Chasing Horizons #22: Seeing Double in WA – Western Australia, Australia

Seeing Double in WA

I stared out across the vast blue expanse that is the Indian Ocean. As I held my hand across my forehead I squinted into the setting sun. It is a vain attempt to spot the next landmass that lays some 5000km to the west. Of course it is futile, there is no way I am going to be able to see my homeland, South Africa, so far away. But I know it’s out there somewhere. At least I am in my “home” southern hemisphere.

I sigh as I turn 180� and contemplate the upcoming weeks of travel across 3000km of the most rough, harsh and unforgiving land, which lies to the east. Welcome to the start of my Australian Odyssey.

I arrived in Perth, Western Australia almost more than a week ago on September 17, 2002, to begin traversing across my fourth continent of this year – starting in Africa I have since been through Europe and Asia. Now it is time to tackle the largest island on Earth, which is also the smallest continent in the world. Don’t let me deceive you, this place is huge, the state of Western Australia alone is the same size as Western Europe.

The 5-hour flight from Singapore touched down at Perth’s international airport around 2pm. With my luggage collected and passport stamped with the necessary visitor’s visa I was waiting in the queue that had formed to pass through customs. A seemingly friendly customs officer pulled me out, perhaps after 7 months travelling in Asia I had acquired an appearance of some drug crazed, aging hippie. Thinking I was just being shown through a different route to alleviate the long queue that had formed I happily followed the gentleman. Oh no! I was asked to empty the entire contents of all my bags. A minor inconvenience, you must admit, but I had nothing to hide so I happily obliged. Everything from toothpaste to my mobile phone was thoroughly unscrewed, scanned and checked. I even feared that I might be subjected to a body search that might include some bodily orifices. I was asked pointed questions about whether I had used narcotics in India or carried marijuana through Thailand or Malaysia.

Still I wasn’t worried, only guilty people worry about this sort of intrusion by the authorities. Following the age old male philosophy of not admitting to anything I had ticked the “NO” box to all the questions on the customs form you are asked to fill out on arrival into Australia. This included the one that says, “Are you carrying any wood, plants or any other organic matter?” Well, when I unwrapped my souvenir Hindu Barong mask the customs official’s eyes lit up. At last he had his man. He called over a few colleagues and eventually a lady supervisor was brought over to witness this major bust. Admittedly, the mask was carved out of wood, but it had been brightly painted and was totally unrecognisable as such. For God’s sake the guy at the next table was being given the same drilling because the border of his chessboard, which was a carved dark ebony-like material.

I know these guys are only doing their job. Also because of Australia’s remoteness from the rest of the world it has to be vigilantly protective of its delicate ecology. But now I was going to given a AS$200 on-the-spot fine. Maybe by criminalizing visitors to the country is Australia’s way of bringing us down to their level. After all, Australians are so damn good at everything, but their penal beginnings are something they just can’t seem to get over and the one thing we still have to take the piss with.

Note: For the record after much apologising and self-beratement I was given a stern talking to and let off with a warning. The chessboard guy, however, gesticulated and argued with his official and was given a fine for his troubles.

With a slight sour taste in my mouth I left the airport on the A$13 shuttle which would drop me off at my chosen hostel. I quickly cheered up though as I took in my new surroundings. The first, and now after a week, lasting, impression was that this place is almost exactly like Cape Town. I don’t mean just similar, I mean almost exactly. The only thing missing is Table Mountain. So many similarities kept on cropping up over the next few days I had to list them so as not to forget them all.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.1 – The soil is mainly of a sandy nature so is subsequently covered with suitable grass and scrub vegetation.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.2 – Suburbs are well planned, containing medium to large single story brick dwellings set on spacious gardens.

Perth skyline

Perth skyline

Perth, the W.A. capital, is situated on the banks of the Swan River 10km from the coast. It is a modern multicultural city. It is also one of the most isolated cities in the world; Singapore, the next closest big city is closer to Perth than Sydney. But Perth is certainly no stunted backwater, it is in fact very cosmopolitan. The skyscraper skyline could be seen as we drove closer to the centre of town. In Northbridge, an area within walking distance north of the city centre I saw many bars, restaurants and pavement cafes. This is also the most popular area for backpackers and many hostels are found here.

I had chosen to bunk down at the very nice Underground Backpackers. It is large, well run, everyone seems friendly with regular nights out and day excursions arranged by the hostel itself and, best of all, it has a pool.

A very hospitable backpacker network exists in Perth. Every evening one of the many bars in the area organises some special event for travellers. This could take the form of a free drink on arrival at the Hip-e Club, or cheap jugs of beer all night the Mustang bar. By far the most popular is the free BBQ’s at places like the Deen Hotel or Le Bog. Pretty much every night is catered for and both local Australians and travellers alike flock to attend. The weekend is when most Australians, young and old, head out and pack the many bars and clubs.

Perth is also a tourist friendly city. The city authorities have provided a free commuter bus service for everyone. The Central Area Transit (CAT) buses run in two figure-eight loops meeting in the city centre and out to the close surrounding areas. The Blue Cat runs north-south and the Red Cat east-west. Next morning I got up and utilised this bus service to get my bearings and decide how to tackle the travelling through Western Australia.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.7 – Familiar brands in South Africa are also available in Australia but are unavailable in the U.K. Like the Ford Laser and Milo, a malt/chocolate drink. It’s like some Southern Hemisphere brotherhood not to allow these popular products to be sold north of the equator.

The nice thing about Perth is that it is not overcrowded at all. You can walk around any time during the day and you are never hemmed in by masses of people. In fact, the whole place has a Sunday morning feel, like not everyone is out of bed yet.

I got acquainted with Chris and Steve, the two guys running the Backpackers Travel Centre in Northbridge. We chatted about the possible tours and travel options available. I eventually settled on three short tours taking in the many popular tourist attractions around Perth.

Thursday, 19 September: Wave Rock with Aussie Perth Tours

It was early morning when I caught the CAT bus to the Wellington Street bus depot. Here I climbed aboard a medium sized, air-conditioned bus. The other people taking this tour were mainly middle-aged holidaymakers from Japan.

We journeyed through historic Guildford and Midland townships, at one time the end of human civilisation. Our tour guide, Keith, was very enthusiastic and as we drove landmarks such as the Swan River, a huge casino and concert hall complex were pointed out to us. Perth is bounded in the east by the Darling Range, a line of gentle hills. We travelled on the Great Eastern Highway up the Greenmount Hill and onto the world’s oldest escarpment.

Halfway up this hill Chipper’s Rock was pointed out, where a couple of early pioneers were set upon by some Aborigines. Chipper jumped from this rock and escaped to raise the alarm with the authorities. His mate was not so fortunate and met his demise.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.12 – Like Perth, Cape Town too sits within a bowl surrounded by a mountain range. The road that winds its way up this pass leads to the more rural farming areas and is bordered by horse stud farms.

Keith was a wealth of information and kept the facts and stories flowing during the long drive. We passed Mundaring’s Weir, a dam was built by C.Y. O’Connor. His vision also saw water taken 600km into the eastern outback. A pipeline was built to Kalgoorlie during the gold rush.

Now we were into the wheat belt where huge farms stretch for miles to the horizon. You can see how seriously Australian farmers take their sheep, some animals had coats on to protect them from the early morning chill – it must be love?

York colonial building

York colonial buidling

By mid-morning we arrived in the oldest inland town in WA, York, settled in 1831. This was the main town supplying farm produce to Perth. The roads and a lot of the original town were built by convict labour. In an effort to promote its “Englishness” a lot of the colonial buildings have been restored – there are even old red phone boxes and post boxes lining the main street.

We drove on through vast fields of wheat and canola oilseed, occasionally passing through the frontier towns of Quairading, Corrigin and Kondinin. The people of Corrigin certainly have a “dog” thing going. We stopped briefly at its unique Dog Cemetery, where farmers bury their hard working sheep dogs when they have gone to meet their maker. Corrigin also holds the world record for the longest convoy of dogs in a Ute (Australian word for pick-up truck). Apparently there is a fierce rivalry between the WA and Victoria states to acquire this record – particularly amusing is the sign that states the reason for holding this record “to stick it up the Vic’s”.

The further out east we got the landscape become flatter and flatter, giving a good impression just how big this country is. Now, interspersed between the sheep grazing land was virgin outback scrub. These sheep farming stations are remote and life on the farms can be hard. Farmers don’t actually shear there own sheep, relying instead on teams of sheep shearers who travel around shearing 5-7kg of wool from each animal.

Did you hear the one about the two shearers who met up on the road on day? Well, the one shearer says to his mate, who is carrying a sheep under each arm, “G’day Bruce, are those sheep for shearing?”

“Nah!” says Bruce, “Bugger off and get your own.”

Wave Rock

Wave Rock

We finally arrived at our destination for the day. The famous Wave Rock was 4km outside the tiny town of Hyden. After a brief lunch of chicken sandwiches our group made its way through the wattle and eucalyptus trees bordering this attraction. Then all of a sudden you see it, a 15m high perfect standing wave frozen in solid rock. There is even a diagonal fault crack, which has naturally repaired, like the wake of a surfer that has carved across the wave face.

This granite cliff is 110 metres long and is part of 65 hectares of rock situated amid 160 hectares of bush reserve. Its overhanging curve has been caused by weathering and water erosion of an ancient river which once flowed through here. The erosion undercut the base and left a rounded overhang. As the rain has fallen on the top, and run down the sides, it has gradually dissolved the sides to create the wave effect. Adding to the illusion of the wave is pronounced grey, rusty-red and sandy vertical streaks on the rock face. This is caused by chemical action and formed by rain washing chemical deposits down its face.

We also visited the other, less impressive rock formation Hippo’s Yawn. This is really just a hollowed out big rock used by Aborigines for shelter. I was not impressed, but anything would pale into insignificance after the splendid Wave Rock.

The afternoon was spent dozing on the bus whilst being driven back to Perth. We took a different route on the Great Southern Highway back through Brookton, not that anyone noticed. The Rock was impressive and only just manages to justify the 700km round trip from Perth.

Saturday, 21 September: 2 day Albany Southwest Tour with Planet Perth Tours

The tour guide collected me bright and early from Underground Backpackers. Steve is a crusty looking Perth local who loves surfing and fishing. We got on very well from the start. After doing the rounds, picking up from various residences around town we headed over the Narrows Bridge, which spans the Swan River and onto the Kwinana Freeway through the suburbs of South Perth.

We had a full compliment on this tour, mainly young Swiss students with some Belgian and Japanese thrown in for good measure. Whilst on holiday from their institutions back home these students come to Australia to study and improve their English. Within no time everyone was making friends and looking forward to the next two days.

We headed south, hugging the coast and passing suburban residences built alongside river marinas. At Mandurah, environmental problems relating to the flow of the river out of the Peel Inlet, were caused by excessive marina construction. This has been resolved by the construction of the Dawesville Cut. Steve said that where the Cut enters the sea a great surf break was ruined but is now a great fishing spot.

At Bunbury, whilst the mist rolled in off the ocean into Koombana Bay we stopped for morning tea and coffee.

From here our journey now took us inland and on into the Southern Forest region. Now the landscape became dominated by magnificent towering Jarrah, Marri and Karri eucalyptus trees. Early settlers stripped out huge tracts of these forests for timber and created cattle pastures, farms and vineyards. The stripping out of these tall trees (not tall timber as that predetermines their fate) is a divisive and emotive issue. Conservationists have been chaining themselves to bulldozers for years. Now the WA government has promised to reduce the annual levels of sawlog and protect the ancient trees. But the timber is a multi-million dollar industry and is the economic mainstay of many southwest towns. You need to keep an eye on the state’s forestry authorities especially as they are the people charged with the protection of these stately forests in the first place.

For lunch we stopped at the Diamond Tree Lookout, 10km south of the town of Manjimup (many town names in these parts are end with the word -up, this is the Aboriginal word for “place of”). This big karri tree lookout was constructed in 1940, and remains in active service. Its height is 51m and is topped by wooden cabin. It is the only wooden tree top tower in the world. Diamond Tree soon became a tourist attraction. Gulping down my fear of heights, I climbed the pegs which have been driven into the tree trunk forming a spiralling ladder which circles up the tree to the lookout on top.

That afternoon we drove through the giant Tingle, Jarrah, Marri and Karri forests of the South West until we came to the Southern Ocean coast at Walpole.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.18 – About 5-6 hours drive southeast out of Cape Town you will also find impressive indigenous forests – The Garden Route – although the yellowwood and ironwood trees there do not reach the dizzying heights of Australia’s eucalyptus giants.

We were now in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park and we headed some 15 km along the coast then turned inland to visit the “Valley of the Giants“. This attraction gets its name from the large red tingle trees that are found here. These trees have a very shallow root structure, the large girth of the trunk at their base keeps them upright. The trunks are sometimes dramatically hollowed out by bushfires, while the tree lives on. Many of these trees are over 400 years old and can reach heights of 60m and a base circumference of 16m. Years ago no tour of the Southwest was complete without a photo of your car parked in a hollowed out tingle. Generations of visitors have tramped around these wonders compacting the root zone and strangling the nutrient supply. In 1990 a famous hollow tingle suddenly collapsed. The valley was being visited to death.

Tree Top Walk
Clearly something had to be done, these magnificent giant trees needed to be protected. In 1996 a stunning tree top walk was designed and built, getting admirers off the tree’s life support system without detracting from visitor enjoyment.

Again it was time to overcome any fear of heights as we ventured along the 600m catwalk which is
Tree Top Walk suspended between half a dozen or so pylons. It is a series of inverted suspension bridge type spans amongst the tree canopy and is 40m above the tree gully at its highest point. The catwalks actually sway as you walk along them adding to the feeling of being in among the tree tops. The views were stunning as well as witnessing the colourful birds roosting in the treetops.

Tree Top Walk
I got an even better impression of the surrounding forest on the Ancient Kingdom Walkway, a wooden boardwalk which winds through the forest floor. Here I could gaze up into the tree canopy from the ground and actually pass through some of the hollowed out trunks burnt out by bushfires.

To visit these stately trees so intimately is a wonderful experience. Well worth the trip alone.

It was getting on a bit when we left the Valley of the Giants and made our way back to the coast to the Green Pools to witness the setting sun. As the sky darkened we found fishermen settling in for the night and tame rays patrolling the edges of the pool looking for cast off bait.

All there was to do now was to stop off at a bottle shop in Denmark, another coastal town, to stock up with beers for the night. We then drove the last half hour in the dark through to Albany and checked into our hostel for the night.

Obviously our crew were getting on fabulously and we had spent a good day together travelling and sightseeing. Students will be students and it didn’t take too much persuading by Steve to arrange an impromptu excursion out that night to Albany’s White Star Hotel.

Here in Albany the eighties-style mullet hairdo is very popular with the male population. Obviously in these parts the guys are a bit rough around the edges. Our group breezed noisily into the main bar. We monopolised the video jukebox and danced the night away in the corner of the bar we had cordoned off for ourselves. Looking for the toilets I ventured through an adjoining bar into a hall out the back to find a 50’s/60’s night had been arranged for the town folk. It wasn’t too well attended but the few attending patrons were decked out in their finest. We all had a great night, typical of a country town. At closing time we staggered home happy. All in all a good day.

The next morning saw us making an early start exploring the quaint town of Albany by day before making our way down to the jetty. We were afforded splendid views of the bay and the particularly unusual Dog Rock, which looks like the head of a gigantic dog sniffing the air.

Established as a harbour town on the King George Sound in 1826, Albany is WA’s oldest European settlement. It was a thriving port until whaling was ceased in the late 1970’s. Now its jetty is used to load cargo ships with wood chippings exported to Asia for papermaking.

Our tour included a trip out into the Sound for some whale watching. Our skipper and guide was Ian Tarbotton. This old sea dog is famously known as Albany’s “Whale Whisperer”. He has “intimate knowledge of whale behaviour to provide the best whale watching experience”. With the promise of Southern Right Humpback whales sightings we set off on a circuit around the bay. It was a bright sunny morning with a stiffening breeze.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.21 – Hermanus, a fishing town close to Cape Town is also famous for whale watching. In fact, around this time of year the town holds a Whale Festival so visitors can spot the whales from vantage spots along the coast.

Captain Ian’s “knowledge of whale behaviour” couldn’t have been that intimate. Despite sightings on all but three days over the last two months no whales were spotted that day. We did see a couple of New Zealand fur seals lazing on a rock and a pod of dolphins swam by, but no sign of the elusive whales. Maybe the old “Phil Rado” mockers were put on the trip. It was nice to get out on the water though.

Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge

Back aboard our tour bus we headed south of Albany on Frenchman Bay Road. The weather had now worsened with gale force winds and driving rain. Most appropriate for the rugged stretch of coastline we were travelling along. Braving the elements we left the bus at the viewpoints overlooking the spectacular Natural Bridge, the Gap and the Blowholes. The wind was so strong, there was a real danger of being swept off by gusts into the angry heavy seas far below.

By this time it was after lunch and with no signs of an improvement in the weather we made our long way back to Perth. This was a great weekend trip with our cool, no fuss guide, Steve and a great bunch students.

Monday, 23 September: Pinnacles Eco Tour with Western Travel Bug

Another early start saw this trip of holidaymakers from Singapore and one South African drive 50km north of Perth.

Our first visit was to the Yanchep National Park where natural Australian scenery is set amongst a picturesque natural lake. A wonderful facility so close to the city. After snapping off a few photographs of kangaroo and koalas. Our local Aborigine (Nyoongars) guide demonstrated some of the traditional crafts and explained lifestyles and culture of the Aboriginal people.

The Pinnacles

The Pinnacles

After morning tea we drove another 200km north to the Nambung National Park. This is where we explored the Pinnacles Desert, thousands of finger shaped rocks set amongst the yellow sand dunes. These sculptured limestone pillars are quite bizarre if not a little bit haunting. Their heights range from a few centimetres to five metres.

After lunch we headed for the beach at the small seaside village of Cervantes.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.35 – These holiday villages and surrounds are so similar to those back home that photos I took of Cervantes will easily be mistaken for any of dozen of villages along the Western Cape coast.

A nice end to the day came when we stopped off at one of Perth’s northernmost suburbs, Joondalup. At the lakeside here we fed bird seed to the many parrots gathered. There were green parrots with their black hoods and yellow collar. Also pink and grey Galah’s. This was an Australian exotic version of the bird seed sellers and pigeons in Trafalgar Square in London.

Wednesday, 25 September – Fremantle with Phil’s DIY Tours

I didn’t want to leave Western Australia without a visit to the most famous seaside port of Fremantle. I caught the fast and comfortable Transperth commuter train to the town.

I first heard about Fremantle when the Alan Bond syndicate won the America’s Cup with Australia II for the Perth Yacht Club. The unsuccessful defence of that trophy took place in Fremantle in 1987. Apart from the inaugural regatta when the New York Yacht club won the cup off the Isle of Wight some 160 years ago it was the first time the America’s Cup had been held outside the United States. These days New Zealand holds the America’s Cup and the regatta is about to be sailed in Auckland after a successful defence the Cup in 1999/2000.

Freo, as it known to the locals, is even more laid back than skyscrapered Perth, if that is possible. It has a pleasant atmosphere with a sense of history. Again, the hard-worked convicts taken in here were responsible for constructing many of the early colonial buildings.

After wandering around the town for a while I made my way up a short distance out of town past the Fremantle Football Ground, home of the Fremantle Dockers. Up a hill behind the stadium I found what I was looking for, the Old Fremantle Prison.

Old Fremantle Prison

Old Fremantle Prison

One of the convicts’ building tasks in the 1850s was to build this colonial prison. It was used as WA’s main maximum security prison for 136 years. I was taken on a guided tour around the old jail by the entertaining “Prison Guardian”. We were shown the holding area and the process of admitting new prisoners. In the main cellblock is a display of a number of cells and how they had changed through the years. On the upper landings we were shown special cells constructed for particularly difficult inmates or cells where talented prisoners (apparently in for forging banknotes) had drawn elaborate pictures. The Anglican and Catholic chapels were still hired out today for that unusual wedding ceremony. Kitchens and exercise yards, solitary confinement cells where men were locked up for 23 hours a day. Finally we were taken into the gruesome gallows. It wasn’t hard to imagine the executions that had taken place in this room even without the demonstration of the prison guardian.

In early January, 1988 prisoners* rebelled and rioted, taking officers hostage and making demands about conditions. They subsequently set fire to the main prison building. Order was restored on 5th January, but not before some of the officers held hostage were injured, and extensive damage done to part of the main cellblock by fire and water. This event spelled the beginning of the end for the old prison. In 1991 all inmates were transferred to a modern facility at Casuarina, about 20km south of Perth, and Fremantle Prison closed.

*Interestingly, here a distinction is made between the colonial convict brought out to the early settlement and the prisoner or inmate of modern Australia.

I walked back to the station through the old fishing harbour which is lined with a diverse range of pubs and cafes and even a brewery.

Perth-Cape Town similarity no.50 – In Cape Town we have converted the old Victoria and Alfred fishing harbour. It is now a vibrant waterfront popular with tourists.

Whilst in Perth my constant roommates – there was always a constant stream of backpackers coming and going – were Chris, the Welsh gigolo; Eugene, a young Swiss lad; and John from the Shetland Isles in Scotland who was relatively old at over 30 and also has two children. We didn’t do much during the daytime, the younger guys choosing to sleep off the previous night’s excesses, but we did all get on and were always ready to keep each other company over a few beers in the evenings.

Life in Perth had become very settled and comfortable. I had made some good friends in the hostel and we were very socially active. Everything seemed normal and not so out of the ordinary. Besides, the cooler temperate weather was starting to get me down and being constantly reminded of Cape Town was making me decidedly homesick. It was time to move on to the warmer climes in Darwin and discover some more of the extraordinary Australia.

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