IT'S JUST WIZARD IN OZ! A Wild Ride through Western Australia, Perfect for a Long-Haul Family Adventure

Article excerpt

Byline: by TIM KNOWLES

WESTERN Australia? They're all a bit backward there. At least, that was the opinion of Alex, a builder from Sydney to whom I was chatting at a party in Edinburgh a week before we were due to fly Down Under.

And just how up to the minute was Alex? Let's just say that, while certainly a nice bloke, he sported a mullet hairdo. With blond highlights.

Not the most promising of previews for the most ambitious holiday my wife and I had yet undertaken with our young family. The plan was for Margaret and I, along with Tommy, three-and-a-half and Tess, almost two, to fly out to Perth, Western Australia's capital city.

After a few days gentle recovery with my sister and her husband, we'd pick up a campervan and spend ten days exploring the south west corner of this enormous and varied state.

Our trip would take in primeval forests, a lush wine growing region, lovely seaside towns, the endless plains of the 'wheat belt' and contrast the deep turquoise of the Indian Ocean with the white-topped waves of its Southern Ocean neighbour. But first, we had to get there. To keep the number of flights to a minimum, we took the most direct route possible - Glasgow to Dubai and then on to Perth, all with Emirates.

That is 19 hours in the air. With two pre-school children, it could be 19 hours of hell. But in the event, it all went pretty smoothly.

And what of Alex-the-Mullet's warning? Well, yes, there were bits of Western Australia which did feel like Britain 30 or more years ago. Like miles of empty roads and shops that shut at 5pm and noon on Saturdays.

But they drive on the left like us, just to make getting around easy. And Alex wasn't entirely wrong. Western Australia has for many years been something of a backwater compared to its more glamorous, richer neighbours, who disparagingly call residents of the state 'sandgropers' after a small local insect. And the mullet still has its fans. And they're not all men.

All that has changed in recent years with the discovery of massive mineral reserves. Australia has 40 per cent of the world's unmined uranium - and Western Australia has a quarter of that.

Perth reflects that new-found confidence and prosperity, with lines of g l e a m i n g n e w skyscrapers along i t s Swan R i v e r waterfront. Endless suburbs are springing up, with every luxury bungalow boasting its own swimming pool.

And its civic leaders are able make bus travel around much of the city free and to fill their parks with free-to-use gas barbecues.

But Perth hosts 1.6million of Western Australia's 2.2 million population, meaning the rest of the state, an area 33 times the size of Scotland, has just 600,000 people. That's an awful lot of open spaces. And it was into those spaces we were headed.

We hired a six-berth motorhome, complete with air conditioning, a hot shower, toilet, a gas stove and microwave. The children loved it.

We began with a two-hour drive south, turning into the wooded hills around the town of Dwellingup.

Hacked out of the forest and built from the jarra trees which surround it, Dwellingup was once the centre of a thriving logging industry. Disaster struck in 1960 when almost every building was destroyed by a forest fire.

It's a story vividly retold in the local visitor information centre, complete with charred exhibits.

The forest itself can be explored through a five-mile ride on the Hotham Valley Railway, during which you learn more about the hard lives of the loggers, who'd stay out in the forest for months on end.

We then took a threehour drive to the seaside town of Busselton. The big attraction here is the Jetty, a mile-long pier leading out to an underwater observatory. Busselton also boasts a huge, white sandy beach, an amusement park with all the usual seaside attractions, and whale watching trips.

From Busselton, we took a 35-mile drive into the Margaret River winegrowing region, one of the highlights of our trip. …