Perth, WA. 6th October 2015.
Six weeks in Perth. An attractive proposition? Maybe, maybe not, but if they’d been able to fix up my collar bone at Tom Price hospital it would have been six weeks in a small mining town in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes you have to count your blessings. Gilda, my favourite radiologist, collected me from the hospital and I was able to stay with her for two days at her brother’s house, enough time to find a more permanent berth.
Ever heard of Air BnB? I hadn’t until Gilda suggested it as a way of finding somewhere to stay. At that point I’d spent most of the day trying to find a hostel that could guarantee me a bottom bunk, had decent wi-fi and wasn’t too expensive. By the time Gilda made her suggestion I was in a fog of detail that I couldn’t see through so was glad to have another avenue to explore. And what a great suggestion it was. I quickly found a place out in the suburb of Lathlain and near a station, where the single room was a bit cheaper than the norm because the house was undergoing some renovation. My host, David Chong, is a Chinese Malayan whose family emigrated to Australia when he was sixteen. His main profession is that of photographer and his garage and garden are full of motorbikes. We very soon hit it off and I felt at home straight away.
Air BnB is a website that connects people with rooms to let to people who need a place to stay, short term. It’s just a case of searching in the area you want to visit, seeing what’s there and booking the dates. It’s a typical internet business, which seems to me to be the proverbial money for old rope. All they do is display the adverts and collect the payments. They add a percentage to my costs and take a percentage off the payment to the host. I worked out they’re making 20%. Because David and I got on well he was happy to go under the radar and deal in cash once the initial period had expired, I’m pleased to say.
My time with Gilda at her brother’s had been good fun. He has a Razorback called Indi, and we took her for walks in a park that backs onto the house. Another dog was staying there too, a huge Bull Mastiff called Bosko. Gentle as anything but too big to chance walking out with. It also became very possessive of Gilda, following her everywhere as if it were her bodyguard. It kept looking at me with a ‘keep your distance matey’ kind of expression. I duly kept my distance! We enjoyed an Indian meal too and, all in all, I was beginning to adjust to city life.
Settled in at my new abode I tried to make some plans. It was only a ten minute walk to the station and a ten minute journey into the city centre via the frequent trains. I intended to see as much as I could of what Perth had to offer but also to relax as well.
Perth is the capital of Western Australia.It was first settled relatively late, in 1829, by Captain James Stirling, who had visited two years earlier and found good land. The problem was that he didn’t explore very far and therefore didn’t realise that only land near the Swan and Canning Rivers had any potential. He lobbied the Home Office for agreement to start a settlement and, having decided the colony wasn’t going to cost the taxpayer any money, permission was granted. There were rumours that France was interested in the area too, which must have helped. So a non-penal colony was set up further along the Swan River and Perth was born. The town of Fremantle was also set up next to the sea and was the entry point for shipping into the colony.
Settlers spread along the rivers and coasts in their search for good land but the colony grew very slowly. In 1850 convict labour arrived and the infrastructure benefited from the 9,000 pairs of hands that became available until the convict system was disbanded in 1868. But it was still only a small town of 3,000 inhabitants. Until, that is, gold was discovered!
By the 1880s Perth was slowly expanding anyway, having recently built a railway that linked the city with Fremantle and Guildford (just up the coast), and having recently been linked to Adelaide by telegraph. The Port of Fremantle had been reconstructed so that large ships could now enter the Swan River whereas formerly they had to lie offshore and be loaded by lighters. But the discovery of gold in the Kimberly region in the north,and at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie inland to the east, lit a fuse under the rocket of rapid expansion. The population more than tripled in the 1890s from fewer than 9,000 to over 27,000 by 1901. It was the entry point for huge numbers of gold and land hungry immigrants and the city reaped the benefit. Large municipal buildings were constructed and shops and offices followed. Western Australia finally gained self determination in its government in 1890 and officially became a state. Up to then it had been ruled by a Governor-General.
During the twentieth century the city grew and suburbs developed, often in tandem with the railway. In the 21st century another mining boom, this time of iron and other minerals in the north of the state, led to more rapid expansion. It attracted thousands of skilled migrants from across the globe, especially Britain and South Asia. The Greater Perth area has a population of around two million in an area larger than Greater London, whose population is over eight million. So there’s plenty of room.
Needless to say an area of land close to two rivers had many attractions for the indigenous population. Unfortunately it is also needless to say that they were gradually driven away by settlers and their activities. ‘Improvements’ to the area slowly denied the Aboriginals access to their traditional food and resources. Their story is a small part of the injustice visited upon all of Australia’s first peoples but I’ll talk more about these issues in a future post.
For now, my mission, and I chose to accept it, was to spend my enforced absence from the highways and byways of WA in having a good look at what the city had to offer. You’ll be pleased to hear I’m not about to give a blow by blow account of six (weeks) in the city and will concentrate on the highlights.
The city centre is usefully compact. Coming out of the main station and crossing the busy Wellington Street I entered the pedestrianised Forrest Place, which leads to the pedestrianised Murray Street. Here I found a visitor centre and got hold of some maps and other info. South of Murray Street lies the pedestrianised Hay Street, with easy access from one to the other via a number of shopping malls and plazas. The east and west sides of this rectangle of retail delight are bounded by Barrack Street and William Street. South of Hay Street lies St Georges Terrace, once the riverside esplanade, and full of the early government buildings of what was a relatively new and growing city. Reclaimed land has moved the foreshore a bit further south and it is divided from the former esplanade by a huge, grassed recreation area. As I discovered, this is used for public events as well as lunchtime leisure and relaxation. Development continues at Elizabeth Quay, due to reopen early next year.
Talking of green areas, to the west of the CBD lies a long ridge, called Mount Eliza, and upon it is Kings Park. This is a huge area of parkland and native bush which overlooks the Swan River. I enjoyed a couple of visits there. Nearby is the State Parliament building and other buildings associated with it.
To the north of the station, on land that starts to rise up from the CBD, is Perth Cultural Centre, a square which houses art galleries, museums and the State Library. To the west of this lies Northbridge, Perth’s area of bars, restaurants and nightlife. Edgy at times, slightly downbeat too. A place for the tourist and lunch taking worker in the day, and fun seeker at night.
During my first couple of days at David’s place in Lathlain I explored the local area, bought food, had a haircut and so on. Albany Highway is the main commercial street in the area and is a very busy shopping centre, with a decent mall but mostly small businesses, something I like to see. Lot’s of cafés and coffee shops, along with restaurants of all types. This road runs into the city centre and I decided I’d walk there along it at some point. On Friday evenings there is an area which specialises in different ethnic foods and gets very busy as people start to relax into their weekend. Lathlain is typical suburbia. Several through roads but with smaller streets running off them. In some the houses are well spaced out, with a decent bit of land. In others they are rather crammed together. Small apartment blocks abound, reflecting the nature of a busy city whose inhabitants live busy lives. David’s house used to have a lot of land but it had been sold for development before he arrived. Even so, he had enough room for a large garage cum photo studio, and enough garden space for a caravan and some of his motorbike and scooter collection.
My first weekend was spent exploring the city centre and on Saturday I managed to discover an Oktoberfest and a bell tower, which has very close links to St Martin-in-the-Field church. A definite mix of cultures there. On the recreation area by the river was a huge fenced off area. Inside there was music and drinking. When I’d walked along the river earlier I’d seen people eating and drinking at a riverside pub, all dressed up in German folk costume and wondered why. When I found the site of the Oktoberfest all became clear. I decided not to go in, especially as tickets weren’t cheap, so I sat outside instead watching the Lederhosen clad guys and the buxom German wenches go by. Strangely, the most buxom of the wenches were actually guys in fancy dress. Seeing so many people walking past brought home to me how popular tattoos are among Aussies. I don’t like tattoos and especially not on women. Many of them were big and they wound up their legs and across their backs. Horrible! And then while I was sitting there I got hit on! A Vietnamese woman sat next to me and started chatting. Pretty soon a sob story came out, all about how her visa was about to run out; how her mother gave her to her aunt when she was a baby; how her aunt sold her but despite this, she tries to support her. I listened to all this and told her I didn’t have any money to give her and couldn’t really help her. I knew what she wanted before she even asked. So before too long she said goodbye and moved on. I wonder if she found a anyone to give her money? I doubt it somehow. Aussies aren’t stupid.
Next to the river is the Swann Bell Tower. This is Perth’s Millennium Project building and has a very nice design. Themed as a ship, it is clad in copper and shaped like a sail. Its main role is to house a set of eighteen bells, twelve of which came from St Martins. They had been installed there between 1725 and 1780 and needed to be replaced. They were too heavy and caused the church foundations to move around when rung and were at risk of damaging them. Lighter bells were to be made. Usually the old bells would be melted down to make the new ones but it was decided to gift the them to Australia to mark the bi-centennial of the founding of the first colony in 1788. Australian mining companies therefore supplied the copper and tin for the new bells for free. To the donated twelve were added five more, paid for as gifts by businesses in the cities of London and Westminster. The eighteenth was paid for by the WA government.
On Sunday the bells were in full use as there’s a practice session in the morning, followed by a bell ringing display afterwards. And I’m using the word ‘display’ deliberately. Swann Bell Tower is one of the few places in the world were such close observation of both the bells and the ringers can be made. There are windows that look down into the ringing area and higher up the tower are the bells themselves, swinging away loudly just behind some plexi-glass. The ringers were engaged in Change Ringing, better known as Campanology. It gets its name from the fact that the ringing order of the bells is constantly changed, meaning that there’s a conductor in charge of it all. I spoke to one elderly ringer who said she’d been enjoying her hobby for seventy years. Blimey!
Watching the bells gets hypnotic after a while but before I went too goggle eyed I realised that each bell swings through an arc of just under 360 degrees and is struck twice by its clapper. There’s a limit to the ‘tunes’ that bells can play but they definitely set up quite a good melody and a very pleasant sound that touches the memory from way back in time.
The bells of St Martins used to be rung to celebrate all sorts of events. Included in these were the departures of Admiralty sponsored voyages to far flung places. This means that the twelve bells gifted to Australia would have been rung to celebrate James Cook’s departure on the voyage which led him to Australia. Now that’s what I call continuity.
Perth has a very good transport system. Twenty first century rail improvements have helped he suburbs grow. New lines were developed, stretching out in all directions and terminating at the central station. They run a pre-pay card system, similar to London’s Oyster Card, divide the area into zones and offer concessions to the old and young as well as free transport for them at certain times. Where I stayed was four stops away from the CBD and cost $1.20 at the concessionary rate. Even the standard fare was only $3. I thought this was very reasonable. I wasn’t actually entitled to a concession fare but the ticket inspectors didn’t seem to care just as long as I had a valid ticket. They come from machines which take cash or debit card.
Within the city centre there are CAT buses (Central Area Transit). These are free, as are normal buses within the same area. All in all a great system and as there are hordes of Transit Police all over the place, it is also very safe.
The Visitor Centre offers free guided walking tours each weekday morning and afternoon. The morning one is an orientation tour and it takes the visitor to the key areas in the CBD as well as a brief stop at some of the key buildings. In the afternoon the walks are themed and are therefore a bit more in depth. The guides are full of enthusiasm and knowledge and invariably have some good stories to tell.
One that I enjoyed very much was about the building of the General Post Office. It suffered delays due to WW1 and to a general lack of money. The builders got a bit fed up with not being paid and when they installed the Australian coat of arms over the door they played a trick. Instead of having the kangaroo looking at the emu opposite it, they had it made with the kangaroo looking over its shoulder towards the treasury building, as if to say ‘Where’s my money?’ It was some considerable time before it was noticed.
Another slightly bizarre place is London Court, a closed shopping street built with an Elizabethan theme in the 1930s. The buildings all have Tudor style beams across them, with leaded windows and fine copper detailing around them and the doors. The shop signs mostly have Shakespearian names on them. A rich merchants fancy certainly, but a nice curiosity for all that. Set into the wall at each end, above the entrance arches, is a niche with statues in. The guide, having discovered where I was from, asked me if I knew who the subject of one of the statue was. I told her it was Dick Whittington, London’s first Lord Mayor, easily recognisable by the cat. She already knew that the other one was Sir Walter Raleigh.
Perth runs an annual Heritage Weekend during which it’s possible to visit buildings that are not normally open to the public. This is the same as London’s Open House weekend and I picked up a brochure, but found I was too late to book some of the more popular venues. Even so I visited some sites which helped gain an insight to the development of Western Australia, how it functioned, and its role in deciding the fate of the Commonwealth of Australia.
I visited the Constitutional Centre, which included a tour around the Prime Minister’s and Cabinet offices. They are housed in buildings which used to be the Bishop Hale School, Perth’s first grammar school, built in 1867. Jarrah Wood had been used extensively in the building and the furniture, such as the cabinet room table. This beautiful hard wood is found only in WA and was exported all round the world, including London, where it was used as substrate for roads. There were many nice art works from local artists, including Aboriginal. The Constitutional Centre is also housed in some of the old school buildings and has permanent displays explaining how the WA state and its government came into being. Once again, this is a topic for another time.
Next I went to the Parliament Building where there were events celebrating women’s suffrage and the election of the first female MLA, Edith Cowan. I attended a presentation in the Upper Chamber of Parliament and a play in the Lower Chamber. Sounds boring? Not really. WA was one of the early adopters of female suffrage, introducing it in 1899, although the right to stand for election came later. That’s thirty years before Britain. Puts us to shame really. A walk around the building was interesting too and was a good way to avid the rain. I was impressed by the easy access and the level of welcome the public is given. There is a Legislative Assembly and a Legislative Council, and their respective chambers are relatively small but impressively laid out. The corridors had permanent displays detailing the history of the state legislature and how it operates. As someone who enjoys both history and politics, it was an enjoyable visit for me.
By way of a complete contrast to the Heritage Weekend, I spent some time exploring Kings Park. Although some of the land had been dedicated as public space earlier, the four square kilometre area became Kings Park in 1890. It is a mixture of botanic gardens, native bushland, which covers two thirds of it, and various specialist display areas. There is an education centre and good quality public facilities – visitor centre, café etc. During my two visits there I joined one of the free guided walks, which took us into the bushland for a revealing tour and talk. It’s simply amazing how diverse, ancient and well adapted Australia’s plant life is. Many of the plants we saw were the same as those eaten by the dinosaurs. Their ability to adapt to conditions such as extremes of heat is incredible. One plant has evolved its roots so that they hold the base of the tree clear of the ground to avoid the heat. There are dozens of variations among the species, some only existing in small areas. I’d discovered this when reading the info boards at the various sites I’d visited, but it was even better to have a knowledgeable guide explain it all.
The Botanic Gardens have sections which reflect the flora from various parts of the state. There is an elevated walkway through part of the gardens giving a literal birds eye view of the trees. Many of them are so tall that to look up at them from the ground would have been meaningless. There is an area given over to some fountains, among which was a statue of Edith Cowan, and there is also a very nice water garden.
The park houses Perth’s War Memorial but on a much more personal level there is an ‘Honour Avenue’. The verges of some of the roads through the park have been planted with Lemon Gum trees and plaques dedicated to Perth’s fallen servicemen from both world wars have been placed in front of them. This park is one of the world’s largest inner city parks but it’s touches such as this that make it very popular with both locals and the five million visitors it attracts each year.
One of the most interesting places I visited was the Perth Mint. Because of the amount of gold being dug up in WA, and the fact that it had to be sent to Melbourne to be minted into coins and bullion, Perth was very keen to get hold of this lucrative process. In the 1890s the Royal Mint in London was finally persuaded to allow a third Australian branch to be built in Perth and it opened in 1899. It remained part of the Royal Mint right up until 1970, when it was transferred to the Australian Government.
The official tour began with how the mint came to be and some stories about some of the huge gold nuggets found out on the gold fields. Tales of the gold rush followed and how Perth, as a thriving and rich city, owes it all to the miners and their gold. Did you know that all gold came from outer space? Me neither, but it seems that the chemicals which eventually came to be gold are not of this earth.
We were taken down into the old furnace room to see how an ingot of gold is made. A crucible made of clay mixed with graphite is filled with gold dust and heated in a furnace to 1200C. Gold melts at 1063C but it’s heated to the higher temperature to allow time for pouring. Otherwise it would solidify too quickly. As it is they only have a minute before it solidifies. Once poured into the ingot mould it is quenched to cool it down. Because the crucibles absorb tiny amounts of the gold they are crushed once their service life is ended and the gold is extracted. On the same theme, when the furnace operation was moved to a new building and six of them were closed, the bricks from the old furnaces were crushed and $200,000 worth of gold was extracted. Then they scraped all the soot off the ceiling and recovered a further $20,000 worth. That was after ninety years of ingot making.
After the demonstration we were all invited to stand on the scales to see what our ‘weight in gold’ would be worth. At that particular moment’s gold price I was valued at $4,355,565.32. I weigh in at about about 75kgs.
On display is a huge gold coin that was minted in 2012 when QE2 opened the Commonwealth Heads Of Government meeting in Australia. It weighs one tonne and is 99.99% pure gold. It has a face value of $1 million but is worth more than $55 million at the moment.
In among all these cultural delights I was also happy to sit around and not do much sometimes. The weather was mostly dry, sunny and warm and I enjoyed some walks around the local area. I was able to help David with a couple of jobs on his bikes and the house, just to help me feel useful. I couldn’t help feeling like a spare part sometimes, having been busy and active for so many months prior to my enforced rest. But circumstances forced a change upon me anyway. More about that in the next update.