Get outdoors this spring!
“Remember, Mia, there are NO rules in this race!” My guide, Gordon, is grinning at me from the other end of what I’ve discovered to be a highly stable canoe.
We’ve spent the past few hours enjoying the Margaret River – the waterway, not the region – passing spectacular bush settings and historic scenery and being treated to an Australian bush tucker picnic luncheon, which in itself is a treasured memory. Now, I suspect the tour is about to reach its peak as four canoes make a mad dash across the last 200 metres at the wide river mouth.
We took off from here in a calm and collected fashion at 10.15am this morning. Gordon, a local who loves his Margaret River home, had distributed lifejackets and given us a thorough briefing on the upcoming river tour and how to manage the canoes (pretty easy, actually!).
It was a beautiful spring day and the wildlife had turned out to warm its feathers and leathers on the banks and branches overhanging the water. Yellow hibbertia and purple native wisteria nudged each other, seeking the sunlight and totally stealing the scene at each bend in the river.
As no motor craft are allowed on Margaret River, the eco-system here is very healthy and the water clear and fresh-tasting.
We paddlers were a mix of accents and origins, and expertise. However, Gordon’s experience kept the gang together and going in the right direction easily.
We enjoyed a few breaks to taste wild herbs, meet some friendly fish, and check out the swimming place upriver. Gordon filled us in on the local history, both the Aboriginal and the Colonial sides, pointing out landscape features such as the ruin of Wallcliffe House; destroyed in a fire but once the seat of the Bussell family, the South West’s original settlers.
Everyone was looking forward to the tour’s bushtucker lunch, and no-one was disappointed. We pulled the canoes into a natural beach and walked about 200 metres into the base of the cliffs where we were surrounded by spring wildflowers in a natural glen. Gordon spread out a large tablecloth patterned with Aboriginal art and placed a bounty of lunch in front of us.
Holding up a coolamon bowl, the original Aboriginal platter, he pointed to the contents which looked like red flowers.
“These are rosella flowers, or wild hibiscus, and are your entrée today!’
We all tried and tasted as Gordon set out the rest of the wildfoods which this award-winning tour is famous for: smoked crocodile, salt-cured lightly smoked kangaroo, emu and free range chicken, all accented with desert limes, quandong (native plums), blood lime (native orange) and chutneys and pestos featuring native spices and flavours of jackfruit, bush tomato and mango. Even the bread was a treat – a special sundried tomato, olive and wattleseed loaf which is made locally exclusively for Bushtucker Tours. We all had seconds of pretty much everything!
Next on the day’s agenda was exploration and we were surprised to find a natural cave just 150 metres from our lunch stop. The honeycomb cliffs beside the Margaret River are quite majestic and the spacious cave we entered was decorated with a spectacular centrepiece of limestone stalactite. Best of all, it contained a ‘crawl’ which was an easy few metres of confined space that most of our party decided to experience.
Now, you’re probably wondering who won that race. Well, we all tried hard because there was an incentive to come first (local produce in a familiar bottle!). However, my ship came in a credible second. Bushtucker Tours’ Cave & Canoe Tour is an easy adventure and a unique Margaret River experience created by owner Helen Lee in 1990.
A West Australian with an education in anthropology and botany, Helen turned her passion for Aboriginal history and nature into a tour designed to bring the natural world to visitors in a fun and informative way. For the first six years she guided every tour – 360 days a year. As she drove me home to my accommodation, I asked Helen how she got started.
“I first began in tourism when I started guiding in 1988 at Karri Valley Resort in Pemberton. I felt people wanted to know about plants and food, and why biology matters. Five years later the chance to move to the Margaret River Region arose and I took it. I discovered no-one was going up the Margaret River, and here was all this Aboriginal and settler history there and I thought ‘people will be interested in this’.
“So, I applied for a licence. Eventually, after securing the required five licences, I started the river tour you experienced today. It was pretty quiet in the winter so I got a cellar door job and discovered there was a niche to be created in the local wine tour industry featuring culture and heritage. I bought a bus and did the same thing as we were doing on the river on land.”
Helen says a lot has evolved in the almost 30 years since she commenced her tourism venture but the service ethos is unchanged.
“We go all sorts of places now that there’s AirBnB – sometimes they are really out of the way but nonetheless we pick them up and take them on our award-winning tour because, after all, they have chosen us. I think our difference is simply that the boss has owned the business for almost 30 years and we are a really well-informed group of people who go the distance,” she explains.
In 1999 Helen Lee was awarded the F.A.C.E.T. Golden Guide pin for the best guide, the only award of its kind in Australia. Awards in 1996 for excellence in heritage and cultural tourism, and again in 1999 and 2002, have provided strong motivation for Helen to maintain quality, informed, professional tour guiding.
Guests from Busselton, Dunsborough, Margaret River and now Bunbury’s Ferguson Valley Wine Region, can join the Bushtucker Great Wineries Tour and experience premium white and red wines, cheeses, chocolate, ports, cocktails, liquors and boutique beers. Each day the itinerary changes, however it is always planned around natural good fun and beautiful estates.
Five old, new or boutique wineries and a brewery are on each day’s itinerary, as well as the region’s famous cheese and chocolate factories. And every day the same superb bushtucker luncheon is prepared by Helen’s guides at a beautiful winery.
On the day I toured our itinerary began nearly at the top of beautiful Caves Road at Cape Naturaliste Vineyard, a delightful (and very dog friendly) place which has won many awards for their excellent wines. There were five of us on tour with Brenton, one of Helen’s many knowledgeable local guides who totally had the knack of making everyone feel at ease. Lucy and Erica were a mum and daughter from the UK, and Lloyd and Rebecca hailed from Sydney but were doing a lap around Australia with their family.
Brenton took us to the impressive Fermoy Estate (their 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon was the only red wine served during the official wedding reception of Danish Royal Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary) and neighbouring Pukara Estate whose extra virgin olive oils and vinegars are recognised amongst Australia’s finest. Amazingly, after tasting and buying we were still hungry and looking forward to a fantastic bushtucker lunch, which Brenton presented at Knotting Hill Winery. This stunning estate was established 20 years ago and is set on a 5.5 hectare lake stocked with marron – a type of fresh water crayfish and a true WA delicacy which can be purchased live from a tank at the vineyard.
Our group happily tucked into our Australian bush food luncheon, with everyone commenting how tasty and compatible the flavours of emu, kangaroo, native herbs and condiments were.
After a stop at Providore – a terrific attraction that combines vineyards, olive groves, organic vegetable gardens and gourmet foods – we finished up at the Beer Farm. This just could be my new favourite place in Margaret River as the atmosphere and decor here are sensational and so are their beers (which are made on site). We enjoyed a ‘paddle’ of beers, with Brenton explaining the nuances of each one.
The entire day was well placed, highly memorable, and would make a terrific choice for any occasion you have to visit the Margaret River Region.
Bushtucker Cave & Canoe Tours $95 Adult, $40 Child (4-17 yrs)
Bushtucker Winery & Brewery Tours $110 Adult, $50 Child (4-16 yrs)
- Valuables (keys and wallets) are stored by river tour guides in a secure waterproof carry on.
- Winery tour purchases are name tagged and stored on the mini coach by driver/guides