Esperance and Cape Le Grand

A day on Woody Island

The other geographic claim to fame of Esperance is the Recherche Archipelago, over 100 islands strung out along the coastline for several hundred kilometres. Most of these islands are rounded domes of granite that emerge straight from the ocean, on which a thin smear of topsoil supports a few grasses and low shrubs. One, Woody Island, which was once connected to the mainland, has a much deeper topsoil and supports a dense vegetation of shrub and woodland, dominated by mallee-like eucalypts and some stands of low-growing casuarinas. It is also the only island on which you can stay overnight - definitely something a bit unusual to do.

We reached Woody Island via a boat cruise that operates out of Esperance Harbour. The modern catamaran took us out past several of the barren pink-granite domes that form part of the archipelago, passing sea-lions, fur seals and assorted seabirds that basked on the emergent wave-splashed rocks.

Cruising past the barren granite domes of the islands of
the Recherche Achipelago

Cape Barren Geese foraging on an island

Singing honeyeater waiting for cake

Two fur seals and a sea-lion basking on an islet

It's a good life to be a baby sea-lion

Pacific gull and pied cormorant

Sea-eagle on the wing ...

Gannet starting its dive

... and resting on its island home

It was a good trip, escorted at times by gannets sweeping low over the waves, sea eagles soaring high above the rocky islands and the odd dolphin looping in and out of the sea as it passed the boat.

The sun shines on an offshore islet

The harbour at Woody Island

Finally we arrived at Woody Island, where the welcoming committee of chocolate-cake birds (aka singing honeyeaters) greeted us enthusiastically and noisily. Woody Island caters to day trips and to people who want to spend a few nights in one of the tented safari hut type accommodation. These birds know when the boat will arrive and also know that coffee and cake is served on arrival; they are keen to share the latter with visitors.

On the deck of our "safari tent"

If you like birds, you will like Woody Island. Of the 23 listed species we saw 16 in a 24-hour period. In fact, silver-eyes and honeyeaters are happy to join you for breakfast (or should I say beakfast) and lunch, while rock parrots, firetail finches, quail and the odd golden whistler or azure kingfisher flash by. It was great to sit and enjoy the abundant bird-life from the deck of our safari tent. Seabirds are also abundant; shearwaters nest in their burrows near Twiggy's Landing on the south side of the island and little penguins have nest burrows on the eastern extremity.

Firetail finch

Western silvereye

Rock parrot

Female Golden Whistler and ...

.... evidently, the male

The New Holland honeyeater family takes a break

Settling in we wandered around the eastern end of the island to get our bearings; out to sea lay the granite domes of other islands in the Recherche Archipelago, while to the east the lay the mainland and the long silhouette of Cape Le Grand. The pyramidal Frenchman Cap and broad rocky dome of Mt Le Grand stood out in stark relief across the blue ocean.

Panorama of Cape Le Grand from Woody Island

The harbour at Woody Island was protected from the prevailing winds and after lunch we wandered down for a refreshing dip in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean. Dozing in the warm sunshine, we were awoken by an odd sound - distant thunder! Moreover, the clouds beginning to roll over from the back of the island were distinctly dark and brooding.

The harbour at Shearwater Bay - great place for a dip

Skinnydip Bay - too rocky to actually skinny dip in

Fan-tailled cuckoo

Why Woody Island is so named - view across
the interior forest
It seemed a good idea to climb up through the forest to the summit of the island and see what was happening. From lower vantage points, the dark silhouette of Cape Le Grand stood out from the dark ocean waters. From the granite slabs of the summit, home to large numbers of dark, fat skinks, we could see a distant thunderstorm underway over the mainland. With patches of sunlight illuminating islands in between, it was a somewhat surreal panorama.

In the absence of mammalian predators, skinks rule!

The increasingly loud peals of thunder focussed our attention to the north, where a very dark, very large band of cloud was rapidly heading our way. It was time to head home ... and quickly! We made it as the first few drops began to fall. Time to open a beer, sit out on the covered deck and, for the next two hours, enjoy the "son et lumiere" of one of the fiercest electrical storms we had seen in years. The rain bucketed down, but who could begrudge the parched plant of Woody Island such a drink - it was awesome!

Dark clouds gathering to the west

The thunderstorms arrive!

By the time the rain had stopped and the lightning and thunder were receding into the east, evening had descended. There was just enough light to do a short walk around the rocks lining the shore to the penguin rookery and bid goodnight to the little penguins, peering out of their burrows, bellies full after a day of fishing in the waters of the archipelago.

Morning brought a clear, sunny day and the bush seemed reinvigorated after the drenching - time for breakfast with the birds and another swim in the harbour before, all too soon, the catamaran arrived with a fresh load of tourists and we were off and heading back across the deep blue waters to Esperance. If you ever come to this part of the world, make the time to spend a night or two on Woody Island - its well worth it.

Looking across Shearwater Bay and the eastern tip of Woody Island
toward Frenchman Cap on the mainland


Cape Le Grand Coastal Track

Fifty kilometres by road to the east of Esperance lies the Cape Le Grand National Park, which comprises a series of rocky headlands, sandy inlets and bays and the arid interior to this coastal setting. We had heard about a 15 km coastal walk in this national park and, having a particular liking for coast walks, thought that this would be a good way to finish our Western Australian adventure. Unfortunately, it is a one-way walk that requires a car shuffle to get back to the start. Not being able to do this, we decided to choose the highlights. We checked out the start and end points. The walk starts at the eastern end of Le Grand Beach, where a long stretch of white-sand butts up against the cape and 345m high mountain of the same name.

Le Grand Beach butts up against the rocks of the cape

The track climbs up and over this area of sandy heath and rocky hills behind Mount Le Grand before descending to Hellfire Bay. The walk ends at Rossiter Bay, a large exposed bay backed by a flat, uninspiring hinterland, which is reached by another inland traverse from Lucky Bay. The best parts of the walk clearly lay in the middle coastal sections between Hellfire Bay and Lucky Bay, so we decided to base ourselves at the pleasant and shady campsite on the western edge of Lucky Bay and do a walk from there to Hellfire Bay and back one day and from there around Lucky Bay and back the next day.

To Hell(fire) and back

We had an inkling that today would be special when we arrived at Lucky Bay campsite and claimed a prime shady spot with views out across the blue waters to the pink granite walls of the headland guarding the western flank of the bay. The number of wildflowers still in bloom was also a pleasant surprise after the Stirling Ranges, but then the plants here are adapted to drier conditions.


Having set up camp, we set out following the track through the coastal heath towards the massive granite dome to the south, before turning westward and climbing up and over a sandy saddle to a point above a narrow inlet. Between the red rock walls of the inlet, the domed islands of the Recherche Archipelago rose out of a deep cobalt blue sea.

From here, a short steep climb took us up to the top of the next granite dome. Seeing these domes, the origin of the islands of the archipelago was obvious. Moreover, it was not just around the campsite that the wildflowers abounded; the track was lined with whites, yellows, reds, mauves and pinks of either sand-adapted or granite-loving shrubs and herbs.

Looking out over the rocky coast line to the islands of the Recherche Archipelago

A series of cairns and markers led us across the granite top, with its panorama across the islands of the archipelago and back over Lucky Bay. Inland, the pyramidal form of Frenchman Peak dominated the horizon, while ahead the blue waters of Thistle Cove lay beneath the stark granite profile of Boulder Hill. The track descended through taller shrubs and across a sandy flat area of shin-high heath, speckled with the pink and white of starflowers, trigger plants and boronias.

The well-camouflaged rock dragon

Frenchman Cap rising in the distance over a small freshwater lake

Whistling Rock

Soon we reached Whistling Rock, a curious narrow outcrop of granite where the gentle westerly wind sang a hushing lullaby as it brushed the sides of the rock. Beneath it lay the pristine white sands and turquoise waters of Thistle Cove. We quickly descended onto the beach and headed out across it. The sand of Thistle Cove is so fine that it squeaks underfoot like fresh powder snow. Whistling rocks, singing sands - this place is as interesting audially as it is visually.

The picturesque setting of Thistle Cove in front of Boulder Hill

Crossing the squeaking white sands of Thistle Cove

Near the end of the main beach, we were to also have our olfactory senses stimulated, though not so pleasantly. Five months earlier a whale had beached and died here and as yet, it has not quite been "recycled". Sad, but if you were a dying whale, you could do far worse than do it on such a beautiful beach.

Seabirds picking over a whale carcass

Spinal column of the whale

Looking back over Thistle Cove with its secluded cove in the foreground

The main beach ended at a small rocky outcrop and was followed by a smaller, secluded cove. We mentally noted it as a nice spot to swim on our return before leaving the shore to climb up the next granite dome - once again the views back over the turquoise, cobalt blue and white of Thistle Cove were spectacular, matched only by the views out over the islands as we descended the other side. On the granite slabs, tiny islands of moss and stunted woody shrubs created miniature Japanese gardens.

Japanese garden in the granite

Crossing the orange granite slopes of
Boulder Hill

Crossing a narrow inlet, we again climbed up and over the biggest granite dome of this walk, past hakeas covered in their woody nuts, the orange tubes of lambertia and the red feathers of calothamnus. Inland the massive tors on top of Boulder Hill stood sentinel-like as we passed by.

The granite tors of Boulder Hill

As we followed the line of cairns and markers over the dome, the views behind us revealed more and more of the inlets and islands, in their deep blue setting - I think that it was about this time that the fair Nello and I declared this to be the best coastal day walk that we had done.

On top of the granite dome - looking back along our path from Lucky Bay

A tiny inlet between Thistle Cove and
Hellfire Bay

The banksias of Hellfire Bay
Once over the crest, the panoramic views encompassed offshore islands and Hellfire Bay, its long stretch of blue water culminating in a brilliant white beach, all set beneath the towering granite dome of Mt Le Grand. We descended the steep granite slab of our dome, crossing the secluded white sands of Little Hellfire Beach, before climbing back up through a thicket of banksias and mallee, dense with blossoms and honeyeaters.

Looking across Little Hellfire Beach and Hellfire Beach to Mt Le Grand

Hellfire Beach

Following the boardwalk and graded path around, we reached our destination of Hellfire Beach - once again a beautiful stretch of squeakily fine white sand and turquoise waters - differing only from Thistle Cove in the presence of day-trippers and absence of dead whales.

A distant bushfire to the west of Mt Le Grand and Frenchman Cap

The osprey surveys its realm

Returning to Lucky Bay on the best
coastal day walk in Australia

Rocky heath landscape

Sand dune landscape

We had a late lunch in the shelter overlooking the beach and reluctantly, set off back, stopping only for a swim in the secluded spot at the western end of Thistle Cove that we had noted on our way over. I have to confess that when choosing swimming spots, the absence of humanity is a plus. From there it seemed a very short walk back to the campsite at Lucky Bay. It had been a great day and a great walk - it has to great when the return trip along the same path is as good as the initial outward journey.

Lucky Bay - swimming with dolphins

The western end of Lucky Bay near the campsite is its least attractive part. Despite the setting near the pink granite headland, its face curiously carved by wave and wind, this corner of the bay accumulates seaweed in deep spongy masses. This provides the interesting spectacle of a mob of local kangaroos that descends to the beach of an evening to dine on fresh seaweed, but little else. The seaweed piles quickly disappear as one heads east, however, and we didn't have to go far to find a nice sandy bench from which to enjoy the sunset over a refreshing G and T.

The sun sets on the white sands of Lucky Bay

Kangaroo enjoying seaweed for dinner

Evening colours above Mississippi Hill

The following morning we were enticed once again eastward by the dazzling white beach and the turquoise water of the bay. We strolled along this fine firm sand for 3km to the eastern end of the bay, past high eroding sand cliffs and swales leading off into the interior. Hooded plovers and oystercatchers waded nonchalantly along the water's edge as we passed.

Morning stroll along the brilliant white sand of the bay

At the end of the main beach there is a viewing platform and the view back across the bay, over a red rock ledge to the water shading gradually from turquoise to cobalt blue, small white-capped waves breaking on a brilliantly white sand beach and a backdrop of pink granite domes, was simply inspiring. We declared the eastern end of Lucky Bay the best beach yet.

Panorama of Lucky Bay from its eastern end

The perfect beaches of Lucky Bay


We continued on, crossing two more red rock ribs that split this part of the bay into a series of small beaches and found our perfect swimming spot, a tiny white sand cove, dotted with red rocks, next to a group of large red boulders, looking out across the turquoise sea.

As a bonus, we were able to watch a pair of dolphins lazily looping up and down the shoreline in the crystal clear waters.

Our on special swimming spot

Today was perfect, but we got the feeling that
it could be a bit windy here

After warming up in the sun, accompanied by several skinks with the same intention, we ventured into the water - swimming in the warm tropics may be very pleasant, but there is something special about a plunge into a cold clear sea. The fair Nello went back to shore to soak up more sun while I stayed out to try and catch a few of the small, but perfectly formed waves that rolled in every so often.

Suddenly, I became aware of some dark shapes a little way out, followed by the familiar looping of friendly dorsal fins - the two dolphins had returned. I swam out a bit and they came in to check me out. For five minutes I swam with the dolphins. It was absolutely magical to see these magnificent creatures so closely, to swim underwater alongside a dolphin only 5m away. Then, as a largish wave rolled in, they suddenly accelerated, caught the advancing crest and surfed it in, just a few metres to the right of my gaping jaw - a flash of grey in each direction and they were gone! It suddenly became clear what had just happened; the dolphins had seen my feeble efforts at bodysurfing and had just given me a demonstration of how the masters do it. For me, Lucky Bay had lived up to its name.


One of the friendly dolphins

Red boulders and blue sea - yes, the colours are real!

What a great way to finish our walking adventure in this fascinating and beautiful part of the world. Merci beaucoup, Cap Le Grand!