Have you met Woody Island?
“Tell them Woody Island is an underrated island. Make your own experience. Make your own magic!”
A local enthusiastically told me this while basking in the stunning vistas of Woody Island from its rock-strewn coastline. If Woody Island isn’t on your radar, it should be. But then again, did you even know it existed?
This eco-wonderland of the south is one of 105 islands beautifully specked along the Southern Ocean, forming the Recherche Archipelago and it’s just a short boat ride from Esperance. Remarkably, it is the only island with tall woodlands hence its literal namesake. It’s a pristine island escape, whereas being in the thick of the wilderness and having close encounters with wildlife reigns supreme.
The boat ride to Woody Island usually takes 40 minutes from Esperance; however, the journey is made far more enjoyable with a few stops to have the first of many Galapagos-like wildlife encounters. I didn’t have to wait long until I was exposed to Esperance’s scenic residents.
Moments after the deckhand threw a fish into the ocean as a tasty lure; I had my first sighting of the area’s famous bird of prey and what a mighty spectacle it was. Soaring from the otherwise desolate Gunton Island, a white-bellied sea eagle quickly swooped in on an all-too-easy feed at sea level. A flurry of excitement came over me as I was only metres away from the eagle spanning its greyish broad wings as it did a U-turn back to the island, satisfied with its impromptu meal. Only then did a realise a massive eagle’s nest on the tip of the rocky island – home stick home!
My David Attenborough field-trip moment continued as I journeyed through the appropriately named Seal Rock, home to a small population of New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions. It was hard to tell between rock and seal as they sparsely lazed, camouflaging with the island.
Soon enough, the boat docked at Woody Island’s small yet striking harbour, Shearwater Bay. The bay makes for a snorkelers’ paradise with its crystal-clear visibility and calm waters, sheltered by a reddish-green rocky headland. I couldn’t wait to dive into Woody Island’s Shangri-la waters, however my hiking boots had been strapped on for a good reason.
The privately-run state reserve, Woody Island has been operating eco-tours for three years with both its day tours and overnight stays popular with people visiting the region. The island can host up to 90 people overnight in its simple and eco-friendly safari huts overlooking the coastline and camping grounds.
The island’s two designated trailheads form part of the eco-tour and make for a great walkabout, touring under the canopies of various eucalyptus trees and sheoak trees that give the island a reddish tinge. Hikers can also appreciate the natural beauty back on the mainland with incredible vistas of Cape Le Grand National Park and its star attractions, Frenchman’s Peak and Lucky Bay in full view.
Woody Island also provides the perfect opportunity to get close and personal with native wildlife. Its famous residents include adorable little fairy penguins – the smallest species of penguins – that reach 30 cm in height. Mutton birds are also a popular sight, with their nightly ‘muppet show’ of crashing into the bushes, somersaulting into their nesting ground and burying a hole an entertaining watch with visitors.
Roughly 15 kangaroos call the island home and are typically hopping about nearby the camping grounds. Tourists need not to fear snakes as the island is thankfully absent from any. In their place, harmless tiny marble and barking geckos can be found around the island.
The sweat gained from trailblazing the island was worth the reward of a swim at the end.
I was brazen enough to go for a refreshing swim despite the waters being on the colder side. The water temperature isn’t as if your body has just dived into an ice slushy, but it will definitely wake you up. But it was the encounter next that made me feel that extra bit alive.
It was by luck that my swim turned into an awakening affair with snorkelling the bay. It wasn’t just the abundant marine life, burnt orange starfish, or the small shipwreck sighted that made me feel present but the incredible encounter that happened next – swimming with a sea lion.
The area attracts sea lions and pods of dolphins; however, I did not think my short trip would encounter this incredible marine experience.
Poppet, the one-year-old sea lion, looked curiously at me as I snorkelled a mere metre away from it, trying to be still for it to be accustomed to my presence. I could not help staring into its big brown eyes with the biggest of smiles splashed across my face with this epic encounter. It was a playful thing, teasing me as it glided through the coastal waters, soon flapping its tail to bid farewell.
Within a few hours, I also too, bid the island goodbye.
I reflected on my conversation with the local who was visiting from the mainland. Magic was undoubtedly felt from this visit to this untainted, underrated nature reserve.
His wife had jokingly interjected with a word-of-warning not to tell too many people Australia’s Golden Outback’s hidden gem, but I couldn’t keep my promise – it is just too good not to share tales of these enchanted woods.
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Images sourced: Anthony D’Orazio
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