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Roaming Australia's Margaret River Region

The bush is one of the things in Australia that no one tells you about. Before my trip, I thought that in order to see it I would have to climb into a jeep and venture hours into the interior. I didn't imagine that any place on the coast (90 percent of Australia's population lives within 100 miles of the ocean) would be wild enough to nurture bush. But between the capes, at least, bush is pretty much everything that is not a town, a farm, a vineyard, a beach, or a road.

If a mind-clearing bush walk is never far away, neither is a kangaroo, or two or three or seven. To anyone who's grown up in America, kangaroos inhabit coloring books, cartoons, and the zoo. In their native land I thought that one might be brought out, on a leash, perhaps, as a marsupial curiosity. But the shy roos (as you quickly start calling them here, trying to win points with the locals) are to this pocket of Australia what deer are, say, to Lenox, Massachusetts. Roo-crossing signs put drivers on guard, but to limit damage—and stop the 200-pound animals from crashing through the windshield—many cars are equipped with front-mounted "roo bars."

The advice about how to handle a confrontation is chilling: "Hit the roo. If you try to swerve it will probably jump into your path anyway, and you risk hitting a tree or an oncoming car. That's how people kill themselves." The only thing that made my pulse race faster than a prancing roo was a dead one on the side of the road, a common sight.

The third thing no one prepares you for is the similarities with England. Does everybody but me know that "God Save the Queen" is still played in Australia because Elizabeth II is still the country's nominal head of state?Did I really sleep through that much of high school?Then there are the cream teas, the electrical sockets that you have to bend down to switch on, the soggy and foul terry-cloth runners on pub bars, the blithe refusal to acknowledge any advances made in domestic heating after the construction of Windsor Castle ("A cardy will do tonight, luv, don't you think?" "No, I don't think"), and the guesthouses.

And I am sad to report that many of Margaret River's guesthouses brought back my worst memories of traveling in the English countryside—electric kettles in the guest rooms, depressing little tubs of long-life milk, yeast extract beside the make-it-yourself toaster on the breakfast buffet, and overbearing women who seem to specialize in running such establishments. On my third morning one of these enchanting ladies banged on my door at 8:15, literally commandeering me for breakfast.

Outraged, I was ready to take the next flight out until a local put her behavior into perspective. "Ten years ago, many of the people now in tourist-related businesses in Margaret River were farmers," he explained. "Don't take it personally: your landlady was drawing on the habit of waking up the farmhands to milk the cows."

Much is also forgiven because of the fourth thing Australia hides under a bushel: its people. Even my least-favorite landlady went into town just to buy me an extension cord so that I could use the reception-area phone in my room, in private. Indeed, during seven days of dealing with everyone from waiters to gas-station attendants to supermarket cashiers, I don't think I had a single unpleasant exchange. "No worries"—the standard response to anything asked—became the two loveliest words in the English language. Western Australians claim niceness and liberalism as regional traits. They are, they assured me, the nicest and least-conservative Australians in Australia.

Not all the guesthouses and cottages should be ruled out. Bridgefield, built in 1929, with handsome doors and wainscoting in jarrah, the native hardwood, is owned by Tom Higgins. His knowledge of local history is inestimable—his English ancestors were on the first ship to arrive in the area, in 1830, and he has the documents and photographs to back it up. Once he has your ear, though, it may be hard to get it back. And while the house is a bit close to town for some, Margaret River walking trails are only 100 yards from the front door.

For vernacular style, no accommodations match WillowWood's immaculately rehabilitated 1920's "group settlers cottages," on the lip of a sheep farm. WillowWood's proprietor, Jill Hinde, explained that after World War I an agreement between Western Australia and Britain offered English soldiers, many without any agricultural experience, the chance to become dairy farmers here in what were called group settlements. "What they didn't say was that each man had to clear ten acres of hardwood forest with a crosscut saw," she said. "The soldiers were terribly misled, and the farms were never viable." Mrs. Hinde is a scholar of settler architecture the way some are scholars of Palladian villas.

Nothing takes precedence over historical correctness in her cottages. The 80-year-old weatherboards facing one were salvaged from the assembly hall of a neighboring high school, agonizingly transported by car trailer, and reversed so that the painted sides face in. Demolition yards supplied the vintage windows. When she ran out of period scotia she had it copied. Settler-cottage ceilings were originally of lath and plaster, with battens to mask the joints. WillowWood's ceilings have no joints, but Hinde insisted on battens nevertheless. Everything is as it would have been for the immigrant in the 1920's—the corrugated-metal roofs, the tongue-and-groove floorboards, the bronze window stays with faint copper highlights ("Brass would have been wrong"), even the Bakelite sockets and wall switches mounted on beveled jarrah blocks. The upright oak settee covered in brocade gives you a backache just looking at it.

As you might imagine, there is nothing Mrs. Hinde will not do for her guests. "In the morning I run over from the main house with breakfast on a mahogany tray—grilled sausages stuffed with prunes and wrapped in bacon, ham and cheddar and parsley mousse. Dinner always includes decanted port, chocolate truffles, plunger coffee, nibblies—oh, I guess I should call them hors d'oeuvres."She forgot to mention that the entire meal is served on her own exquisite Victorian silver.

Mrs. Hinde sent me to see two friends who also offer lodgings, and I knew that because she had recommended them I wouldn't be disappointed. Wildbrook is an adorable former shearer's cottage on a sheep and horse farm that dates from the turn of the century. "When doing up the cottage we tried to keep everything old-y," says owner Colleen Wild. "Our idea was to make people feel like part of the farm and family without intruding on their privacy."

In their modern, shipshape way, Waterfall Cottages are just as attractive. Huge expanses of glass bring the outside in. All the cottages have a light, airy feel, but number eight has a view of a part of the Margaret River that tumbles into a waterfall.


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