Travel Story Waychinicup National Park: A below-the-radar beauty on WA's south coast

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Family fun is heightened by nature and a dash of history at this picture-postcard spot, a 45-minute drive east of Albany.

It looks as if an eon ago giants fought, strewing enormous rocks across the landscape, the granite boulders haphazardly tumbling down the hill and into the water below.

Over time these boulders have been worn by the rough weather of Western Australia’s south coast, smoothed and moulded but still reminiscent of primordial times.

Waychinicup National Park and the site where the Waychinicup River and Southern Ocean meet is a place of beauty. Why it isn’t gracing the cover of every south coast tourism brochure is a wonder but its below-the-radar status makes it all the better.

A 45-minute drive east of Albany and just 10 minutes from Cheynes Beach, the Waychinicup River mouth lies within the 5310ha Waychinicup National Park. This place first appeared on maps in 1877, its name derived from the Noongar word “waitch”, meaning emu, and “up”, meaning place of. 

Waychinicup still shines despite overcast skies on this midsummer day; this is the south coast after all and we are 70km from Albany, a place notorious for its four seasons in one day. We approach on the corrugated gravel road, an easy journey for a two-wheel-drive in summer. First we dip to cross the Waychinicup River, now a trickling freshwater stream, where the low heathlands give way to trees and ferns. We round the corner catching sight of the boulder-strewn hilltops dipping steeply to the inlet, while what looks to be a white-bellied sea eagle soars overhead. 

We arrival at a basic camp site, where small camp clearings are hidden in the bush, many with views of the inlet below. Unlike other rivers that flow into the Southern Ocean in this part of the world, the Waychinicup River is open year round. A small opening, protected by huge rocks against which waves dash on the other side, shelters a wide, calm inlet. Eventually the inlet narrows, the salt water meeting the fresh water of the stream.   

The river’s rare year-round open status was important for the early seal hunters, who used Waychinicup even before Albany became the oldest colonial settlement in the State. Today there is still evidence of their activity. Volunteer camp site manager Greg points to a rock structure we can just make out across the water. It’s the sealers’ oven we have heard about. Greg says it is one of, if not the oldest man-made colonial structure remaining on the south coast.

Members of our group use a kayak to visit the site, where rocks circle a space to make a rudimentary oven built about 1800. Wood burning inside the dome heated the stone and bread and meat were placed inside to cook.

It’s not the only evidence of the past. Overlooking the still inlet are carefully laid stones and a zigzag path down the incline. Greg tells us this is where Frank Cooper’s hut once stood. After World War Two, Frank found the quiet he wanted at Waychinicup, building a hut and living predominantly off the land. He lived at that spot for about 50 years until the mid-1990s.

During spring the Waychinicup National Park is a wildflower paradise. Even in summer there are still bush flowers aplenty, as well as wildlife encounters of the reptile kind — luckily just King’s skinks and a lizard that held fast to its path-side spot no matter how many of us passed it by. The park is also a haven for the threatened quenda, ring-tailed possums and one of the few mainland populations of quokkas. The critically endangered noisy scrub bird, once thought to be extinct, is also found within Waychinicup National Park. 

Besides being an easy daytrip from Albany, Waychinicup is a popular destination from Cheynes Beach, where we are staying. Cheynes is a tiny coastal settlement — just two streets lined with holiday houses and a caravan park.

Cheynes Beach cove is sheltered from the winds, and with the pristine white sands of the south coast and clear water, it’s a family holiday spot where the only options are to swim, fish and relax. 

On this summer day we see a stingray cruising the shallows of the beach and a 3m bronze whaler shark is caught and released around the point. In winter southern right whales can be seen in the sheltered bay. They are now safe from the whalers who hunted them after the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company was formed in the 1950s. The operation was later relocated to Frenchman Bay to become Australia’s last commercial whaling station. Now it’s the site of Albany’s historic Whaling Station.

Cheynes Beach is popular during wildflower season with orchids, including the popular Queen of Sheba on display. 

The area is also a haven for birdwatchers hoping to see the rare noisy scrubbird, western whipbird and western bristlebird. 

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