An account of heading driving down the Albany Highway from Freemantle to Albany to spend a night at the Dog Rocks Motel. This was part of 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.
Saturday morning saw me up nice and early ready to pick up the car after breakfast for the big drive down to Albany, me and dad! One of the deals we had made for our trip out to Australia was that I was the one in charge of the travel and booking arrangements along with all of the paperwork which went with it. Therefore after breakfast I jumped into a waiting taxi parked in front of our hotel, The Esplanade in Freemantle, with a folder under my arm containing our Hertz booking and my driving license which I would have to show in order to collect the car. I had already called the Hertz office the day before to see if where they were located was in walking distance of the hotel, but they had told me it wasn’t and that I would have to take a taxi. Actually the ride down to Albany had been my idea and as far covering the costs – car hire, gas and a night for two of us in the Dog Rocks Motel in Albany – that was on me as well. Guess it was my way of saying thanks to dad for footing the bill for everything else with regard to our coming out to Australia. My driver out to the Hertz was an Ethiopian who had been in Australia for the last 20 years or so, in fact he was an Australian as his accent most certainly proved, clearly his days of waiting for the rain in Addis Ababa whilst catching pieces of an archaic yet profound brand of Christianity were far behind him. He told me as he drove that it was possible to have a very good life in Australia, that he loved his job and he loved the weather. For some reason he was able to tell this to me in such a way that it was difficult for me not to feel that he was one lucky bastard. He certainly cut a very different impression than the Indian who’d took us in from the airport a couple of days before, who in the final analysis had been a real bundle of misery pining for the land of Bharat. Well, the Hertz place was certainly too far to walk to as my taxi ride lasted quite a while, the drive made me realize how spread out things could be in Australia, that having your own form of transport was vital if you wanted to live there in anything close to practical comfort.
Once all my paperwork was in order the friendly guy in Hertz took me to the car which was to be ours for the next three days. When I told him I would be using it to drive down to Albany and then back the following day, he happened to mention he would be off to his weekend pad down Margaret River way later that afternoon. Margaret River was in shooting distance of Albany you see, not on the same route which we were taking but pretty close and it was the main wine growing region of Western Australia. What we had was a brand new Toyota Kluger, a bit of a beast of a car, which as soon as I saw it I knew Dad would be well impressed with, as given half the chance he was a petrol head where bigger most definitely meant better. The Kluger had barely 300 Km on the clock and was in pristine condition, so it more or less felt like I was driving it straight out of the showroom. In fact it was so big and in such good nick that initially I was pretty nervous about leaving the Hertz compound and joining the Saturday morning Perth traffic, especially when I was not completely sure of the way back to The Esplanade. Nevertheless I soon got behind the wheel, put my foot on the gas and pulled out onto the freeway, all of a sudden loving it, already feeling it was the best possible place for me to be as I put on my Ray Bans and stepped up the gas.
Getting back to the Esplanade was simple enough and when I pulled up at the entrance Dad’s eyes lit up at the sight Kluger, couldn’t believe it in fact, and said that for the journey we were about to make having a car like that would make all the difference. We wasted no time in loading up all our gear which Dad had been patiently waiting with in the foyer of The Esplanade and we were soon on the road with him as navigator sat in the front passenger seat with a map of Freemantle in his hand as we began to follow the directions on how to get to the Albany Highway which had been given to us by the friendly concierge girl in the hotel. Our task was actually quite simple, all we had to do was make our way out of the southern districts of Freemantle and Perth until we hit the highway, after that it was just a question of staying on the same road all the way down to Albany. Point and shoot in other words, a real no brainer! Once we arrived in Albany all we would then have to do was find the Dog Rocks Motel, the place where I had booked our rooms for the night, yeah that’s right, we were staying down at the Dog Rocks on the far south coast of the mighty Australia and tell me, what could possibly be more exciting than that?
There was nothing overly complicated about making our way through the suburbs of Perth and Freemantle, but there was no doubt their sprawling extent and the fact that new areas were clearly springing up all over the place, took us both a bit by surprise. An unattractive combination of residential housing estates and retail parks went on for what seemed like forever and in this southern part of the city it was possible to see clearly how things were becoming rather American in their appearance. If you wanted takeaway chicken you drove to a Red Rooster, if you wanted a burger it was a call on Hungry Jacks, or if it was fish and chips which took your fancy then it was straight into Barnacle Bills. Dad and I joked with each other that you could probably have got away with opening a joint called Greedy Tossers. At least for a little while we were sure nobody would have noticed there was anything strange in such a name, and we enjoyed imagining a typically hard bitten Australian going up to the counter to order a Big Tosser for himself and a Fat Bitch for his wife, both with large fries and shakes as sides.
It was a good hour before we hit the Albany Highway but we found it without getting lost along the way and once we were on it things soon began to change, as now all we had to do was pretty much point the car in the same direction for the next 400 kilometers. The Kluger was easy for me to drive on the open road, and it provided both of us with excellent visibility, something which was needed because it soon became clear the highway was not anything like the motorways back in the UK. For sure there were takeover places every once in a while, but apart from those short stretches of dual carriageway it was a highway with just one lane on each side, and that meant you had to pay close attention to the road. There were enough shrines to the sides of it which served to testify just how badly things could end up if you judged things wrong, plenty had and they’d paid the ultimate price. Although you could hardly call the road busy, at least not in the way roads were back in London, there was still a steady stream traffic on it going in both directions and some of that traffic came in the form of road trains which were very long indeed. Road trains being lorries with a couple of wagons attached to the back of them which were used for carrying goods in bulk over huge distances and kicking up a hell of a lot of dust in the process. Any mistakes in attempting to pass such 36 meter long monsters of the highway would have had fatal consequences, of that there was no question.
For some reason I had been expecting to be driving through bush or semi outback once we were out of Perth, but it was soon clear in that regard I was completely wrong. The land was farmed, well cultivated, and had obviously been that way for a quite a long time. No, reaching the true outback would probably have entailed driving a few hundred kilometers due east before we would ever come close to finding. We were very much in the land of the known, which dashed one or two of my preconceptions about what we were driving through, somehow thinking beforehand we were going to be out in the wilds. Nevertheless the further away from Perth we drove, the emptier it became, which stood to reason, as on the map there did not appear to be much at all between Perth and Albany by way of towns and settlements, let alone anything approaching a city. Just how few and far between those places actually were still came as a bit of shock to us as we made our way down the road. Not only that, when we did reach those places indicated they often turned out to be little more than a garage for fuel with a roadhouse attached where you could get some hot food, but even that last part of the deal was not necessarily guaranteed. The breakdown of what there was between Freemantle and Albany went something like this –
It was in that way that we first came to Banister and then North Banister, both which were essentially nothing at all, but in Banister at least we were able to stop for coffee and a slice of apple pie. By now it was already well into the morning, and with at least another 300 km to go, it began to dawn on me the trip we were on was not a casual ride which was going to be done and dusted by 2.30 or 3 in the afternoon. It was clear that I had probably underestimated the distances involved in getting from one place to another, but at least we were making the journey in what for Australia was mild weather, nothing too fierce on the heat stakes, and I was glad of that. To have attempted to make the drive in the middle of the hot season would have been a serious mistake without things being carefully planned out beforehand, because the conditions might well have soon proved to be overwhelming; heat, sleepiness, shimmer on the road in the distance making us see things which weren’t there and so on.
We had a chat with the waitress in the Banister roadhouse over our homemade apple pie and she told us that she used to work in the mine which was about 15 km away. That had been a few years ago before she quit to come and run the roadhouse when work at the mine fell off, where she had been a truck driver. She told us the interesting fact that in a lot of the mines most of the truck drivers were female due to the fact they were able to drive slower and safer than the men. Now the mine was busy again, after going through a few lean years when it had been fighting off closure, as a consequence of which she was finding it hard to get staff to work at the roadhouse and serve those slices of pie. Until recently it had been the case that when local girls got to a certain age in school and realized that a career in astronomy or applied physics was possibly not going to be for them, they would come to work as waitresses at the roadhouse for a couple of years. These days that simply did not happen as there was plenty of work down at the mine, where the pay was better and slow driving women were once again in demand.
Back on the highway and gunning the Kluger we decided we would press on all the way to Arthur River which was a straight 100 km further down the track and once we got there we would stop for lunch. Besides farms there was not much in between Banister and Arthur River, apart from that is, the metropolis of Williams, a place which nearly had more than a couple of houses in it, but not quite. The highway had a steady flow of traffic going both ways and that well cultivated land on either side of the freeway stretched out for miles in all directions over which strange birds flew. When we had left Perth the weather had been cloudy for pretty much the first since we had arrived in Australia, but as we now continued to race down those miles heading south, the skies were clear and blue again. This did not prevent most of the vehicles from driving with their headlights on and at the time I wondered why, only to be told later it was for reasons of safety. The simple fact was that when driving on a straight strip of tarmac going on for miles, appearances could be deceptive, especially in the heat, when everything began to wobble and distances got difficult to judge, so it was therefore sensible to be as visible as possible. It would have been all too easy pulling out in order to attempt to overtake a road train, only to realize halfway through the maneuver there was a vehicle coming straight at you in the other direction. Too late to do anything else then other than pray, but that probably wouldn’t have done much good either, so the result almost certainly would have been curtains and another roadside shrine.
By the time we reached Arthur River it was already gone one in the afternoon and we were barely halfway to Albany. In my mind I was now having to constantly revise our ETA and I realized we would be lucky if we got there before 5 pm. Even though I was beginning to think I had bitten off more than I could chew, there was nothing I could do but crack on as it was too late for us to turn back now. The roadhouse at Arthur River was able to rustle up a decent pair of toasted bacon sandwiches for us which we each washed down with ice cold Cokes. There was no point in sticking to juice in those situations as I knew I needed the buzz which only a cold can of Coca Cola was capable of providing, yeah I know, funny how it had to be that way but it was. As we sat at our table enjoying our lunch outside the roadhouse, a coach pulled up which was en route from Albany to Perth. Passengers began to disembark, have a stretch of their legs and then head inside to get some refreshment. I thought the bus journey would be quite a gruelling one to do in the hot season, as there was little doubt that when all the stops were factored into the equation the coach would not complete the trip in anything much under six hours. But then again if you were a passenger on a coach at least you would not have the stress of having to keep your eyes fixed on the shimmering tarmac whilst trying to stay awake, which of course was what I was currently having to do. So maybe it was not so bad after all!
A group of bikers also pulled up at the roadhouse, each one sitting proudly on their impressive two wheeled machines. They had come from the direction of Bunbury, a town on the coast at least 150 km away to the west of the highway and I guess it is fair to say that a casual Saturday road trip on the bikes for those guys involved covering some pretty long distances. Their leader had a skull and crossbones along with a big I Love Jesus sticker on his helmet. I felt it was OK for me to go up and admire their bikes, and sure enough they did not seem to take too much offence, but I did not have the guts to say anything to them, like how was the weather in Bunbury? Who knows how they would have responded to a punk like me asking a question like that? Probably the case they would have been friendly, I mean why not? But I didn’t want to take any chances and soon enough those chances passed on by when they revved up and roared off into the distance, down the road to who knows where. Albany, probably.
By mid afternoon and long past Arthur River, we were cruising through Kojonup, a very small town beside the highway which at least did have a little bit more substance to it than anything else we had so far seen since leaving Perth. The problem was however, that apart from the statutory roadside coffee shop everything else was shut, seriously shut with not a single person on the streets at all, which seemed little bit strange since it was a Saturday. Then again I guess there was no point in us carrying our preconceptions of how we thought things were supposed to be in that part of the world, where people clearly lived by a different set of clocks and not necessarily an inferior set of clocks either. Once we were out the other side of Kojonup it was back to pretty much nothing again, apart from more vast swathes of farmland, with things carrying on this way until until we hit Mt Barker which was another good 100 km down the Albany Highway from Kojonup. When we reached Mt Barker the land was at last changing. There was a distinct southerly feel to things now, with a little bit of the west thrown in for good measure. It was more the feel you get when you go so far south it is as if you come out the other side of it, where instead of being hot, the part of the south you are in is actually quite cold. We were also now passing some of the wine growing regions of the far south of Western Australia, although the major areas of Margaret River lay some distance away. All the same there were some pretty substantial vineyards which we drove past, all having massive billboards in their fields which advertised their produce, leaving us in no doubt we were now in Wine Country where there were big bucks to be made if you got things right. Have to say that although I enjoy a glass of wine immensely, to my uncultured palate a considerable number of them have tended to taste the same after a certain point is reached in the bottle. Or maybe it is simply the case that I haven’t been drinking the right stuff, you know, the stuff which doesn’t get you pissed.
Dad was holding up pretty well sitting next to me in the passenger seat, he was not feeling too tired and so far was enjoying the ride. I was in pretty good shape as well, a bit of a surprise considering the distance I’d already covered behind the wheel. Now that we had reached Mt Barker I knew there was not too far for us to go before our arrival in Albany where would then have the job of scouting out the Dog Rocks Motel. As we drove out of Mt Barker Dad alerted me to some speed cops standing on the opposite side of the highway who were pointing speed guns at the line of traffic which we were in, seemingly pointing them quite accurately. I immediately slowed down and experienced an almost inevitable wave of paranoia over the possibility that a pair of bright blue flashing lights would soon be crawling up behind the Kluger indicating for me to pull over to the side of the road. Nothing like that happened however and so we were free to proceed, despite a nagging worry I had about whether a fine might later be on its way in the post to the Hertz office in Freemantle before being swiftly passed on to me, wherever I happened to be.
It was just before 5 in the afternoon when we arrived in Albany. The journey down had taken much longer than I expected and I realized with some trepidation that I would have to do the whole thing again the next day, only in the opposite direction. Crazy stuff really, but there you go, it can’t be helped, those are the kind of things you sometimes end up doing when out in Australia, or at least that was how it was for us. Albany was bigger than what I had expected, being a town of quite some size and it had the feel of an Indian hill station about it for some reason, or maybe a town up in the Scottish Highlands, which I guess might be the same thing. It must have been the cooler weather, and also the fact there was a lot more rain in this part of the world than what you would find in dry and dusty Perth, which made me see it that way. It was good to take note of such things however, as that was exactly the reason why I had wanted us to make this excursion, to see and be somewhere different, to enjoy the contrast even if it was only for a very short while. More often than not from past experience, it made the place you were returning to feel more like home, even though you might have only been there for a matter of days. Yes, that’s right, I was missing the sun of Freemantle and Perth already!
We initially missed our turning for the Dog Rocks Motel, Dad badly blowing his navigational duties on this occasion and completely fucking things up. Suddenly we found ourselves cruising in the Kluger down Albany’s main high street well on our way to the seafront. All this would have been perfectly fine but it was not going to get us to the Dog Rocks, something we were in need of finding so as to be able get out of the car and have a rest, where because we were tired, it would be fair to say we were both beginning to feel a little bit irritable. Thankfully we soon got our bearings and retraced our route on the opposite side of the road, pulling up in the Dog Rocks Motel car park not long afterwards once we had made the correct turning, the one Dad had originally missed. As soon as we were parked up I jumped out of the Kluger, walked into the motel reception in order to sort out our reservations and get the keys to our rooms. This only took a matter of minutes as all the paperwork I took from my file was in order, whilst the young man behind reception was efficient and polite, meaning we were soon able to get our stuff out of the Kluger in no time at all. Clearly the Dog Rocks was not at the same level of luxury as to what we had so quickly got used to in The Esplanade but all the same what it did provide was clean and functional, and I think it is fair to say that both of us were more than happy with the rooms we had been allocated. Dad said that he needed to have a lie down for an hour or so in order to recover from the rigors of the road trip, which was fair enough as things had slowly but surely caught up with him and he now looked tired. As for me, well, after unpacking my stuff from the small Caterpillar case I had brought with me, I was soon back behind the wheel of the Kluger, this time heading into the centre of town and scouting out a place for us to eat that evening. There was a restaurant at the Dog Rocks Motel but the friendly chap on reception had already told us it was closed that night due to the fact a wedding party was taking place there, which meant we would have to find somewhere else.
Albany soon revealed itself to me in all its glory and after walking up and down the main strip a couple of times I suddenly had the feeling that I wished I was back in Freemantle. There was not much on offer as far as places to eat were concerned, or rather there was actually quite a lot on offer but none of it looked much good. For some reason there were quite a few cheap looking Chinese eating houses, chop shops, all of which had big hand written signs in the windows stating BYO, or Bring Your Own. This meant they were not licensed to serve alcohol but it was OK to go out to the liquor store, buy a bottle and then bring it in to have with your meal. There did happen to be a rather large liquor store right in the middle of town so this appeared to be the set up as far as a lot of the eating places in Albany was concerned, and the more I looked at what there was, the more I saw those BYO signs in the windows. In fact there were only a couple of places where it looked like it was possible to go in and have a beer or glass of wine with your food without it coming out of a bottle in a plastic bag. Strange, I guessed it must have been some quirk of the local licensing laws, ones which had possibly been in place for decades and had never got reformed. It was either that or the God Squad who had something to do with it, as it did indeed feel there was the stony faced presence of religion in Albany. It took me quite a while locate a couple of places which I thought might be suitable for me and Dad to try and funnily enough, by the time I got back to the Dog Rocks, it already felt like I had been in Albany quite a long while, even though it had only been a couple of hours at the very most. I gave Dad a knock on his door at 7 in the evening and told him the situation, that basically we were going to have to take our chances as far as food and drink was concerned and that there were no guarantees we were going to end up with anything decent. He didn’t mind, he had managed to get some rest, so felt refreshed and was also quite happy to find himself in a new town, somewhere different to either Freemantle or Perth. Without much further waiting around we were soon back in the Kluger and heading into town again, hopefully to have a couple of nice cold beers and something decent to eat.