Sidling up to the stingrays



David Whitley heads to one of Australia’s most famous wine regions to find wildlife-packed beaches rather than cabernet sauvignons.

Since the unfortunate death of Steve Irwin, stingrays have had a bad rap. Those barbs on their tails, if aimed right, can kill – although this is an extremely unlikely course of events. Stingrays, frankly, have little interest in hurting humans and Australia has approximately 80 zillion other animals that are worth worrying about before you get down to the stingray level.

The thing is, few of us do get down to stingray level. It’s not common to encounter them on the beach. But Hamelin Bay in south-western Australia’s Margaret River region is something of an exception to this.

Cam O’Beirne, who runs the Margaret River Adventure Company’s tours down to Hamelin Bay, knows the stingrays have been hanging out there for a while. “There are some all down the coast, but this is the only place where they aggregate and interact with humans,” he explains.

“About 20 or 30 live here, and they’ve been here for 40 to 50 years. They used to come in when the fisherman came in. They learned that the fishermen would gut the fish on the beach – it became almost Pavlovian.”

When we get to the water’s edge, there’s already one stingray there. “This is Stumpy,” says Cam. “He’s lost his tail”. He’s a smooth ray, the biggest species of stingray in the world. He weighs in at around 350kg and is about the size of a car bonnet.

Stumpy is also endearingly clumsy. He brushes against the legs of adoring onlookers with their feet in the shallows, and it’s possible to bend down and stroke him. His skin is remarkably velvety – smooth, not slimy.



It’s not long before Stumpy has some company. A few more smooth rays and a couple of their smaller cousins, the eagle rays, drift in towards the shore. Everyone’s a little more careful where they put their feet now – the newcomers have tails and barbs.

“They’re the vacuum cleaners of the sea,” says Cam. “They’ll eat anything.” And there’s clearly some food beneath the sand in the shallows, because they’ve got company. Hamelin Bay’s somewhat less exotic seagulls have come to the party. They’re less cute, and considerably noisier.

This scene, however, is not one that people tend to expect from Margaret River. It’s first and foremost seen as a wine region – and an exceptionally good one at that. But the secret weapon is being surrounded by the Indian Ocean on two sides and the Southern Ocean on a third. This makes for fabulous surf breaks – which were what attracted visitors down to the region in the first place during the 1950s and 60s – but also some genuinely astonishing beaches.

Hamelin Bay is no exception here. It’s a proper white sand, vivid blue-green sea bombshell that anyone would be elated to discover. Here, sharing is required, however. But no-one really minds when it’s Stumpy and friends.

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Margaret River Adventure Company ( and Tourism Western Australia (

The Captain Cook myth


David Whitley pays a visit to Fremantle in Western Australia, and learns that there’s an awful lot we’re not taught about Aussie history

You come to learn about shipwrecks, and leave having myths dispelled. That’s basically what happens at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle. Anyone going in thinking Captain Cook discovered Australia is in for a surprise. For a start, Cook was a lieutenant when he arrived in 1770, and the name ‘Australia’ only became common currency decades later. And that’s before we even get on to the fact that the Aboriginal people had been living on the great southern land for tens of thousands of years.

But Cook wasn’t the first European to visit Australia either. Or the first Englishman. And the WA Shipwrecks Museum tells the story of these earlier, less well known and often considerably less successful voyages of discovery.

It all starts with the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), which attempted to control the spice trade from what is now Indonesia. As part of this, they scouted around the patch, and in 1606, the crew of the Duyfken landed in New Guinea under the command of Willem Jansz. One sailor was killed in a skirmish with locals, and given the lack of water on board, Jansz turned the ship round and headed back to base.

The thing is, he hadn’t landed in New Guinea at all. He’d landed on Queensland’s Cape York peninsula. Jansz and his crew had discovered Australia without realising it.

It took another ten years for the first properly documented landing, and this can be put down to an innovation by Hendrik Brouwer. In 1610, he decided to take a new route from Cape Town to Batavia (now Jakarta). Instead of following the old Portuguese route that went back above the equator and passed south of Sri Lanka, he used the Roaring Forties trade winds, sailing directly east before turning north for Batavia.

The problem was where to make the turn, with measurements of speed, distances and location being somewhat patchy in the early 17th century. And in 1616, Dirk Hartog turned too late, stumbling across what is now Dirk Hartog Island and leaving a plate nailed to a post there.



Others who turned too late were not as fortunate. There are four Dutch shipwrecks along the WA coast – the Zeewijk, the Zuytdorp, the Vergulde Draeck and, most notorious of all, the Batavia. Much of the mapping of Australia’s west and northern coasts came about due to the VOC not wanting to lose any more ships. They figured they’d better have better maps, although everyone was seemingly thoroughly unimpressed by the continent they were skirting.

And then we come to the Brits. The first was John Brookes, who got his navigation all wrong and smashed into the Tryal Rocks off the coast of the Pilbara in 1622. His accounts of the whole mess indulged in a lot of arse-covering, so no-one correctly placed these rocks on a map until centuries later.

Most interesting of all, though, is William Dampier. Basically a pirate, Dampier became the first European to collect Australian plant species – they can be found at Cambridge University – and he charted much of the coast. He was about to break through the Torres Strait and may have reached the East Coast 70 years before Cook, but he had to turn back because the wood on his ship was rotting.

It’s rare to come out of a museum wanting to buy dozens of books, but this is the case here. It’s a fascinating stretch of history that few of us know anything about. And, were the Dutch even vaguely interested in setting up stall, the story of Australia could be very different.


We've got some great deals to Australia here


The bits of Australia that have really improved


David Whitley takes a look at the regions of Australia that have changed for the better in the last decade-and-a-half.

I first arrived in Australia in 2001, and after living there for five years, have managed to go back once or twice a year since. In that time, the country has changed – some of it for the better, some of it for the worse. But some improvements have been more significant than others… 


The Victorian capital always struck me as a bit try-hard, desperate to compare itself to a European city and bang on about the things it does better than Sydney. Now, Melbourne has grown into itself, and many of things it pretended to have are now real. The laneway scene is superb, and Melbourne has become a genuine world city – worth coming to in its own right, and for its own personality. It no longer wastes its energy comparing itself to other places; the food, drink and cultural scenes are top rank.




Once an almost abandoned city centre, surrounded by suburbia, Perth has thrown money at its faults. The city centre is coming back to life, with lots of bars, restaurants and street art tucked down lanes and precincts set back from the main streets. Big developments at Elizabeth Quay and Scarborough Beach, plus the burying of a train line to join the centre and Northbridge, have also helped. Basically, if another Aussie city is going to join Sydney and Melbourne on the must-see list, Perth is likely to be it. 

Margaret River

Once just a surf spot and wine region, Margaret River has started properly tapping into the market of people willing to drive three hours south from Perth, and a whole host of nature, wildlife and adventure tour operators have sprung up in the last couple of years. The effect is to increase the number of people ‘Margs’ appeals to, and the number of days they want to stay there. The switch from backwater to mainstream is almost complete.


Once a bit fuddy duddy, focusing on historic attractions, Tasmania has properly embraced its natural side. Much of the island is wilderness, with mountain hikes, river rafting and clifftop walks to photogenic beaches rounding things off. But, crucially, it has embraced the arts. The daring, controversial MONA in Hobart has been the main catalyst for this, but Hobart itself has clicked that being small doesn’t have to mean being parochial. It now has a little sass to go along with the prettiness. 

The Red Centre

The ban on climbing Uluru is coming – and not before time. But it’s interesting to see how the Red Centre has changed over time. At one point, it’d be a case of driving for hours, exploring the big red rock, then not having much to do. Now, there is an emphasis on providing other activities – camel rides, stargazing sessions, dot painting workshops, desert wildlife tours and giant art installations. It’s all an attempt to get people to stay longer at the Ayers Rock Resort, of course, and prices are still uncomfortably steep, but it’s a vastly better offering and makes the detour to the middle of nowhere more appealing.



by David Whitley




You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world