Friends of Merribrook, enjoy this recent article about a few of the wonderful people and places around Margaret River.
“There’s more to Margaret River than wine”
- by: Andrew L. Urban
- From: The Australian
- February 08, 2014 12:00AM
HE flew in on his own 767, followed by a back-up plane, and was driven around in a bulletproof car, surrounded by bodyguards, at least at the start.
The man Time magazine nominated as one of the world’s most influential in 2008, Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi had booked a private five-day Margaret River Discovery tour, putting himself in the hands of one-man tour operator Sean Blocksidge. “He loved the fresh air and hours of uninterrupted walking without seeing anyone,” recalls Blocksidge of the 2010 visit. By day two the bodyguards had been dismissed; they just wouldn’t have looked right paddling a three-man canoe down the river behind their 75-year-old boss. Blocksidge has fond memories of this client, one of the vast array of people he meets. “It’s the best part of it for me,” he says.
We are driving in Blocksidge’s six-seater Land Rover towards the spot on the river where his canoes are stowed, not far from my Busselton base. It’s a small outfit – Blocksidge does it all. Prior to starting the business he’d spent five years as operations manager at Voyager Estate winery, but saw an opening for a boutique eco-tourism operation, launching just as the global financial crisis hit. After investing $100,000 he was on the verge of closing when one of the few customers he’d had posted a rave review on travel website TripAdvisor. “The phone and emails went nuts,” he recalls. That was more than four years ago and he’s been working five days a week ever since.
Blocksidge offers “tours for people who don’t do tours”. I’ve opted for a day with him and a day exploring on my own. As we paddle into the calm of the river, swollen by heavy rains the week before, he points out an eagle above and the freshwater river mussels just visible beneath the canoe, while giving a commentary on the trees and plants along the shore.
We beach the canoes for a quick drive to the Yalgardup Falls, so tucked away that Blocksidge reckons 98 per cent of the locals have never seen it. On flat rocks beside the gurgling flow he takes out three squeezy jars of honey, each from a different local tree, and we sample the distinctive flavours in a moment of silent contemplation.
We don’t see any of the famous local marron but later, eating lunch in the casual elegance of the Leeuwin Estate winery restaurant, we sample its sweet, tender flesh, which chef Dany Angove serves with pork. “You can catch them if you are slow and patient by wiggling your toes in water and waiting and waiting as they crawl over to have a look if you’re edible,” Blocksidge says. “The trick is to grab them lightning fast from behind without losing a finger in the process.” The marron, he says, can only be caught in a one-month season (January 8 to February 5).
A short drive away is a section of the 135km Cape to Cape (Naturaliste to Leeuwin) hiking trail, where we walk off lunch over a 4km round trip, enjoying the ocean views and masses of wild flowers at our feet. It’s a world-class biodiversity hotspot with about 2000 species of plants and wildlife.
Back in the Land Rover we head for the village of Prevelly, 20 minutes away and just south of the Margaret River’s mouth. As we approach we see a beautiful white Greek chapel
on a hill. Is this a multicultural village?
No, the chapel was built by returned serviceman Geoff Edwards as a tribute to the community in Crete who helped hide him from the enemy during World War II. It stands facing the sea, waiting for worshippers. Sitting outside at the Sea Gardens cafe, we catch sight of one of the 40,000 whales that pass this stretch of coast every year.
Bunker Bay was so named because it was the last place sailors could take refuge along this part of the WA coast. Now customers coming by boat can book a mooring in advance and find refuge at Bunkers Beach Cafe, where, over breakfast the next day, we again keep watch for passing whales. As well as breakfast and lunch, the 70-seat cafe (with wood fireplace) caters for functions, making full use of the timber terrace outside with steps leading to the sweeping, crescent-shaped 2km beach. Wedding planners love it.
Blocksidge’s Discovery tours also offer a couple of wine tours, with tastings at some of the 80-odd cellar doors in the Margaret River region. I head off on my own to the Forester Estate winery, one of the most impressive in the area, with its French Renaissance-style sandstone facade. Co-owner Kevin McKay has just opened it to private tours this month. Small in output but with a solid reputation, Forester makes reds, whites and the unique Georgette, a dry, sparkling rose.
Next stop is Cape Naturaliste Vineyard, where Craig Brent-White, a ship’s pilot, steers his boutique winery with the same precision he uses with the big vessels in the Kimberley. He alerted his client P&O Cruises to the potential of the Margaret River region, the company sent executives to check it out and they quickly put it on their cruise map. From 2015, Pacific Jewel will anchor off the mile-long Busselton jetty and send 2000 passengers into the arms of waiting retailers, wineries and land tour operators.
At day’s end I head for The Laundry, in the middle of Busselton, converted to a bar and restaurant, both of which are super-busy when I arrive. If you go in late August you can sit outside as the stars – the film stars – come out at the annual CinefestOZ where Australian and French films are screened around the whole region, centred on Busselton’s Orana Cinemas. David Wenham is the festival’s patron and each year there is a Screen Legend award: the last two have gone to Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson. It’s almost like being on the Margaret Riviera.
margaretriverdiscovery.com.au Margaret River Discovery Tour $188-$208pp; Forester Estate offers private winery tours Friday afternoons and Saturday at $30pp, including tasting; Cape Naturaliste cellar door open seven days