Little Gnomes and Big Trees in the South West

I really, really wanted to like Esperance. This was our first proper town in Western Australia, a lonely outlier on the state’s southern coast. The name had a nice ring to it, a hissing rhythm when pronounced in Australian English. Esperance – it’s French for “hope,” named after a ship in the same expedition that gave Tasmania all its vowel-heavy place names.

But we were coming into town with a mission – to service Steve – and mechanics are rarely the best ambassadors.

It didn’t help that we arrived on a Sunday, and finding the place devoid of free campgrounds, we resigned ourselves to a night in a caravan park. We ended up wedged in between grey nomads and a huge wall supporting an overpass. But we were close to town, and we’d be in and out of the mechanic quick smart the next day.

Or so we thought. Turns out that particular Monday was “Western Australia Day” (first I’d ever heard of it) and therefore a public holiday. So nothing would be open until the following day. So we spent Western Australia Day exploring Cape Le Grand National Park and decided to try our luck in Albany instead.

Lucky Bay, in Cape Le Grand National Park

Albany was a prettier town than Esperance, stretched over a series of hills overlooking a big bay. It had some nice cafes and pubs in which we spent the day while Steve got his service. That afternoon the mechanics, predictably, had bad news.

The front wheel bearings needed servicing. New glow plugs were needed. A seal holding in the “dif” oil was leaking and needed replacing. Speaking of which, that oil itself also needed replacing. So did the oil in the gear box.

Now, I have a lot of respect for auto mechanics. The sheer number of parts and systems and oils and lubricants and tubular pieces of metal you must know intimately is inconceivable for the rest of us. To me, like most people, the way a car moves when I put my foot down is basically magic.

My paternal grandfather, who I only knew as a small child, was a mechanic in the Netherlands. Once, he actually built a car by taking two smashed vehicles – one that had crashed in the front, the other in the back – and sticking them together. Mind you, this wasn’t some experiment that he drove around the block one time, just to say “It works!” No, this was the new family car. On numerous occasions he packed his wife and three kids into his creation, and took them on camping trips – and I’m not talking about a caravan park up the road. One time, they drove this thing to Yugoslavia and back.

I inherited few of Opa’s handyman skills. But I owe a lot to him and his profession, which fed my Oma, dad, uncle and aunt for a lot of years. Internal combustion engines provided a revolutionary service to humankind, and mechanics have faithfully kept them moving for almost a century.

But in this age of smartphones, satellites and solar panels, doesn’t a machine that creates movement by exploding fossilised plant juice seem a bit primitive?

The motors you find in an electric car require a fraction of the moving parts, and almost none of the friction employed by the cars we plebs are currently driving. And for each of these moving parts, every point of friction represents an opportunity for mechanics to say “You need a new fiction amplifier,” or something similar, and even though that sounds like a made-up thing, you’re in no position to argue.

Unrelated photo interlude: Bunbury street art edition!

In our case, I quietly asked what the ramifications would be to leave Steve’s ailments untreated for a few thousand kilometres.

“Look mate, the bearings are what keep the wheels on,” the mechanic exploded. “Your car will be on the side of the road and I’ll tell you what: So will you.”

Maybe he was being sincere. Maybe he saw a tidy little opportunity in our ignorance. It was probably a bit of both – but we couldn’t argue, because we didn’t spend years studying the many moods of combustion engines.

So we eat toasted ham-and-cheese sandwiches for dinner, because the mechanic took all our money, and remind ourselves that soon – hopefully soon – affordable electric cars will put an end to such indignities.

Karri Forests

The south west is dominated by karri trees, a type of eucalypt that grows to be particularly humungous.

The karri is a special tree. Unlike most variations of eucalypt, the karri’s trunk grows straight and tall. But unlike other tall trees of the world, it still supports a giant canopy that spreads far and wide from the trunk, providing lush cover to tall forests. Redwood trees, for example, are taller. But they are also pencil thin, their branches never grow far from the trunk, and the leaves are tiny – they are essentially fuzzy telegraph poles. Karris are real trees made massive.

The Gloucester Tree

It’s possible to climb karri trees in several places around the south west, and we did so in tiny Gloucester National Park, outside Pemberton. You drive into the national park, flash your Parks Pass to the ranger, park your car and size up the tree. The Gloucester Tree is over 50 metres tall, and quite old. From 1947 it was used as a perch for lookouts, who watched the surrounding forests for signs of a bushfire. The scouts climbed the tree on iron rods that were hammered into the trunk in a spiral, creating a sort of ladder. In photos of those days the tree has been stripped of branches, but nowadays it has regained its full splendour once more. Sap bleeds from the points where the rods puncture its bark, but the old fellow is still strong and regal.

Looking up

Looking down

Also, there are no harnesses or safety demonstrations or even anyone to watch and make sure you’re okay – just a fragile wire cage to give the impression of safety. The Gloucester Tree was refreshing in that it let people make their own risk assessments, a rare phenomenon in Health and Safety-obsessed, fluoro-clad Australia. The view from the top is stunning, and quite giddy because you can feel him flex in a breeze. Scouting for bushfires sounds like quite a peaceful job, if a little boring.

Steve Does What Steve Was Born To Do

We headed back for the coast and into D’Entrecasteaux National Park (the same D’Entrecasteaux who named the channel between Bruny Island and Tasmania after himself), where we pointed Steve’s bull bar towards the treacherous-sounding Black Point.

Reaching Black Point was indeed a little treacherous – at least for us – because getting there meant negotiating a particularly sandy track, one that was only traversable in four-wheel drive.

Until this point, we hadn’t sought the opportunity to engage Steve’s four-wheel drive function. He is fitted out with wooden shelves, and these combine with the fridge and jerry cans of water and fuel (and our bookcase, surfboards, work boots, fairy lights, percolator and other luxuries) to make him a heavy fellow.

But now we knew for sure that his wheels weren’t about to fall off, we released most of the air from his tyres and plunged in.

Driving Steve on a sandy track is a lot like navigating a boat in a mild swell. He slips and slides from side to side, and momentum is everything when negotiating a particularly soft patch. We made the basalt cliffs that give Black Point its name without getting bogged once, feeling somewhat validated in the decision to buy a four-wheel drive. There were seals in the water off the headland’s basalt columns, and cheeky kangaroos dominated the grassy hills. We resolved to try more tracks like this from now on.

A Black Point

Time to Go North

At one point, Hailee and I stood at a place called Mandalay Beach, looking out to sea. To our right, a series of headlands plunged into the ocean with the same dramatic angle of a fjord. To the left, a fat beach stretched into the distance, dotted with a green promontory here and there. There was a sturdy island offshore, and an offshore breeze lifted curtains of spray from the waves breaking on the reefs. A sign told the pleasing story of a Norwegian ship that was wrecked on this very beach in 1911 (the Mandalay), her crew’s relief at finding a local settler family nearby, and how they were passed from the care of one community to another on their overland journey to Perth. Aside from a broken surfboard Hailee pulled from the sand, we saw no signs of human habitation (the tide had covered the wreck). We had the place to ourselves.

Mandalay Beach

Hailee walks on beaches, part 2

Hailee turned to me and said “I think I’ve become desensitised to beautiful beaches.”

Yes, just as Hollywood movies desensitise you to violence, so does travelling in Australia desensitise you to stunning, empty beaches. We turned and walked back to the car.

We spent a few days in the Margaret River region, which is a sort of promontory that juts out of the west coast south of Perth. It is a place where hippies grow weed in the hills, surfers test their lung capacity on the reefs and yuppies yack about tannins in the wineries. There are magical stretches of karri forest, towering and silent like a cathedral, and a series of caves that I can’t tell you about because merely walking inside one costs over $20.

All of these things were great, and the region is a rewarding place to visit. Yet to us it felt like a slightly drier, slightly more affluent version of Tasmania. And like Tasmania, it was becoming very cold at night. We organised a couch to surf on in Perth and pointed our wheels north. There was just one more place we wanted to visit…


Gnomesville is located at a roundabout in the community of Wellington Mill. When this roundabout was built in the early 1990’s (to help a school bus safely negotiate the intersection), a resident placed a gnome by a tree nearby to keep watch. More gnomes appeared, and suddenly people were travelling from around the world, bringing more citizens to populate the growing city. There are now 7,000 or so gnomes living in Gnomesville, most of whom are named and arranged in family groups. Some are accompanied with little biographies, others have poems. Many are quite weather beaten, some are a little racy and all are amusing. Enjoy the photos.

“Mad Max: Beyond Thundergnome”

Next week: Into the Pilbara!

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