It's probably fair to say that if you're planning a big climbing trip to the land of Oz, the state of Western Australia probably isn't uppermost on your list. The island continent is frankly spoiled for choice as far as climbing destinations go, with the world-renowned and justly famous Mount Arapiles and Grampians National Parks in Victoria top of most people's down-under wish lists.
Close behind are the Blue Mountains of New South Wales and the adventure climbing of Tasmania. All of this was true for me too, so starting my year long trip round Australia in WA wasn't the most inspiring as far as climbing goes. As far as a semi-permanent canopy of blue sky goes, it was up there, but the climbing was definitely secondary to sightseeing on this stage of my trip. However, I was still keen to sample some of WA's climbing and so, armed with my skeleton rack of a belay plate, a few screwgates and a set of RP's I set about trying to find partners who would show me around this vast tract of Australia. I have been pleasantly surprised by what I've found...
The first thing to say is that if you weren't aware, WA really is massive. Like super massive. You can fit the UK, Texas and a good chunk of south east Asia into this beast. Although there's plenty of rock about, it's generally separated by hundreds of miles of driving (at least!) and so covering it all was not on the agenda. Instead, I headed south from Perth to the Margaret River wine region, bypassing with regret the Kalbarri Gorge (6 hours north of Perth) and with slightly less regret the holes in the ground surrounding Perth, which didn't really inspire me. What did inspire me was the undeniable jewel in the crown of Margaret River rock, the granite-gneiss sea cliffs of Wilyabrup.
Wilyabrup is everything that British climbing can sometimes fail to be. A beautiful stretch of orange granite sea cliffs, with easy access, friendly grading and a predominantly trad ethic which coexists happily alongside bolted routes. When I first walked to the base I was absolutely blown away by the unbelievable sight of Steel Wall, which anyone who has flicked through a Simon Carter coffee table book will recognise. The obvious centrepiece of the crag, Steel Wall towers above the walls either side, plumb vertical for 30m with very few (actually no) easy lines evident.
The classic of the crag is without doubt Stainless Steel, which links a line of flakes past 3 carrot bolts before the crux of pulling over the final roof. This comes in at about E1/2 despite the mixture of bolts and trad gear. This is no clip up - carrot bolts are a definite 'experience' for the British climber and are never as easy to clip as you'd like, providing me with a few hairy moments as I got increasingly stressed attempting to get the plate over the exposed bolt. That said, they definitely add to the experience and I would really like to see them introduced on the slate in particular, they could definitely add to the designer danger feel...a discussion for another place!
As I was saying...this is far from the only classic, with great routes at pretty much every grade across the crag. Instead of mindlessly listing everything good, I've picked a very small selection which I particularly enjoyed. The eye-wateringly obvious line of the crag is the corner of Mobjob (20) supplying an early crux which aficionados of gritstone awkwardness will enjoy (desperate!), followed by 25m of beautiful bridging and bombproof protection, with good holds always at hand. The other side of gritstone was also evident on Corpus Delecti, 18, which followed a steadily worsening curving flake with disturbingly small and increasingly spaced gear until a final gripping mantel - fantastic!
Away from trad, the fully bolted line of Heavy Metal (24) takes the central line up Steel Wall with a fierce crux off a horrendous Gaston followed by easier but fluffable climbing, while Washed Up Punks (23) is probably even better, sustained all the way to the top on beautiful sculpted crimps. However, although I've only mentioned mid grade and harder routes, Wilyabrup would be a fantastic destination for the lower grade trad climber, with the simple joy of climbing on the golden granite enough to confer stars on almost every route at the crag regardless of line or difficulty, and most routes well protected with a good range of cams.
The only downsides to be mentioned are the abseiling groups that cover the crag most mornings in a manner that would prompt a storm of vitriol on the UKC forums and the dustiness of some of the harder or less well travelled routes. The roof of KGB (26) is good example of this; although clearly amazing climbing and an established classic, it needed someone to lug a pressure washer down there and remove large amounts of sand from the holds. Even then it would still be too hard for me! Overall though, this is a stunning crag, which if it were in the UK would be polished beyond recognition by now. Luckily it's in WA and remains pristine. And if that wasn't enough, I found most routes here to be a touch on the soft side - there are no excuses...!
The sweeping limestone amphitheatre of Bob's Hollow couldn't be further from Wilyabrup in terms of climbing style. Where 'Willies' channels gritstone to produce some funky moves and is mostly easy angled to vertical, Bob's is like an indoor wall - it's steep! However, The effect of this is moderated by the liberal scattering of jugs across the cliff and the equally liberal grades - happy days! On top of these sure-fire winners, Bob's is also set in a simply stunning location just off the famous Cape to Cape track, overlooking a beautiful deserted beach and with numerous caves to explore and have lunch in. The rock architecture is pretty wild, apparently very similar to Thailand limestone, with stalactites and tufas everywhere, most of which seemed solid...
For climbers operating around 5+ - 7a, Bob's is an absolute playground, with steep juggy climbing that brings a smile to your face as you check out the landscape behind you. The sheer amount of potential holds precludes anything really hard, bar a long standing and obviously desperate project (tempted?), but it's not really about the grade here, it's just a really fun place to climb! The best route at the crag is undoubtedly the brilliantly named Shaved Cat, which traces a technical and varied line up the side of a massive cave, and weighs in at about 6a+ for my money (the Aussies reckon it's 6b+ but there's no way!) Also good was Fin Left (19ish) which doesn't really need a route description but climbs the best feature on the crag to a high and desperate boulder problem crux that is a lot harder than the rest of the route, but still good fun! At the higher end of the spectrum, Hollow Promises (7a/+) is the obvious line through the really steep stuff, linking a great sequence of stalactites with loads of hidden jugs and with the crux RIGHT at the top, producing a few wails of disgust as I fell off for the 3rd attempt in a row.
Along with the climbing, Bob's is also home to loads of local wildlife - I spotted a lost kangaroo, skinks, baby snakes and even a large monitor basking in the sun. However, this has attendant risks, with one climber grabbing a jug and inadvertently a large python a few days after I was there, receiving a nasty bite for her troubles. Never underestimate Australian wildlife is the moral of the story! That aside, this is another great crag with fun, friendly climbing and a simply stunning 45 minute walk in along the coast. It would be worth going to even if you didn't have any climbing gear!
Having explored and climbed a lot around Margaret River, I headed west to Albany and arranged a trip with super keen adopted Aussie and trad enthusiast Lloyd to the mountain ranges of the Porongorups and the Stirlings, which Lloyd had been keen to climb at for ages but had never found a partner for - it seems these Aussies aren't as adventurous as we give them credit for. The Porongorups were first on the list and in my head the obvious place to go first was Castle Rock. This was almost entirely due to the eye popping arete of Karma (24). Words don't do this line justice.
What looked like disturbingly blank granite was actually quite featured with a juggy mid section and technical and balancey climbing to the top. Having successfully dogged it, with a few sketchy moments clipping the carrots, I promptly forgot the sequence and scraped the redpoint by the skin of my teeth, formulating a completely new sequence on the last section. My struggles aside, this is a seriously good line, one of the best I've ever seen let alone climbed, and worth a trip from Perth by itself, particularly in combination with the undeniably impressive Granite Skywalk tourist attraction that summits Castle Rock itself and supplies a steady stream of awestruck tourists with cameras. There were other routes in the area, including the arete of Merlin which was worthwhile, but an attempt on a line that looked about 6b+ turned into a mossy 7c (at least) and needed some desperate aid tactics to escape with all our gear.
The next day we did something more up Lloyd's street and aimed for a multipitch on Gibraltar Rock. We did do a route but the real crux was the approach. Foolishly following a local miniguide to the letter we ended up bush whacking uphill for two hours through unbelievably thick foliage and some really quite large trees. Eventually arriving at the crag totally boxed, the route we did (Sucked In Ben, 15) was pleasant if unspectacular but did feature great views and an impressive summit tick. Although the climbing was a touch repetitive, the route was well bolted to say the least and would provide a great day out for a team climbing about HS in the UK, with great positions and a handily situated cave at half height with a geocache stocked with teabags, a notebook and...condoms?! Slightly unnerved we completed the route before finding the correct path and descending to the car in about 15 minutes flat. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and settling for cursing the local who wrote the innacurate miniguide, we started making plans for the real objective of the trip.
There is plenty of climbing in the Stirling Ranges but even Nick Bullock would call most of it chossy, and much of it is unclimbable by normal standards. As such, the main arena is the north face of Bluff Knoll, which is still chossy but manageably so! The classic is the central line of Hellfire Gully (14), which is apparently a dream tick for aspiring and adventurous WA trad climbers. Despite this, I was distinctly unimpressed on the approach. The whole cliff looked like it was about to fall down. However, as we sketchily traversed the scree and bush whacked to the base I started to change my view, with the rock looking more solid up close. It reminded me a lot of Gogarth, without the sea; logic suggested it had to be loose and sketchy but in reality it was remarkably solid. Given Lloyd had lost his shoes on the approach, I was going to have every opportunity to check the integrity of the rock by leading every pitch and set off up the extremely vegetated gully, which thankfully cleaned up significantly after the first pitch. 'blocky' was the word of the day, but on balance I was expecting worse! This was pretty much the case for the whole route, which had about HS climbing but very spaced gear, probably producing a 'traditional' multipitch VS in English money. The exception was the crux corner, which gave great climbing with absolutely bomber gear thankfully!
The views are outstanding and it was a very peaceful way to spend the day, despite two base jumpers convincing me the end was near as a shadow fell over me while belaying! The geology of the face was also fascinating to a rock enthusiast, splitting along gigantic horizontal bedding planes tilted so as to generally produce massive jugs wherever they were needed. A great adventure and doable with a 60m rope and a standard rack of wires and cams if happy on spaced gear with a few grades in hand. Plus you'll definitely earn the admiration of any Aussie climbers you come across - this is a big trad tick in this neck of the woods despite the relatively reasonable climbing. Maybe they're going soft....
Overall, although the climbing in WA might not be your primary reason for visiting, if you've come all this way on holiday it would be a shame not to pay for that extra aeroplane bag and bring your climbing gear. It really does have a bit of everything; great trad climbing in a stunning setting at Wilyabrup, the playground of Bobs Hollow, great lines in the form of Karma and adventure climbing on Bluff Knoll. Moreover, this is only the small section I've managed to get to- the sea cliffs of West Cape Howe look like the Aussies answer to Pembroke but aren't really 'in' during Aussie winter, while Peak Head and Mt Frankland offer more adventurous multipitching. So pack your rope if you're heading to Perth on holiday, or spend a few weeks road tripping from Arapiles and the Gramps- WA is a backwater by comparison but the climbing is still great, and the best bit is the friendly grades! I'm going to get my arse kicked over at Arapiles...
When to Go
This is Australia after all, so any time if the year will allow you to get some in. In summer, the sheer heat will restrict you some/most days; with most of the cliffs in full sun for most of the day it would be well worth picking a cooler day. In winter, temperatures are much more reasonable, though still baking some days, but there is more rain around. With a bit of flexibility you'd be unlucky not to get good weather at most times of the year.
Perth is the major airport and is generally a bit cheaper to fly to than Sydney or Melbourne anyway. Western Australia is also an excellent place to buy a car due to the ease of transferring ownership, so if you're coming to Australia for a year it could be worth starting here. Once you're here, renting or buying a car is a must as public transport is absolutely non-existent outside of major population centres. On the plus side, petrol is cheap out here!
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Margaret River is well-served by holiday lets to suit most budgets and is your base for Wilyabrup and Bobs Hollow. There are also several youth hostels at around $30 a night and an excellent campsite at Gracetown, close to Wilyabrup, which is $30 per pitch with all amenities. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, Contos campground is much less money but has considerably fewer facilities too!
For the southern crags, I would recommend staying in Albany at possibly the best hostel/ 2star hotel in the world, 1849 Backpackers. This amazing place has free pancakes for breakfast which frankly is worth the money alone, but it's just a great place to stay, with friendly owners and a generally welcoming feel. Numerous other hotels and B&B's are available in Albany. If you'd prefer to camp, the Porongorups campground has a great camp kitchen and is close to Castle Rock, and there are several campsites at the foot of Bluff Knoll.
In Perth, there are a few climbing walls and outdoor shops where you can get shoes and chalk. Gear is extremely expensive and invariably Black Diamond, so you'll need to bring everything you need or befriend a local down the wall! Away from Perth, you're on your own, with the next climbing shop probably in Adelaide...
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Food and Drink
Margaret River's Settlers Inn is a great place to meet the locals, most of whom seem to be there on a Friday night! There are numerous takeaways but Goodfellas pizza deserves a special mention. Also here are large supermarkets so you can stock up, along with several bottle shops (they don't sell alcohol in supermarkets in Australia for some reason).
For the southern crags, if staying in Albany there are supermarkets and bottle shops galore. If arriving straight from Perth, Mount Barker is the last place to stock up - there are no shops in the national parks themselves.
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Rest Day Activities
Margaret River is a prime tourist attraction for plenty of reasons. There are vineyards galore in the area so rainy days or rest days can be very pleasantly spent pretending you can taste the difference between various wines. There are also lots of craft beers to sample at breweries scattered around the area. Away from alcohol, the coastline is simply stunning and hosts some of the best surfing on the planet. There are surf shops in every major town where boards can be rented, and it's worth asking locals where to go to suit your ability - the surf gets enormous! The famous Cape to Cape multi day walking track is also worth a look.
Albany was the first European settlement in Western Australia and is manna from heaven for history buffs, with museums, replica ships and military barracks to explore. As a former whaling town, there is also a well regarded tour around an ex- whaling station if that's your thing. To get back to nature, head to Torrindrup National Park, which boasts beautiful beaches and some fairly hardcore walking tracks alongside the newly installed (and for my money, unnecessary) steel walkway at the tourist attractions of the Gap and Natural Bridge. Still worth a visit though, particularly for geology fans and for stunning views across the Southern Ocean - next stop Antarctica!