I have a theory about trams; if a place has a tram system, you can tell immediately that it’s got something about it. San Francisco, Nottingham, Melbourne; all quite different, but all good places to be, with lively cultural scenes, interesting architecture and a real sense of history. As for Perth, well, suffice it to say that Perth clearly and definitely does not have any trams.
It’s not an unpleasant place to be as such; the city centre has a few good museums and galleries, a great zoo, a nice park overlooking the business district (which when I went was packed with young people playing Pokemon Go), and the recently regenerated Elizabeth Quay. It’s just that none of it has any kind of uniqueness, none of it makes you think ‘oh, this is what Perth is all about’, it was all a bit generic and uninspiring.
I’m being very unfair of course, and it’s probably a question of expectations. I’ve met plenty of people who have lived or stayed in Perth, and everyone seemed to speak quite highly of it; it’s a place that people emigrate to, or do a semester abroad in, and generally seem to have had a great time. I was expecting quite a lot I suppose, compared to Adelaide, about which everyone who lives or visits there seems to say ‘meh, it’s alright’. Growing up in Milton Keynes and working in Coventry has given me a soft spot for underappreciated towns, so this review of Adelaide made me resolve to see the best in it. Perth on the other hand, didn’t sound like it needed my goodwill; it has a reputation in Australia for being an up-and-coming, self confident kind of place, and after all, it’s one of the most remote cities in the world so surely it should be some kind of cultural beacon. As it turns out, the distance from anywhere better just seems to have given people much lower standards.
Luckily however, I ended up spending most of my time in Fremantle, a completely lovely and infinitely more interesting suburb of Perth. As if to prove my point, within minutes of leaving the train station I saw a local tour bus decked out to look like a tram.
The original port of the Swan River Colony, settled in 1829, Fremantle feels very much like a self-contained town, rather than a suburb of Perth, with its own trendy feel and rich maritime history. Nowadays it’s a popular seaside spot with pretty streets, a nice parade of cafes and shops, and some great cultural spots. My hostel was in a refurbished wing of the town prison, the other end of which is an excellent museum, and in the harbour was the Leeuwin II, Australia’s largest working tall ship. 180 feet long with three masts, it’s a real pirate ship, and the charity that maintains it offer sailing training day and week-long trips in the summer months, as well as youth education programmes. Already in a swashbuckling mood, I visited the Shipwreck Galleries, a museum telling the story of a range of ships wrecked off the Western Australian coast. The main event is a huge piece of the hull of the Batavia, a Dutch East India Company ship which was wrecked north of Perth in the ultimate swashbuckling story of mutiny, murder and revenge.
A visit to the Perth tourist information centre seems to indicate that the best things to do in Perth are day trips where you get away from Perth, so with this in mind I went to Rottnest Island, a half hour ferry ride from Fremantle, and hired a bike to cycle around the car-free island. Australia seems to have a real knack for perfectly matching landscapes to activities, and it was excellent terrain for biking; not too steep but lumpy enough to be a bit of a challenge, with clear routes and lots of little beaches and viewpoints. It was sunny but not too hot, the colour of the water was pretty incredible, and there were lots of quokkas, marsupials native to the island, curiously sniffing about.
My final day in Fremantle was a sunny Sunday at the end of the school holidays, and there were lots of families around. While the 15 degree weather was pleasant to me, like a fresh Spring day in the UK, here it was the depths of winter, and the cafes and restaurants were advertising soup, hot chocolate and even mulled wine. I must have been starting to get homesick at this point, because the families I saw walking along the sea front reminded me of my own family at different points in time, from the young children whining about how far they’d walked, to sulky teenagers lagging behind looking at their phones, to grown up children catching up with their parents, some with children of their own.
I got fish and chips for lunch, which was a massive disappointment; the batter was way too light and crunchy, the chips were nowhere near fat and greasy enough, and I got plastic cutlery instead of a little splintery wooden fork. But the seagulls were comfortingly intimidating and aggressive, so I felt quite at home.