PLACES TO GO
Mount Barker is a low-key service- centre town of around 3000 residents that is best known for being the gateway to the Porongurup and Stirling Range national parks (although the region’s attracting a lot of attention these days for its wineries, too). It was settled in the early 1800s, which means that there are some nice historic buildings to see; there are also two character pubs, and the police station has been converted into a museum that features a host of pioneering artifacts. Accommodation in the Mount Barker area mostly consists of B&Bs dotted around town, and chalets situated on surrounding farms, although in town you’ll be able to find a couple of motels, a caravan park and rooms in the Plantagenet Hotel, too. If you’re planning on camping while you’re in the region, stock up on supplies at the huge IGA.
Porongurup Village is made up of a small group of B&Bs, wineries and cafes, mostly dotted along either side of the Mount Barker Porongurup Road. For such a tiny area, it has a disproportionately large number of farm stays, self-contained chalets, and B&Bs, plus there’s an inn attached to the quaint tearooms, and a caravan park. It’s a good base for people wanting to hit the cellar doors or hike in the national park.
Highland cattle (photography Heike Weber).
Porongurup National Park
This national park is much smaller than the Stirling Range National Park to the north – it’s only 12km east to west – but it has excellent walking trails through karri forests and dramatic granite landscapes. The highlight is the Granite Skywalk trail (see Things To Do, over the page) that also leads past Balancing Rock (pretty much what the name suggests). If you prefer four wheels, take the 23km (mostly unsealed) tourist drive that also provides terrific views. There are free gas barbecues and toilets at the Tree-in-the-Rock and Granite Skywalk picnic areas. There are no campsites in the park.
Stirling Range National Park
The Stirling Range is about 60km north of the Porongurup Range, and is geographically very different (higher, and made of sandstone, rather than granite) so its plants and animals are quite distinct, too. The park is famous for its floral diversity and mountains, including the towering Bluff Knoll, southern WA’s highest peak. For a window-seat experience, drive along the Stirling Range Drive and Red Gum Pass – the gravel road passes spectacular scenery, and at Red Gum Springs there’s a gas barbecue and toilets. There is only one campground in the park, at Moingup Springs, so it gets busy, but the jarrah and marri trees make for a lovely, shaded setting. It has barbecues, picnic tables and proper toilets, and drinking water is also available from the tanks. The mozzies can be bad, however, so pack plenty of repellent. ($7.50 per person per night, call (08) 9842 4500).
Balancing Rock, in the Porongurups.
THINGS TO DO
The suspended, metal-mesh walkway that wraps around Castle Rock (500m above sea level) in Porongurup National Park is not for those afraid of heights. Trek the 2km uphill trail (there’s a scramble over and under boulders on the last stretch), and then climb the 6m ladder to the top for views of the park, Albany, Mt Gardner and Mt Manypeaks. Remember that if it’s been raining, the track will be slippery, and gloves are a good idea for climbing the ladder.
More than 1500 species of wildflower bloom across the Stirling Range, 87 of which grow nowhere else in the world. You can spot many by taking the 42km Stirling Range Drive through the ranges (mostly unsealed gravel) or, for a closer look, hike one of six main trails (information through the Department of Parks website). Keep an eye out for mountain bell flowers – nine of the ten species of these are found only in the Stirling Ranges. There are also a number of operators that offer guided tours, including Stirling Range Retreat, (08) 9827 9229, Mt Trio Bush Camp and Caravan Park, 0419 751 801, and Out of Sight Tours, (08) 9848 2814.
Hiking in the National Parks
Mighty Bluff Knoll is the big-ticket item in the Stirling Ranges – at 1095m high, it can even cop a dusting of snow in winter. But it can also be very hot on a clear day. For the more agile hiker, Toolbrunup Peak trail (4km return) offers fantastic views if you don’t mind scrambling up steep, sometimes loose, rock sections. Make sure you pack a coat, because like Bluff Knoll, the last 600m section can be extremely chilly. Mount Trio is an option for those short on time; the 3km trek takes between 90 minutes and two hours. Nancy Peak (5.5km) walk is a scenic trek up the northern side of the range and along its spine, and includes Hayward Peak and Morgan’s View.
The region is well-known, both nationally and internationally, for its riesling and shiraz. The climate provides excellent fruit-ripening conditions, while the cool nights enhance and retain acidity. A few wineries, both in town and on the outskirts, offer cellar door sales and gourmet restaurants, most with spectacular views of the mountains. For great wine and views head out to Quangellup Road. There’s a procession of great local wineries along Porongurup Road. Find info at the Great Southern Wine Producers website, www.greatsouthernwine.asn.au.
Where to eat
Bring a blindfold if your eyes are bigger than your stomach. This region serves up some wild fare – from authentic thai (served up in a garage in a paddock!) to damper and gourmet vineyard picnics. There is plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially strawberries and cherries that are in season during the first few months of the year. Olives are available from May to June, and keep a look out for the farm-fresh produce including chicken and pork. Buy at the many indoor and outdoor markets. If you’re in Mount Barker, your best bet for a bite to eat is along Lowood Road where there are numerous cafes and restaurants where good coffee can be found. Along this road, as well as along Albany Highway, you have a choice of cafes and restaurants plus roadhouses.
Take in the views from the Granite Skywalk
Spend a day hopping from winery to winery
Check out the spring wildflowers in the Stirling Range and Porongurup national parks
Climb to the peak of Bluff Knoll
Stay overnight in a B&B or a kooky guest house
Have a bite to eat in the renowned Thai restaurant
All these and more at www.scoop.com.au/thingstodo
Grapes and Gallops Festival
The Mount Barker Racecourse comes alive with quality racing, not to mention wine-tasting opportunities, entertainment and fine food. Jan 18.
Porongurup Wine Festival
Held at different wineries over the Easter weekend each year, the Porongurup Wine Festival is a celebration of the region’s wine and food, and offers a riot of entertainment, too. Don’t miss the hilarity of the Porongurup Stomp, involving crushing grapes with your feet in cut-off wine barrels. Mar.
Porongurup Art in the Park
Each year, artists showcase sculptural artworks amid the stunning natural scenery of the Porongurup Range. Apr.
The Porongurup Wine Festival showcases the best wine in the area (photography Tourism WA).
Mount Barker is a four-hour drive along Albany Highway from Perth – add on another 30 minutes if you’re heading through Mount Barker to Porongurup. TransWA operates coach services daily to Mount Barker. The country town doesn’t offer car rentals – if you want to explore, take a coach or plane (with Virgin Australia) to Albany and hire a car from there. The journey north from Albany to Mount Barker will take a little over half an hour (50km).