Wide Open Road
Written by Asrif Yusoff, Photos by Azalia Suhaimi
July 20, 2013

We touched down Perth at a rather interesting time. It was barely eight hours since Kevin Rudd became the country’s Prime Minister again. The night before, a ballot took place for the leadership of the Labor Party and sensationally, Rudd won by 13 votes leaving former PM Julia Gillard listless in a bewildered heap.

Of course, I didn’t know any of these until later in the day. I was half-assuming that an underpublicized election had just taken place. Judging by the commotion surrounding the airport, however, you could tell that it wasn’t something that everyone had expected. Steering away from any conversation that required us to know Australian politics, or any politics for that matter, we hopped into our rented Hyundai i30 and took off.

That was our plan anyway. Fly in, hire a car, and get out.

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Western Australia is a huge state. It’s about the size of India, but with only 1/5 of the population -- about 2.4 million people. And 75% of the inhabitants live in its capital in the south, Perth. This extreme concentration is not without a reason. The rest of the state is made of barren, deserted, infertile land unfit for even weed to grow.

Australia’s geography is known for its extremes. Closer to the coast are the lush flora and fauna colorfully thriving in fantastic sunshine and cool sea breeze. Deeper into the heart of the isle, the territory gets warmer, emptier, eerier, and lonelier. If this land was a book, it would have covers painted by Van Gogh and content written by Snooki.

But that’s what makes Australia one of the most fascinating places on the planet. It’s the largest island on the world. It enjoys the same four seasons as the other side of the hemisphere (although with the calendar reversed). And 80% of its plants, flowers, trees, birds, insects, spiders, mammals and marmite are unique, and can only be found there. This is also why there will only ever be one Steve Irwin.

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We have both been to Australia before. I went to Sydney once on a family trip when I was 14. Azalia spent a bit longer there to study at the University of New South Wales; for about four years. During which, she covered the other states of Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. So we opted to fly into an area that neither of us had reached before, which left us with the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Perth seemed like the practical choice. There's a daily flight there. I have read about Tasmania before and was deeply intrigued by its vigor. But flying there requires transit in Melbourne, and the domestic flight can cost as much as the plane. So we had to put “Tassie” on hold. Darwin up in the north, on the other hand, well let's just say Dabong is a closer option.

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All we wanted from this trip was a smooth drive through the highways and byways of southwestern Australia. A road trip, of sorts, similar to the ones we’ve taken during our college days. It has been a year since our last drive to northern France, so we were itching to cruise through the hills, across the rivers, on the bridges, into the countryside and along the coastline.

I miss the joy of driving on a foreign land in a well-maintained hired car, bingeing on junk food and energy drink to keep me going, while the radio plays songs I couldn’t understand. I can still smell the freshly brewed coffee I got coming out of the gas station in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Wales. I was lost, yet still within my territory, cursing under my breath, “This GPS needs Cymraeg-to-English translation.”

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The route we took began on the Kwinana Freeway, passing by the suburbs of Perth to the city of Mandurah. From there, we continued on along State Route 2 toward Margaret River, along the quaint little towns of the coast; totaling about 300km. Our base was Surfpoint at Prevelly, a 10km drive from town at Gnarabup Beach.

Continuing on, we took Caves Road, 60km south to Augusta before proceeding to Cape Leeuwin, the southwestern-most point of Australia. The next day, we headed up north to Cape Naturaliste, by way of the small hilltop town of the rich and (maybe) famous, Yallingup. We wrapped up the route with a drive up north back to Perth via the towns of Dunsborough, Busselton, Burnbury and Australind. On the last day, we drove down a short distance to the harbor town of Fremantle, where the body of AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott was laid to rest.

All in all we covered 788km in 3 days. An average distance compared to the thousands of miles we used to be able to cover in our younger days. Yet, it was a most satisfying drive which had perfectly attained out objective in going there, and more. Thank you Australian energy drink.

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The drive to Margaret River was smooth, convenient and very welcoming. It was 7am when we headed into the Kwinana Freeway and the sun was just peeking out over the mountains. The calming breeze of Western Australian winter was all too pleasant. With temperatures of only 10ºC – 20ºC, it was just right. The clouds were opening up and the sky, was at its bluest. I was waiting for the radio to play Men at Work’s Down Under but that never happened throughout the trip.

I have to give it to the Australian drivers. They were calm, courteous, and obliging both to the law and each other. Nobody went above the speed limit and everyone used their signals accordingly. I can’t recall anyone honking to anything and even in the city, the motorists seemed civilized, good-natured, and at ease. The experience reminded me of the joy of driving and I tried to savour the moment as much as I can before returning to the traffic hellhole that is Kuala Lumpur.

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Two hours into the trip, we were hungry, and needed to go to the restroom. Little that we knew, it was destined to be the prettiest pee break we had ever taken. I took a turn off the Bussell Highway into the small town of Capel (population: 2,151). A farming settlement, the four quarters of its entry roundabout were large green fields of horses and ponies, all too occupied with their breakfast of hay and I believe, their owners' prized tulips.

Capel town center is as simple as town centers go. A gas station, a post office, a library, a grocery store, a few cafes, and a short page on Wikipedia. We bumped into an elderly lady walking his dog, Stig (whom she said was named after “that TV show with cars and all”), and had a nice chat with her by the picket fences. 

The town, according to her, doesn’t get many visitors but has everything its people need albeit its size. I can see where she’s coming from. There in the small quadrant of the town were all the amenities and beyond that, is the comfort of home. It’s the type of simplicity that we in the concrete jungle long for. A world devoid of shopping malls, traffic jams and people walking while texting.

She bid farewell and continued her morning walk with Stig leading the way. Capel was exactly what we were looking for in the trip, and wouldn’t have found had it not been for our bladder.

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We arrived in Margaret River town around noon and took a walk along its main street. The stretch, while filled with commercial tenants, is still within the definition of a small town. There are a few supermarkets there but everything is still within a walking distance.

Also known as “Margs”, the town lies within the valley of the Margaret River Wine Region which is famously known for its wineries and surfing breaks -- two rather different attractions. So you could imagine that among the 500,000 visitors that it welcomes every year, half are cultured wine enthusiasts while the other half, are slightly less clothed/sober surfing fanatics.

Our abode for the night was Surfpoint at Pervelly, a 10km drive through the woods out to the shores of Granabup Beach. We have been lucky enough to drive along some nice views in our lifetime and the coastal road leading to Surfpoint is definitely up there.

Overlooking the Indian Ocean, Wallcliffe Road ends in a high-rise passage that goes up to Prevelly at the mouth of Margaret River. So as you drive up and down the hills, the majestic view of the sea accompanies you with the sound of its waves hitting the rocks on shore. Nestled by the mountains and surrounded by the breathtaking sceneries, we couldn’t have asked for a better spot to settle for the day.

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After a short rest, we headed south to Cape Leeuwin by way of a neighboring small town, Augusta. There are two options of driving along the Leeuwin-Naturaliste trail. You can either take the Bussell highway or, if you have more time and would like enjoy some nature along the day, there’s the aptly named Caves Road which goes through the Lake Cave & Mammoth Cave Nature Reserve to the south, and miles and miles of wineries to the north.

Cape Leeuwin is where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean. Its landmark is the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse. I have never been to any lighthouse before so driving down the narrow road leading to the cape was exhilarating. It’s one of those moments during a road trip when your breath is literally taken away by the sight. The small path leading to the lighthouse and the vast body of water were all too captivating. Nature can be a rollercoaster.

We retired back to Surfpoint at dawn and retired for the day by the fireplace with the other few guests at the lounge. It was the middle of the week so there were only us and two other guys from Germany and the US who were there to surf. We exchanged travel stories from home and abroad and were later joined by Ben and Ali, the lovely couple who run the place. They had just taken over the management of Surfpoint, which was previously a haven for drunken backpackers. The place has since been redone as they try to rebrand the place as a family-friendly budget accommodation.

Take my word for it, it’s the best place to stay in that area. The location is excellent, and with our currency not getting any better, it’s easy on the wallet.

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After a good 10-hour sleep, we started the next day early and journeyed north toward Cape Naturaliste. The drive took us about 60km along the world class wineries that have put Margaret River on the world map. While wine-tasting is not on our agenda, we took the chance to drive into some of the wineries to enjoy the tremendous landscape and sceneries coloring the backdrop of the region. Hugh Jackman once said that Margaret River is the best place he’s ever been to. Wolverine loves his wine.

There are several junctions along the way and some of these roads will take you to the hidden gems of the coast. There’s Injidup Spring Road which leads to Cape Clairault. The tarred road leads to a dead-end but if there’s a coffee table book called “Beautiful Dead-ends of the World”, this one would be in it. Not to mention that the place gets an average of -- and this is an estimate -- 12 visitors per year. We saw a man who was rock-fishing with his two dogs and as we made our way to join them, we came across a “ROCK FISHING HAS TAKEN LIVES” sign and retreated accordingly. Photos would be good then.

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A few miles up from Injudup Beach is Canal Rocks, nearby Smiths Beach. The information board describes it as an “unusual rock formation that protrudes out of the peninsular” but for someone who couldn’t tell granite from termite, I proceeded to enjoy the view of the wide open space that is the ocean.

We then drove up to the small town of Yallingup, which is an aboriginal word for “place of love”. The beaches Injudup and Smiths belong to this district, alongside the other beach, Three Bears (not an aboriginal word, maybe the name of a Native American chief).

There’s a road that leads to a parking lot nearby the residential areas and from here you can enjoy the magnificent view of the vista that is Yallingup Brook which spreads into the ocean. Yallingup homes the landed properties of the wealthy and driving pass by their houses, you can see why as you get glimpses of the expansive/expensive view that they enjoy every day.

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We took a break from the insane beauty of nature for lunch at Squid Lips in Dunsborough. They pride themselves in serving “one of the top five fish and chips in Western Australia”. Looking at how they only have two branches in Dunsborough and Margaret River, and their mascot is a squid with big lips, we simply couldn’t let the eatery pass by.

While their fish and chips is agreeably up there, it’s their chili squid that takes the cake. It’s basically calamari battered in flour and spices, nothing you couldn’t do at home. But enjoying it there on a winter afternoon after a half-day of cruising in the sun and sea is pure joy. Plus the TV was airing a midday Australian soap drama.

We proceeded to Cape Naturaliste thereafter and went on a hike along the 2km trail encircling the lighthouse. Cape Naturaliste is where the Cape to Cape hiking track ends and is on the edge of Geographe Bay; the area we will go through on the way back to Perth. Adjacent to the lighthouse is “Other Side of the Moon”, an actual place which I believe many wouldn’t mind having as mailing address -- living in eucalyptus trees with koalas.

Cape Naturaliste marked the end of our drive along the Cape to Cape trail. And I rate it up there in my top three scenic drives alongside the Trossachs Trail in Scotland, and Lake District in the UK. The NKVE on a mid-week rush hour barely made it to the list.

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On the way back to Perth, we dropped by Bussellton to take a walk along its infamous Bussellton Jetty, known as the "longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere". Rather exhausted from an enthralling day out with nature, we barely made it to a quarter of the jetty’s entire 2km length. The jetty is no longer in use, and has been dormant since 1971. But it has over the years attracted a reasonable number of visitors and menacing seagulls.

After a quick meal at the kebab restaurant, we drove into the night toward Perth and crawled into our bed as soon as we arrived, exhausted, yet extremely contented.

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Perth is one of the most isolated capital cities in the world. Adelaide is its nearest big city, about 2,000km away, and it is closer to Jakarta than Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, but far enough from Sumatra to escape the haze.

Founded in the 19th century, Perth is probably one of the few places in the world named after another place: Perth, Scotland. British settlers who came to Australia had a tendency to name places after themselves or their family members but I guess this time they were a bit selfless. Then again, who knows. Perth might also be the name of the General's dog.

In 2012, Perth was ranked 9th in the Economist Intelligence Unit's World's Most Liveable Cities list. Apparently, four of the top 10 cities were from Australia; which probably explains why everyone there is so nice to each other. My stay there was too short to vouch for this ranking but with the sunshine that it enjoys all year round and road users who could make ours look like car-chase fugitives, I am not surprised.

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We spent our last day in Fremantle, a port city about half-an-hour away from Perth. More glamorously known as “Freo”, it was love at first sight as we got the best parking spot in town at the heart of the city. The Fremantle Markets is one of the nicest we've been to (the Turkish gozleme there is to die for) and its infamous “Cappucino Strip” was flamboyant, yet accommodating. A great place for alfresco dining at the old buildings turned cafes and catch up on who won and who got killed in Aussie rules football the night before.

It was a nice day out to mark the end of our fulfilling road trip of Southwestern Australia. I managed to grab some great titles from the second-hand bookstores as Azalia kept on chasing the rainbows that have been playing hide and seek since the day we arrived. It was a trip that we wouldn't mind repeating as it was beauty that you can never get enough of.

As Australian rock band The Triffids once sang, “The sky was big and empty; My chest filled to explode; I yelled my insides out to the sun; It's a wide open road.”

More photos by Azalia Suhaimi here.


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