Only nineteen kilometers apart, linked by history as well as proximity, Fremantle and Perth gave us our first taste of this sunburned continent. Originally scheduled to spend only one day in the port of Fremantle, our ship needed special maintenance, and this happy accident gave us an extra day. We were able to visit both towns.
Actually, Perth is not a town. With a population of nearly a million and a half, Perth is a real city, and with its tall office towers, tony shops, and concentrated atmosphere it feels like one.
For those of you unfamiliar with Australia, here are a couple of rather startling facts: In area, the continent of Australia is about the same size as the continental United States. Yet it has a population of only about twenty-three million, fewer than Canada. What’s more, nearly all those people live in or near the cities of the coasts, especially the eastern and southern coasts. In Western Australia, besides Perth and Fremantle in the far south, there is very little in the way of settlement.
By now, you may be getting the impression that in its geography Australia is a highly unusual place, a land of huge distances with many virtually uninhabited and uninhabitable regions.
Another fact is that here down under many things are different than they are in the northern hemisphere. For instance, the Australian tropics are in the north of the country. Seasons are reversed, too. It is still summer, sunny and warm, at the end of February. Up north, when we are sweltering in the July and August heat, it is winter here. Also, the native plant and animal life endemic to Australia is very different from what lives and grows in the north.
Back to Western Australia: The earliest discoverers were the Dutch, who seeing nothing attractive or valuable about the land, gave it a pass. Later, the French claimed it, but for the same reasons, neglected it. Finally, it was the intrepid British who founded the settlements of Perth and Fremantle in the early 19th century. What no one knew at the time was that the land of Western Australia, seemingly no good for any economic purpose, hid one of the world’s great mineral deposits. Today, it is mining those minerals and exporting them, mostly to China that creates the region’s wealth. Perth, being the only city close to the mines, has benefited greatly.
As a disclaimer, we have to say that our impressions of Perth and less so of Fremantle are superficial. We spent only a few hours in each before reboarding the Queen Mary 2 for Melbourne, the next port of call. In Perth, Kay and I were on our own, while in Fremantle we had the benefit of the enthusiastic guidance and deep knowledge of our friend Ken, who lives nearby and about whom we’ll say more below.
To get from Fremantle to Perth there is a train whose station is within easy walking distance of the pier. We arrived to find a crowd of our fellow passengers besieging a sole railroad employee as he tried to help them. The problem was that the ticket machines were either out of change or out of order. The only way they would issue tickets is if one had exact change, which, of course, no one had. Meanwhile the train to Perth was about to leave. At the last minute the stationmaster told everyone to just get on the train without tickets. Once on the train our elderly crowd occupied all the seats, so that as the daily commuters boarded at each successive stop they had to stand. We expect their conversation around the water cooler that morning was rather salty.
The capital of Western Australia is said to be the world’s most isolated city. It’s very modern and very clean. Tall office buildings dominate the city center. We followed a covered walkway and then passed through an arcade filled with shops to reach Hay Street, one of the city’s two pedestrian malls.
Our first order of business was practical. We needed to change SIM cards in our phone and iPad to be able to use them in Australia. Fortunately, the Virgin Mobile store met our needs quickly, and we had our first of many positive commercial transactions in Australia.
Our practical necessities dealt with, we set out to see something of the town. Perth is a lively, bustling place. We found an area known as the cultural center. There was a Fringe Festival in progress; however, the performances are all in the evening, so it was pretty clear that we wouldn’t be taking in any of them.
Unfortunately, the art museum we had wanted to visit was closed that day, so we went into the Western Australian Museum instead. The galleries there are mostly devoted to natural history. We looked at preserved examples of underwater life found around the Dampier Archipelago, a group of forty islands off the Western Australian coast. Some of these, like the oyster and mussel shells, amazed us by their large size. Others intrigued us by their symmetrical beauty. There were many examples of sea stars (the correct name for what we used to call starfish, which are not fish at all.)
In the Mammal Gallery old-fashioned glass cases contain stuffed animals endemic to Australia. In particular, we had our first look at a Wombat, a large burrowing creature with the body the size of a small pig and a blunt, hairy nose. It is related to the Koala, an example of which sat on a tree branch above the Wombat. Another common Australian mammal is the Wallaby, a marsupial that looks much like a kangaroo.
We were impressed by the museum’s butterfly collection. There are hundreds of them arranged in lovely patterns under glass.
The museum’s lobby contains a full-size replica of a fearsome, carnivorous dinosaur called Carnotaurus Sastrei. Large, with deadly claws and a mouthful of sharp teeth it looked threatening even as sculpture.
In a corner of the lobby we came across a touching display of ephemera called The Library of Nearly Lost Moments. It showcased favored items from the past that once belonged to local people. It made the point that hand-written letters, once so looked forward to by their recipients, are becoming almost unknown. As an older person, having grown up when writing and receiving letters was common, this modest exhibit touched me personally. I’ve saved letters all my life. They make a treasured collection.
We took a free bus a short distance to King’s Park, a beautiful green area overlooking the Swan River that spreads out along an avenue lined with tall eucalyptus trees whose trunks are smooth and white. We rested on a bench overlooking the city in the distance below. We were so comfortable in the shade with a light, cooling breeze that we could have sat there the rest of the afternoon. Adjacent to our bench we admired a lovely memorial to those Australians killed in the Bali bombing a few years ago. King’s Park is indeed a lovely spot with its beautifully kept lawns and views across the water.
Compared to Perth, Fremantle is smaller but very attractive. What makes it so in our eyes are the many buildings dating from the colonial era, including some large hotels that have been restored. Like its larger neighbor, Fremantle is very clean.
Furthermore, it is quiet without the big-city feel of Perth. Having spent a day wandering its streets, I don’t remember any high-rise buildings. A typical Fremantle street in the business district has rows of buildings with only two or three storeys.
Our day began by meeting our friend Ken at the foot of the pedestrian bridge that leads out of the dock area. Ken’s conversation is full of thoughts and insights. We met Ken in Istanbul a few years ago where we discovered we had many of the same interests.
The morning was warm and sunny and would get much warmer as we walked the short distance to South Terrace known as Cappuccino Strip. There we sat at a café table and chatted for a while, bringing each other up to date on our lives. This morning he brought a picture book entitled Voyages, The Romance of Cruising by the photographer Harvey Lloyd. Lloyd is specialist at photographing ships, and his work has a special interest for us now that we have become sea voyagers ourselves.
After chatting awhile, we set out on a slow walk around the center of Fremantle, stopping at various points to admire a building, take photos, and listen to Ken’s information.
One of our first stops was St John’s Anglican Church, a beautiful limestone building built in the second half of the 19th century. Its simple, elegant interior was full of interest. Some of the stained glass in the lancet windows depicts the history of the town that was founded in the 1820s. There is also an attractive altar closed off by an open-work rood screen. The church was designed by London architect William Smith.
Moving along, we came to an organic food store filled with delicious goodies. What interested me most were the unusual canned goods imported from different countries. There is an artisanal bakery in town whose loaves on shelves behind the checkout counter looked appealing. Their prices, like those of almost everything else in this expensive part of Australia, were high, about $8.00 a loaf.
We stopped at the New Editions Bookstore, a favorite of Ken’s. He is a fine photographer whose photos are for sale on-line. He pointed out one or two photos of his in a book about Perth. We sat at a table for a while discussing books. We’ve intrigued him about the author W. G. Sebald whose work he doesn’t know.
For lunch we ate fish and chips at a popular local restaurant called Cicerella’s. I chose garfish, a type I had never eaten. With our meal we drank bottles of a local beer called Freo Doctor named after the wind patterns that formerly aided sailing ships into and out of Fremantle harbor.
Our last major site was the historic Fremantle Prison reached at the end of a long, sunny ramp. With more disposable time we would have taken one of the tours offered. As it was we had to be content with a couple of photos of the exterior and of the colonial buildings with wide verandas that stand along side the prison.
As we walked back in the afternoon heat toward the Queen Mary 2, we stopped for beer in one of the town’s saloons. I drank a pint of an IPA called Fat Yak.
In the course of the day, Ken gave us a lot of information about his country, including insights into its politics and economics. He also told us about some very interesting sounding side trips we could take from Fremantle on another, longer visit. The long drive up the coast contains some of the country’s wildest and most remote beauty. We’d be happy to visit Western Australia on some future trip.