Things that go bump bump in the night; travel Tim Ross gets to grips with the wildlife of Australia's outback.
ASDARKNESS fell over the isolated cabin, the noises from the tall gum trees all around were deeply unsettling to the ears of a lone British tourist.
Unidentified screechings pierced the air and the warmspring night came alive with the hiss of insects. An army of toads bleated in the lake nearby.
It had rained all afternoon and the wildlife of Western Australia's Merribrook Retreat was awakening to the world with a newand frightening joy.
Tomany first-time visitors, the single most alarming fact about Australia is the sheer nastiness of many of the creatures that have proved tough enough to so far survive the formidable climate here.
There's the deadly Box Jellyfish, for example, with its three-metre tentacles.
There are tiger snakes and the tiny Redback spider with its blood-coloured warning flash, saltwater crocodiles, brown snakes and deadly fast bowlers called McGrath.
Despite its playful name and idyllic setting, there is something unnerving, too, about Merribrook's cluster of isolated chalets, situated in acres of untouched bush.
Once inside the smartly equipped cabin, the door firmly shut, it was a struggle not to think about the fact that there was no mobile phone reception, no TV, no telephone to the main lodge a hundred yards away, and no means of contacting the wider world beyond.
Agood hot soak in the luxurious bathroom helped bring a sense of calm to the evening. And, after a long day's travelling, the welcome comfort of bed brought the beginnings of sleep, once I began to zone out the disturbing chorus outside.
But then it happened. With a loud bang, some giant bear-like animal crashed onto the roof, rattling the thin windowpane and letting out a howl of unspeakable violence in the darkness.
Kookaburras laughed murderously from the tree-tops outside and the beast started circling the hut. The animal thundered into the side of the chalet again and again, its heavy tread growing louder as it padded past the door just a fewfeet away.
Howcould the lightly-built cabin withstand such an onslaught? If the beast broke through the door, the only available weapons seemed to be a sachet of coffee and a teaspoon.
Immobilised by fear, I did what many beforemust have done and hid under the bedclothes waiting for dawn or death.
The next day, a glorious sunny morning broke over Merribrook and there were thankfully no signs of monsters in the beautiful gardens outside.
Happily, the hospitable owners prepare one of the finest breakfasts in the land for hungry guests.
Merribrook, along with with the rest of this beautiful part of Western Australia, enjoys some inspiring scenery. Driving through the Margaret River region brings tomind the gentle vine-covered hills of Burgundy, but with a distinctive Australian edge.
Vivid green vines formneat rows across the hillsides, while in the next field blackened tree stumps jut up from the parched earth.
Atree-lined route takes visitors past dozens of wineries, all displaying an invitation to sample their wares at the "cellar door".
The culture of fine food is also familiar. If Burgundy is known as "the belly of France", Margaret River must surely be the paunch (finely rounded and tanned by the midday sun) of Australia.
Four hours' drive from Perth, this short stretch of surfer's coast has become perhaps the NewWorld's most celebrated wine region.
It now rivals some of the finer labels of Europe for sheer quality, with big name wineries exporting to the UK including Cullen, Cape Mentelle and Vasse Felix.
At the Grove Vineyard, one of the smaller estates, you can even learn how tomake your own sparkling wine.
Australia has developed an image as the unrivalled producer of barbecue bargains, but most of the wines of Margaret River are pitched at the classier end of the market.
Perth, WA's thriving cultural capital, is substantially easier to reach from the UK thanmany more popular destinations such as Sydney, several hours' flight farther away on the eastern coast.
The city is a bustling urban centre with its own excellent restaurants, stylish hotels, museums and galleries.
The straightforward drive south from Perth to Margaret River passes good beaches for surfing while the seaside town of Rockinghamoffers wildlife lovers a swim with the local inshore dolphins.
The town of Busselton, en route, was recommended for its "famous" long jetty. Pulling into the car park, the attraction became obvious. The jetty really is, well, very long.
But there's also an underwater observatory, which affords mesmerising views of the seabed and hundreds of colourful varieties of fish and other marine life.
Once in the laid-back surfer's town of Margaret River itself, though, one of the most memorable trips out is a Bushtucker Tour.
Small groups can spend a fewhours canoeing up the Margaret River and hiking through the woods with the help of an expert guide. After working up an appetite and learning about the area's aboriginal heritage, visitors sit down to a lunch of kangaroo meat and a variety of assorted edible nuts and plants. Wichetty grubs in thousand island sauce are also available, if you are so inclined.
When we embarked on the Bushtucker Tour, I was still weary from a somewhat disturbed night's sleep at Merribrook. Eating lunch in the open air amid the exuberant buzzing and squawking of nature did renewmy respect for Australia's remarkable - and sometimes frightening - wildlife.
But, most of all, chewing on a slice of smoked 'roo was just a great way to get even with the beast that went bump in the night.
TIM ROSS was a guest of TourismAustralia and flewwith Qantas, which offers return flights to Perth in 2008 from pounds 833 (fare pounds 528 and GB taxes pounds 305). Fare applies for travel between April 16 and June 15, 2008. Qantas Holidays reservations: 020 8222 9101 or www.qantas.co.uk Among operators with packages to Margaret River, Bridge&Wickers offers 14-night independent selfdrive visits to the region from pounds 1,743, including return Qantas flights into Perth, four nights in Perth at The Duxton, followed by 11 nights in Margaret River at Quay West Bunker Bay, and 14 days' car hire. Accommodation in both places on room-only terms. Bridge&Wickers reservations: 0207 483 6555 or www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk
Witchety grubs in thousand island sauce are also available
Daily Post Travel
EXPERIENCE the land down under with the Australia: the Great Ocean Road 13-day trip. Priced from pounds 1,799, it includes return flights from Manchester via London, 10 nights' hotel accommodation, visits to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Otway and Coorange National Park, Tower Hill State Game Reserve and the Coonawarra wine region, a scenic drive along Victoria's Great Ocean Road.
Various departures, April, 2008-April, 2009, fully escorted by a Travelscope Tour Manager. For further details, contact Daily Post Travel Service on tel: 0151 227 5987.
Busselton Jetty, in the Margaret River wine region - the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere; Aluxury chalet at Merribrook Retreat, beautifully appointed and set in 160 acres of natural parkland and forest, and with its own beautiful lake; Lush vines thriving in the Western Australian sun, at Grove Vineyards; Sitting down to a lunch of wild berries, kangaroo meat, native plants and - for the brave - witchety grubs, on a Bushtucker River Tour; Preparing to swim with wild dolphins at Rockingham, on the coastal route between Perth and Margaret River