The West

Alex and Helen Bonnel ride Segways at the Old Marron Farm. Picture: Tom Edwards

Fact: riding a Segway through the bush is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I learn this while taking one for a spin at the Old Marron Farm near Albany.

My family and I join owner Karl Rost for an adventure tour of his rural property on the edge of the stunning Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve. You control the machine by leaning forwards or backwards and moving the handlebar left or right to turn. It's a nifty piece of kit which moves intuitively and, after some training on an obstacle course, the forest trail beckons.

It's impossible not to enjoy yourself buzzing along winding trails, bouncing over tree roots and ducking under branches. In single file we glide across an open paddock, reaching a dizzying 20km/h. Then we enter a pit and tackle a more technical course of steep slopes, uneven ground and loose rocks. You will look a tad silly riding one but you will have fun, guaranteed.

If gyroscopic transporters aren't really your thing, the Old Marron Farm has plenty of other diversions. The animal park features a walk-though aviary teeming with colourful parrots. If you want to grab a bite, I can vouch for the delectable fresh marron in the restaurant.

Nearby, Two Peoples Bay is where you will find Little Beach - one of WA's most splendid, pristine stretches of sand. We cool off in the rollicking surf and then hike around the smooth granite headland, admiring the dramatic geology the south coast is well known for. With the evening wind kicking up, it's back to our cottage near Albany for a barbecue under the stars and a well-earned sleep.

The next morning we rise early and head to the city centre for breakfast at one of the many relaxed cafes on picturesque York Street. There's an English feel to Albany, partly derived from the old-style buildings and cosy pubs on quaint street corners. At just over 400km south of Perth, the summer weather here is, in my opinion, the best in the State - in the high 20s most days and perfect for outdoor activities such as trekking.

If it sounds like a long way to go, it's really not - Albany Highway will deliver you from Perth in roughly five hours, allowing for stops.

One of the finest attractions is Whale World, Discovery Bay, which offers an insight into Australia's last operating whaling station, having been decommissioned as recently as 1978. Climbing aboard the Cheynes IV whale chaser transports you back in time to when sperm and humpback whales were harpooned and slaughtered here in their thousands. This is the only whaling vessel in the world where you can walk around inside and for that reason alone it deserves a visit.

We stand on the flensing deck and imagine whale blubber being hacked from carcasses and sent to the cookers where its precious oil was extracted to make anything from soap to mechanical lubricant. It seems like a barbaric industry but tour guide David points out it was a big employer for Albany and since the killing ended whale numbers have recovered significantly. Looking at it now, it's hard to imagine this serene environment as the scene of such brutality.

Guided tours are free and leave every hour, taking in an intact skeleton of a blue whale that is longer than a bus and ending with a mesmerising 3-D documentary. After three hours we drag ourselves away with a new understanding of Albany's whaling past, which is haunting and fascinating.

The time to leave the Great Southern is sadly upon us but on the way home we stop off near Walpole to experience the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk. This 600m promenade takes you high above the forest floor where cockatoos snack on gumnuts in the tingle canopy. The Walpole- Nornalup National Park is a biodiversity hotspot, recognised internationally for its unique flora and fauna.

It's a warm day but the shade of the forest makes for a cool escape from the heat. The walk continues on the ground, weaving a path through lush vegetation and even through the hollow trunk of a majestic centuries-old tree. I'm bowled over by the vast scale of my surroundings, a common theme during my visit to the Great Southern.

For many of us, this remarkable wilderness is virtually on our doorstep, so there's really no excuse for not visiting. It's a land of contradictions. A rugged landscape battered by Antarctic winds and the swirling Southern Ocean, which also bursts into colour with spring wildflowers and is populated by warm and welcoming people. As usual, I've run out of time and have barely scratched the surface of the

varied pursuits on offer but at least there's plenty left to see next time.

I might check out Denmark - a small, charming town where a mellow New Age crowd rub shoulders with sea-changing retirees looking for a change of pace. There's a vibrant arts scene and plenty of wineries in the surrounding countryside, which are producing some excellent cool- climate varieties.

Nearby William Bay National Park is home to Greens Pool and Elephant Rocks, an incredible swimming lagoon which, in terms of natural beauty, is unparalleled in decent weather.

Then there are the gourmet restaurants, lively pubs, art galleries, craft shops and markets which make the area such a vibrant spot to live and visit. Thanks to the prevailing winds, the Great Southern is also one of the best places in WA for all manner of water sports such as windsurfing, kitesurfing and sailing.

When you combine all this, you have a region which truly deserves the name Great Southern.

The West Australian

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