I grew up in the wheatbelt in Western Australia. I recently spent a week long road trip there, partly to visit family and partly to spend some quality time in my back yard during Covid restrictions.
It is the ‘sheep and wheat’ area to the north, east and south of Perth. The wheatbelt has space, wildflowers, horizons, rocks, national parks, of course agriculture, and some very creative people. If I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say ‘quirk’.
When I say quirk, I mean the odd things. For example – the smallest bank, the biggest ram, the annual gilgie, race a horse race where only amateurs can enter, 15km or so of horse sculptures made from tin and an unexpectedly good lace museum.
As a WA destination, the wheatbelt is competing with Margaret River and the wine growing region in the South West, and the endless beaches that stretch up and down the long coast. So quirk is a good selling point.
Take Kulin, for example. (Population: ‘about 350’ in 2019). Famous for three things – the Water Park, the Kulin Bush Races and the Tin Horse Highway.
Funded by $1 million bequeathed by a local farmer to improve sport and recreation in the town and the water slide was snapped up on the other side of Australia for the bargain price of $25,000. In order to build the water park locals volunteered to take four trucks and five trailers Queensland to collect the massive structure. It is a huge hit, and families come from all over to visit during the hot summer.
The Kulin Bush Races is held once a year in October and the rules are that you can’t be a professional or registered jockey and the horse must also be unregistered.
The race day was the inspiration for another Kulin feature – the Tin Horse Highway. On the 14km stretch of road between the Race Track at Jilakin and the town, locals have created horse-themed sculptures from tin. Most are comical and others are artworks. All very photographable (Insta worthy!).
While you are there, check out one of the best eateries in the region – Acres of Taste.
Granite outcrops are a feature of the wheatbelt, and the best known is Wave Rock at Hyden. Hyden is east and slightly north of Kulin. The first time I visited as a teenager I was expecting Uluru and I was a bit underwhelmed. I was highly critical of it for years, and then decided to visit again on a round trip to the family farm. Loved it. Much better. My expectations were managed and my sister and I walked over it and around it. We took in the Hippos Yawn, and also the unexpectedly interesting lace museum and the walk trail on the lake.
Between Kulin and Hyden is Karlgarin ‘home of the gilgie race’ (Population: ‘about 30’). I can’t vouch for this, but it sounds very intriguing. Gilgies are like yabbies’ – fresh water prawns / lobster (glass half full / half empty). They placed in the centre of a big circle and whoever’s gilgie makes it to the outside of the ring first is the winner. This takes place at Easter each year.
Pingrup and Silo Art
There are a group of towns that have embraced the idea of silo art. Giant murals painted on their grain collection facilities. Merredin has it, as does Newdegate, Ravensthorpe, Pingrup, Albany and Katanning.
There is a Silo Art movement right across the rural areas of Australia. The silos themselves are for grain storage and the artists have been commissioned to produce the murals to beautify towns and promote tourism.
We’d seen some at the beginning of the trip in Merredin – the geometric designs of Kyle Hughes-Odgers. In Pingrup the artwork has 35m tall images that reflects the activities of the community – the Pingrup races, sheep and the blue tractor that sits in the main street.
Fitzgerald National Park
The destination of the journey this time around was Bremer Bay, on the south coast. Bremer Bay is all about recreational fishing, which I don’t do. For us it was the place (of great beauty) to stay so we could visit the nearby Fitzgerald National Park.
The park was listed in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program in 1978. At first glance it looks to be one step up from desert – lots of low scrubby bush. But it is very old, and geologically complex. If you walk along one of the many hiking trails you get a sense of the complexity.
There were two things I noticed on my 1.5km hike from Point Anne, actually it started on the road into Point Anne. One: there are some very strange looking bushes that have leaves that look like colourful cabbages and a quick Google revealed these to be ‘Royal Hakea’. The second is that there is a type of ground cover / eucalyptus tree that has leaves that look normal, but feel like leather. You can see that I am on the very ‘amateur’ end of amateur biologist.
I showed the leaf to a geologist friend, and her response was ‘ohhhh. That’s a fossil’. Meaning a remnant from the age a long time ago, and evolved as a strategy to prevent dinosaurs and other megafauna eating them. There’s a lot of that in Australia – things that are easy to ignore but if you look closer have about ten different layers of interest in the way they have adapted to suit Australia’s geologically harsh environment.
Skip forward two days and we are on the road back from Bremer Bay to Perth. The Stirling Ranges are part of another National Park, and are visible on the drive up from Bremer Bay to Gnowangerup.
Being non-hard core travelers, we stopped overnight in Katanning (and as it turned out caught up at the Dome restaurant with some family who live close by).
The Dome Restaurant is attached to the Premier Mill Hotel. I would say the Dome restaurant is semi-casual, but the hotel is definitely hip. A recent restaurant review that I read spoke of ‘hipsters prancing around the in the kitchen’, and it does fall into that category. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good chicken parmigiana, but after a week of the #chickenparmichallenge both the Dome and hip hotel are a change and highly recommendable.
Lakes – Pink Lakes, Lake Grace, Lake Dumbleyung
The lakes that are dotted around are a both blessing and a curse. They are beautiful and good for water sports when they have water in them. The colours vary between shades of pink, blue and white/grey and this reflects the minerals in the water. But they also showcase one of the big problems of the region, which is salinity.
The salt and the lakes have always been there, but as the bush has been cleared for farming the salt and the water table has risen. As it spreads the salinity makes the soil unworkable, undrinkable and it turns to waste land. Since the 1970s there have been efforts to re-plant trees to reduce the salinity, and we saw these groves of trees as we drove through.
Lake Grace is 27km long, and Lake Dumbleyung has a circumference of 54sq/km. It was Lake Dumbleyung where Donald Campbell broke the on-water speed record in 1964 and the replica of his car is on display at the tourist park in town.
The subject of wheatbelt pubs was covered in a previous blog post. Outside of Merredin we drove past the Munty Pub and each town that we went through had a grand old building as a feature.
Quirk is Good
‘Quirk’ is a good selling point and I think has great potential for the creative people to develop. Lets see a ‘sculpture by the lake’, or some inter-town rivalry in the sausage making competition in Merredin. Can the annual gilgie race of Karlgarin be listed on Sportsbet? And of course bush tucker is always a good option. And what about some wheatbelt golf tours linked to a #chickenparmichallenge. Watch this space!
Most towns have houses on AirBnB or Stayz, and caravan parks and motels Katanning has the beautifully renovated Premier Mill Hotel.
The Central Wheatbelt Visitor Centre has published a Visitors Guide to the Eastern Wheatbelt and helpfully lists the various self drive options.
Other Agatha Bertram posts about the wheatbelt:
Wheatbelt Pubs – On this trip I visited the Munty Pub which is my brother’s local, and then on the way back to Perth swung by Bruce Rock for a chicken parmigiana and then the extra 20km out of town to visit this beacon in the wheatbelt – the Ardath Pub …
Wildflowers – …So my brother says ‘come to the farm, there is a patch of spider orchids on the new property’. ‘Spider orchids!’, I say. I’m in.