Fremantle, WA. 28th October 2015.
After all this exciting cultural input I was ready for a break. My room at David’s house had been booked by someone else for four nights so I took the opportunity to visit Fremantle, Freo to its friends, the port city for Perth and the region. Founded at the same time as Perth, Freo was essential to the survival of the early settlers. Because of dangerous access, ships’ captains didn’t like coming there but at the end of the 19th C a new harbour was built and Freo boomed. It’s still a very busy port and the city has a reputation for a more Bohemian approach to life. I found a room via air BnB once more, with a French and German couple who are in Australia studying and working. I happened to be there during the annual Fremantle Festival so hoped to enjoy some of the special events I’d seen advertised in the festival magazine.
The town has a certain buzz to it and is clearly the home of people with an artistic temperament. The square outside the town hall contained table tennis tables, a temporary outdoor bar and a boat. While I was sitting around killing time I saw the table tennis tables get plenty of use. Bats and balls were provided and the players included office workers unwinding after their day’s incarceration. The boat seemed to be a stage for musicians to use. There are two indoor markets. One was a purpose built centre from the 1890s, which has a great mixture of food stalls and what I like to think of ‘this and that’ stalls. Ornaments, trinkets, craft and so on. The second is in one of the former storage sheds on the quayside and has similar products for sale but, in my opinion, not of the same quality.
I went to a couple of comedy events. One was in a pub and enabled people to try their hand at stand-up. Three members of the audience were given bats and if all three were raised before the end of the five minutes then the performer got gonged off. Some of them deserved it but others were very good. I was joined at my table by a very nice and sparky couple called Jason and Kylie. No, not the famous ones of course, but friendly and chatty people just the same. Once Kylie had discovered how I’d reached Australia she declared I was the ‘coolest guy she knew’. Who am I to disagree? She also told me that Freo has a policy of welcoming and looking after homeless people, which accounts for the surprisingly large number of people I saw pushing trolleys loaded with possessions around the streets. As a native of the city she was very proud of this attitude and I think I would be too. They are both very well travelled, fitting it in around their four kids.
The next night I went to a more formal comedy show, held in the town hall. It was hosted by a very sharp, gay comedian called Rhys Nicholas, who was straight out of the Graham Norton mould and was very sharp funny. It was another very good show with about ten acts all told.
The third show I went to was called Diva, a one woman play about an opera singer who had lost her voice, her man and her cat, the later by suffocation when she accidentally sat on it. Billed as a black comedy, it had its funny moments but was mostly very sad and moving. A fine performance from the writer/actor.
Freo has plenty of history to see. Near the waterfront is the Roundhouse, Western Australia’s first permanent building and used as a prison. The town also houses what was WA’s main prison, Fremantle Gaol. This was worth a tour around and the knowledgeable guide, who had a nice line in low key understatement and bad jokes, told us plenty of dark tales from its past. The place is huge and was built by convict labour in the 1850s. Up until 1850 WA was a non-convict state but the need for labour to build infrastructure changed that situation.It must be very galling for them to have to build their own prison cell. It was extended several times to reflect the state’s growing population.
It was WA’s main prison until 1991 and included a gallows. Condemned men only spent two hours in the cell next to the gallows. They were taken there from the normal cell, given breakfast, a mug of brandy and a priest, then blindfolded and marched to the hanging room. As soon as the rope was round their neck the lever to open the trapdoor was pulled. Deadly work done very quickly. A very depressing place. The hangman came from Melbourne to ensure he couldn’t be recognised by any of the victims’ friends or relatives.
The convict system was harsh in that people were transported from Britain for sometimes relatively trivial offences. However most of them were for quite serious ones. It was used as an alternative to hanging, although it’s worth bearing in mind that hanging applied to many offences. Sentences were usually for seven or fourteen years but convicts rarely served the full period provided they behaved well. After a period ranging from one to five years they were given a ticket of leave, then a conditional pardon and finally a certificate of freedom. At that point they could, in theory, return to Britain but very few did, primarily because they couldn’t afford it. So they slowly integrated into the community, worked on cattle stations, joined the mining booms or whatever took their fancy. By the time WA decided to take convicts the system was in decline and there were enough ordinary settlers in most parts of Australia for them not to be needed.
Back out in the sunshine I continued the theme of unfortunate events with a visit to the Wreck Museum. WA’s coastline is very treacherous, with small coral islands and submerged reefs. They claimed at least five ships belonging to the Dutch East India company, as well as many others over the years. One gallery was dedicated to the Batavia, the most famous of these wrecks. Behind the story of treacherous seas and jagged reefs lies a tale of mutiny, murder and survival the like of which has probably never happened before or since. I won’t go into details but I read an excellent book called Batavia, by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Fitzsimmons, that made fascinating reading. The story is well worth checking out.
I also enjoyed a visit to the Maritime Museum, which details the growth of Freo as a port and a fishing industry centre. Outside the main building an Oberon Class submarine can be found. HMAS Ovens can be toured around but I didn’t take it because my shoulder would have been at risk from all the scrambling about inside.
The port was the arrival point for thousands of immigrants, from all over Europe. There are boards outside showing the names, dates and ships of all those who came through the port. This included children from orphanages in the UK who were sent on the long sea voyage and given to adoptive families once they arrived. Their fortunes were very mixed. Some did very well, others were mistreated. But there was no going back if they didn’t like it. To me this kind of treatment has a Dickensian ring to it and shows the authoritarian attitude prevalent in the 1950s towards people who had fallen on hard times.
Many immigrants felt cheated by the honeyed publicity that had tempted them there, finding life a real struggle. Others did well and thrived.But Australia also had its share of dodgy dealings. In the 1930s it introduced a White Australia policy and this was used to deny immigrants from Sicily, Malta and other places the fishing licences they needed and were entitled to. So they banded together to form cooperatives and thrived despite the racist treatment. Freo is still a busy fishing port but its main business is centred around freight, with over sixty five million tonnes passing through during 2014, mostly in containers. The old storage sheds have been put to a variety of new uses, such as the aforementioned market.
Saturday marked the end of the festival week and was celebrated with a parade through the town. Various groups of people took part, from organisations as diverse as a circus school, the WA police pipe band and a very large group of people protesting at the proposed construction of a freight bypass route which would destroy, they say, huge areas important to wildlife. Personally I enjoyed the various dance troupes who were invariably colourful and energetic. One very nice touch by the organisers was to provide plenty of coloured chalk along the parade route and to encourage people to draw pictures, slogans, poems or whatever on the road surface. There were plenty of kids and adults expressing them selves ahead of the parade coming through. The whole event was great fun.
All of this fits in with the attitude the town clearly adopts. Bohemian in many ways, and the town centre mostly contains turn of the century buildings with a particularly Aussie colonial flavour. Easily recognisable by their verandahs, supported by intricate cast iron pillars, most of these well preserved buildings were pubs, hotels, cafés and eateries of various kinds. One section of road is referred to as Cappuccino Strip on account of the large number of coffee outlets along it. It always seemed to be busy. One of my favourite places was Cicerellos Fish and Chips Emporium. With the exception of a few pizzas, everything they sell is from the sea and comes with chips, or salad for the faint hearted. Portions are large, the restaurant is huge and is handily located on the waterfront. Dotted among the tables are large tropical fish tanks, just to create the seafood atmosphere. There’s even one in the gents toilet. A fantastic place.
Leaving the best until last, perhaps the most wonderful sights I saw while I was in Freo were when I took a whale watching trip. The humpback whale travels from its feeding ground in the Antarctic waters, where it lives off krill, all the way up the western coast to the warm winter waters off the Kimberly region to breed. Once the calves have been born they head back down again, to coincide their arrival with the southern summer. They spend three months feeding and then do it all over again. Amazingly they only feed while in the polar waters, living off their reserves of fat the rest of the time. As they head south the calves feed off their mother’s milk and grow from five metres at birth, up to ten metres by the time they reach the feeding grounds. Meanwhile their mothers teach them survival skills as they travel. We were lucky enough to come across a mother and calf who were accompanied by a ‘minder’, often present to ward off predatory sharks. All three were ‘breaching’, leaping backwards out of the water and splashing back in again. It isn’t really known why they do this. Possibly to remove parasites, possibly just for fun. Our guide told us we were lucky to see this degree of activity as it’s unusual. Lucky? I felt privileged. We were able to watch all this for about an hour before we had to head back. It was a fabulous trip.
Freo is easy to get to from Perth by train and is a very welcoming place for visitors. The hot summer afternoons are cooled down by the Fremantle Docter, a cooling south-westerly breeze that picks up later in the day and must provide a pleasant change from the hot city on summer days. It was a great place to visit.
Perth once more
After my short sojourn in Freo I headed back to Lathlain and took up residence once more with David. On a couple of occasions I helped him with some repairs to his collection of bikes. We fitted some new indicators to his Yamaha SR400; a new speedo to the same bike, when I took the opportunity to teach him to solder; and we worked on a Kawasaki 250cc GPz he’d bought which had been laid up for some time. With a new battery and fresh petrol in the tank, it ran quite well. He sold it at a profit a couple of weeks later. One evening we went to look at a Suzuki DR650 he’d seen on Craig’s List. It was a bit tatty but had been owned from new by the seller and was at a decent price. He bought it and now wants to get it ready for some long distance rides. I think I may have had some influence there!
AGWA. Art Gallery of Western Australia. Unsurprisingly this can be found in Cultural Square and I enjoyed a couple of fascinating visits there. A new exhibition had just opened, Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices. Lots of information about the Portuguese and Dutch spice trading activities in the East Indies. Some lovely maps and artefacts, along with paintings of ships etc. The gallery had developed an App to help provide more information about some of the exhibits. So I got all modern and downloaded it. I was able to scan a symbol next to the exhibition and then enjoy the extra information. The other galleries had some excellent paintings and sculpture although some of the modern art left me a bit cold. I very much enjoyed a sound and vision display, centred on four musical performances by immigrants who demonstrated some very special musical styles, as found in their homeland. The best one was the Mongolian who played their two stringed cello-style instrument while demonstrating Mongolian throat singing. Very haunting and very different.
Cultural Square also houses the Museum of WA, which had several exhibitions. Some of them related to flora and fauna from the region, some about the earth and evolution, two more were about the settlement of the area and the effects on the indigenous population. During the Heritage Weekend I’d been to a talk given by a local family of Aboriginal heritage, which also included a short walking tour showing some areas of the CBD that had been special to them, so this exhibition fed in to that. The daughter of this family had a history degree and she told me that the treatment meted out to indigenous populations met two of the four categories that constituted slavery.
All of the exhibitions were excellent and one of the galleries is housed in Hackett Hall, the former public library. The hall itself was as interesting as the immigrant stories it portrayed.
It would be true to say that I spent some of my time in Perth just loafing around – let’s call it recovering from my injuries – so I was pleased to take a trip out to Caversham Wildlife Park for a change of pace. The excellent transport system got me there easily and there was a courtesy bus waiting at the entrance to take me to the visitor centre. It’s a fascinating place and although it was a hot day, I was happy to stroll around looking at the various animals. I’d seen some of them before but many I hadn’t. All of the Aussie mammals were there, along with many of the reptiles and, my personal favourite, most of the larger birds.
One of these was a Cassowary. A very strange bird, not unlike an Emu but with a large lump on the top of its head. They only live in the far north of Queensland and I was disappointed in not seeing one when I was up there. Having watched so many birds in Australia I’ve decided they’re my favourite animal. There were some interactive events: up close and personal with a wombat; feeding kangaroos; watching sheep shearing. The last is worth seeing and is almost a work of art. A shearer will get $2.80 per sheep, which doesn’t sound much until you learn that he’ll shear up to two hundred in a ten hour day. The same guy showed us how to crack a stockman’s whip and explained how it works. Something to do with the tip of the whip breaking the sound barrier as it’s flicked backwards, which produces the crack noise. He emphasised that the whip never touches any animal, it’s the noise that makes them giddy-up.
David has two other rooms that he rents out. One was occupied by a Czech couple, Jan and Dona. They had signed up for a four week English course. They both spoke it very well anyway but wanted to improve. An Austrian couple arrived at one point, Uwe and his fiancé Tatiana. Uwe had contracted Dengue fever in Hawaii and was ill in bed. Tatiana wanted to look around Perth, so we went into the city together a couple of times. The first time we joined one of the Orientation Tours, run by the visitor centre. It went to several places I’d already seen but some I had not. Tatiana, with her wedding day in mind, went off looking for shoes. That evening Tatiana cooked all of us a meal to celebrate her 30th Birthday. Uwe was still out of it, although he showed his face briefly.
On the second occasion we followed the art heritage trail, looking at all the street art. There’s a surprising amount of it, all around the CBD and Northbridge. It’s a very funky mixture of wall paintings and some great sculptures.
I did manage to get some socialising done. I met Gilda on three occasions, the first for a nice lunch at one of the many cafés in Albany Highway. The second was on 11th November, when we drove around to various leisure areas, close to the rivers or the sea. Perth has plenty of nice places for residents to spend time at and relax. We managed to be at on of them at 11am so were able to sit and reflect while looking out across the river towards the city. It was sobering to think of all those young men who sailed from Fremantle to Gallipoli from the city. Soon after that we went to Freo, where Gilda treated me to lunch in a fish pub. Speciality of the house – sea food platter, and very nice it was too. We’d noticed an old fella sitting in the corner with his son or grandson, and Gilda caught his eye. We went over to chat to him. He was a WW2 veteran and had been to the service in Kings Park. The medals he was wearing belonged to his uncle, who had died at Mons during WW1. It took the family a long time to locate his grave but when they did they went to visit it and were the first family members to have done so. A touching story for Remembrance day.
One sunny morning found me heading out to Mandurah to meet Andy and Jane, friends from England. They were visiting Jane’s daughter and son-in-law so it was too good an opportunity to miss for seeing friends and for catching up on news from home. Lizzie and Anthony have been here about two years. Anthony was a policeman in Kent and London and it turns out he was first on the scene at the Lee Rigby incident. Australian police carry guns and we had an interesting discussion about whether UK police should be armed too. He says that because of tight gun control in Aus the police almost never use theirs and he feels the same would apply in Britain. He used to be against the idea but experience here has changed his mind. Food for thought. The only problem is that once that route has been gone down, there’s no going back.
Andy, Jane and I had a very nice day out. We visited the war memorial, which we all liked. It’s only ten years old and is very tasteful. A recent addition saw a new installation which honours the recipients of seven Victoria Crosses, earned at the Battle of Lone Pine Hill, Gallipoli. Seven trees have been planted, each with a plaque in front of it with the recipient’s name. Very nicely done. After a nice lunch we went back to Anthony ad Lizzie’s for tea, cake, chatting and playing with little Jacob. He was delighted when I gave him my used train ticket, but then he’s only two years old. Mandurah is a very nice place, centred on a new marina and harbourside shopping area, an ideal place to have caught up with some good friends.
Another trip out of town saw me visit the Aviation Heritage Museum of WA. Run by volunteers, there are two big warehouse type buildings stuffed with planes, aero engines, helicopters, control tower desks and assorted paraphernalia. In the first building I saw a Flying Flea, mini helicopters, a WW2 Catalina Flying Boat and several displays concerning the early days of aviation in Australia. The development of passenger and cargo aircraft helped open the country up by reducing journey times and making remote areas more accessible. Essential support for settler families became easier, the Flying Doctor service being only one such example. Small planes became an important part of cattle and sheep station life, even being used for mustering.
The second building was dedicated to WW2 aircraft and equipment. A Tiger Moth, a Spitfire and several interesting examples of the kind of equipment that was parachuted down to resistance fighters. But the biggest and best exhibit was a Lancaster Bomber. Close up, these things are huge! The display and information regarding this plane was excellent, including a thirty minute video filmed in the cockpit during the flight of one of the only two Lancasters still flying. What a great place the museum is, staffed by volunteers who do all the work of restoration too.
Finally, after six weeks of trying to keep busy, the day arrived I had been waiting for. Friday 13th is supposed to be a date to avoid but I welcomed it with open arms. At least, I hoped I’d be able to open my arms after six weeks in a sling. My hospital appointment was at 10am, I was there in plenty of time and keen to hear the news. Last time I went I was told off for using my arm instead of keeping it in the sling. Since then I’d tried to be really good and use it as little as possible. Well, it worked! The doctor looked at the x-ray, declared himself satisfied and told me to bugger off and never darken his doors again. Or, to put it another way, he discharged me. But he gave me strict instructions not to lift any heavy weights for another six weeks or so, ‘and that includes’ he said, ‘picking your bike up out of the dirt!’ OK Doc, point taken, no off road riding for a while. I was delighted and I got on with organising a flight back to Karijini NP.
A bit more socialising to be done before I left. I met up with Pawel, a Polish guy I’d shared a room wth in Astana. He’d been stuck in Bali, held up by the fall out from a volcanic eruption. But he’d met a nice German girl there, Denise, and we had a good evening out together. They’re heading for Melbourne so we’ll meet there too, with any luck.
I also went with David to visit Anton, one of his friends, for dinner. He was a trainee ship’s engineer but jumped ship in Melbourne many years ago because of the harsh treatment. He went to work in the mines and eventually took citizenship. A typical Aussie immigrant story. He’s also a very good cook.
On the day before I left Perth I met Gilda once more and we had a day in the city while her car was in for its service. We walked around some shops, had a nice Dim Sung lunch and went to the modern art gallery – and mostly wished we hadn’t. Then we went to her brother’s house, where she was staying, and I met him and his family. Lyndon, Jude and their kids, Jae and Ellen, are lovely people and over dinner they told me of plenty of places to visit in WA. A great day with Gilda again and I hope to see her before Christmas.
Forty five days in Perth. Unbelievable how slowly time can go when you want to be somewhere else but also how quickly it passes if you’re busy and occupied. I managed to be both at various times but I think I’d made the best of an enforced rest. I’d met several of David’s friends, spent some quality time with Gilda, with whom I get on very well, and dug deep into what both Perth and Freo had to offer. Perth is a great city, in my opinion. People have said to me it was just a country town, twenty years ago. Now it’s a modern city but with plenty of history to enjoy. Kings Park must be one of the best examples of inner city parks anywhere, there’s any amount of modern shops in the CBD but also plenty of specialty places elsewhere. I visited several of the suburbs and was reminded of London in that they’re all different and work hard at displaying their charms. There’s plenty going on in the CBD and every Friday, throughout the warmer months, Forrest Place is host to an eclectic collection of ethnic food stalls, accompanied by musical acts. It was great to see that most of the people seemed to be locals. It’s true to say I wouldn’t have seen so much if I’d just visited Perth on the way through. But I was definitely very glad to be heading back north, about to be reunited with Doris and to be continuing my journey once more.