aquatic Diversity contains heaps of information about the unique species that live in the pools on the upper Margaret River. All of them are small and protected species, so there’s no fishing allowed!
Chapman’s Pool campground is next to Chapman’s Brook, a tributary of the Blackwood River which joins the main channel just a few hundred metres downstream. It’s only 20 minutes drive from Margaret River but so peaceful it feels like a different world.
The area is very significant for Noongar people. The Blackwood river marks a boundary between Wadandi and Bibulmun territory. A few kilometres upriver is a gathering area where the two groups would formally meet to exchange marriage partners. There is a walktrail alongside Chapman’s Brook at the campground with Noongar interpretive signs. You’ll see why this area was a favourite, with plentiful resources and permanent water.
The Undalup Association website has lots of information if you’d like to learn more about local Aboriginal culture.
There is no longer a boatramp here, out of deference for the fragile riverbank, but you can still launch a canoe and glide off onto the black waters of the river. Just watch out for tigersnakes. One once shot out from the bank where I was sitting and went swimming with my kids. Luckily it was much more shy than they are and soon realised it’s mistake!
Like Canebrake, Chapman’s Pool is on the Augusta-Busselton Heritage Trail. Sadly, the section that runs north has disappeared back into the forest. The track leading south along the river to Alexandra Bridge is still traversable, although I haven’t walked all of it myself. The track passes through beautiful jarrah forest, with remarkable old trees and lush, healthy undergrowth. You could happily get lost in there for days.
The Blackwood is the longest river in the south-west, and has an ancient palaeo-channel that started forming sometime after the last glacier covered the area, around 300 million years ago. It may have originally flowed west from Chapman’s Pool, but with the uplifting of the coastal granite, turned to follow a new gradient south to Augusta.
The upper reaches of the Blackwood Catchment have been heavily impacted by clearing and agriculture. But downstream from Nannup, the banks of the river are in almost pristine condition. The Blackwood Basin Group co-ordinate the care and restoration of the river, and are a fantastic resource if you are interested in knowing more about it.
Contos is 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 dunescapes. 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 sits on the apex of a limestone dune, with Boranup forest downhill to the south, and Nindup to the north. Only 10 kilometres south is one of the oldest human habitation sites in Australia, dated at 48 000 years. The Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge has been a favoured place for campsites for a very long time.
In the colonial era, Contos was part of Wallcliffe Estate, a dairy farm established by the Bussell family at the mouth of the Margaret River. They called Boranup “Karri Chase”, in reference to rounding up cattle in thick forest. The original clearing at Contos was probably a remnant of the early cattle days. Frances Bussell almost rode her horse into the nearby doline of Lake Cave in 1876. Boranup was later sold to MC Davies, who set up a timber empire at Karridale. But Contos is right on the northern edge of the heavily timbered land and escaped logging. Later, it was again part of a cattle lease where cows were left to roam right down to the coast.
Contos feels like it is at the centre of everything. The Cape to Cape Track runs along the edge of spectacular limestone cliffs, before passing through the campground and south into Boranup. Contos Beach and Cape Freycinet are just down the rugged limestone road, a fabulously wild and rocky coastline for exploring.
This campground 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!
Here you’re really in amongst the trees. Not just any old trees, the jarrah and marri standing at Jarradene are survivors and regrowth from a timber mill that once stood here. It’s hard to imagine the shrill whistle that went off every morning to drive the workers out of bed, and then the clattering of the saws that screamed away all day. In the words of a travel blogger from 1909, the forest at Boranup was spectacular, but
“….. coming out of this Eden into the mill centre at Jarrahdene shows the grimness of man’s enterprise when opposed to Nature’s lavishness. Of course toil makes all things ugly until the accomplished end. The whizz and whirr of many saws is on the air, and resonates through the narrow clearing.”
Now, it’s more likely to be the ravens or kookaburras that you’ll be cursing!
A vast amount of timber was cut out of the surrounding jarrah forest, sawn up at the mill, then loaded onto the railway and sent down to Hamelin Bay, where it was exported out across the world. Quite a lot of it went to London, where it ended up as blocks paving city streets. Jarrah is very slow growing, and it will be hundreds of years before the young trees now gracing the campground match in size the giants that were felled over a century ago. Still, it’s nice to imagine!
Jarrahedene is the newest of the campgrounds near Margaret River. It was only finished towards the end of 2017, so the facilities are still sparkling. In a bush-sensitive way of course. DPAW have done a fantastic job designing this campground. The flow of the walkways, building design, campsite spacing: it all rolls in together beautifully.
Many of the old logging and railway tracks are still there, asking to be followed. You could walk for days in the forest around this campsite. You can also head across Caves Road and into Boranup Forest, with the tall white Karri trees you’ve probably heard all about already. But the Jarrah forest is more diverse and intriguing, with a beauty all of it’s own.
Have a read of my article The Wild Guide to Margaret River for more information on independent travel in the region.
Feature image: sculpture at Jarrahdene campground
Copyright Jinni Wilson 2021