The port town on WA's far southern shore provides crystal clear waters, chance encounters with native wildlife and empty beaches as far as the eye can see.
Esperance styles itself as part of WA's secret south. But judging by the number of “No Vacancy” signs that spring up throughout the summer, that secret has started to spread. How refreshing then that even in the busiest holiday periods you can find a long ribbon of white beach to call your own. It's that promise of being able to stretch out and enjoy unspoiled surrounds that helps sustain me on my long journey from Albany, some 450 kilometres west.
After the majestic Stirling Range disappears in my rear-view mirror, the Western Highway dissects the southern region's agricultural belt and before long there's nothing to relieve the monotony of the endless flat paddocks. My girlfriend and I should be thankful we aren't travelling from the other direction across the Nullarbor Plain but it's still a great relief when we arrive at our accommodation.
On this visit we decide to stay outside the town centre. Though pleasant, it's more functional than spectacular. Esperance's intrinsic beauty lies in its surrounds. Sure, the long row of Norfolk Pines adds elegance to the Esplanade, but they fail to hide the large green sheds that dominate the western end of the port town.
There's no better place to get your bearings than the Rotary Lookout atop Wireless Hill. On the first rung of the lookout steps, you're afforded glimpses out to sea and back down to the township, but a few steps higher a 360-degree panorama awaits. A helpful steel map points to the area's key attractions: cone-shaped Frenchmen's Peak gives the impression of a classic volcano brooding away at the end of Cape Le Grand; away from the sea lies the string of lakes and wetlands that make Esperance an important breeding ground and refuge for waterbirds.
The Rotary Lookout signals the start of the Great Ocean Drive, which loops around the beaches before cutting inland and returning to the town via the Pink Lake. And what a memorable drive it is: the road hugs the cliff tops, offering breathtaking views of the ocean, its waters gradually becoming lighter until they appear as a brilliant sky-blue at the point where the waves roll onto the beach. Further in the distance the islands of the archipelago intermittently break the expanse of blue to provide a classic ocean vista.
Fishing is popular in Esperance and judging by the hauls brought in, the fish is not only plentiful but they like to bite. The timber jetty is a great place for dropping a line. While cleaning your catch, be sure to keep one eye out for the resident sea lions that come to feed on discarded fish heads. Several signs warn not to approach them, as they can bite a warning that won't be lost on you once you see their massive tusks and gaping mouths.
I had an encounter with one that won't soon fade from memory. Taking a shortcut beneath the jetty rather than walk back up the beach the long way, I was forced to negotiate slippery rocks and mounds of seaweed. After getting bogged down in a pile of dried sea grass, I stumbled and used my camera tripod to steady myself on a big grey rock. Just as I thought, hmm, this big grey rock feels a bit soft, it let out a massive roar. A huge set of tusks caught the light from above and I turned and ran, losing a thong in the process.
Once the shock had subsided and I realised I wasn't being chased by an irate sea lion, I went to have a look from the top of the jetty and peered down into darkness to see an absolute monster trying to get back to the land of nod. I felt rather bad about waking him in such an abrupt manner and not a little relieved that the only thing I lost was a thong.
This article was originally published by Australian Traveller magazine.