Some places are best left wild – and with the great news that BP has abandoned it’s plans to drill for oil – let’s hope the Great Australian Bight will be left that way.
It is rare that a trip exceeds our every expectation – however, this trip did exactly that. Inspired by an image of the vast Bilbunya Dunes and to escape the winter-crowds heading north, we turned our wheels in the opposite direction. After consulting our maps we settled on an off road route from Cocklebiddy, near the SA/WA border, west along the Great Australian Bight, through the Bilbunya Dunes and finally on to Esperance.
Twisting through the tight tracks we finally caught our first glimpse of the Southern Ocean. A couple of turns later and we were perched atop a ridge-line complete with an uninterrupted vista. The ocean far below was glassy, we stood mesmerised as small lines of clean swell glided in gracefully. The beach was pristine; the fine white sand is what this area is famous for. To the west, the ridge we were on turned to tall cliffs before crossing the sands and following beside the sea on a journey to the horizon.
As we began navigating down the switchbacks to the beach, it was hard not to smile. This place was stunning, and it was beginning to feel as if the long drive from Perth had been worth it. As we reached the beach, we opened up the throttle and sped along the smooth beach – the steep cliffs of Twilight Cove finally within reach.
The sand was so fine we could hear it squeaking under our tyres, and moments later it was doing the same beneath our feet. We cracked a beer to celebrate having made it all this way, moments later a bunch of playful seals and dolphins swam in – it seemed a good omen for the trip ahead!
After a still night by the fire we climbed above the cliffs and began our journey westward. We followed the track, enjoying the view, as it meandered above the cliff line. Until that is, it ended! Almost exactly above where we had camped the well-travelled track vanished. It had been all about the views and no navigation on our part. As we zoomed back in on our iPad we could see the track we were after – it was time to back-track.
We gathered our bearings and began making progress. This track was built to install the telegraph line that once connected Australia, the rusty wire now lies fallen alongside the trail. The occasional vertical telegraph pole was the only reminder of the line that darted and danced across the track that was once suspended.
The track was rocky, the scrub was tight, and the going was slow. We rolled along at a comfortable pace, and were grateful we had allowed plenty of time for our trip.
Around a corner we nearly hit two camels that were standing in the middle of the track. Effortlessly they took off around the bend. Boy they can run. Only on the longest of straights I could catch them, and once close, I reached for the camera and pressed the trigger. Photographing while attempting to drive and keep up, won’t win me any safe driving awards, but at least I got a photo.
The telegraph line runs a few kilometres back from the cliff edge. At Baxter Cliffs we had our first opportunity to get back beside the ocean. The cliffs here are tall; around 60m tall in fact, and in both directions they run as far as the eye can see. Scoring another perfect night of weather, we chose to camp by the cliffs – not a place we’d be able to camp during a winter trip! The sun set and rose again with majesty. It was one of our all-time best nights camping and certainly warranted a breakfast cook up. Coffee, bacon, cliffs, views – we were feeling pretty lucky – and then a pod of southern right whales showed up!
Southern right whales feed in Antarctica before migrating north to calve. We were privileged to see mothers and calves playing, the mother teaching her calf the skills required to return to the Antarctic. There was more than 100,000 of these whales in the southern hemisphere before whaling. Now the population is estimated at around 12,000, however, it is encouragingly growing by roughly 7% each year. These are amazing creatures; it was a joy to watch them play so confidently beneath these towering cliffs.
Below the cliffs of Toolinna Cove is a shallow and sandy bottomed bay. It was used as a “safe landing” to deliver supplies during the construction of the telegraph line. There is no beach, the water meets large boulders that are towered by a sheer cliff. It was almost impossible to imagine our pioneers landing supplies here and manoeuvring them to the cliff tops.
As the cliffs ended, the track descended into the Bilbunya Dunes, a vast area of glorious white sand reported to be the largest dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
The dunes tower 100m high and picking the tallest of the many peaks is almost impossible. With perfectly formed peaks made from the whitest of white sands, they seemed more like the summits you would find in the Antarctic.
Our first attempt to access the dunes was a sand blasted failure. It was a day to admire from within the shelter of the 4WDs – so windy, so sandy. With a storm forecast we retreated to the protection of the bush and ridgeline above the dunes.
The next day we had planned to access the dunes from the west, however, the tide was up so the beach was inaccessible and the multitude of tracks heading towards the dunes were all dead ends. We weren’t going to miss out so decided to head back and try the tracks in from the east. Luckily, a large section of this route was over a salt plain, which was smooth and quick to cover, a welcomed change from the last few days’ conditions.
The eastern access tracks brought us to the base of the dunes. From here we could navigate through the smaller dunes on the ocean side of the sand mountains, driving right into the heart of this incredible landscape. Finding one of the tallest dunes, we parked the 4WDs and started to climb on foot. The sand was so pristine. Like mountains, the ridges were steep and the easiest path to the top. From the peak we began to get a grasp of the scale of this spectacular place.
As we continued west to Israelite Bay, the smoother surface continued. Making good time, and with a heavy storm forecast, we decide to push through to Esperance a day early. We had travelled this last section once before and hadn’t really given it much thought for this trip. The storm that had mostly missed us the night before but had certainly not missed this area!
As we began our final stretch the track became wet, then wetter, muddier, and finally the heavens opened. Next, day turned into night. The uphill sections were liking driving upriver, the torrent flowing back under our vehicles as we slipped about in the mud. We carefully sought out the safest lines through the seemingly bottomless mud holes, by scouting ahead, our pathway lit by headlamps. The water was deep and constantly spraying over the vehicles; the wipers were working overtime, it was definitely not the time to get stuck! We eventually emerged out the other end – who would ever want to head north for sunshine when you can have all this?
Mike is a photographer of adventure and the wild. Exploring the vast backyard of his home state Western Australia is his passion. Mike also runs Adventure Curated, a media business dedicated to inspiring adventure & the protection of the wild. You can keep up with Mike’s latest work at www.mikecollister.com and on Instagram and Facebook.