An account of my first day in Australia on a trip undertaken with my father in order to eventually meet up with our relatives in Adelaide, before that however we had a week of adventures in Western Australia where we got to know places such as Freemantle, Perth and Albany.
Flying over Australia for the first time in my life felt like I was truly arriving at the far end of the world. That feeling of reaching somewhere special had maybe begun an hour or so before we actually reached the coast. It was when the sky turned a shade of blue I had never seen before that I stared out the window and kept thinking that in the distance lay the beginnings of Australia, even though at this point it was still only sea and sky. In actual fact it was just an illusion created by the far off sea and sky merging together, both bathed in an amazing blue which I thought indicated terra firma, a sight so beautiful it kept me on the edge of my seat as I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Eventually the land mass did appear and with crystal clarity I saw thousands of feet beneath our plane, Planet Earth in reddish orange, looking huge, awesome and impenetrable as to its mysteries. As we flew down the coast of Western Australia on our way to the city of Perth, the colour of this flat immensity below was dominated by those various shades of red and orange and even though I was a mile up in the sky above, there was an overwhelming sense of emptiness to what I saw beneath me. A desolate beauty on which it became easy for me to project wonderful thoughts, as if my mind was painting on a blank canvas.
Spent a long time looking out of my window trying to see if there were any signs of man, as if I was searching for some re-assurance we were not going to be landing on Mars, but it was quite hard to find those signs. There were some for sure, but they were so few and far between it was difficult to know what they actually were; outposts of work stations maybe, remote farms in those lands of the never never, but certainly nothing in the way of towns or villages. Instead plenty of lines, straight and criss-crossed, were scratched upon the surface, but they appeared to be only joining up one dot with another, single buildings or a couple at most, stretching far off into nowhere before getting lost on the horizon. Occasionally it was possible to see vehicles making their way along those lines and tracks, but they were working vehicles and moved slowly, they were not cars out for a casual spin or anything like that. We flew for a long time and down below was the same scene was spread before us, for hundreds and hundreds of miles, of that there was no doubt, of that I was certain.
When our plane, Singapore Airlines, eventually descended to land in Perth there was more in the way of mankind which became visible, but it was hardly a crowded hinterland we flew over. A plume of smoke rising up from the hills behind the city to the east looked dramatic and I didn’t know what it was, didn’t know what it meant, but in my mind it felt significant in some suitably indefinable way. Strange fires burnin’, a spooky kinda welcome from the other side of the world. Once we were on the ground however, everything was soon surprisingly familiar, everyone spoke English, most of them kind of looked English and all the signs were in English as well. Which was all a bit weird really, as suddenly after hours flying over such an alien looking landscape, it now felt more or less home from home. Such is the dichotomy then, of far flung geography from one end of the globe to another, where you can travel such a long distance only to end up back at square one.
Customs and immigration were both negotiated for me and Dad without too much of a problem, we were waved through with barely a flicker of an eye, although this was clearly not the case for some people, as we saw a Muslim woman immediately escorted into a separate room and the door closed behind her. No messing around there, for whatever reason. After picking up our cases in the baggage hall we found ourselves in the arrivals of Perth airport at approx 4 o’clock in the afternoon of Wednesday 15th September 2010. It was a little later than when we were supposed to arrive, due to the fact there had been a tropical storm in Singapore which had delayed us getting off the ground by an hour or so, but apart from that we had landed in Australia safe and sound after having set out from a cloudy grey Heathrow in the middle of the morning of the day before.
Dad was anxious that we got out of the terminal quick in order to find ourselves a taxi for the ride to Freemantle and The Esplanade Hotel which was where we were staying for the next seven days. Before that however, I wanted to get a new SIM card for my mobile phone so that I could use it in Australia without paying an arm and a leg every time I made a call. I had read the best place to do that was on arrival at the airport, so after making our way outside with all our luggage and seeing there was not going to be any problem in us getting a cab, I told Dad to wait whilst I went back into the terminal to get my mobile sorted. At the Vodaphone booth I explained to the girls on the stand what it was I wanted to do and then bought a SIM card which they stuck in the back of my phone for me, which was handy as SIMs are fiddly. The card I bought gave me $50 AU credits, which according to the instructions printed in miniscule type, would be ready for me to use after approximately 15 minutes. Guess it is fair to say that I felt pretty damn pleased with myself after having done all this, pulling it off seemingly with no complications. Felt like it was a good start; all I had to do was wait for the credits to kick in and then it was way to go!
Once I was outside again Dad was still waiting, I mean, where else would he go? We put our cases into the back of a taxi and told the driver to take us to The Esplanade in Freemantle, with me sat in the front and Dad in the back. It turned out that our driver was an Indian guy from the Punjab and after what was only a short time we soon found ourselves involved in a pretty deep and complex conversation about the current state of affairs in India, the Punjab in particular, which I have to say felt pretty surreal but there you go, always best to expect the unexpected, as the advertising for the first Peter Gabriel album once stated. It was clear to both of us that although this man had been living and working in Australia for the last ten years, there seemed to be little doubt where his heart lay and that was in the land of the mighty Bharat. Probably he would always refer everything which happened in his life back to Mother India and all the people, friends and family, he had left there. The fact he was now in Australia appeared to be little more than a means to an end, it allowed him to earn money which he could then send back home, but it seemed like it was never going to mean anything more than that.
Due to the intensity of our little chat it was difficult for me to look around and take in the fact we were now driving through the southern districts of Perth, gradually making our way to the port town of Freemantle on the coast where the Indian Ocean lay just beyond. All the same, the main impression I picked up from our ride to the hotel was that Perth, although one of the most isolated cities on Earth and surrounding by astounding amounts of freely available space, suffered from the same miseries of traffic congestion as anywhere else. The roads were very busy in other words, the three lanes on our side of the freeway were full of traffic and for a lot of the time it was traffic going nowhere. Bumper to bumper, nose to tail, same old fuckin’ story. The sun glinting on the car windscreen reflected sharply into my eyes and made me wish I had put my sunglasses on, but they were in my hand luggage case on the back seat. It felt like too much hassle to ask Dad to root around and fish them out for me, he was running short on patience after the long, long flight and just wanted to get to our hotel, so a request like that might have been a step too far, which meant I just sat there squintin’ and blinkin’ into the light. By the time we reached the outer edges of Freemantle we were still fighting our way through the early evening rush hour as the city workers of Perth knocked off for the day and made their way home. But once we had made our way into the centre of town the roads lightened up again and suddenly things became pleasantly free and spacious.
The Esplanade Hotel was close to the waterfront in a quiet part of Freemantle which also had a nice little park in front of it. Sure was a welcome sight indeed after our long journey from the other side of the world, a journey which had been topped off with the best part of an hour’s worth of irresolvable Indian complexity which we had unexpectedly got involved in, thanks to our driver. Once we had escaped from his taxi and given him a generous tip for the courtesy of doing our heads in, we went inside the hotel where I presented the vouchers for our stay to the staff at reception and in return was soon given a couple of key cards for our rooms. In my shoulder bag I had a whole bundle of paperwork from Freedom Australia, the specialist travel company whom we had used to make all our hotel and travel bookings back in the UK. It was my job to take care of all of this stuff on our trip, to sort things out as and when they needed attending to. The idea was for Dad to take a back seat with regard to this, as he had been the one who had paid the money to get us out there and for us to remain in some considerable state of luxury for the next three weeks by way of the places we were staying in. That was fair enough, there were certainly no complaints from me, after all it was the least I could do considering the costs involved, and if I was honest it was something I quite enjoyed so long as I kept my eye on the ball and didn’t fuck things up!
Our rooms were next to each other on the second floor in a quiet part of the hotel which was towards the back and each of them came with a small balcony overlooking the hotel swimming pool. It was a relief for me to open the door of my room, put down my bags and then lie back on my big double bed to rest for a little while. I opened the door to the balcony in order to allow the early evening breeze blow in, carrying with it the sounds of Freemantle which to me at least sounded pretty damn incredible since I was hearing them for the first time in my life. With just a bedside lamp switched on and dimmed down, the rest of my room was soon in deep shadow as late afternoon slid into early evening. This was an ambience which soothed me as I stretched out on my bed, quietly taking in the fact I was now in Australia, way over on the other side of the world. Dad and I had agreed to meet down in the hotel foyer at 7, which gave me a good hour to rest before we were due to take an evening walk and find a place to have a drink and something to eat. It was difficult for me to lie back and simply do nothing however, as I was feeling pretty wired from the thrill of being in my new surroundings, so I unpacked all my stuff and stashed it away. On my bed I spread out everything I would either be using or referring to over the next few weeks; document wallet with all our paperwork, books, notebook, ipod, mobile, maps, digital camera being the main things on the list of this little survival kit.
After I had sorted all my gear I tried to call Christine in Adelaide on my mobile. Now that I had got a new SIM installed I thought it would be a doddle, but each time I called her number I got a Vodaphone Australia invalid number message come up. This disconcerted me to the point of causing feelings of irritation and it got me thinking that later on in the evening I would have to take a stroll round Freemantle to see if I could find a Vodaphone shop which I could go to first thing in the morning and get this problem sorted. Typical, it was just typical, there was always something with mobiles and changing SIMs which ensured that going from country to country was never as simple as you thought it was going to be. Christine was the daughter of Dad’s Aunty Joan, who was the younger sister of his long deceased father, my grandfather, Charles Bradley. Aunty Joan was now a very old lady in her early 90s and she was the main reason why we were making the trip out to Australia, so that dad could see her for what would probably be the last time when we got to Adelaide, which was where both she and Christine lived. When Dad had been at sea in the 50s, making frequent voyages to Australia and the Far East, Joan had been something of a mentor and had seen quite a lot of him whenever he was in port. They had remained close since that time, keeping the connection with Australia alive for him and just as importantly, if not more, the connection alive with regard to his father’s side of the family.
Just before 7 I gave Dad a knock on his door to see if he was ready to go out. He said he had managed to rest for an hour which had done him good, however our flight had been a long one, so I thought that after going for a beer or two and then grabbing some food, we would then be heading back to our rooms for an early night. Before departing for Australia Dad had been in email contact with James, Christine’s younger brother who lived in Brisbane over on the Gold Coast, but who had worked in Perth for a couple of years in the not too distant past. James had recommended to Dad that once we got to Freemantle we should go for a drink in a place called Little Creatures, a local micro brewery which had its own bar and lay just across the green in front of The Esplanade, so that was where we made our way to. It was pretty chilly once we got outside which was a bit of a surprise, but the sun had gone down, it was dark, and a fresh breeze was blowing in off the Indian Ocean. I was very glad my wife Dawa Dolkar had sorted out my travelling kit before I left, as the warm jacket I was wearing was perfect for the conditions we now found ourselves in. On the way over to Little Creatures I gave her a quick call on Dad’s mobile since, obviously, mine was not working properly yet. It was early afternoon in Stockholm, where Dawa Dolkar was working for six days and it felt pretty amazing being able to talk to her and hear her voice so clearly when we were both so far away from each other in terms of geographic location.
Little Creatures was very busy and it was obvious as soon as we walked in that the vast majority of the drinkers were young Australians, which I guess was to be expected considering the place we found ourselves in. There was a cosmopolitan mix of people, more like what you would find in a Central London pub, bar or club, rather than what I was expecting, a bar full of the beer swilling Aussie sports boys waiting to kick your teeth in if you said the wrong thing. Don’t know why I had been expecting that! It was a bit of a shock when we ordered a couple of beers however and found the price came to nearly $20 AU, which worked out at just over 6 fucking quid a pint. That was pretty expensive in anyone’s book, way more than what we would have even paid back in London, where one was used to things being top dollar. It seemed like we were paying the price for the fall in the value of the Pound, as when Dad had been in Australia eight years ago it was nearly 2.60 AU to 1 GBP, but now it was down to around 1.58, which meant over 1 AU had been sliced off the rate of exchange between the two currencies. We both now realised that the direct consequence of this tanking of the Pound was that it meant we might have to watch our pennies a little bit more than what we had been expecting.
Since Little Creatures was pretty packed and noisy, we soon found ourselves sitting at an outside table as it was too damn intense inside for us to properly hear ourselves speak. It was all a little bit strange, our first evening in Australia and the place we ended up in could have been like anywhere back in the UK, but maybe that was the point, in a nutshell that was what Australia was now like, the same as anywhere else. The loud music being pumped out through the sound system, along with the excited chatter of so many young people, made me feel old, a little bit past it and out of my comfort zone, whatever that was. God knows how dad must have felt, because he really was an old timer, and a jet lagged one as well. It did not take us long to finish our beers before getting the hell out of Little Creatures as it had not quite gone according to plan, it was all a bit disorientating after having arrived in town just a couple of hours ago. We had been looking forward to a quiet beer, to sitting down for a good hour or so and having a chat about our journey, but it had not been possible for us to do that at all. In retrospect I guess what we did was quite a common thing when landing in a new place, namely going out and immediately making a series of wrong decisions, not getting things right as to where to go and what to do, and all because you are feeling just a little bit out of it whilst at the same time wanting to be part of the new scene you find yourself in.
We walked along the Waterfront checking out the various eateries until we ended up in a place called Kailis’ which was right by the water and according to the banner flapping outside was an award winning fish and chip restaurant. As it turned out it did not disappoint in any way whatsoever, where big portions of top quality fish and chips with cans of cold beer was the name of the game. Suddenly it felt like me and dad had got our act together as once our bellies were full of the fried stuff we both felt a hell of a lot better than what we had not so long ago in Little Creatures. No need to add much more than that really, except to say that for our first meal in Australia it could not have been bettered or battered as far as I was concerned. By the time we were finished it was nearly nine in the evening and we walked off our fish and chips by strolling up and down the quiet streets of Freemantle whilst taking in its relaxed and spacious vibe, and with me at least, beginning to feel more than a little fantastic.
It was apparent to me on our first walk around the town that Freemantle was an easy place to stay in, great even. There were plenty of interesting buildings around, all empty by the middle of the evening, and the traffic on the roads was minimal, which meant there was no aggravation with regard to cars. No assholes revving up right behind you or anything scary like that. This gave us the time and space to enjoy simply just walking, to think on things without having to be on our guard against any potential threats or irritations. It was a pleasant change from most urban environments where there was often little joy in being out after dark if you were on foot due to the potential of walking into some kind of aggravated circumstance, which needless to say would have involved other humans.
We were back in The Esplanade by 10 O’ Clock which meant we had walked around for a good hour or so after our fish and chips. Dad now turned in for the night as he was pretty shot at from the flight and our arrival in Perth earlier that afternoon, but I was not tired at all, just too excited I guess at being in Australia, where I was buzzing my head off as a consequence. I soon headed back out of the hotel for another wander around town and during the course of this, my second street walkin’ stroll of the evening, I successfully located a Vodaphone shop which I would call into first thing the next morning in order to get my SIM working properly. By the time I got back to my room it was 11 and after reading for 10 minutes or so whilst tucked up in my nice big bed, I turned off the light and immediately crashed out.