Adventure travel in Esperance, Australia: A pub crawl by plane

Enjoy a bird’s eye view of the southern coast of Western Australia, and drink with the locals in its pubs

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Pink lake
The area north of Esperance, Western Australia is home to dozens of striking pink lakes. Photo by Jim Byers

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There’s a large lake near Esperance called Pink Lake, but that’s only on a map. In fact, the weather conditions have changed over the past few years and the lake is now more of a deep purple. No matter, we’re seeing dozens of small, rounded lakes in all shades of pink. I spot salmon-pink lakes and pastel-pink lakes and even borderline Barbie-pink lakes. It’s like looking down the line of the lipstick counter at your local drug store.

We also spot some lakes that are vivid green and even brilliant yellow.

It’s a tad bumpy over land due to rising heat (even from the trees, Ben tells us over our intercom system), but as we get out to the ocean the flight is as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

We glide over truly spectacular beaches, such as Twilight Bay, with its offshore rocks that looks like the Seychelles, and the long, luxurious sand at Blue Haven. We also pass some of the rocky Recherce Islands, named by French explorers who came here in the 1700s.)

At one point I spot what looks to be a large shark patrolling the waters, but it’s not unusual to see them in the Southern Ocean, and I only saw one. I also spotted swarms of fish and what I thought were some lively manta rays. As we glide along, Ben regales us with stories about the area’s history and colourful characters, including Blackjack Anderson, an American pirate who set up shop on Middle Island and terrorized the local community. Anderson was murdered and is buried on the island.

We also pass over lovely Lucky Bay, where we occasionally spot kangaroos on the beach, and Frenchman’s Peak, a rugged, cone-shaped hill with a natural, oval gap near the top.

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West Beach
A massive rock formation flanks the ocean at West Beach in Esperance, Western Australia. Photo by Jim Byers

Sampling Surf Juice and Lockdown Dark Lager

Our second stop is at Lucky Bay Brewing, a popular spot on the outskirts of Esperance. It’s a busy day and there’s lots of people packing the patio. Kids are scampering about in a grassy playground dotted with picnic tables and barrels you can climb into and ride down a small, slope. Over to one side a woman with a guitar is playing on a small stage.

We sample a variety of great, local beers, including Surf Juice Lager, Shipwreck Stout and, as a nice demonstration of Aussie Covid humour, a Lockdown Dark Lager.

From there we take a short flight back to the Esperance Airport (two gates!), where we hop in a car for the three-minute drive to historic Gibson Soak. It’s an historic, old-time pub, built in the 1890’s as a stopping point for folks heading to the gold fields north of Esperance, with a natural water spring. It’s a charming, pale yellow building that features walls decorated with shiny, silver hubcaps, AC/DC paraphernalia, a pool table and a jukebox.

Lucky Bay Brewing Co.
Lucky Bay Brewing Co. serves up all kinds of tasty beers, including a Lockdown Lager. Photo by Jim Byers

Locals are gathered at the bar in the late afternoon, talking about everything from the weather to farm injuries. Outside on the shady patio I sip a Carlton Dry beer. We don’t have time for a meal, but Ben tells me the lamb shank here is legendary.

Our small group of four sip our brews and go over the highlights of the day.

“I was a little nervous about being in a small plane, but I loved it,” Deb tells me.

“I felt the same way,” I confess with a grin.

“Smashing” is the adjective of choice for her husband Russell. “It’s lot of money ($899 AUD, about $800 CAD), but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Flying pub crawls might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Or in everyone’s price range. Luckily, Fly Esperance also offers a 4×4 ride, along the white-sand beaches east of the city, taking you 50 km’s or so from Esperance to Cape Le Grand National Park and back. We ride over rolling sand dunes, and a fairly steep granite outcropping. We also enjoy a nice picnic lunch at Lucky Bay and admire the smooth, pale rocks lining the bright, aquamarine waters of Hellfire Bay, which might be the prettiest beach I know, with the least welcoming name.

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Gibson Soak
Gibson Soak is a great pub near the Esperance Airport. Photo by Jim Byers

My travelling partners for the day are a family from England; a husband and wife with a boy of around 10 years and a teenage girl. The boy, who some might expect to have his nose buried in a video game, is particularly taken with the scenery. As we walk out to admire the glittering white sand and shiny-bright water at Hellfire Bay, he turns to his father.

“Dad, this is amazing!”

Aboriginal Tour with Dabungool Cultural Experiences

Another great tour to take in the Esperance area is an aboriginal tour with Dabungool Cultural Experiences. My guide, Annie Dabb, was a wealth of knowledge and passed along lots of interesting bits as we walked over a massive dome of granite just west of the town’s Rotary Park.

Dabb pointed out some acacia trees, with small pods covered with red and black dots. They don’t look like much, but they’re tiny seeds you can eat (not bad) or grind into flour. “A lot of plants here have medicinal qualities or can be eaten,” she said. She then paused. “But some are just plants.”

The plants and animals in the area were critical to aboriginal people’s way of life. “There were no chemist shops (drug stores), so we used what we had.”

She also pointed out small trees that witchety grubs like to burrow into. “They’re yummy. You can fry them in butter, and they taste like scrambled eggs. Or you can eat them raw. They’re very creamy that way, with vitamins and antioxidants. Just don’t eat the heads. “Your stomach won’t like it, ” Dabb told us.

Next were some spiky plants and the warning not to sit on them as they’re quite uncomfortable. “We save those for cheeky grandkids,” she says with a smile.

On a more serious note, Dabb tells us: “We weren’t considered humans back in the day. We were put in the category of flora and fauna. Now we have rights under the Australian constitution.

“Besides,” she tells me, “I’m no flower.”

Blue Haven Beach
Blue Haven is one of the many beaches in Esperance. Photo by Jim Byers

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Don’t feel like signing up for a tour? You can easily visit the area on your own and try Gibson Soak, Lucky Bay Brewing or the Condingup Tavern (provided you have a car, as taxis are rare in Esperance.)

The Great Ocean Drive is a short but memorable trip west of Esperance that takes you past stunning beaches such as Blue Haven, Twilight Bay and Observatory Point (great for sunsets).

Esperance is a 90-minute flight from Perth. But it feels at times like the end of the earth, with just 14,000 full-time residents and no town of any size for miles (Albany, with a population of 35,000, is nearly 500 km’s away). It’s a popular spot in summer, but that’s a relative thing. There might be another 10,000 residents at the height of the season. When I was there in early December of last year, I often walked gorgeous beaches only a five-minute drive from town and found myself utterly alone.

The surfing here is pretty good, but the water is cool. And you do need to be mindful of sharks.

Where to stay in Esperance

Esperance Chalet Village is a quiet, nature spot with lovely A-frames of various sizes. Mine had a very comfy bed, a kettle, and a mini fridge, as well as a spacious shower/toilet area, and a couple chairs out front to watch the stars at night. There’s a communal kitchen with a coffee maker, toaster, and also a pizza oven.

Outside of town, Yirri Grove Olive Farm has two cottages in the olive groves, with outdoor tubs, large patios and barbecues. There are also a couple small hotels, including a Comfort Inn by the water.

Where to eat

33 Degrees is maybe the trendiest spot in town, with both indoor and outdoor dining. I had good calamari and tender pork belly.

Taylor St. Quarters is a bit more old school and features a nice patio. I had good pulled lamb, and ceviche that could’ve used a kick of spice. Try the scallops in olive oil and a dish of bacon-wrapped shrimp at the Loose Goose, a casual/family spot in town. Also in town, Cloud Eleven is a nice spot for coffee and a light bite, such as teriyaki chicken on rice with a side salad.

Yirri Grove Café serves lunch, including a nice charcuterie plate with tasty, home-grown olives.

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