Sideways, Down Under

Travel Stories: In the Margaret River region of Western Australia, you can just sip wine and nibble on cheese. Or, like Tony Perrottet, you can push the limits of indulgence.

06.10.09 | 9:50 AM ET

Photo by robertpaulyoung, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I should have realized that a road trip through Outback wine country might be harder on the liver than, say, a jaunt through rural Provence, when my Aussie mate Justin agreed to join me in Perth airport at 9 a.m.

“Meet you in the café?” I’d suggested over the phone from New York.

“The bar, ya bastard, the bar!”

We were heading to the Margaret River region, where the world’s remotest vineyards run between the Indian Ocean and the bush. Aussies have known for years that this wild valley produces a killer drop, and recently the international wine mafia has caught on. But the locals don’t like to waste their time just boozing in the sun and nibbling on cheese.

“Plenty of drunken adventures to be had here!”—one hotelier had enthused to me—“like rappelling into the depths of secret limestone caves, rope in one hand and champagne flute in the other, or mountain-biking at insanely high speeds through the virgin forest whilst guzzling magnums of chardonnay. You could also try out illegal abalone free diving off thrillingly treacherous limestone reefs—a great pep-up for ‘the day after’ hangover—or try the excruciating yet somehow secretly pleasurable shiraz colonics at some local winery spa…”

I was sold.

But since my only knowledge of wine had been gleaned from the film “Sideways,” I knew I needed a knowledgeable Australian sidekick—which is why I called my Sydney friend Justin Barber, whose appetite for both outdoor exercise and alcohol was little short of prodigious. Me, I wasn’t concerned about mixing the two extremes. After all, the Margaret River wine was supposed to be excellent. 

How rough could things get?

SUNDAY: RIDING WITH AUSTRALIA’S GOURMET PASTA KING

As it happened, I was still at the Perth Airport luggage carousel when Justin sprang from the crowd with a bottle in each hand.

“Mate, you’ll never guess what happened!”

On the flight over from Sydney, he’d apparently discovered a dark curly hair in his breakfast quiche. The hostesses had been so mortified that they gave him two bottles of top-notch pinot noir. Then he’d purloined a bottle opener and two glasses. We sped out of the parking lot.

“We’re off,” Justin crowed, “like a bride’s nightie.”

I first met Justin 15 years ago, when he was running his own sheep station in Wee Jasper. Since then, he had reinvented himself in Sydney as Australia’s gourmet pasta king, marketing squid-ink linguine and cilantro-chili pesto. But he’s never forsaken his gritty bush roots, still wearing his R.M. Williams riding boots and letting loose with a vigor that would scare the wits out of any French gourmand.

Four hours later, we were immersed in the fertile realm of the Margaret River, watching red kangaroos lope amongst the eucalyptus forests; black cockatoos bounced along orange wattle branches then burst off into screeching clouds. Then the bush miraculously parted and the horizon was filled with the sparkling Indian Ocean. At the beach village of Yallungup local “wax-heads” (surfers) ruled the swells while divers leapt off the rocks with kamikaze shrieks. Justin and I gamely threw our clumsy carcasses into the waves, only to be spat back onto the sand like driftwood.

Wild-eyed and salt-covered, we finally lurched from our car at Cape Lodge, one of Western Australia’s most esteemed boutique hotels. On its website, I had seen it lauded as an enclave of “understated elegance” and high Aussie style. That was us all over. Modeled on Dutch South African farmhouses, the main lodge was set above an olive-green lake; from the trees, kookaburra birds greeted us knowingly, with maniacal laughs. 

Luckily, I knew the manager, Drew Bernhardt, from my misspent youth in Sydney. Looking like George Clooney on vacation, he discreetly ignored our feral appearance. After a welcome snifter of sauvignon blanc from the lodge’s own vineyard (everyone makes their own wine here, Drew said, even the local high school), we sauntered off to our palatial room, which was about 12 times the size of my Manhattan apartment and included a vast spa bath which, we were warned, would take 30 minutes to fill.

I mentioned something about how all this jumping between pristine nature and decadent Neronic luxury might take some getting used to. “Oh, we’ll manage, mate,” Justin said, plunging into the minibar. “It’ll be tough, but we’ll manage.” 

MONDAY: “OMINOUS NEWS, INDEED”

“How are you, Justin?”

“Rolling fat and good to look at, mate.”

Through bleary eyes, I pored over the map, looking for the hiking trails we were supposed to hit that day. I couldn’t help noticing that, despite last night’s record indulgence, Justin was wolfing down his portions of eggs and smoked salmon as if there were no tomorrow.

“Mate, didn’t I ever tell you?” he laughed. “I don’t get hangovers!”

Bloody hell, I thought. Ominous news, indeed.

For the rest of the day, we paddled a canoe through mangrove meleleuca forest, whose twisted branches rose from the tea-colored water like skeletal fingers, then hiked 10 miles along the sandstone sea cliffs, jumping into the surf at beaches along the way and trying not to get sucked out toward Africa. My morning seediness was but a distant memory. Back at Cape Lodge, we enjoyed a delicate repast of barbecued marron, fresh-water Western Australia langoustines and Abrolhos scallops in avocado mousse, while the sunburned chef, Tony Howell, explained that he had turned down jobs all over Europe to stay in the Margaret River and surf every day before work. Tony’s latest obsession was abalone diving, which he admitted had become a little nerve-wracking since so many Great White sharks were now being sighted off the coast. The once-endangered population has been surging since sharks have become protected in Australia, he explained, so some deep water divers have started wearing a new mechanism called a Shark Shield. This is a strap-on electronic device that sends out underwater pulses, supposedly causing “intense discomfort” to sharks and (hopefully) driving them away. 

Since we were scheduled to wreck-dive the next morning, this seemed an unprofitable train of thought—so we ordered another bottle of Cullen chardonnay.

TUESDAY: DANGER! DIVING NOT ALLOWED

At breakfast, I picked up the newspaper and nearly choked on my strawberry compote: the headline read:

Diver Cheats Death After Shark Takes Him “For a Ride.”

The story described in more detail than seemed entirely necessary how a 10-foot white pointer had savaged a diver’s arm in the waters off Perth. The diver survived and was interviewed in the hospital. He said he planned to get back to diving as soon as possible.

I found his bravura encouraging later, when under an overcast sky I was first over the side into the choppy waters of Geographe Bay. The dive master, a pig-tailed German Valkyrie named Heidi, laughed off the morning’s story. “That shark attack was miles away,” she shrugged. “It could not travel here so fast.” When I inquired about the Shark Shield rental situation, she pretended not to hear.

With a half dozen other divers, I was soon sinking onto the wreck of the HMAS Swan, an old Australian battleship, while a fierce current sucked us back and forth like a monstrous lung. Recent storms meant limited visibility, adding to the nerve-wracking ambiance: We all went through our oxygen like champion sprinters, scanning the murk for tell-tale dorsal fins. But by mid-morning, the skies had opened up and we were blasé about killer fish. For the second dive, off the ruined Bussellton jetty, we swam past signs that read DANGER! DIVING NOT ALLOWED and UNSTABLE! to explore pylons encrusted with coral, like the columns of a submerged Egyptian temple.

When I got back to the boat, Justin was getting some first aid from the Tasmanian skipper. He’d connected his forehead with a half-broken pillar, leaving a jagged scar.

“Jesus,” he winced, looking in the mirror. “I look like Harry Potter.”

To steady our nerves, we decided to hit a few vineyards before dinner. Just a snifter or two, we swore, before the serious drinking with Drew.

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Tony Perrottet is an Australian-born writer who lives in New York City. He is the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped. He writes regularly for Smithsonian Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times and the London Sunday Times, and is currently working on a book about the salacious Victorian tourist sights of Europe, tentatively titled "The Pervert's Grand Tour."

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1 Comment for Sideways, Down Under

Lindsay 06.10.09 | 4:13 PM ET

Such great writing!!! What a trip…I will gladly accept an invitation next time you travel to the vineyards. : )

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