HANK Durlik looks at me sadly and apologises.
We’re standing atop an ancient limestone escarpment, amid a kaleidoscope of wildflowers, gazing down on the electric turquoise waters of Conto Beach below. Whales breach out to sea, a pod of dolphins is highlighted against the talcum white sand of the Indian Ocean floor, and a solo fisherman is busy reeling in a fresh herring, glittering silver in the reflected sunlight.
“I’m sorry,” says Hank, the owner and operator of Margaret River Exposed tours, pointing at the lone fisherman.
“The beach isn’t normally this crowded. Nine times out of 10 there’ not a soul in sight.”
It’s a common theme that emerges during a day spent with this born-and-bred Margaret River local, who has been running small-group, tailor-made tours of the region for the last four years. He knows the secret spots that not even locals know about, and he’s happy to share them with visitors – who frequently find themselves alone with only nature for company.
It’s all done from the comfort of Hank’s specialised Landrover Discovery, with plenty of off-road thrills and a maximum group size of just six people.
Hank specialises in a one-day “snapshot” tour of the region – the ultimate way to take in the best that Margaret River has to offer in the space of a day. The former banker-turned tourism operator, who spent his youth surfing the region’s waves and fishing freshwater marron from the Margaret River while his father worked as a forest ranger, describes his tour as a feast for the senses. And that it is.
You’ll see the famed surfing breaks and hike along the rugged coast; explore an ancient limestone cave or climb a lighthouse where two oceans meet; wander a forest wonderland while Hank points out majestic karri trees, wildflowers or one of the region’s 400-plus orchid species; sample gourmet food for morning tea and again at lunch (all included in the tour price); and then pamper your palate at a boutique winery or two.
“For those who don’t have a lot of time, it’s the best way to see what Margaret River is all about in one day. If they have more time, I can also do the tour over two days,” says Hank, as we head to our first destination – the world-renowned Surfers Point reef break at Prevelly and the adjacent beach where the Margaret River flows into the sea.
“People come for the wine, but they don’t always realise we’ve got incredible forests, flowers, stunning coastline and ancient caves. I find out what people want to see, and if need be I can spin around on a sixpence and design the day around them.”
At Surfer’s Point, two-metre waves roll across the reef as surfers clad in wetsuits swoop across the gleaming wave faces. “You should see it when the swell is five metres or more. It’s a sight to behold. It’s only the first stop, but if the surf is pumping sometimes people don’t want to leave,” says Hank.
At the river mouth, Hank explains how he rode his bike to the beach and surfed here as a teenager.
The only road in was a gravel road and we’d spend entire days at the beach. I’d come home burnt to a crisp. We’d have swimming lessons in the river too – the teachers threw you in, and if you could make it to the other side without going under or hitting your head on a rock, you got your certificate.
Next stop is Gnarabup Beach, a five-minute drive away, where the waves are much calmer and in summer locals flock to the water for a swim and a stand-up paddle. We grab a quick coffee at the beachfront White Elephant café, snap off some photos and then it’s on to the next destination.
I’m intrigued at Hank’s reasons for becoming a tour guide four years ago, aged in his late 50s. He left home and embarked on a banking career spanning 25 years but returned to his roots in Margaret River in 1996, where he became involved with the emerging wine boom over the next 12 years. But the pull of nature was too strong. “Then one day, cold turkey, I decided I didn’t want to be part of that corporate world anymore,” he recalls.
The father-of-four became a cave guide, showing tourists the wonders of Margaret River’s limestone caves, including Jewel Cave and Lake Cave. Both were carved by groundwater from the limestone ridge that stretches more than 100km from Dunsborough in the north, past Margaret River to Augusta in the south, and they are home to breath-taking stalactites, stalagmites, shawls and straws, formed one tiny drop at a time over the last half a million years. “I was showing people the caves, but they also wanted to know about the bush, the flowers, the beaches and the four-wheel driving. The penny dropped, and I bought a car and started Margaret River Exposed,” he says.
“For years I’d been taking my kids and grandkids to the most beautiful places in the region, and I’d been finding and photographing rare wildflowers for decades, so using that knowledge for tours was a natural fit.
“It also makes me see the region through fresh eyes. I see sheep in a vineyard or kangaroos hopping around all the time, but people from Singapore or Tokyo or even Brisbane are amazed and want to stop for photos.”
That’s another bonus of a tour with Hank. The founder and former president of the Margaret River Camera Club is a whiz when it comes to photography, and he’s happy to provide expert tips for budding photographers.
Next we stop at the lookout over Conto Beach and at our feet Hank points out wildflowers including the snow-white kunzia, the cheerful yellows of hibbertia and the dazzling purple shades of the scaevola ground cover. Down on the beach below, the lone fisherman hooks another herring. “That’s his dinner sorted,” says Hank. “Last year at this spot I saw a huge black school of salmon, with bronzies (bronze whaler sharks) tearing into them for a feed.”
My own stomach is rumbling so it’s lucky the next stop is Boranup Cafe, nestled among the karri trees of Boranup Forest. Tiny blue wrens perch on the veranda rail and eye off my freshly-baked scones, served with jam and whipped cream and a steaming coffee.
Next door to the café is a fine furniture gallery displaying dining and boardroom tables carved from karri trees aged about 400 years, which once towered more than 80 metres above the forest floor. Margaret River timber was milled from the late 1800s through the 1960s and much of it was used as cobble blocks on the streets of London and other European cities. “Just about all the streets on the Monopoly board were paved with Margaret River timber,” says Hank.
Many trees still stand and in Boranup Forest they are everywhere, shedding their bark to nourish the plethora of ferns and understory shrubs. “This is just about the best view on the planet as far as I’m concerned,” Hank enthuses, as majestic karris soar into the sky all around us and below us, growing from the floor of a collapse cave to give a 3D perspective of the forest. I have to agree.
Back in the car, it’s time to buckle up because “we’re going off road”. If the Landrover handles well on the bitumen, it comes to life in the bush, where established four-wheel drive tracks crisscross Boranup Forest, giving us an adrenaline charged ride.
Hank stops several times to point out orchid hotspots, including one patch of bush where he’s found the Margaret River spider orchid. “It’s probably my favourite orchid. It’s completely unique to this region, and it’s so unusual with its lemon-yellow colouring all over,” he says.
We also stop at a truly magical spot Hank has christened Grass Tree Valley. Suddenly the bush stops and we walk into a valley populated entirely by majestic grass trees, which have fire-blackened trunks and grow about 1m every 100 years. Some specimens tower more than 5m above us. “You’re looking at ancient history right here,” says Hank. “This is my sacred spot. Now I have to swear you to secrecy.” Again, there is not a soul in sight as we wander through this prehistoric landscape.
On the way back towards Margaret River, we stop at Lake Cave and join a guided tour that descends 60m beneath the limestone. Lake Cave is the only cave in the region with water in the bottom of the cavern, giving wonderful reflections of the formations hanging from the roof. It is also home to the “suspended table”, a one-of-a-kind speleotherm (or cave decoration) formed of two columns supporting a “table” of calcite crystal that hangs above the water.
The 600 stairs on the way back to the surface help work up an appetite for lunch, so it’s off to Olio Bello, an olive farm with free olive oil tastings and a gourmet restaurant. “Order whatever you like for lunch and grab a glass of wine as well – it’s all included,” says Hank. I happily oblige.
There’s more wine to come but first Hank says we’re going to “stretch the legs” with a stroll along the coast at Wilyabrup Cliffs. “The name means ‘ochre’ in the local indigenous language. You’ll soon see why,” says Hanks. On the 2km walk the coastline is again adorned with wildflowers, then suddenly we’re confronted with an ancient granite cliff-face vista spectacularly coloured in reds, browns and yellow, much like the colours of ochre used by Aboriginal people for cave painting. Against the bright blue of the sky, the scene is one of the highlights of the day. It’s also an amazing spot for photos, perched about 50m above a sheer drop to the wild Indian Ocean below.
We’re now standing on part of Australia that’s been eroding for over 700 million years, and it certainly makes you feel pretty insignificant.
Finally, the day ends with two winery stops. The first is boutique winery Cape Grace Estate, run by husband and wife duo Rob and Karen Karri-Davies, who planted the original chardonnay and cabernet vines in 1996 and still crush the harvest with a traditional basket press. “We’re a tin shed in the bush,” jokes Rob, pouring a drop. “But that’s because we put all the money into making really great wine.” I sip a velvety red and find myself nodding in agreement. For wine buffs, Hank adds a second winery to the agenda, time permitting.
As we arrive back in town and the tour ends, I’m definitely feeling a glow that isn’t entirely to do with the wine I’ve just downed. It might be called a snapshot tour, but after an action-packed day in Hank’s company, I feel like I know Margaret River almost like a local.