Margaret River has become synonymous with good wine the world over but the river that gives this Western Australian town its name is all but forgotten.

Story By Roger Garwood

The town of Margaret River is the mothership to a region stretching from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south. This cape country is home to about 150 wine and grape producers, dairy farmers, cheese and chocolate makers, a couple of breweries, umpteen restaurants and a worldwide reputation. The region is now a playground for international travellers, backpackers, surfies, bushwalkers and Western Australia’s glitterati.

But despite the region’s popularity – it attracts half a million visitors a year – the Margaret River itself seems to have been forgotten by all but a handful of local residents. Historical records simply state: “The town, which was named after the river, is presumed to have been named after Margaret Wyche, cousin of John Garrett Bussell, in 1831.”

Driving south into the town on the last leg of the trip from Perth along the Bussell Highway, the river is virtually invisible. As the clicks of the odometer hit about 280 kilometres there is a bridge with a small sign saying Margaret R. “It’s like they didn’t even have the space to write river,” says Ross Lonnie, a lawyer who has lived in the town for the best part of his life.

Even if you are looking for it, it is not easy to get a glimpse of the river, which at one time was the town’s water supply and the very reason for the town’s location.

This secret river rises in the Whicher Range 35km north-east of town and spills into the Indian Ocean – sometimes. For many months of the year it comes to a standstill, thwarted by a huge sandbar bulldozed into place by prodigious surf, a trademark of this coast and a lure for the world’s surfers.

Theo Mathews was a young architect when he moved here in late 1973, a time when the early surfies were riding their longboards beyond the river mouth. “I had an aversion to going to work in West Perth,” he says. “I was very outdoorsy ... surfing, of course, is the reason I came down here.”

He bought a block of land with a 1.5km river frontage and built a home, which is an iconic example of his architecture and attitude to the river. “I needed builders so I picked a Marxist political economist and an electrician with a bung eye,” he says. He laughs when he calls them “a crack team” and says, “I didn’t want to work with skilled tradesmen because I knew they’d call the shots. It was basically an experiment – and it worked.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #79

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2011