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A Woody Playground in Western Australia
Words Julia D’Orazio Pics Julia D’Orazio and Tourism WA
I was told to keep it a secret. But the truth is, I’m shocked it has been off the radar for so long. Nestled far away in the south coast of Western Australia is Woody Island. This small, unruffled eco-playground 715km southeast of Perth will add a touch of magic to any Southern Coastal adventure. It’s a perfect springboard to partake in simple outdoor activities both above and below sea level and is an island that would excite both young and old and the lazy wanderer.
The 240-hectare island is a perfect add-on to any Esperance trip, with the island a 15km short boat ride from the coast, located in the Southern Ocean. Woody as it’s known by locals, is the sole island out of the 105 islands and 1200 rocky outcrops that form the Recherche Archipelago that boasts woodlands, hence its literal namesake. At face value, it’s dominated by bold colours: an untamed greenlit wilderness escape, surrounded by the big ocean blue and wreathed with red-rusted rocky headlands. But at its core, it’s an adventure park, with bush trails and docile animal encounters readily attainable.
It was a reasonable hour in the morning, 9 am, that I boarded the 17.5m Cetacean Explorer catamaran from Esperance’s Taylor Street Jetty to embark on the Woody Island Eco Tour with my brother. The boat was mixed with day-trippers and adventurous holidaymakers – families and couples – shaking with chills (or was it with thrills?) on the viewing deck bidding adios to the mainland to lands less ventured.
A journey straight to the island usually takes 40 minutes; however, on the way over, the ferry ride takes 60 minutes with the boat crew weaving waters in a Galapagos-type spectacle. It made for an enjoyable two-in-one combination. Play ‘I spy’ with the incredible wildlife in their native habitats – white-bellied sea eagles, dolphins, sea lions and seals – and get to your destination without the potential yawn fest of just eyeing off the endless sea.
A team member soon pointed out the greyish, almost-barren Gunton Island which attracts a white-bellied sea eagle population. Whistling to lure an eagle over, they dropped a goodie – a fish – when it was almost hovering over the boat. The giant bird of prey’s wingspan can reach up to 220cm and just watching it spread its greyish wings and soar from the island felt like I was observing theatre in the sky. One fell swoop the eagle’s beak dived into the calm sea, snapped up the fish and flew off with its lucky prize with a drastic 180 U-turn in the air. We all gasped and clicked away with our cameras.
On our voyage to Woody Island, we would also encounter Seal Rock. Very straight to the point with names in this part of the world with the rocky outcrop populated with lazed New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions. What an easy existence they had, sunbathing on the rock and living their sun-kissed best life — a rock-solid tourist attraction.
A COMPLICATED HISTORY
The boat crew were a wealth of information. Besides having a laser eye spotting the archipelago’s wild residents, they divulged into the island’s extraordinary chronicles.
The archipelago’s seventh-largest island has experienced enough chapters to fill a paperback novel or two as it has been one of many things. The first European settlers used it as a remote sheep farm, and then both firewood collection point and notorious prison camp. During the 1940s, an avid boater and agriculturalist Don Mackenzie began to visit the island. Mackenzie grazed sheep until 1954 when the island was declared an A Class Nature Reserve. He found ways to still engage with the island, partaking in commercial fishing, servicing the Esperance Port and starting scenic island cruise operations.
In the 1970s, the island entered a new era with Mackenzie granted approval to bring tourists to the island. Tourism to the island would soon flourish for years to come, with it becoming a generational affair with Mackenzie’s sons, Hugh and Malcolm continuing his legacy over decades. The business eventually left the family with current owners Peter May and Les Andrews taking over in 2016 and rebranding as Woody Island Eco Tours. It is the only private company that operates tours and accommodation on the A Class Nature Reserve.
Local Aboriginal artefacts were also found on the island which date back thousands of years to when the island was still connected to the mainland.
LAND AT LAST
Since changing hands, the privately-run state reserve has been operating both day eco-tours, and overnight stays, most popular with people in the region yearning for an island escape. Expect the bare basics with accommodation options: bring your own tent, rent a tent or stay in one of the island’s eco-friendly simple safari huts that overlook the coastline and campgrounds from its elevated hillside location. Up to 90 guests can stay overnight on the island with ample communal showers and toilets.
It seems like everything here lives up to its name too. As the catamaran slowly pulled into Shearwater Bay, it was precisely that. Shear, crystal-clear, calm waters. It was glistening with its coral colours and marine life beaming from below thanks to the sun’s fortunate-timed appearance popping out from the clouds, perfect for snorkelling.
The island’s reddish-green rock headline is the first thing seen when arriving — and of course, the roof to its licensed Black Jack’s Kiosk and Bar, with a handful of people on its balcony greeting us from afar. As soon as the boat docked, all visitors got their leg muscles pumping in the walk from the jetty and through the crisscrossed island boardwalk on a walkabout.
NATURE AND HIKES
Woody Island has two designated trailheads that form part of the day eco-tour. I went on one of them, where a small group followed island caretaker Jen along the one-hour Island Top Walk loop trail.
We toured under canopies of various eucalyptus and sheoak trees that give the island a reddish shade. The tour covered small ground and hardly tested one’s endurance. Reaching the island’s peak was a highlight and Jen highlighted areas of the island now made visible, including Twiggy’s Landing and, thankfully not in full view to us, Skinny Dip Bay.
What was also incredible about this spot was the panoramic vistas of the mainland, such as the Esperance-Goldfield region’s famed national park, Cape Le Grand and Instagram hotspots, Frenchman’s Peak and Lucky Bay which were staring right back at us. It was a ‘wow’ moment alright!
The island also provides an excellent opportunity to get up close with native wildlife. It is home to several types of geckos and skinks, with its most famous residents including little fairy penguins – the smallest species of penguins – that can reach 30cm in height. Roughly 20 western grey kangaroos have also been introduced to the island, mixing in with the few mammals of the island: the rare ash-grey mouse and bush rat.
A variety of birdlife can also be sighted but none as entertaining as mutton birds. These birds have built a reputation on the island as putting on a nightly ‘muppet show’ just after sundown as they dart and somersault into the bushes to bury in holes in a nesting ground.
“Seal! Seal!” I heard my brother call out from the jetty the next morning. Now, this was the type of alarm I could forgive going off. I could also forgive him for getting it confused with a sea lion. Same same but different, right? Once we were told the island’s resident sea lions had a penchant for coming out to play in the bay, particularly a one-year-old sea lion named Poppet, we had been on constant sea watch. I hurriedly rushed down from our ocean-view hut to the pier to greet my brother.
A smile was cast wide across his face. “I just had the best snorkel of my life.” He proceeded to show me the photos of the incredible snorkel he had, almost dancing with a sea lion under the wharf. How I had to have this moment, too! Hours later, with the sun out, I went into the refreshingly cold, but tolerable water for a snorkel and for my wishful moment to encounter a sea lion.
The visibility of the water is brilliant, especially on a clear sunny day. It’s even better when you put the mask and fins on to see the world below amplified with a world of colour. Bright yellow and orange corals glistened, massive thunderbolt blue starfishes spotted, an underwater museum monument – a sunken dinghy – exposed and colourful fish varieties danced.
If that didn’t sound storybook enough, I soon spotted those dark brown eyes I had longed to see: a sea lion. Could this really be happening, I thought. As if this snorkel was not epic enough! My token sea lion friend would emerge and join me for a few moments under the jetty. For a split second, I was in eye contact, looking right into the sea lion’s curious big brown eyes. Water aerobics followed, with the sea lion flipping its body in hamster wheel motion before it soon started to swim away. A shy thing. I followed it for a bit, but I was no match to its speed.
The holy grail moments just kept giving that day. It pays to get friendly with fellow holiday-goers as a licensed abalone fisherman got lucky and offered to share his catches, admitting that he and his wife’s eyes were hungrier than their stomachs. The beachside banquet included both fish and squid caught from the dock and the hotly-sought abalone caught from the shore, and were all prepared on the communal kitchen barbeque. It was my first taste of the costly abalone, and whoa, my taste buds hit the jackpot with that timely dinner invite.
TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
As I waited for the boat to take me back to the mainland, I got chatting with a local man relishing the views from the cafe’s open windows, overlooking the island’s rocky terrain welcoming the crisp Southern Ocean winds. I told him I was documenting my experience with this hidden gem of the south-west, and he offered this affirmative piece of advice:
“Tell them Woody Island is an underrated island. Make your own experience. Make your own magic!”
Of course, I believed his every word. Not only because he said it with such great conviction and joyful enthusiasm but because I had also been enchanted with the island. And who told me to keep Woody a secret? His wife.
Woody Island Eco Tours
Ph: 0484 327 580
Return ferry prices (including entry fee to Woody Island) from $95 per adult, $80 concession, $68 student (13-17 yrs), $55 child, infants (under 2 yrs) free
$155 Safari Hut. Extra person $20 per night (sleeps 2 adults, 2 children)
$135 Hassle-free Pre-set Up Family Tent. Extra person $20 per night (sleeps 4 people)
$100 Hassle-free Pre-set Up Standard Tent (sleeps 2 people max)
$50 BYO Tent and Swag Sites. Extra adult $20 per night (max 1 adult), extra child $10 per night (max 2 children)
Departs Esperance at 9 am sharp from Taylor Street Jetty (check in at 8.45 am) and arrives back in Esperance at 2 pm.
RAC Esperance Holiday Park
$49 Ocean View Site (sleeps 6)
$45 Powered Site (sleeps 6)
$40 Powered Tent Site (sleeps 6)
Ph: (08) 9071 1251