The 135km Cape to Cape Track can be done in sections or as one challenging 5-7 day journey. By Melanie Ball
As I set out on a multi-day walk in south-west Australia, covering the first of the 135km between capes Leeuwin and Naturaliste at an enthusiastic clip, I tend toward Mae West’s opinion that: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
The region’s most famous ‘good thing’ comes in red and white varieties and is poured from bottles into stemmed glasses, but between the Margaret River vineyards and the Indian Ocean is a coastline that surfers would probably prefer was not advertised. And strung through the rough-hewn headlands, crescent bays and remote beaches is the Cape to Cape Track (C2C).
You can tackle this renowned walking track as a series of day walks or two- to three-day bites over months or years, as many locals do; or you can end-to-end, backpacking everything you need and sleeping track-side in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park camp sites. You can also tread it on an accommodated walking holiday with Auswalk, carrying only your lunch, water, and protective gear while your luggage takes pre-arranged lifts to the next comfy bed.
Six over-fifties from the east coast, Trevor, Phil, Judith, Marilyn, Colin and I strap our day packs on the first time to walk from the car park to Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, which stands sentry at the confluence of the Indian and Southern oceans and is the end/start of the Cape to Cape. (The official guidebook describes the walk south-to-north, however Auswalk reverses that so guests finish nearer Perth.) And we remove our packs the last time in Quay West Resort Bunker Bay, around the corner from Cape Naturaliste lighthouse, having trudged through congregating wedding guests way more trendily dressed than we are.
In between we soothe weary muscles with hot water gushing from indulgently wide showerheads in all-mod-cons resorts and chat in front of an open fire in luxurious homestead-style Gilgara Retreat. We refuel with pub steaks and host-cooked Chinese crispy skin pork washed down with local beverages. We trade stories and jokes and compare aches and pains. And we walk.
Even with transport, accommodation and light packs, Auswalk’s Cape to Cape is not a lazy holiday and is most enjoyable if you do some regular lead-up exercise. To make it less taxing you could pre-book a mid-way rest day, or skip some legs by riding with your luggage. But every step I take, even trudging along Hamelin Bay’s soft sand into a head wind on day two, swinging my walking poles to maintain momentum and extending my stride to fit my companions’ footprints and keep in their slipstream, only increases my determination to walk the track‘s length.
All days on the C2C have much in common and it is easy to become blasé about the sweeping beaches, the expanses of blue water lifting into perfect rollers, and the jagged limestone cliffs. “Not more bloody rocks!” Trevor moans late in our journey, even though said rocks tell a fantastic geological story.
Yet every day has distinct and different highlights, such as the rock shelf we tread late on day one. This platform is drilled with solution pipes, cleaved from the shore in places and so undercut it echoes hollowly underfoot. The sea sighs, hisses and whoomps below as we walk, the sounds escaping through the cracks like exhalations of breath.
We meet wildlife daily, too. Purple-crowned lorikeets fly ahead as we tunnel through thick, dense heath woven with as many shades of green as there are shapes and sizes of leaves. A snake eating a lizard, with one of the victim’s feet splayed across the snake’s head in a futile never-say-die effort to stop the dislocated jaws taking in more, forces us to detour off track. And 30 dolphins power through barrels of blue water below as school students abseil and rock-climb on the Wilyabrup Sea Cliffs from which I watch the energetic displays.
Day five underlines the sea’s power to sculpt and tempt – and to kill. At Left Handers beach there is a memorial to a board rider taken by a shark. At Gracetown, the names of eight students and a teacher killed in 1996 when a limestone cliff collapsed as they watched a school surf challenge are cut out of metal waves cresting on the cliff’s edge.
One afternoon we pass a middle-aged backpacking couple climbing the sandy slope we are descending. As he huffs up the hill – she is fitter for the walk – I realise just how different our C2C experiences will be. Some of their days will be shorter by the detours we have to make to pickups and accommodation, and I envy them the sunrises and sunsets that only campers see, but the sandy stretches have already put me off doing more than a two-day independent hike when I return – which I will.
My favourite day is our third on foot, a 22.5km walk that begins with our drop-off among towering regrowth karri trees noisy with ringneck parrots. Armed with Auswalk’s detailed instructions – ‘After 10-12min, turn R at the first intersection, heading slightly downhill. In another 3mins you’ll be back at Davies Rd and the huge karri tree where you left the C2C yesterday’ – we walk through forest striped with shadows cast as clouds drift across the sun, taking a break at Point Road campsite in a peppermint grove. (Aborigines, our notes tell us, used the peppermint tree to repel mosquitoes and treat stings and bites, but fortunately we don’t need to test its efficacy for either.)
Half an hour on, the C2C puts us on a cliff edge above the ocean. This is a great whale-watching spot in season, the best time being October-November when the wildflowers are also out. But there are no leviathans or multi-coloured blooms to distract us as we follow the narrow track along the edge, only more precipitous drops to rocky bays edged with footprint-free sand and water that’s a dozen shades of blue. I wonder what the crews of the French expeditionary ships Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste thought of this country when they sailed past in 1801.
The track descends to a broad, shallow cave, its mouth framing a view of the ocean. Through a melaleuca grove we clamber up layered rock and find ourselves in a maze of 4WD tracks that demands frequent note checking and attention to track markers, which are maintained by the Friends of the Cape To Cape. From there it’s back down to Redgate Beach.
In 1876, the steamship Georgette went down offshore here. Alerted by her family’s aboriginal stockman, 16-year-old Grace Bussell offered to help and the pair rode their horses repeatedly into the sea to rescue survivors. Their efforts earned them both bravery medals and Grace the nickname ‘Australia’s Grace Darling’, England’s Grace having rescued shipwreck victims in the Farne Islands in 1838.
After Redgate car park we begin an hour-long beach leg. High tide forces us up into soft sand and it is hard going but the way is strewn with distracting sea urchins – hard, pink, hairless shells and red ones not long from the sea and still furry.
Leaving the beach at Boodjidup Brook under solid grey cloud, we walk in chatty pairs or solo through the dunes, along the lush creek valley to a footbridge, and up 350 steps (I count them). Our reward is a view of sea and shore and a handful of houses hunkered down in the crowning heath.
Massed grass trees, their flower spikes pointed skywards, turned 90-degrees from vertical, and coiled like cork screws, are top of the pops for the day’s diverse flora. And by the time we reach our apartments, just off the C2C, our wildlife count includes a stumpy tail lizard, a wallaby and her joey, and six yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
Leaning wearily against the sun-washed white stones of Cape Naturaliste lighthouse four days later, I feel a twinge of disappointment that our trip is all but over (Bunker Bay resort is 2.5km further). Yet that twinge quickly eases, for although I could walk again tomorrow if necessary, I am eager to peel the protective tape off my feet, empty the sand drifts from my boots and consign my smelly socks to a corner of my bag.
Eager, also, to celebrate Mae West being right: at least in regard to walking the Cape to Cape Track, too much of a good thing is wonderful.
Getting there Auswalk’s self-guided Cape to Cape walk (March to November) starts at A$1995; once-a-year guided walks (September 2012) A$3095. Self-guided walkers need to make their own way to Augusta to start the walk, while guided groups are collected from Perth airport. For information and bookings go to www.auswalk.com.au or phone 61 3 535 64970.
Staying there Auswalk accommodation depends on group size, season and availability. Ours included motel rooms, en-suite homestead rooms and two-bedroom resort apartments. The self-guided trip includes most breakfasts and lunches and some dinners.
Independent walkers can stay at national park campsites along the track and/or book accommodation in towns along the way.