Freemantle, Swan River & Perth

An account of heading into Perth from Freemantle 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.

Woke up early the next morning and stayed awake for the best part of a couple of hours, just went with the territory I guess; new kid in town, country, continent. Lay there in the dark with a constant stream of thoughts running through my mind, it was not that uncommon for that to happen to me if truth be told, but I eventually fell back to sleep at some point and then was woken up by Dad knocking on my bedroom door. It was already 8.30 and – son of a gun – I had overslept and that was something which didn’t happen often! We had agreed the night before to make our way down to breakfast at 8.30 the following morning but there I was still prone horizontal when he started rapping. I poked my head out of my room, profusely apologised and jumped into the shower so as to fully wake up and get myself together. In less than 15 minutes I was ready, nevertheless it was a bit of a shock to have been caught out on my first morning in Australia, as when it came to being punctual I was usually right on the button, but not this time, no sir, not by a long shot!

Breakfast was in the form of a buffet in the light, airy and recently renovated dining room on the ground floor of The Esplanade. As we walked through the foyer I looked out of the hotel doors and saw that it was a clear sunny day, something which made me feel good, very good indeed. After yet another indifferent English summer in terms of decent weather, it was great to now be in a place where plenty of sun was guaranteed and I already couldn’t wait to step outside and make the most of it.  We soon got stuck into fresh fruit and coffee before sampling The Esplanade cooked breakfast which was all very civilised, very relaxed and very filling since we could help ourselves to as much as we wanted, which meant in my case going just a little bit over the top. The hotel seemed to be ticking over as far as guests were concerned, not too full with punters but by no means empty either, all of them no doubt paying a pretty penny, just like us. Most of the staff appeared to be Asian with also a couple of East Europeans thrown into the mix as well, which again was pretty much like what you would expect to find back in London.

By 10 in the morning we were out of our hotel and slowly making our way down to the quayside and to the port of Freemantle. This was where Dad had first landed in Australia way back in the early 50s when he was a sailor working for the P&O Steam Navigation Company and going all over the world. Guess this meant to a certain extent it was familiar territory to him, although it was now well over 50 years since he was there in any kind of work capacity. Nevertheless it was a connection for him with the place which I would never have, as my own life has not followed the same course as his and this is something I actually wrote about, briefly, many years ago.

my father went to sea
like his father before him
and the one before that
but when it came to me
the lineage was halted,
not through any dislike
more due to the fact
that when I appeared
the sailor days were gone
replaced by the container
20 ft 10 ft
metal cargo boxes

The plan for our first full day in Australia was to take the ferry which cruised down the Swan River from Freemantle to Perth, lying on the river but further inland. Both of us felt invigorated and refreshed to be in the fresh morning sun, Dad was looking in pretty good shape after the rigours of the flight from the day before and as for me I felt fine, being just incredible to be able to bask in the warmth and brightness of Australia. It was great to be out walking in a place so far away from all I was used to, with hardly a cloud in the sky and everyone speaking English. In fact there were no clouds in the sky, just blue and beyond the blue, darker blue, and beyond the darker blue, well space I guess, full of boomerang spaceships!

Thanks to my reconnaissance mission whilst out walking late the previous evening we made a quick diversion to the Vodaphone shop in order to sort out my newly installed SIM which wasn’t quite working yet, despite my best efforts to sort it myself. A couple of really friendly young assistants were able to solve the problem in approximately 10 seconds flat which pleased me but also made me feel more than a little bit stupid for not having put two and two together to figure things out. No worries! It was by no means the first time in my life I had missed the obvious and on this occasion it had just been a simple question of activating a code in order for me to make local and international calls. As far as I could remember I was pretty sure the Vodaphone girls at the airport from the day before had not told me anything about that, the code that is, but then again I just had stepped off the plane from Singapore and it was possible I had just not paid enough attention.

Once outside the shop I tested out my mobile by calling the Vodaphone number to check my credit balance and my day immediately got better when I was told by an automated message service that the $50 AU card I had purchased at the airport was part of a special promotion which had now added on an extra $100 AU credit to it. Nice one! No longer feeling so stupid I was now basking in the light of my own cleverness over having thought of getting my mobile unlocked in the first place whilst back in England, thus enabling me to use a local SIM. In truth however it had all been Dawa Dolkar’s idea for me to unlock my SIM, yes she was the one who had pushed me to do it, insisting that I would save a lot of money if I did so. And sure enough, it looked like she was going to be right!

Freemantle was an old town comparatively speaking, well it was old as far as anything in Australia to do with the history of the white man was concerned, and where the streets and buildings felt like they had probably not changed much in over 100 years. It retained an old world ambience from the days when everything revolved around the sea, big ships sailing from one end of the Earth to the other with cargo and passengers on them. It has one of the biggest ports in Australia even now, but of course these days the work involves far less people because much of it is done by machines loading and unloading containers. None of this stopped Freemantle from being an extremely pleasant place to walk around, and making my way down its streets in the bright sunlight of that first morning only served to confirm all those favourable impressions I’d had of it the night before. The rather intense sunlight meant it was necessary for both me and Dad to stick our shades on. Back in Heathrow Dad had presented me with a brand new pair of Ray Bans he had bought me for the trip, which was extremely nice of him, and it was those which I now chose to wear. I’d left my other, much cheaper pair, back in my room and I doubted now if I would be using them at all. The shade of the Ray Bans was incredible, giving me the feeling I could have strode into the Outback, walked for many miles under an unrelenting sun and felt no discomfort whatsoever. A complete fantasy of course, but then dreaming such things comes natural to me.

From the Vodaphone shop we made our down Collie Street back towards the hotel before turning right and heading in the direction of Freemantle train station and the quayside behind it. The closer we got the more the space opened up for us and it was now possible to see a couple of massive container ships being off loaded on the quayside by huge cranes hovering over them. It was interesting just how up close and personal everything was in Freemantle, as back in the UK I was used to big ports being pushed back out of the way of the towns and cities they were in, of being very hard to access, impossible even, with security gates and fences everywhere. In Freemantle the port was right in the middle of things and it was possible to walk over the tracks and stand by the quayside without there being much in the way of serious obstacles to prevent you from getting a full view of everything that was going on.

The ticket office for the Swan River cruise ride was in front of a huge row of sheds which served as an indoor market for some days of the week, and in front of those sheds were a couple of places serving snacks and hot drinks. Since we were at least 20 minutes early we were able to buy our tickets without having to queue, then sit down at a table in front of the sheds and enjoy a leisurely cup of tea. Having a drink was not strictly necessary as it hadn’t been long since our bumper breakfast back in The Esplanade, a breakfast which we’d washed down with plenty of coffee, but since we were now on holiday this was the kind of thing we got up to. Dad and I sat there taking in the quayside scene, both of us just enjoying being able to sit in the sun which was still shining bright in a cloudless blue sky above us. There were a couple of groups of people sitting around having what appeared to be leisurely coffees as well and Dad remarked to me that it was clear they were locals who would probably be there for a few hours. He thought it was more than likely their means were modest but the weather was able to compensate for a lot of things in that regard. After all it was hard to feel miserable and fed up when you were able to sit around in the sun all day wearing just a pair of shorts and t-shirt, despite not having much money in your pocket. A slow moving morning coffee and chewing the fat with friends certainly did not involve too much in the way of expenditure, and looking across at them it did indeed seem that everyone was pretty contented with their situation, hardly about to burst into tears over the cards they had been dealt with, put it like that.

The Swan River ferry arrived right on time and discharged those passengers who had made the ride from Perth to Freemantle, most of whom would be going on to a place called Rottnest Island which lay a few miles off the coast and was a popular destination with day trippers, but not us, as were heading in the other direction. By the time we set off for the ride back to Perth the ferry was barely a quarter full which reminded us that we were there in the low season as far as tourism in Western Australia was concerned. The brilliantly sunny day we were enjoying was nothing in comparison to what was to come in a few months time when things really heated up. Being on board right there and then suited me just fine, and Dad too, as he told me that when he had last done the ride with Mum about 10 years ago, it had been a hell of a lot hotter, stinking hot, and consequently a whole lot less pleasant. This time the weather was just perfect and it was not long before Dad and I had our cameras out taking shots of the river as visibility all around us was crystal clear. Now as far as gadgets go I have to say I have always been some way behind Dad in terms of the quality and sophistication of whatever piece of kit we were using and this occasion was no exception. All the same I still had great fun taking shot after shot with my little digital camera, knowing that in the evening I would be able to flick through them all at leisure and delete the ones I didn’t like, which would probably end up being quite a few of them. It was going to be one of the pleasures of going on this holiday for me, time spent sprawled on my hotel bed in the evenings and doing a bit of digital camera picture editing, immersing myself in attempts at capturing the essence of this new sense of time and space I found myself in. An impossible task of course, as with the camera I had it was little more than a snapshot I was playing around with, but that didn’t stop me from having a load of fun with it at the time, which at the end of the day I guess is good enough for me.

The lively commentary from the friendly young ferry crew informed passengers that along the banks of the Swan River we were now cruising past were some of the most prestigious, sought after and expensive properties in the whole of Australia. It was quite revealing that according to the information given to us, they were all owned by people involved in either the mining, mineral or construction industries. Clearly it was possible to accumulate immense wealth by way of being able to dig into the earth and get something out of it, something which until a couple of hundred years ago had never happened in the human history of Australia, all 60,000 years of it. What lay beneath was now wanted by other people who had come along, who were prepared to pay for it and invest millions to make it happen, where the deeper you were able to dig, the better the results. Incredible places, those riverside palaces we passed, the likes of which I had never seen before in my life, a long way from the camp fire and the beauty of the stars where stories of old were remembered and recited. Sure was true then, that Australia had come a long, long way from being the place people were sent to in disgrace on prison boats, never to return to the lands which shipped them.

For the last part of the ride Dad and I stood up on the front deck of the ferry as the Perth skyline which hung on the clear horizon and gradually got closer and closer. It was a stunning view and consequently it was difficult for me not to constantly point my camera at it and try to capture something, even though I knew it was a hopeless task, little more than a habit really, and a bit of a bad one. Dad might have better luck however, as he had shelled out big bucks to buy himself a decent camera and not only that, he almost knew how to use it. The Swan River was big, wide and looked very deep. At a certain point it was difficult to tell if it was salt water we were riding through or fresh, where just in front of the city the river expanded into an open bay, which meant when approaching the jetty, the Swan River had more of the feel of the sea about it, the ocean even. Stepping off the ferry we were greeted by the Swan Bells ringing from a church tower just beside the jetty, a beautiful sound and a very impressive entrance to the city of Perth whose central streets lay just a little way beyond. We slowly walked through the Esplanade Gardens before we made our way up Barrack Street and into the centre of town. The weather was still fantastic and clearly it was going to be sunny and cloudless all day, no rain in sight, not even a hint of it. For me it was great to be walking in the centre of Perth, a place which was busy but not too busy, where I was able to spend time looking at the people who lived and worked in a remote, far flung city which was the only place of any real size in the whole of Western Australia.

Dad and I spent a good hour or so strolling through the malls and arcades until we found somewhere to eat, where we were sitting out on the pavement and tucking into big bowls of fresh salad, enjoying a leisurely lunch whilst watching the world go by, a world which I was seeing for the first time and loving every minute of it. Our plan for after lunch was to visit the Museum of Western Australia so we made our way through the streets of the centre of town until we got to where the museums and galleries were located. The area around them was spacious and peaceful with not too many people about, there was a dreamy feel to things, like life in slow motion and all in the warmth of the early afternoon sun. For some reason I had got it into my head that it was vital for me to see the collection of meteorites housed in the museum and which I somehow imagined would be pretty staggering, if only because they were bits of space rock which had been found in the vast and cosmic Australian outback. However when I enquired at the museum reception as to where the meteorite display was located, they did not seem to know what I was talking about which was more than a little bit mystifying. Since the meteorite gallery had yet to reveal itself Dad and I checked out instead an exhibition which gave a history of Western Australia since the arrival of the white man at the end of the 18th century. It was fascinating stuff and incredible to think that settlers from Europe had only been there little more than 200 years. Of course there were the natural inhabitants of Australia who had laid claim to the land for tens of thousands of years before they had appeared on the scene, but it was clear from the information provided that next to nothing would ever really be known about those times and cultures, unless that is you were a part of them, and then only maybe. Guess it was all a bit weird, that so little was known about Australia’s original and some would say rightful owners, a people who had done little in the way of destroying the lands which they had lived on for so long and who knew them intimately.

There was a definite sense of apology for the obvious disruption and upset the arrival of the white man had caused countless Aboriginal tribes, which I guess is something of an understatement, but apologising was something that Australians could now afford to do, since as far as they were concerned the game was up and the swag already in the bag. One only had to look at those mansions back on the shores of the Swan River to see all that wealth ripped from out of the earth now in the hands of those white man mine owners and mineral blasters was on a trajectory which showed no signs of stopping, if anything only accelerating. Yes, life most definitely went on, despite professed sorrows about the past. No hard feelings mate! By the time we got to the final sections of the exhibition we saw the grand plans the city authorities now had for the future of Perth. There was no doubt that just like so many other places on Earth it was now going full steam ahead in order to be a large, busy and extremely prosperous 21st century metropolis. All in all the exhibition was really quite absorbing, something which kept Dad and I busy for well over an hour as we slowly made our through each section. When we were done we made our way back into the rest of the museum and to the courtyard café for what felt like a well earned pot of Twinnings tea to share between the two of us.

In the courtyard we were virtually the only people there and with the sun shining through the trees, along with a faint breeze blowin’, it was both very pleasant and relaxing. That dreamy feeling came back to me again. Here I was, out in Western Australia for the first time ever in my life, and so in love with my situation! It was then at around this point in the proceedings that I realised the large rocks – smooth and full of holes – which had been laid on the ground at strategic points throughout the courtyard, were in fact those meteorites I had been so keen to see. They weren’t quite as dramatic as what I had been expecting, but nevertheless their atomic density and subsequently staggering weight, along with their other worldly appearance, were still rather impressive. Needless to say I once again soon had my digital camera out and was happily clicking away, trying in my own modest way to get that perfect picture of them and never coming close.

After we had slowly drunk down our tea and chatted about the exhibition we had just seen, Dad and I made our way down to Perth central railway station from where it was possible to catch the metro train back to Freemantle. The station was just around the corner from the museums, with all the shopping malls and arcades of the city centre lying just the other side of it. Dad said that he was now going to go back to our hotel as he was feeling pretty tired and fancied a couple of hours rest in his room before heading out with me for drinks and a meal in the evening. This left me free to continue exploring Perth for the rest of the afternoon on my own after we parted in the station, with Dad going down the stairs to catch the metro back to Freemantle. The day was still beautiful and sunny so I made off in the opposite direction to the station, walking for the hell of it, to see how far I would feel like going, savouring the freedom of wandering through the streets of a new city on the far side of the world by myself, which was just the way I liked it. Guess I ended up walking a couple of blocks just taking in the street scenes as I found them, city life as lived on a typical day in Perth. With Murray St heading north and then coming back down parallel on Hay St, Perth was an easy city for me to navigate. I had the time and space to gaze up at the fast rising new office blocks standing out against the deep blue sky, that amazingly deep blue sky, in which it was so easy to imagine the depths of space lying way beyond in the great heavenly distance. It was certainly the case I had never got anything like that sensation when walking around London, something which I had done enough times in my life through all seasons. Now I had all the time in the world and no particular place to go, so I just kept just walking, opening my arms to the magic of my new experience and it was something that I could have done for hours and did, until tiredness gradually slowed me down.

Eventually I found myself in an Apple store where I had a play around with an ipad, pretty much like I always did before reaching the point that I always seem to reach with them. A point when I think to myself: should I  buy one or not? Bottom line in terms of simple economics however, is that I just don’t  think I will get much use out of one. Call me dull, call me boring, call me a duddy, but ipads cannot be used for writing despite what they say, unless you want to spend your days imitating a spider, or buying a keyboard, which seems to rather defeat the object. The rest of the stuff on them like internet browsing, film watching and all those other things can, as far as I can see, be done better through other devices, apart from gaming of course, forgot about that! Oh well, just a personal opinion I guess, an opinion from someone who is in no way a technical expert, no, if anything the complete opposite, a Luddite nobody from the back of beyond. Maybe I’m just too stuck with what I’m used to, and too damn lazy to try something new, jus’ dunno, anyway there we go, that is how it is. I am sure there are other people in the world like me, just as I am sure there are many others who might well be wondering just what kind of crap is it that I’m goin’ on about right here right now?

By the time I was out of the Apple store after my bout of pointless ipad browsing it was late in the afternoon. I would have to tell Dad about the Apple when I got back to Freemantle, as he was sure to want to give it a visit in the coming days because he was well into his gadgets and took them seriously. He was different to me in that regard, no doubt about that, and he had even brought his brand spanking new ipad out with him to Australia. It was giving him a bit of grief because so far he had been unable to connect to any free wi-fi which meant he was getting no internet access. At the hotel he would have been able to have wi-fi but they were charging $30 AU a day for it which was outrageous. This had been a bit of a bummer for him and I thought it was possible that if he brought his ipad into the Apple store they would be able to sort something out for him by way of doing something clever, as after all isn’t that what Apple people do?

I now made my way back to the train station in order to get the metro back to Freemantle. Although it was just about rush hour time the amount of people on the system was nothing like what it would have been in London and therefore it was pretty easy to handle. It also hit me just how great it was to be able to travel across to the other side of the world and for there to be no problem whatsoever understanding things and that of course was for the simple reason that everything was in English. A year or two ago my wife Dawa Dolkar and I had spent a week in France attending Buddhist teachings given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the city of Nantes. I had laughingly imagined my schoolboy French from 30 years ago would have been enough to see us through the language barrier. It turned out it was as much as I could do to even say “Bonjour!” as the fact of the matter was I was so crippled with embarrassment at not being able to communicate to any reasonable degree that I ended up not saying anything at all. This meant that all I did was speak English with a French accent, somewhat pathetically thinking that would be good enough, when of course it most certainly wasn’t. Shameful really, the whole damn episode had been so painful it had more or less scarred me for a long time afterwards and I haven’t been back to France since, not even come close. Perth by way of comparison was heaven, at the metro station it was a simple question of reading the instructions on the ticket machine then inserting a couple of Aussie bucks into the slot to get my ticket for the ride back to Freemantle. No worries!

The metro to Freemantle took around 25 minutes as there were at least a dozen stops on the way until it reached the end of the line. The suburbs of Perth were bathed in the late afternoon sun, a rich golden light which made me think it might have had something to do with the Indian Ocean. However I guess what I picked up on was that since everything was so recent in terms of history, there was little in the way of either wonder or excitement to my journey back Freemantle. Nothing to project my mind upon, as everything seemed to bounce my thoughts back at me, which didn’t allow them to sink into anything, apart from the light of course, but I guess that was a different matter and out of the hands of man. This experience stood in stark contrast to any number of cities I could have taken the metro on when in Europe, where there always seemed something powerful enough to draw me in and sink my imaginary teeth into. Heading out of Perth on its metro felt like it was just a question of riding along the flat tracks, trundling through the suburbs of a remote city close to the edge of the world, with nothing in the way of any great depth to it.

Once I reached Freemantle I walked back to the hotel on a route which took me down the Cappuccino Strip, an area full of coffee houses, places to eat, bars to drink in and shops in which to buy all kinds of stuff. It was clearly the main place for people to hang out in town and although I didn’t stop anywhere for coffee, I did take a look inside Elizabeth’s Bookshop. I had read about Elizabeth’s on the internet before I came out; there were quite a few of them in and around the Perth area. What surprised me when I entered was to see so many books I was used to dealing with back in London through working at Wisdom Books. In other words there were stacks of cheap books on Buddhism, meditation and other related subjects, where the mark up prices were quite considerable, as basically they were selling the books for a hell of a lot more than what we did back in London. Of course there was the exchange rate to factor into the equation, but even so there was also no doubt that Elizabeth’s were giving themselves a very healthy profit margin on the sales they were making. The explanation clearly lay in the fact that they were so far from anywhere there was no competition, they had the market to themselves, there were no other bookshops doing what they did in Perth except other branches of Elizabeth’s, which meant they could call the shots. By way of a postscript to my visit to Elizabeth’s, a few months later I met up with an acquaintance of mine at the London Book Fair where I mentioned all this it to him when during the course of our conversation we got onto the subject of Australia. He told me the owners of Elizabeth’s made twice yearly trips to his warehouse in the West Country to place very large orders for stock which were then shipped across to them in containers, probably landing right on the quayside in Freemantle. They owned a bunch of yachts which they sailed around the coast of Australia, clearly they were doing something right, as to all intents and purposes they had it made. Well, I have to say it was all a far cry from me and my own business endeavours, which had only resulted in me working away for over 20 years in the depths of some of the less attractive parts of East London, all for little in the way of beans in my pocket and with no sign of things changing anytime soon.

By the time I was back in my room I had about an hour or so to rest from all my roaming around the city. Fact of the matter was I had covered quite a lot of ground, but I did not feel tired, despite it being only my first day in Perth since flying over from London. Getting a good blast of sunlight for the whole of the day might have had something to do with it, also the buzz of being in a new place with so many things to see, even if those things might only have been city buildings, how they stood on the horizon and streets, all against the backdrop of an eternally deep and wonderful blue sky. To me you see, there was a kind of magic in such sights, and I would take those solitary wanderings of mine down strange city streets a million times over being stuck in a gallery full of priceless works of art. Call me a Philistine if you like, it’s already in my name. Sitting on my bed in The Esplanade I studied the maps of Freemantle and Perth which I had picked up during the course of my day and retraced all the routes I had taken, as well as going through the ritual of picture editing on my digital camera, both of which provided me with a good deal of innocent holiday pleasure.

In the evening Dad and I gave Little Creatures a miss this time around, no surprise there, opting instead to have a couple of cold beers in the bar of The Esplanade before heading round the corner to a place called The Essex which funnily enough was on Essex Street. In The Essex we enjoyed a first class dinner of barramundi fish steaks, chips and fine wines fresh from the Margaret River region of Western Australia, just a few hundred kilometres down the road from Perth. The bar at the hotel was pretty busy and the Carlton Draught we drank thoroughly excellent, so much so that it was all we could do to limit ourselves to having just a couple each. We then stayed quite a long time in The Essex, enjoying a hearty and expensive meal with desserts, coffee and a cheese board thrown in at the end to finish it all off. The service was warm and friendly and we easily ran up a bill of a couple of hundred Australian bucks so everyone was smiling, and at the time it felt like one of the best places in the whole wide world that we ever had been to.

By the time we got out of the Essex the streets of Freemantle were very quiet, prefect in other words for me to head off on another session of late night walking. Dad duly went straight back to The Esplanade to hit the hay and after accompanying him as far as the entrance I took off on another wander, arms wide open to whatever kinda mystery lay out there. In truth the walk was needed because I had eaten and drunk rather a lot, livin’ high on the hog an’ all that, so had to at least walk some of it off, clear my head a little. There was something magical about walking in the late evening of Freemantle on my own down its empty streets, it was only my second night in town but already many of its sights had become pleasingly familiar. It was also possible to find those very quiet parts of town where a distinct lack of other people around meant it felt particularly safe. No urban predators to worry about in other words, no nasty guys waiting to jump out from behind a dump bin and pounce. A nice way to end the day then, before returning to the hotel and going to bed.

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