The West

Visit great aunt Augusta
Augusta. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

So you have admired the delights of Margaret, that ripe seductress who offers wine, cheese and chocolate? And maybe you're wondering if there's benefit in going a little further.

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Well, there certainly is. Bearing in mind the manifold charms of the older woman, the more determined explorer will get to spend time with Aunt Augusta. She too has a river, but with a lot more curves, as one expects from a more mature personage.

There is a flamboyant Augusta in Graham Greene's novel Travels with My Aunt whose "brilliant red hair, monumentally piled" and character to match beguile her mousy retired bank manager of a nephew. If that's the sort of sight you're content to marvel at, you'd best linger on in Margaret River.

Augusta, 43km further south towards Cape Leeuwin, is a more subtle lady. Less excitement but more experience. Named after a sister of King George IV, she was up and running 80 years before that young hussy Margaret was declared a townsite.

Some tourist spots trumpet extreme sports opportunities, but the only extreme at Leeuwin is its location at the very south-west tip of Australia where two oceans meet and the air could hardly be any fresher.

I have previously written on these pages that grandeur and spectacle are not my mug of merlot. For me, travel is not a belt full of golden badges but a bracelet of miniature silver links. Slivers of moss on a stone wall between two Yorkshire villages. A posy, picked by children in honour of grandparents and dwarfed by garish statues, in a plastic bowl at a Chinese temple.

The equivalent in Augusta is a geographical marker outside the museum door: "200 MILES TO PERTH". I love miles, made up of an absurd number (1760) of yards. And let's face it, you never heard anyone say her daughter's new boyfriend was "kilometres better than the last one," did you?

These parts offer plenty to those who do go for size. Pelicans make the Blackwood River mouth their province. The annual Whale Song Festival is held on and around the river. Augusta attracted global attention in 1986 when a rescue of beached behemoths led to 96 being successfully sent back to sea. During the May-to-September migration season, guidelines for seaborne watchers include a plea "not to approach any closer than 100m from a whale and 50m from a dolphin".

Both species are safe from me. Even herring are safe from me. A poor swimmer, incompetent fisherman and inattentive crewman, I am impressed by those who take on oceanic challenges. Some of Augusta's illustrious pedigree is bound up with the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, the tallest on the Australian mainland, sending beams from 56m above sea level.

Though the keepers packed up 20 years ago, several buildings remaining from its heyday early last century, including one that is now a cafe, shop and mini-museum. Next to the lighthouse is a poignant memorial to a local tragedy. In February 1945, steaming many leagues from the Japanese submarines that had been giving Allied navies such grief, 10 men of the destroyer HMAS Nizam drowned after being washed off deck by a freak wave.

Your mood will be lightened, walking back from the lighthouse, by a model cow sitting upright and looking through a telescope. She was part of Margaret River's 2010 CowParade that was dubbed a deeply "moo-ving" experience. In 1910, the evacuation of the stricken SS Pericles was a textbook example of safety first. Luck smiled too. In fair weather, all crew and passengers were rescued on lifeboats guided by the Leeuwin beam and a bonfire next to it.

Two years after the Pericles rescue, her good fortune was thrown into stark relief by the sinking of the Titanic, built at the same Belfast shipyard.

At Cape Leeuwin, a calcified water wheel, just off the road to town, is worth a look. Once an ordinary wooden device to supply spring water to the lighthouse builders and keepers, today it is a still-trickling monument to extraordinary chemical transformation.

Above ground are so many historic gems from the years since the brig Emily Taylor brought settlers to the Blackwood mouth in 1830, just a year after the establishment of Fremantle and Perth.

Yet the most remarkable sights today are below ground. In Jewel Cave, the one nearest Augusta and the largest known in WA, chemistry has been at work for millennia. Limestone and water are the main ingredients.

Skeletons of thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) bear witness to a family of them who fell through the hole into the gloom. People in our party found that especially sad.

Passing the "200 miles" marker into the excellent museum, I am fortunate to have volunteer Kay Craze as my guide.

Her enthusiasm and affection for the Augusta region are a boon to local heritage. She recounts the huge part played by Maurice Coleman Davies of nearby Karridale.

"In December 1896, the premier, Sir John Forrest, and Lady Margaret arrived at Hamelin Bay, just to the north, on a ship owned by M.C. Davies. They travelled by horse and cart to stay the night at the Davies home. Next morning, the party caught the train from Karridale to Flinders Bay then travelled by horse and cart to perform the official opening of the lighthouse for which M.C. had put up most of the money."

The train service from Busselton to this southern terminus, which lasted until 1957, helped Karridale become one of WA's main Group Settlements in the 1920s. The "Groupies" were the perfect example of "blood, sweat and trees" pioneers who were lured, just after World War I, from British poverty to Australian opportunity. A few prospered. Many foundered.

For those families, a visit to Augusta was a treat. The least you can do, when you're down there, is glance heavenwards and give them a toast.

The West Australian

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