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.

Photo by JoshBerglund19, via Flickr (Creative Commons)


When I woke in agony to the phone ringing at 9.30 a.m., it dawned on me that we were supposed to be out mountain biking at 8 a.m. Our guide had been waiting for us and she was not terribly impressed—or at least that’s what her boyfriend “JD” warned us over the phone. We’d already heard rumors about JD, a terrifying bloke tattooed like a Polynesian sailor who ran security at the local pubs. He was not a man to be trifled with.


We finally got to meet the famous JD the next morning, when he grabbed me in a friendly headlock and edged me towards a 130-feet-high cliff. “No hard feelings, mate,” he joked. “Just don’t do it again or I’ll break your f—-ing arms.”

We were at an enormous limestone sinkhole in the bush called Brides Cave, attempting to salvage our reputations with a crash-course in rappelling. After a couple of practice runs, we headed for the money shot: A 130-foot drop into the cave, 120 of them in mid-air (or “overhang,” as our guide, Brett Huntly, liked to call it). 

As I dangled just off the precipice, feeling a little queasy, I made the mistake of looking down to behold Justin grinning back at me on belay.

“Lucky we did this before the liquid lunch, mate,” he yelled up.

Down in the silent cavern floor, Brett led us exploring the ice-cold pockets of darkness, passing the bones of marsupials that had expired down here. Then, one by one, we hauled ourselves back to the sunlight via a chain ladder, collecting a modest assortment of scrapes and cuts. Then Justin and I dusted ourselves off and dug out clean shirts from the back seat of the car. It was time for more research.

By now it was obvious that, despite our most heroic efforts, we couldn’t visit all 77 wineries in the Margaret River. Our new austerity plan limited us to two per afternoon. At the first, the winery owner flinched when a few college students dutifully spat out their wine. 

Justin shook his head sadly at this Puritan display: “I don’t think the spittoon gets a lot of use here,” he confided. “Not in Australia.”

Afterward we headed to a by-appointment-only boutique vineyard, Mosswood. It turned out to be unusually relaxed. Because we had the last session of the day, they let us take the almost-full tasting bottles of their seven top award winners home with us.

“What’s the use of getting sober?” Justin sang.


Even though we qualified for the Betty Ford clinic, I’d rescheduled the mountain biking trip as our last hurrah in the Margaret River. Justin did not share my sense of duty.

“Mate, I think I did my groin on the rappelling,” he said, settling in front of the flat-screen TV and opening up an Emu Bitter beer. “But say hi to JD for me.”

So I tied up my boots and headed for the karri forest, where I spent three hours wheezing painfully over sinuous roots as deadly tiger snakes slithered for cover in the underbrush. When I staggered back to Cape Lodge—physically pulverized, picking dirt out of my eyebrows and twigs out of my hair—Justin was still there with his feet up.

“Mate, the spa’ll fix you right up,” tossing me a pile of sea salts and lemon seaweed shampoos. “Get yourself scrubbed up fast, there’s a big dinner at the lodge and a great band playing down the pub ... it’s going to be a take-no-prisoners sort of night!”


It was all over. In the half-light before dawn, we had to drive back to Perth. Neither of us spoke much, and even Justin was shading his eyes from the sun as it exploded over the horizon like a nuclear blast. Me, I was cowering like a vampire.

My flight wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so after giving each other a manly slap on the back, I limped off to my gate, lay on my backpack and fell asleep. I dreamed about the night before, when we were hypnotized by the brilliant southern stars before hitching a ride to the pub with a surfie and driving 15 miles an hour to avoid the kangaroos.

That drive, at least, would stay with me long after the hangover had cleared.

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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