I was on the beach at Greens Pool in Western Australia. Not just Western Australia, but the extreme south of the state, taking in one of the magnificent stretches of coastline boasted by a region that calls itself the ‘Great Southern’. I love the nomenclature. It’s half Tolkien, a quarter DC Universe, and two eighths creative PR agency.
Beyond the granite boulders that shelter the beach from the ocean, creating placid, mini lagoons that are perfect for swimming in, there is nothing but sea. Should I decide to take off in a kayak with a considerable number of bacon and cheese sangers (Australian for ‘sandwich’) for sustenance, the next piece of land I would hit would be Antarctica.
This was quite a concept for my slightly addled, 6am-awakened brain, and it spoke to me on an elemental level. This remote part of the world is more than a little bit special, and presents, for now, one of the world’s great getaways.
I say ‘for now’ under advisement. The people involved in marketing and publicising the Great Southern are very much in and on the hunt for tourist dollars, and are bending over backwards, throwing cartwheels – physically a difficult feat to achieve – to attract spenders from around the world to redistribute their wealth. In their direction. Particularly, it seems, those from Southeast Asia. We are, after, all a lucky and privileged bunch of wallet wielders.
Their job should be easy. The Great Southern’s 39,000 square kilometres has an abundance of everything on the flora and fauna front, complemented by decent (occasionally exceptional) produce, some very good wines and the kind of space that makes the individual reflect on their role in the cosmic scheme of things and what lungs are intended for.
How much space? Although I’m not one for boring stats, you could fit 535 Singapores into the Great Southern. And if we can accommodate 5.45 million people comfortably enough in Singapore, the Great Southern should be able to accommodate 2.9 billion people. India, basically, in about 10 years’ time.
Instead it has around 64,000 souls – not lost but seemingly seeking. If that doesn’t tempt anyone and everyone to want to spend a few days exploring the verdant, leafy vastness, away from the hammer and throng of modern, urban life, then I don’t know what will.
If this is beginning to sound as though the Great Southern is semi-post-apocalyptic in terms of the rarity of sentient bipeds, nothing could be further from the truth. The Great Southern has plenty of interesting and engaging people who love their natural world sliver and may even be prepared to share it. Those with commercial imperatives are very keen to share it.
At this juncture, however, it is a well-kept secret, and this is exactly what the powers that be, development boards, tourist organisations, people selling wares and the whereabouts in which they are contained, want to change.
They want to scream what the Great Southern has to offer from the very low-rise rooftops that characterise a lot of the region’s housing. They would rather build across than up, because ‘up’ is expensive, and it’s not as though they don’t have the space.
Screaming is good, I think. It implies passion and commitment, unless it’s in reaction to something horrific and/or inadvertent. My impression is that half the people involved in making the Great Southern into a happening place are those who want others to appreciate what they have known for many years – that is; the region is quite fabulous if you’re planning a trip that combines à la carte adventure and relaxation set in splendid landscapes redolent of the essence of life, nature and fecundity.
And then there are others for whom this is all a marketing exercise, in the naïve, at the moment, hope that the Great Southern will one day grow up to be Margaret River. Because that’s what it wants to be, and that’s what it thinks it should be.
But it isn’t. Yet.
There are several reasons for this. One is that Margaret River has been developing for more than 60 years and has put its heart and soul into becoming a must-visit destination for oenophiles and food lovers alike. Not to mention the bewildering array of wildlife in a region that started off as a surfers’ paradise and evolved into so much more.
The Great Southern could probably trump Margaret River on the fauna front, but is some distance behind in viticulture. This is through no fault of anyone’s, just the concomitant effects and corollary of being an ‘undiscovered secret’ in Western Australia for too long. In a nutshell: the Great Southern hadn’t got its act together until now. The time has come to shrug off the shrinking violet mantle and declaim.
The region has every right to burst out of whatever metaphorical closet within which it considers itself enclosed, because the Great Southern has an enormous amount to offer, especially for the discerning few – although the Great Southern Development Commission is seriously hoping that this will turn into the ‘discerning many’ – who are desirous of escaping from the madding (and maddening) crowd, appreciate space and fresh air, and simply want to experience something a little bit different.
Because the Great Southern is wild, wonderful and full of getaway potential. And the people are… interesting. Without wanting to generalise, there are no airs, graces or pretensions about the great southerners. Calling them the ‘salt of the earth’ is possibly mildly disparaging, so I’d never write that. But there is an honesty to them and a seemingly simple approach to complex subjects – including but not limited to agriculture and viticulture, that is remarkably refreshing. Perhaps that’s why some of the wines they produce in the region are so good.
Deploying state of the art techniques, which in many cases these days is doing absolutely nothing and just letting the vines get on with doing what comes naturally – i.e., no human interference or herbicides whatsoever. This is quite trendy, but winemakers in the Great Southern have been doing it for years and have produced some pretty decent expressions.
The terroir (ancient soils, sandy loam, gneissic ((granite-like)) bedrock) really favours Riesling and to a lesser extent Shiraz, so it’s no surprise that some of the bests of their type are coming out of this part of the world.
Alkoomi, Forest Hill Vineyard, Frankland Estate and Plantagenet have all created fabulously dry, talcy, mineral-forward Rieslings that the world needs to wake up to. Swinney Wine, a vineyard that’s been in the family for four generations, also makes a standout Riesling, but has also introduced Mourvèdre and Grenache varietals, the latter of which has been turned into a quite outstanding drop. Singlefile Wines should also take a bow, with a genuinely cool cellar door experience and a great opportunity to do vertical tastings. And if there’s a quirkier, more bizarre winery than Oranje Tractor Wines anywhere in Australia, I’d like to know where it is.
All these establishments have excellent cellar doors that should keep a bunch of wine buffs busy for hours, and many have restaurants either attached or within. It’s hard to imagine a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting around a table, eating, drinking, making merry and whiling away time before heading off to take more lungfuls of the Great Southern’s ridiculously fresh air.
There is also plenty to do for the intrepid, from surfing, biking and hiking trails to tree top canopy walks – the Valley of the Giants is a must visit – as is The Gap which presents outstanding views to the Southern Ocean from a 40-metre-high platform that may not be for the faint of heart.
Before this begins to sound like a travel brochure, let me conclude with my overall take on an all too brief visit to a region that may be labouring the ‘undiscovered gem’ schtick.
What I loved most about the place was the paucity of traffic lights. There may have been a few, but I really didn’t notice, and they would have been redundant anyway, even in the region’s capital. Albany ‘boasts’ a population of a little over 40,000, all of whom know each other, I imagine, and exchange gossip and recipes for food and success.
Getting out of the big city, breathing deeply and wending your way along a less-travelled path is good for the soul and nourishing for the spirit, and to come full circle, little could be as elemental and revivifying as plunging into the Southern Ocean at Greens Pool with its scrotum-shrivellingly cold water and wondering what the penguins might be doing all those nautical miles away.
The region may not be ‘game ready’ for what they hope is going to a massive influx of smart tourists, but in some way that simply adds to the charm of the place. There is work to be done, but when the spirits are willing, most of the resources are in place and there’s a degree of consanguinity with most of the protagonists, anything is possible.