The port town on WA’s far southern shore is a haven for crystal clear waters, chance encounters with native wildlife, and empty beaches as far as the eye can see.
Esperance styles itself as part of WA’s secret south. But judging by the number of “No Vacancy” signs that spring up throughout the summer, that secret has started to spread.
How refreshing, then, that even in the busiest holiday periods you can find a long ribbon of white beach to call your own. It’s that promise of being able to stretch out and enjoy unspoiled surrounds that helps sustain me on my long journey from Albany, some 450km west.
After the majestic Stirling Range disappears in my rear-view mirror, the Western Highway dissects the southern region’s agricultural belt and before long there’s nothing to relieve the monotony of the endless flat paddocks.
My girlfriend and I should be thankful we aren’t travelling from the other direction – across the Nullarbor Plain – but it’s still a great relief when we arrive at our accommodation.
Of course, an easier option would be to fly in, and local airline Skywest makes the 1.5hr trip from Perth at least twice daily, so you can be transported to another world in no time. Hire cars are readily available, although in summer it might be a good idea to book in advance.
On this visit we decide to stay outside the town centre. Though pleasant, it’s more functional than spectacular. Esperance’s intrinsic beauty lies in its surrounds.
Sure, the long row of Norfolk Pines adds elegance to the Esplanade, but they fail to hide the large green sheds that dominate the western end of the port town.
The more expensive houses have overcome this by spreading out to the west, where they have a huge mass of granite known as Wireless Hill to thank for obscuring their views of the industry below, and are rewarded with a gorgeous panorama of the Southern Ocean and the Recherche Archipelago.
Some of these houses have used their positions to become desirable and thriving B&Bs and rental homes, but we choose to stay near the tranquil Bandy Creek on the other side of town.
The shady self-contained homes are a wonderful place for families, with a myriad of activities to keep the kids entertained.
Booking a few weeks in advance should secure any number of places to stay, from the dorms of the ubiquitous backpacker hostels to the spacious luxury of spa rooms by the sea. And once you’ve settled, there’s no better place to get your bearings than the Rotary Lookout atop Wireless Hill.
On the first rung of the lookout steps, you’re afforded glimpses out to sea and back down to the township, but a few steps higher a 360-degree panorama awaits.
A helpful steel map points to the area’s key attractions: cone-shaped Frenchmen’s Peak gives the impression of a classic volcano brooding away at the end of Cape Le Grand; away from the sea lies the string of lakes and wetlands that make Esperance an important breeding ground and refuge for waterbirds.
The Rotary Lookout signals the start of the Great Ocean Drive, which loops around the beaches before cutting inland and returning to the town via the Pink Lake – which is often grey.
And what a memorable drive it is: the road hugs the cliff tops offering breathtaking views of the ocean, its waters gradually becoming lighter until they appear as a brilliant sky-blue at the point where the waves roll onto the beach.
Further in the distance the islands of the archipelago intermittently break the expanse of blue to provide a classic ocean vista.
Spoilt For Choice
As wonderful as the view from the road is, it always makes me want to run straight down to the beach and get amongst it.
There are several car parks, so the number of beaches you visit is restricted only by the time available to you, and as each beach is distinctly different from the next we needed several trips to really appreciate each one.
However, one does stand out as a favourite: Twilight Beach, halfway down the coastal stretch of the Great Ocean Drive.
Two huge rocks – one with a cavernous eye in the bottom left corner – rise from the depths like a benign sea monster protecting its beach from the strong swells that can be troublesome at nearby bays.
The clear azure waters might look warm and inviting, but this is the Southern Ocean, not some far-flung tropical paradise; during even the hottest months you’ll find them bracing in the extreme.
And you won’t spend too long on the beach before seeing people strip down to their bathers and run into the water, before beating a sheepish, yet hasty, retreat.
Further down the Drive, Ten Mile Lagoon is a great swimming beach in the midst of a windswept coast. A rocky shore acts as a natural breaker for the pounding waves, forming a long shallow pool that’s considerably warmer than the ocean.
Lying in the water can feel like being in the eye of the storm, with the crashing waves to one side and the wind blustering overhead, propelling the windmills that stand watch beyond the sand dunes. A great place to cool off in summer; a dramatic place to visit in winter.
It was from these shores that we were treated to the sight of a southern right whale at play, heaving its vast body out of the water before crashing back down into the waves less than 100m from where we stood gaping in awe.
These whales were once hunted to near extinction around these parts, but their numbers have grown until they are once again a common and welcome sight, especially from Observatory Point, where they often come close to land, squeezing by the nearby Observatory Island.
In 1792 the French frigates L’Esperance and Recherche sheltered behind this island – not only did they provide names for the area and the archipelago, they also became the first in a long line of travellers to use Esperance for a touch of rest and recuperation.
Beware the Sea Lions
Fishing is popular in Esperance, and judging by the hauls brought in the fish are not only plentiful, but they like to bite.
The timber jetty is a great place for dropping a line and, while cleaning off your catch, be sure to keep one eye out for the resident sea lions that come to feed on discarded fish heads.
Several signs warn not to approach them, as they can bite – a warning that won’t be lost on you once you see their massive tusks and gaping mouths.
I had an encounter with one that won’t soon fade from memory. Taking a shortcut beneath the jetty rather than walk back up the beach the long way, I was forced to negotiate slippery rocks and mounds of seaweed.
After getting bogged down in a pile of dried sea grass, I stumbled and used my camera tripod to steady myself on a big grey rock.
Just as I thought, “Hmm, this big grey rock feels a bit soft,” it let out a massive roar. A huge set of tusks caught the light from above and I turned and ran, losing a thong in the process.
Once the shock had subsided and I realised I wasn’t being chased by an irate sea lion, I went to have a look from the top of the jetty and peered down into darkness to see an absolute monster trying to get back to the land of nod.
I felt rather bad about waking him in such an abrupt manner, and not a little relieved that the only thing I lost was a thong.
Cape Le Grand
If you’ve come all the way to Esperance, the 50km drive southeast to Cape Le Grand National Park is one that you simply must take.
Le Grand’s coastline remains largely unchanged since 1802, when it was carefully mapped by Matthew Flinders. He had the good sense to stop a few days and today it’s not difficult to imagine how the land must have looked to him as the beaches remain so unsullied.
The western end of the park has fully sealed roads, but the more adventurous may prefer to make their way to the Cape across the white sandy beaches via 4WD. This 40km stretch of “road” cuts 16km off the inland route, beginnings its journey at Wylie Bay (the bay is accessible to ordinary vehicles and is a great spot for a secluded picnic or a spot of fishing in the calm waters) and passing by ever increasing sand dunes before arriving at Le Grand Beach.
If you don’t have a 4WD and don’t feel comfortable taking a hired one across the beach, you can always book one of several tours that go this way.
There are two camping grounds within Cape Le Grand National Park, the best of which – nestled among shady trees right next to the curving sweep of Lucky Bay – features solar-powered showers so you can stay next to the beach in relative luxury.
The eastern side of the beach often has a build up of dried seaweed, and although it does spoil the aesthetic value a little, it has the added bonus of being a popular feeding ground for local kangaroos.
Living in such close proximity to the campsite has made the ’roos quite tame and you can often get as close as you like to take photos of them lazing around on the beach.
After doing our own fare share of beach lazing, we decided to test out some of Cape Le Grand’s more rigorous pursuits. Up close, Frenchman’s Peak looks less like a volcano, but its steep sides do present a deceptively daunting climb.
This granite outcrop is 300m above the seas and it takes a surprisingly easy 40 minutes to walk to the summit.
Waiting is another surprise: just below the peak there’s a cavernous gap forming a window through the granite, carved by pounding seas when the area was beneath the seas 40 million years ago, and giving a natural frame to the azure seas below.
After exploring the cave, we climbed around to stand on its roof. The 360-degree views along the Cape are stunning, and from here it’s easy to plot the course of the 15km coastal trail.
This walk links all the major beaches from Le Grand Beach to Rossiter Bay and is a wonderful way to spend the day.
Esperance is a terrific place for those wanting to claim a bit of paradise that’s close to their hotel door. But the reason we keep going back?
The more we explore the coast and inland region, the more rewarding the area becomes.
There are still many hidden coves waiting to be uncovered, and just a little further down the coast lies Cape Arid National Park – a remote wilderness crying out to be explored on our next visit.
The details: Esperance, WA
Best month to go: December through March. You get the best of the season’s weather, and you’re treated to the magnificent red flowering gums and Christmas trees.
Most underrated aspect: The miles of unspoiled beaches.
Most overrated aspect: The Pink Lake – at least when it’s grey.
Be prepared for: Big temperature swings – 40 degrees one day, 22 the next.
Watch out for: Dolphins, sea lions and whales (in season), and splendid fairy wrens.
Best value encountered: Big off-season accommodation discounts are offered at many places.
For more of Michael Willis’ work, check out www.michaelwillisphotography.com