Western Australia – A whistlestop tour of the ‘other side’ of Oz
Australia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Glorious beaches, welcoming people and a huge, great rock in the middle.
But while most explorers are zipping up and down the east coast, checking out Sydney and Melbourne and climbing Ayers Rocks; there’s a great expanse of the country to the west that remains something of a well kept secret.
This is the experience of my wife and I had in Perth and the lands to the south of Western Australia’s capital back in 2008:
You hear so much about the warm hospitality of the Australian people that at 3am on Saturday morning after more than 20 hours of sitting on Quantas’ (un)suitably cramped plane seats, its no surprise when the portly, yet kindly, looking man directing the taxi rank generously tells us it would be quicker to catch the adjacent shuttle bus.
Fair dinkum, mate.
Ten minutes of sitting of this bus later, with the queue of taxi’s already all departed and our driver disappeared back into the airport this no longer seems such a good idea.
The taxi assistant, whose close resemblance to Home and Away’s Alf probably led me to trust him, is still loitering outside. So we ask him what’s going on and when we are likely to leave.
‘Strewth,’ I’m told, ‘You’re an unpatient lot. I didn’t say the bus would be quicker.’
Er.. you did.
We decided to take the next taxi.
Fortunately this airport abaration is a one-off and the next day – still struggling from jetlag, but happy to be on Aussie soil – we set off to explore Perth.
Our hotel is based right in the city centre so it takes little time for my better half to feel at home. Sadly for me, this is because she has found the shopping centre.
After a stroll through the wide streets of this central area we eventually find our way to the parks that Perth is famous for. In 30 degree heat we drag ourselves to the Swan Bells – a tall building by the edge of the Swan River which resembles London’s famous Gerkin. c chimes on the hour and is shaped to produce the best sound musically for the people of Perth.
It is also the entrance to the Swan River’s harbour, which boasts trips to the south of the city and Fremantle – as well as the prestigous looking Shag Hotel (it’s a type of bird…)
The view across the river as we walk across Langley Park – formerly an airfield used by, among others, the early Australian aviation pioneer Kingsford-Smith – is amazing and includes a backdrop of the city centres skyscrapers against acres of parkland and in the distance the city’s pride and joy, Kings Park.
Frying slightly in the sun we eventually decide discretion is the better part of valour, and returning to the Swan Bells, we grab a bright red, London bus lookalike tour coach.
In fact the bus has come from anywhere but London and used to be used on the Melbourne to Perth bus route. In its heyday, it took it a grand total of three days to cross the desert at constant speeds of 60mph.
Our first destination is Burswood, and its famous entertainment centre which includes an indoor stadium with an inflatable roof and a casino – built in 1988 to bring an end to the Italian owned and operated illegal gambling dens of the area.
Burswood is one of those places which could only exist because of the laid back Aussie attitude. That’s because Burswood is not even its proper name. It was originally named ‘Burrswood’ after its English founders home town of Burrs. But a spelling error by the Australian authorities who put the first signs up saw it re-christened with just one ‘r’ – and nobody could ever be bothered to change it.
Sunday morning and we were up bright and early – well 11am’s not bad when your on holiday – to take on Kings Park.
Taking the wise precaution of applying loads of sun lotion (we had forgotten the previous day and were now looking suspiciously like the prize crabs Perth’s fisherman pull out of the river) we made our way to the park.
Kings Park is the world’s largest inner city park, beating off rivals like Stanley Park, Hyde Park and even New York’s Central Park.
It was full of young, tanned and athletic looking Australian youth who have clearly enjoyed the benefit of growing up in a city where its not dark at 6pm.
The Park includes a fantastic botantic garden, spanned by a thin looking, but actually 100 per cent sturdy bridge, which gives spectacular views of the harbour and city.
It also contains the two strand design of the DNA tower, which boasts 101 steps and more picturesque views.
We spent the whole day in the park, getting more lobster like by the second but giving our lazy English thighs the work out they had been crying out for for years.
Western Australia hasn’t had any for five years. It’s in the middle of a farmer’s nightmare sized draught that has left the land crying out for water.
Over the past month the temperature in an area 800kms south of Perth has dipped to a mere 30 degrees.
Yet as we stand outside the Centurion Hotel at 6.40am, it is tipping down with rain.
And it is the first day of a tour which will take us away for five days to places like Esperance – for beaches – and Stirling National Park – for long walks in the mountains. Ideal rainy day activities.
By the time our tour guide Glen has pulled into our first toilet and food break at York, it is clear that the rain is set for the day.
We even buy an umbrella…
Our next stop, and the first major site on our trip, is the gigantic Wave Rock.
Starting out at the chasm that is Hippo’s Yawn, a cavernous hole in the rock face that looks exactly as it sounds, we walk for about a kilometre alongide a curved rock face that has been eroded over centuries to form a mini-wave effect and stained like a multi-coloured rainbow by water running down the rockface.
But this is just a prelude to the wow factor of Wave Rock itself. Turning the corner to face the rock you are struck by its size and just how closely it resembles a surfer’s paradise style wave.
Erosion is a painter of van Gough like skill and the rock’s ‘canvas’ is a series of reds, purples and blues stained on to the granite surface.
Day one is a long one for travelling – we manage 800kms in all – and most of the afternoon (save for a rain soaked lunch) is spent in the tour bus, before eventually reaching our night time stop at Esperance.
And its still wet.
Despite the rain we conduct a tour of the white sand beaches of Esperance. These include the beautiful Thistle Cove and Lucky Bay.
Lucky Bay was the inlet that saved one English explorer whose ship was caught in a storm. Turning the corner he found the bay and quickly pulled in to save his ship, crew and himself.
It was also the start of our 2km trek to Thistle Cove. The first kilometre went well, but as we reached the peak the wind picked up and our good friend the rain returned with renewed vigour.
A stormy walk later and we returned to the coach soaked to the skin.
Another beach found us face to face with a number of inquisitive kangaroos.
Lunch was luckily rain free, as we had a good old Aussie BBQ down by the beach, before enjoying a stroll along the white sand and a wander along the cliffs.
But the highlight of the day came when a crazy emu darted in front of the bus, when we were crusing at 35mph. The stupid animal continued to sprint along at our side as we reached 40 and then 45mph.
A lot of bus activity again as we made our way down to Albany.
A 300km trip saw us make a number of toilet stops – always a toilet and food break round the corner, before we drove through Fitzgerald National Park, a biodiversity park.
An unplanned walk up to Bluffs Creek (after the clutch on the van decided it didn’t fancy the hill) gave us fantastic views and an equally good lunch.
Stirling Ranges and the Perongerups were next, including a steep trek up the peak which finished in a climb and a ladder – and the most fantastic view over the surrounding valley.
Back on the bus again and tour guide Glen’s joke that this is a tour of the toilets of Western Australia is actually starting to ring true.
Australia is massive and even exploring this small corner of it is like a tour of France – in five days. So there is plenty of bus time and lots of stops just to answer nature’s call.
To be fair, Glen knows the area like the back of his hand and most of the ‘toilet breaks’ include a view of a beach or cliff top that would rule the tourist roost back home.
In the morning we have a quick look around Albany, before we visit Frenchmen’s Bay, an area which used to be central in the state’s whaling industry. Whaling was eventually banned in 1988 – a worldwide ban which put hundreds of Western Australians on the dole.
Along the coast is also an area where the sea – and the breeze it brings with it – passes into an underground cave and then buffets its way out through a ‘blowhole’. Sitting on the edge of this hole for the first few waves, I was beginning to think the experience was fairly mild.
The wind from the next wave nearly blew me off the ledge – it was like sitting in the path of a giant hairdryer unaware of when it was about to be switched to full power.
Greenpools beach was next and some well needed R&R, including a walk past Elephant Cove, a number of noble looking rocks that resembled the mouse fearing creatures themselves – probably the only place in the Aussie wild where elephants can be found, even bearing in mind the diversity of the country’s wildlife.
And then it was on to the highlight of the day. The Tingle Trees that make up the Valley of the Giants are hundreds of years old and grow to massive heights. They flower at the very tops of their trunks blocking out the light below and killing any rival foliage.
The trees reproduce through fire, which they ward off via a resistant layer of bark on their outside. The fire is then funnelled up through their hollow trunks to the top, where it forces the seeds to expand and explode, scattering out below it. New trees then race up, eager to be the first to reach the light.
When the trees were first discovered by an explorer bearing their name, it was thought they would be a great source of wood. But after spending days chopping one down, Tingle was disappointed to find they were hollow and therefore useless.
The walk itself is a metal structure shaped like a leaf and suspended 40 metres above ground level in the tops of the trees. The views from the top are awe inspiring.
Visitors are also able to walk through some of the trees – at ground level – which have been burnt through by the fire. This is all part of these wonderous tree’s plan, as it allows animals to build homes in the bottom of the trees, providing fuel for the life-giving fire to feed on.
Another tree was next on the agenda – the Bicentenial Tree. Created as a watchtower, the huge tree has regular spikes slammed in its trunk to enable people to climb to one of three levels – the third of which is somewhere in the clouds.
There is a metal mesh to the top and side of these spikes – but nothing below them. This makes climbing it a Russian Roulette style fright as each step threatens to be your last. Coming down is particularly petrifying and there were a number of times when I became stuck like a cat which has ventured too high while chasing a bird. To my eternal shame I only made it to the first level, while a large number of our touring group pushed on up to the top.
4.55am. And we are awake. This, as we keep being told, is a big day.
It is our last on the tour before we return to Perth and Glen has planned visits to a host of caves, wineries, candy shops, cheese and chocolate shops and beaches.
We are on board the bus by 6am and, after a brief stop at a lighthouse where the Pacific and Indian Ocean’s meet (and for the toilet), we are heading off to Mammoth Cave.
The cave is a massive underground expanse full of the usual staligmites and ‘tites, and also containing the fossils of Megafauna, giant ancient Australian creatures that roamed the earth thousands of years ago. These included a giant kangaroo. The Megafauna was eventually killed off by the arrival of Aboriginal man, who hunted them and ate the plant life they had fed on, thus depriving the huge creatures of a food source.
We then visited Surfers Point, the venue for the World Surfing Championships – starting on Saturday. A few of the competitors were out getting some practice, but a lack of swell in the sea wasn’t helping them much.
Next up we visited Margaret River, an area famous for its wine production. So much so that Aussie producers sent some of their ‘sparkling wine’ to a French Champagne tasting competition. They took all the labels of the bottom and the French, unaware that the product had come from Margaret River, placed it second. They were so furious when they discovered the deception that they banned the Aussies from calling their product Champagne.
Our taste buds were tantalised at a cheese factory, chocolate producer and a winery, before we drove on to lunch at Busselton beach.
White sands, clear sea and the longest jetty in Australia combine with a pretty town – again formed during the whaling boom – to make this a haven for the longest living people in Oz. Locals nearly all make it to 80plus – mainly thanks to the laid back lifestyle and Omega 3 based fish diets.
A long journey back to Perth later and it was goodbye to hostels and hello to a much needed hotel room.
And its showers…
Up at 11am – we are back in charge of the timetable.
But the rain is back anyway, so we take a slow walk and train journey down to Fremantle, the small town synomous with the Fremantle Doctor, a sea breeze which blows into Perth every day between 12noon and 3pm.
After sheltering from the rain for some food, we find the sun has returned – and its time to go shopping.
Fremantle Market is a world famous mix of local foods, tourist tat and Aussie artwork.
But its the Aboriginal artwork which grabs our attention. The WA Aboriginal Fine Art Store is actually undergoing a closing down sale, which allows us to grab some bargains – if you call $350 for a painting a bargain.
Owner Dirk tells us he is being forced to close the shop due to the night time activities of Freo’s yobs, who have been targetting the store for 15 years as it helps Aboriginies. Many of the paintings are done by members of the indigenous population who have been in jail or need help with money, but this doesn’t prevent the Aussie equivilent of ‘Chavs’ smashing its windows every night.
A disconsolate Dirk has had enough and is packing up, which is a great shame as the art is top class and every bit of it tells a story of the ancient way of life of the Aboriginies.
Fremantle itself is street upon street of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants all targetting weekend visitors from Perth and every other part of the world.
It is also home to Freo Prison, which we had a quick look around, but wasn’t that much to write home about. So I won’t.
Koala’s sleep for 20 hours a day. It has something to do with the amount of eucalyptus they stuff into their furry faces during the four hours they are awake.
Whatever the cause Australia’s cutest critter is the out of work, coach potato, dosser of the animal kingdom.
He has no predators and – barring man’s invasion of his territory – little to worry about.
But he has no place on the west coast of Australia, where conditions are too dry for him; so it is to Perth Zoo we have come to see these mini marsupials.
And true to form they are hidden away in the tops of Gum trees, snoring their heads off.
Mind you, they’re not on their own. The sun is back and most of the zoo’s residents are either hiding away from it or making the most of some valuable sun bathing time.
Lions and tigers lie on their backs, the wombats have headed for the shade of their burrows and the hardy rhino are collapsed on the ground.
Even the mad dogs have retired for the day.
But true to our nature, man is out in force – or at least our closest relative. Gibbons and orangatangs swing from tree to rope with great dexterity to perform for the crowds gathered there.
And soon they are joined in the open by marauding meerkats, elephants covered in paint from art classes with their keepers and even the tiny Aussie Numbat.
At one point a Gallapocus Tortoise even moved; probably for the first time in hundreds of years.
But the koala slept on…
Its tour time again, and that can only mean one thing – an early start.
Up at 6am we head down to Wellington Street Tourist Coach Stop, to join the one day tour to the Pinnacles.
The Pinnacles are a host of rocks positioned in the desert some 250kms north of Perth. They were formed by the uneven erosion of the land in that area and now resemble hundreds upon hundreds of sandy gravestones stretching as far as the eye can see.
Indeed the first colonisers thought they had stumbled across the remains of some ancient civilisation, while the Aboriginies will not visit the site as they still see it as a burial ground and as such hold it sacred.
The first thing that strikes me about the Pinnacles is the bright yellow of the sand surrounding them. It looks as if you are approaching some giant moonscape, only this is one that really is made of cheese.
The illusion is shattered when you set foot on the often coarse sand, but the Pinnacles remain no less spectacular.
Some of the most impressive have even gained pet names from their resemblance to everyday and mythical items, including the Church, the Cat, the Dolphins and even Neptune.
Talking of seemingly mythical things, our trip to the Pinnacles saw another apparently unreal creature – a moving koala.
Despite the fact koala’s don’t live on the West Coast, there they were in one of the many national park’s that lie close to the sea.
The gum trees are surrounded by a network of sprinklers to allow the marsupial mammals to get enough water to survive.
And one of them is moving, eating and even swinging from the tree. In some strange way, my holiday experience feels complete.
The journey back from the Pinnacles includes a stop off at Lancelin, where we go on a 4×4 trip over the dunes and sandboarding.
Dragging myself up the steep dunes was the hardest bit. The way down? – a quick push off at the top, lean forward and gravity took over.
I managed to fly down the slope at quite an (uncontrolled) speed and lost all balance at the end to finish in an unedifying and extremely sandy forward roll.
It looked like Eddie the Eagle Edwards would have done if he had been a sandboarder.