20 June 2017 (revised June 2019)
WHEN I ARRIVED in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, there had been very little rain for weeks. It was early winter, and yet still a warm 22 degrees Celsius. I had never been before, and I wanted to have a look at this western-most outpost of urban Australia, so far from all the other cities in the east.
I was staying at an Airbnb in Northbridge, which was quite an arty district. There were a lot of older homes there and it was easy to walk into the city. Perth’s trains and buses were well organised and easy to use, even for a visitor.
The waterfront was right there too, with playgrounds and walkways. I was there for Western Australia Day, the first Monday in June — the same day as the Queen’s Birthday holiday in other Australian states, and New Zealand — and took advantage of the free outdoor events.
My friend Nader lived there. I’d got to know him in Auckland via a hiking meetup group that we both belonged to. He had lived in Perth for several years, and it was good to catch up with him again, as we both had similar interests.
We went out to dinner with some of his hiking friends and that was a lot of fun. We also went out on a couple of short walks with his new hiking group; they were so friendly and hospitable.
Perth is quite a well-planned city, with a lot of parks. Its overall population, including the suburbs, is about two million. There was a lot of building going on when I was there, with high rise apartments being built. I heard that one of the parks was going to be developed into a water park, and that a lot of the locals were opposed.
Perth owed a lot of its boom to the mining industry. Western Australia is a huge state roughly the size of the whole of Western Europe, rich in minerals. Minerals mined in Western Australia include gold, iron, nickel, alumina, copper, zinc, lead, salt, cobalt, diamonds and coal.
In fact, Western Australia is the world’s second-largest province, surpassed only by one of the subdivisions of Russian Siberia.
And yet, it only has 2.7 million people.
This means that three quarters of all the people in Western Australia live in Perth! The rest of the state is basically a rarified suburbia. All the main roads lead to Perth, no matter how far out in the desert you might be.
And so the rest of Western Australia under-writes Perth to a fair degree, mainly by virtue of the mines. There’s also a bit of farming in the state, chiefly in the south-west.
All the same, it was clear that the mining industry was in one of its periodic busts when I was there, and that the city had slowed down to match. Rents had gone down. Not so long before, renters would bid on houses in Perth; whoever was willing to pay the most rent would get to be the tenant! But not when I visited. There were a lot of empty rooms and accommodation around the city (which frankly surprised me). A lot of people were hanging on for mining to make a comeback, and to hurry up about it.
I enjoyed Northbridge: it had a good movie theatre, an increasing rarity these days. I visited Perth’s port town of Fremantle, and saw the old prison there. In fact, there was a lot to do in Perth when the weather was nice. I was in Perth for a total of eight days and really got out and about, with my friend Nader acting as a tour guide!
Pelican and the moon at Fremantle
Fairy in a Western Australian shopping mall, blessing people
The Western Australian Museum had an exhibition that looked at the history of Aboriginal protest movements. Important milestones included:
Mabo overturned earlier doctrines, summarised by the phrase terra nullius,which discriminated against nomadic peoples, as the Aborigines tended to be. These doctrines held that nomadic peoples had no rights to any particular place. If land they occasionally frequented was fenced off, the assumption was that they could wander off and find some more.
Of course, nomads have their favourite water holes and fishing spots, to which they return seasonally. Nomadic lifestyles are generally forced on populations who lived in places where water dries up for part of the year and where irrigation wasn’t practical without modern technology. And so they have to move about on a recurrent, migratory path in search of water and other resources. That’s all. The idea that nomads have no attachment to any particular spot and wander about at random is, basically, a lie.
Despite having made great political and legal gains since the mid-1960s, many Aborigines remain poor and disadvantaged, and so, protests continue. To put it another way, the Aborigines were very far down in the Australia of fifty or sixty years ago, and have only come half-way up.
I read a book called Talking to My Country by the aboriginal activist Stan Grant, about such things as deliberate poisoning of Aboriginal water holes in the New South Wales of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. He was a well known CNN reporter. In his forties, he suffered depression as a result of not feeling part of the (white) Australian nation, an odd one out in middle-class urban Australia where he worked. People like Stan Grant almost had to prove that they existed.
The Museum’s exhibition was a very interesting overview of more than half a century of protests and their results, and was good to see.
Next on my list was to see the National Parks around Perth. I didn’t know whether to go North or South. There was a lot of information online, and I was told to go to the Pinnacles, also known as the Cervantes Pinnacles. These are naturally-formed limestone pillars rising out of the desert in Nambung National Park. There are thousands of them.
Experts are still at a loss to explain exactly how they were formed. It seems that sea-shells were broken down into lime-rich sand which was blown inland to form a sort of mortar that cemented the dunes together.
All the same, the exact manner in which they developed has been the subject of much debate. There are three different theories of formation. One is that the pinnacles were born inside sand dunes when acidic rainwater leaked down, cementing the lime rich-sand and binding into clumps. And, that vegetation on top of the dunes helped things along by holding them together. Pinnacles of this type have been formed in Western Australia and some other locations, and it also seems that they have been exposed for roughly six thousand years.
Nambung National Park was a two-hour drive north from Perth, along the Indian Ocean Highway. There were a lot of ‘watch out for wildlife signs’ along the way. While I was driving along, I saw some kangaroos along the side of the road — that was cool!
Provided, of course, they didn’t jump in front of the car.
In fact someone had been killed on the road, whether by a kangaroo or otherwise, so the roads were blocked by checkpoints and cones. The roads were pretty narrow, even the main highway, and you do have to be careful when you are driving over there.
When I got to the Pinnacles, I was amazed!
There were a lot of aboriginal artefacts found around the area too. It was rich with Aboriginal cultural history, with evidence of Aboriginal occupation dating back possibly as much as sixty thousand years.
I went back down to Perth and thought about driving somewhere else, for a multi-day trip this time. I wanted to go south-east to Esperance, a town on the south coast of Western Australia that has famously white beaches and a famously pink lake, and see the birdlife there.
But the best time of year for birdwatching was autumn, and autumn had been and gone. Plus, it was a very long drive, more than seven hundred kilometres by the shortest route, even though Esperance doesn’t look all that far from Perth on a state-wide map — Western Australia is big!
So, I resigned myself to less distant destinations. But I was still going to make an expedition of it. I borrowed Nader’s tent, sleeping bag and cooking stove, hired a rental car for A $25 a day and bought some food. And set off.
I decided to head to a popular tourist spot some 270 km south of Perth called Margaret River. It’s great for wine tasting tours, caves, and hiking. The name Margaret River refers both to a town and to a wider region, I didn’t know a lot about either apart from the fact that they were famed for wine, caves and hiking. And I didn’t know where to stay, either. Ultimately, I went past the actual town of Margaret River to the Conto Campground, at a locality called Conto Beach near the town of Boranup. I made that my base for the duration of the expedition.
The weather was 20 degrees Celsius during the day, and dropped as low as 5 degrees at night; which actually wasn’t that bad. It only cost A $10 per night to stay at the campground! I stayed for three nights and found I had plenty to do each day.
While I was driving, I noticed smoke from wildfires blowing across the road. This scared me a bit at first, till I met a ranger from the local wildlife service. He told me that these fires had probably been deliberately lit by his own colleagues, a practice called winter burning. It was all under control. Winter burning helped the forest to regenerate and also consumed fallen leaves and branches that could otherwise fuel catastrophic fires in summer.
Controlled burnoff near Margaret River, Western Australia
There were beautiful places to see in this area, such as the Boranup Karri Forest. Karri is a type of eucalyptus found in the south-western corner of Western Australia. Karri can grow up to 90 metres or nearly 300 feet tall; almost as tall as a related species in Tasmania and Victoria of which the tallest specimen is over 300 feet tall. These are the monarchs of the Australian forest. A lot of the really big ones were logged in the old days of course, and much of the present-day forest is regrowing. Still, there were some in the Boranup Karri Forest that were five or six hundred years old.
Like some other places in the Margaret River region, the area round Conto Beach is famous for its limestone caves. I went on a tour of two caves for about A $50, which was amazing value. First, I went to the Lake Cave, which is only some two kilometres from the Conto Campground. At the Lake Cave was a limestone formation called the suspended table, which weighed several tonnes and hovered above clear lake water. And there were beautiful crystal straws and stalactites with drops of water on the tips. The pure crystal was mind blowing! Then I went to the Mammoth cave. The Mammoth Cave was quite different to the Lake Cave. There wasn’t running water but there were a lot of old bones. In fact the cave has over ten thousand fossil skeletons, often of living and extinct marsupial mammals.
Extinct marsupials were often much larger than those that survive today. For instance, one excavation had exposed the 50,000-year-old jaw bones of a creature called zygomaturus, the marsupial equivalent of Africa’s pygmy hippopotamus. There is nothing like that in Australia now. Like a great many lumbering beasts that died out across several continents some tens of thousands of years ago, or the flightless moa in New Zealand more recently, zygomaturus was probably hunted to extinction by the first humans it encountered.
Much of the coast to the west of Margaret River is in a national park called the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. Another national park that I went through, inland and on the way back to Perth, is Wellington National Park. That was beautiful, I didn’t expect Western Australia to be so green! I stayed at the Honeymoon Pools campground. There were walkways everywhere and several overnight trekking trips. I went upriver and saw the rapids, and was amazed at the beauty there.
Along the Indian Ocean there was also a coastal trail I could have walked. In fact there were a lot of long distance trails around Western Australia. I was amazed at all the walks and trails there were around.
And so, I went back to Perth. Looking at the map, Western Australia is massive. I didn’t even get to make a dent! I’d like to come back to Western Australia again, and roam farther away from Perth next time.
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