Just the whisper of Esperance evokes imagery of untamed beauty and mystery in the mind’s eye of most West Aussies. Discover why this pocket of WA’s southern coast is still an untamed wonderland.
During the summer of ’68, aboard an old pearling lugger from Broome, my father spent five months in Esperance. Exploring the deep blue waters of the Recherche Archipelago, the white sands of remote beaches and the rowdy pubs of town, his time as a teenage abalone diver is like something from a Tim Winton novel. And perhaps that’s why the isolated fishing village in the state’s south-east was chosen as a main location for the recent film adaptation of Winton’s classic novel, Dirt Music. There’s something about Esperance that encapsulates the West Australian lifestyle perfectly.
A dramatic coastline
Traditional home of the Wudjari people, this section of coastline is synonymous with freedom and adventure. While not exactly the ‘Wild West’, it does have a history of harbouring explorers and outlaws.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to sail through the area back in 1627. But it was the French who first came ashore when sheltering from a storm in 1792. They named the spot after their ship, the Espérance. They also named the archipelago of 110 islands that became a hunting ground for Australia’s only known pirate, ‘Black Jack’ Anderson, in the early 1800s.
With names like Hellfire Bay, this coast has seen much drama over time and the likes of many, including the British military, Afghan cameleers, whalers, pastoralists and gold miners. These days Esperance is a little more sedate, known mostly for its fishing, agriculture and tourism industries. However, the thrill for myself and a friend, like most drawn here now, will be in the immersion of nature with all its raw energy and colour.
Esperance’s palette is an Instagrammer’s dream, consisting of baby blues, pastel pinks and clean-as-a-whistle whites. The Great Ocean Drive is a great introduction to beaches that some would argue are the best in Australia, if not the world. With sheltered bays of fluorescent blue, and sand so powdery-fine it squeaks beneath bare feet, they might be right.
Views from rocky headlands are worth the 40km loop alone, but we stop to swim at local favourites Blue Haven Beach and Twilight Cove. At the latter, we follow boarded walkways down to find fascinating formations in giant granite boulders, basking like elephants in the sea. We watch as teenagers leap with shrieks of delight from their leathery-looking backs into the blue.
Wildflowers of Esperance
From September to November, a carpet of colour in the form of wildflowers dots the landscape of the Goldfields-Esperance region. The nearby Fitzgerald River National Park is a UNESCO-recognised Biosphere Reserve, containing more than 1800 species of flowering plants. The Esperance Wildflower Trail continues in Cape Le Grand National Park where orchid, hakea and banksia spotting can be combined with a hike up Frenchman’s Peak. Cape Le Grand National Park is also home to Lucky Bay, where you’ll find the whitest sand in the country and some of the friendliest locals – sunbathing kangaroos that are more than happy to pose for a selfie.
While changing salinity levels have left ‘Pink Lake’ on the outskirts of town looking less than rosy, Lake Hillier certainly won’t disappoint. Located on Middle Island, 150km from shore, this brilliant bubblegum-pink lake is best seen from above. Scenic flights conducted by Goldfields Air Services operate seven days a week.
For a closer view, Esperance Island Cruises will take you there by boat. However, due to distance, tours only operate a few times a year. Alternatively, you can explore island life with a wildlife cruise for a chance to see whales, dolphins and seals.
Fresh flavour and local life
Due to its isolation, Esperance has a quaintness about it. That said, there’s the real emergence of a modern scene, with the likes of city-style café Downtown Espresso Bar and its hipster neighbour, Dempster Street Barber Shop.
A lot of these new offerings have come from savvy locals who’ve returned after years living away. Fiona Shillington from Esperance Chalet Village is one such resident, moving back with her family after 30 years in Sydney. “It’s a really easy place to be that’s great for the kids. It’s just beautiful with this sense of remoteness and slow living,” she says.
Stumbling across the 3.2-hectare property five years ago when back for a holiday, Fiona and her husband have given the old holiday village a fresh aesthetic. A-framed chalets and cosy cottages set by a creek among bushland allow you to soak up surrounding tranquillity.
Taylor St Quarters, positioned centrally by the water, is also a family-run business. It’s a cool collective of restaurant, bar, café and music venue, spilling out to a chilled outdoor space. Lucky Bay Brewing is another good choice for a lazy afternoon. This ‘paddock to pint’ microbrewery is the only one in WA to source raw barley from local farmers for production of craft beer… and the only place I know selling one-litre takeaway tinnies.
If you’re a lover of nostalgia like me, The Loose Goose Restaurant and Bar is worth a gander. Though a bit daggy on the outside, we’re sold on the good old fashioned service, quality food and retro décor inside. There’s even a flashing neon martini glass on the wall with the word ‘Cocktail’ lit up like its straight from the movie.
The real, unpretentious Esperance
For our last day in Esperance, we pack a picnic (hint: third-generation boutique grocer Bob and Jim’s General Store has the goods) and head back to Lucky Bay. Down on the beach, Noongar elder Doc Reynolds and wife Robyne run the Lucky Bean coffee van. They sell bush-flavoured muffins, damper and jams. Doc also operates Indigenous cultural walking tours that allow visitors to forage for bush foods in season.
“Kepa Kurl is the traditional name for Esperance,” he tells me. “It means where the water lies like a boomerang. There’s an abundance of food and wildlife in these bays.”
Occasionally teaming up with brother-in-law Mark Adamson of Esperance Eco Discovery Tours, Doc has an intricate knowledge of local ecology that pairs perfectly with the 4WD adventure specialist’s tours.
If you’re looking to spend more time here, the Lucky Bay campground has excellent facilities. From its car park positioned high above the bay, we take one last look at the curving shoreline. Just like a boomerang, we’ll be back.
Travelling to Esperance
Did you know Rex (Regional Express) operates a direct flight from Perth to Esperance? For the latest flight schedules and prices, head over to Rex Airlines.