DESTINATION: NAMBUNG NATIONAL PARK, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

By: KARYN FANOUS, Photography by: JOSEPH AND KARYN FANOUS & COLIN KERR


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The journey to the Pinnacles in WA’s Nambung National Park is an adventure in itself.

DESTINATION: NAMBUNG NATIONAL PARK, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
DESTINATION: NAMBUNG NATIONAL PARK, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Travel through Western Australia’s fertile Swan Valley, which is filled with delicious produce, then on to the gorgeous Spanish-influenced monastic town of New Norcia, before you reach the striking yellow limestone pillars known as the Pinnacles in Nambung National Park. Nearby, you’ll find ancient stromatolites, beautiful white-sand beaches, and the relaxed fishing town of Cervantes.

The scenic journey begins almost as soon as you leave Perth. Take the Great Northern Highway north through the Swan Valley, which is overflowing with farms and vineyards. You’ll also pass numerous cafes and galleries, as well as the Mondo Nougat and Chocolate shop, House of Honey, Harris Organic Farm, and an olive farm. Stop in at any that take your fancy, or buy some local produce from one of the farm gates.




MONASTERY AND MONKS

After 90 minutes of pleasant country driving, a most unusual sight suddenly appears out of the farmland – New Norcia. With its Spanish-inspired architecture, it’s described as a slice of Spain in the Australian bush. It’s also the only monastic town in Australia.

New Norcia was founded in 1847 by Benedictine monks, and the monastery is still active today. The monks are particularly skilled at baking fabulous bread and growing olives. Their motto is ‘pax’, the Latin word for ‘peace’ and this is an apt word to describe this lovely town.

Make sure you stop at the grand New Norcia Hotel. This is no ordinary country pub – it’s an impressive Spanish-style building complete with classic columns, pressed metal ceilings and a terrazzo tiled veranda. It was originally opened as a hostel by the Benedictine monks in 1927. We thoroughly enjoyed a Spanish lunch on the veranda overlooking the peaceful surrounds. At the bar, you can enjoy wine tasting or try an Abbey Ale – a limited edition handcrafted beer made especially for the monks. Dinner is available in the Grand Dining Room and you can spend the night in one of the guest rooms.

The daily guided town tour departs at 11am and 1.30pm. This two-hour tour is the best way to see the town as it provides access to the inside of the main buildings and chapels. Wandering around the town you’ll pass the very elaborate, old residence colleges for girls and boys, opened in 1908 and 1913 respectively. You’ll also see the old white flour mill and the Abbey Church. The church is built in the shape of a crucifix. Behind closed gates is the large white monastery, and nearby are the Marian shrine and old convent. There is also an excellent museum and art gallery which houses gifts from the queen of Spain, along with a well-stocked gift shop selling the monks’ renowned produce.

For a rather unique experience, you can stay in the Monastery Guesthouse, which provides basic accommodation and meals. Caravan and camping facilities include five overnight bays with access to basic amenities behind the New Norcia roadhouse. If you are fully self-contained, you can stay across the road on the open grassed area. Enquire at the visitor centre or roadhouse.




INSPIRING SPIRES

The next stage of the journey takes you on secondary roads via Moora and Dandaragan, briefly on to the Brand Highway and then out to Cervantes. We were impressed by the display of magnificent orange and white acorn banksias lining the road to Cervantes. You’ll also pass Emu Downs windfarm with its 48 massive turbines. They are best viewed from the car park, 30km east of Cervantes.

Cervantes is a pretty little seaside fishing town 200km north of Perth. Its main attraction is the nearby Nambung National Park, home to the Pinnacles. Walking among the Pinnacles is like wandering around a giant outdoor art gallery filled with nature’s sculptures. Thousands of striking yellow-grey limestone pillars rise out of the undulating, yellow desert sands. Some are elegant, tall columns, others are jagged and menacing. All together, they are stunning.

The Nambung area was first recorded on Dutch maps in 1658. Nambung is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘crooked’ or ‘winding’ and is the name of a nearby river. It was from this river that the park was named. Aboriginal artefacts dated at 6000 years old have been found in the Pinnacles, but none more recent. This indicates that the Pinnacles were uncovered around that time, but were covered back up by wind-blown sands, being uncovered again about 200 years ago.

The Pinnacles Desert remained relatively unknown until the late 1960s, when the area was added to the existing national park, established in 1956. Today the park is visited by around 190,000 visitors each year.

Thousands of huge limestone pillars up to 3.5m tall stand among yellow sand. Walking among these ancient pillars makes you feel as though you are surveying an army of soldiers standing to attention, or perhaps a lost city. At sunrise and sunset, they are particularly striking – their yellow colour intensifies in the soft light. They are hauntingly beautiful.

From the car park, a 150m sealed pathway takes you to the Pinnacles View lookout for a panoramic view over the spectacular Pinnacles Desert. To get up close to the Pinnacles there are both driving and walking options. We chose to take our car on the Pinnacles Drive, a 4km one-way loop road, getting out at various stops. Alternatively, there is the Desert View Walk, a 1.2km loop walk through the Pinnacles Desert. We always get a thrill to see wildlife, and on the outskirts of the Pinnacles Desert we saw western grey kangaroos and emus.

The sustainable and environmentally sensitive Discovery Centre houses an excellent display about Nambung NP, the formation of the Pinnacles, and the biodiversity of the park.

Lake Thetis lies in the north of the park and was named after the sailing ship Thetis which surveyed the coast between 1847 and 1848. We were surprised to find stromatolites and thrombolites in the lake. These ancient rock-like structures are built by cyanobacteria, the oldest known organisms on earth. Some fossil remains have been dated at 3.5 billion years old. A 1.5km walking trail, incorporating a 300m boardwalk, with interpretive signage, guides you around the lake.




BAY VIEWS

There are a number of lookouts with lovely views over the coast nearby. Hansen Bay lookout provides stunning views of the bay, islands, Lake Thetis, and is just 1km south of town.

The turn-off to Kangaroo Point is 7.5km south of the park entrance. A picnic shelter, gas barbecue and toilets are provided at this pleasant spot near the beach. To the north-west you can see Cervantes at Thirsty Point, and the Cervantes Islands offshore.

Hangover Bay, with its white, sandy beach is a great spot for snorkelling, swimming, windsurfing, surfing and beachcombing. You may even be lucky enough to see bottlenose dolphins or the occasional sea lion. Picnic tables and gas barbecues are available, along with a 4WD access boat ramp.




STAY BY THE SEA

The Pinnacles Caravan Park at Cervantes provides shady caravan sites, with all the standard features required for travellers. It also has a barbecue gazebo, kids’ playground and small on-site shop.

The Pinnacles are certainly dramatic geological formations that are fascinating to visit, and the rest of Nambung National Park contains some surprising features.

But travelling through the beautiful Swan Valley and New Norcia en-route makes reaching the Pinnacles a journey in itself.




FORMATION OF THE PINNACLES

· The story of the Pinnacles began around 500,000 years ago on the ocean floor where shells broke down to form fine-grained sand rich in calcium carbonate (lime). This sand mixed with quartz sand carried to the coast from the rivers. Together these were blown into sand dunes.

· The main theory about their origins suggests that rain (which is slightly acidic) dissolved small amounts of the lime as it percolated down through the sand. As it dried, it formed limestone in the lower levels of the dunes. Vegetation became established on the surface and encouraged a more acidic layer of soil to develop over the remaining sand. The acidic soil accelerated the leaching process and formed a calcrete layer near the top of the dune.

· Cracks that formed in the calcrete layer were exploited by plant roots and cracks eventually developed in the limestone. Water eroded and widened these cracks, which then filled up with sand. Over time, wind has blown the insoluble quartz sand away to reveal the remaining limestone columns that we call the Pinnacles.

· The story of the Pinnacles began around 500,000 years ago on the ocean floor where shells broke down to form fine-grained sand rich in calcium carbonate (lime). This sand mixed with quartz sand carried to the coast from the rivers. Together these were blown into sand dunes.

· The main theory about their origins suggests that rain (which is slightly acidic) dissolved small amounts of the lime as it percolated down through the sand. As it dried, it formed limestone in the lower levels of the dunes. Vegetation became established on the surface and encouraged a more acidic layer of soil to develop over the remaining sand. The acidic soil accelerated the leaching process and formed a calcrete layer near the top of the dune.

· Cracks that formed in the calcrete layer were exploited by plant roots and cracks eventually developed in the limestone. Water eroded and widened these cracks, which then filled up with sand. Over time, wind has blown the insoluble quartz sand away to reveal the remaining limestone columns that we call the Pinnacles.

· The Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre is open daily from 9.30am- 4.30pm. National park entry fees are $11 per car.

· The Pinnacles Caravan Park is at 35 Aragon St, Cervantes, WA 6511, (08) 9652 7060 or www.pinnaclespark.com.au

· Scenic lookouts around Cervantes are at Thirsty Point Lookout and Molah Hill Lookout, which provide sweeping views of the coastline, Cervantes and Jurien Bay to the north.

· Fish off the beach, jetty or head out in a boat. Hangover Bay and Kangaroo Point are renowned fishing hotspots.

· The Indian Ocean Rock Lobster Factory is on Madrid Street, Cervantes. It sells fresh rock lobster, prawns, scallops and marinated octopus. You can also take a self-guided tour of the factory. Travellers are provided with take-away coolers to keep their purchases fresh.

· Getting there from Perth via New Norcia (325km): travel via the Great Northern Highway to New Norcia (132km), then travel via Moora and Dandaragan to Cervantes.

· Direct route from Perth(200km): take the Mitchell Freeway, then Wanneroo Road/Lancelin Road/Indian Ocean Drive to Cervantes.


Originally published in Caravan World #513, April 2013