Perth and Fremantle

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.

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Perth from King’s Park

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.

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Elizabeth Quay

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.

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Fremantle Prison Museum

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.

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Leeuwin II

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.

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Fremantle sea front

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.

Exmouth to Perth via Northampton

As in Broome, I had a vague intention of finding work in Exmouth in order to fund more diving and generally stretch out my dwindling funds, and this time I got as far as walking around the town looking for adverts on shop windows and notice boards. But, when it came down to it, I couldn’t quite summon the motivation to apply for service industry jobs, and the thought of staying in the town’s friendly but poorly maintained backpackers’ hostel helped me decide to move on south towards Perth. The questions then was how to get there. I had no luck finding another campervan relocation, and although the bus I’d taken down from Broome did continue another seventeen hours to Perth, I wasn’t keen on the idea of another overnight journey in a rattly, funny-smelling coach.

So it was with some relief that I heard about Red Earth Safaris, a small, Perth-based tour company that run eight-day trips from Perth to Exmouth and back again. Although they stopped for the sights and activities on the way up, for slightly less than the cost of a public bus ticket they offered a spot on the day-and-a-half return leg. And to sweeten the deal, food and a night’s accommodation was included, so I signed up online. Having spoken to some people at the hostel who had done the tour and was expecting a similar set-up to the tour I did in Alice Springs; some kind of small bus with 10-15 people, a fairly structured itinerary and an informative guide who would slip into ‘storytelling mode’ when he told the anecdotes he’d told a hundred times before. I was surprised then on the morning we left Exmouth to be met by a guide and just two other punters, in a car. As Nicola the guide explained, all of the other guests had opted to end the tour at Monkey Mia, several hours south of Exmouth, and so with so few people it made sense to carry on in the car rather than the big bus. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it made for a much more comfortable journey, and felt more like an informal road trip than a tour.

We set off after an early breakfast and drove all day, stopping for breaks at the funny little roadhouses along the way. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the 24th Parallel, the border of north-west Australia, and the landscape gradually changed as we made our way south. Green replaced orangey brown, fields replaced bushland, rolling hills replaced flat plains. We stopped for lunch in Carnarvon, in banana-growing country, as as we pushed on we passed fields of wheat, rapeseed and sheep, as well as plenty of wild goats (which apparently are quite a problem given their tendency to eat anything and everything). As we drove Nicola told me about the area and some of the things I would have seen on the journey up, while the two other passengers, a pair of grumpy German teenagers slept in the backseat. Nicola wasn’t a professional tour guide – she and her husband had just bought the company after he had lead groups for the previous owners for the last seven years, while she was an English language teacher and administrator for an ESL college in Perth, and was taking a break to consider a career change – and her unrehearsed storytelling style gave the journey even more of a road trip feel.

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The Convent

Our stop for the night was a hostel in Northampton, a town spread along the main road with 868 residents and three pubs, imaginatively named Top Pub, Middle Pub and Bottom Pub. Our accommodation was a former convent build in 1917, and now a hostel in the style of what I imagine hostels were like about fifty years ago. No light and bright spaces, no backpackers’ drinks deals and promo photos of young people having fun, no reception even. To get in we rang the caretaker Maureen, who came to meet us with a big bunch of keys and showed us around. We were shown the kitchen which didn’t seem to have changed since 1917, the living room with furniture that reminded me of my Granny’s house, and our simple bedrooms. When old buildings are repurposed, especially when they become hostels, the interiors seem to be refurbished to such a degree that they can lose their character, but here there was no chance of that as nothing, from the wallpaper to the furniture to the pictures on the walls, seemed to have been changed. It was quite nice really, and a beautiful building, but very, very cold.

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Leaning Tree

The next morning we set off early again and hit the road, passing by the town of Geraldton, scared some emus crossing the road, and stopped to have a look at one of the area’s ‘leaning trees’, trees that are bent so much by the strong winds that they grow horizontally. We came into Perth through the northern suburbs, which reminded me very much of Milton Keynes right down to the roundabouts. Arriving at lunchtime, Nicola dropped me off at the YHA Hostel in the city centre, and after nearly a month of small towns and deserted bushland, I was back in the hustle and bustle of big city life.