Tinderbox, Porongurups & The Albany Highway

An account of a night in Albany, Western Australia where we stayed at the Dog Rocks Motel, followed by returning to Freemantle the next day back up the Albany Highway. 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.

Our first port of call on our mission to find somewhere decent to eat in Albany was the place which I had thought was our best bet from my earlier reconnaissance, an Italian restaurant in which it was possible to order a drink rather than bring it in a bag. This choice soon turned out to be a bit of a disaster however, as when we went in and asked for a table the woman at the door with the menus wanted to know if we had made a booking. Dad immediately, and unfortunately with some degree of disbelieving exasperation, said that she must surely be joking as the place looked pretty empty. Turned out it was a big mistake for him to have said that to her, a very big mistake, as the woman soon made it clear to us that a reservation was most certainly needed if we wanted a table, even though the place was barely half full. It appeared that if we did not have a reservation there was going to be no chance of us getting a meal there, all of which seemed pretty absurd, but there we are, that was how it was. Dad’s outburst had rubbed the waitress up the wrong way and it was clear she was now going to make things as difficult as possible for us. She said if we sat down to eat our meal there and then, she could accommodate us, but we would have to be out within an hour. In other words she was cutting us an impossible deal as there was no way we would have been able to comfortably enjoy some pre-food drinks and then have our standard three courses in such a short space of time.

Dad could hardly believe his ears at what she was telling us and he was turning pretty red in the face, something which he tended to do in such situations, but I could see our chances were well and truly screwed as far that place was concerned. We’d said the wrong thing and were now having to pay the consequences. I did my best to retrieve the situation by asking if there was anywhere else in Albany she could recommend, to which she threw a couple of names at us, but then added it was very unlikely we would be able to eat in them without having made that all important reservation beforehand. So that was that, we were out on the street again with our tails well and truly between our legs, seen off by a very grumpy waitress who’d taken an instant dislike to us as soon as Dad had blurted out that she must have been joking when she’d asked us for our reservation! Well, I guess we were the new kids in town and a couple of Brits to boot, a town where each place had its own rules and no matter how bizarre those rules might have appeared to the outsider, it was clearly best to abide by them, otherwise you would soon land in hot touble.

Somewhat dazed by this encounter we wandered around town for a while and eventually found another Italian restaurant, this time one of the Bring Your Own variety whose waiter grudgingly booked us in to eat there at 8.45, which left us with nearly an hour to fill before we could return. Fortunately there was a bar on the other side of the road so we went in there and had a couple of beers. This place was great, it turned out to be more like the bars I was expecting to find in Australia, being somewhat rough around the edges and clearly used to people coming in and consuming large amounts of alcohol before possibly turning violent. Not only that, at the far end of the bar was a betting shop where a few somewhat desultory figures with beers sat on tall stools staring up at banks of TV screens which were full of horse race information. There was also a cash machine in the corner, no doubt for the convenience of those customers who might need to make a withdrawal, foreseen or otherwise. We enjoyed a couple of pints of ice cold Swan, a Perth brewed lager which went down nicely, very nicely indeed, all the while sitting at the bar as we took in our new surroundings and listened in on the conversations of our fellow drinkers. One of the better ones we overheard ended with the words “He ain’t worth shitting on mate, he ain’t worth shitting on!” Not only was the bar in part a betting shop, it also hosted live music and it was interesting to note from the posters on its walls that bands from as far away as Perth came down and played there. As I could now testify after my day on the road, Perth was actually quite a long way from Albany, especially if you were in town for only one night before heading back the next day, which meant it must have been quite a commitment.

The waiter at the Italian was true to his word when we returned to eat there and although we did not bring our own booze there were plenty of other diners in there drinking alcohol. The couple sitting at the table next to us were sharing a bottle of vodka for example, which seemed a little bit over the top to have with a pizza but there you go, this was Australia. And as I said before, we were green as to what went down on a Saturday night in Albany, so it was best to just go with the flow. Now it has to be said the food we had that night was not the best we’d so far eaten on our trip, in fact my spinach gnocci was pretty close to being little more than absolute pigs shit, by far the worst meal so far, and not a patch on anything we’d enjoyed in Freemantle. We did our best to plough our way through the three courses but by 10.15 we were out of there, with little else to do now but head on back to the Dog Rocks for a relatively early night. This actually seemed like quite a sensible decision, especially after all the driving we had done earlier in the day, and sure enough when upon returning to the Rocks I realized that I was indeed dog tired.

Back in my room of the Dog Rocks Motel and by the light of my bedside lamp I tried writing down some notes from our trip so far, but it was difficult, there was no flow and all my observations seemed a little too much like stating the obvious, so after a while I just gave up and crashed out. At around 3 am I was wide awake in bed and in the dark of my room I had those familiar, faint rumblings of a bout of indigestion coming on, this time no doubt caused by the spinach gnocci which was still sitting in my stomach. Guess I resigned myself to the situation as I knew full well I would not be able to sleep for quite a while, so I put my ipod on and listened to the whole of Tinderbox, a hard, haunting and desolately beautiful rock album from the new wave band Siouxsie & the Banshees which had originally been released in 1986. I was listening to the re-mastered edition which had come out in 2009 with some extra cuts on it thrown in as well, all of which sounded thoroughly excellent, with darkly brooding songs like Candyman, The Sweetest Chill, Cities in Dust & Land’s End being particularly impressive. The last of these was the album closer and it boasted some pretty decent lyrics sung by Siousxie in her finest spectral swirl whilst swaying like a stampede in which were housed harbingers of ultimate doom.

Moths touched by flame repeat their fatal game
Forever and eternally, the cliffs around the crashing sea
Unsolved and endless, wait for me

Land’s End

How can I ever really properly describe how great it was for me to dive into those strange worlds of Tinderbox whilst down in the depths of the deep darkest night in the Dog Rocks Motel at the south western tip of mighty Australia? Well, guess I can’t really, but even so it is nice giving it a try!

The Banshees had a reputation for being a guitar driven band and they had indeed got through a more than a few guitarists during the course of their existence, with none of them managing to stay the course beyond two or three albums at the most. By the time Tinderbox came along, they were using the services of John Valentine Carruthers, formerly of the band Clock DVA, who was himself following in the footsteps of John McGeoch, Robert Smith and John McKay. Punk sonic cut thru’ with a sliced an’ diced fire rock indescribably hard to fathom, was the name of the game with Tinderbox, providing an opportunity for me to walk into subterranean landscapes of the utmost pleasure without ever fully quite realizing what was going on. But make no mistake, it was the creation of a twilight geography second to none, an open invitation for me to lose myself within its borders by way of tracing mixed up patterns from out of my own imagination. Just why it came on so strong for me that night in the Dog Rocks is a question I simply can’t answer, suffice to say that as I lay there listening to it on my bed, I enjoyed every single second.

Listening to Tinderbox took me back to the time I saw Siouxsie Sioux at the Sophia Gardens, Cardiff back in 1979. It was when The Banshees were on their Join Hands tour supported by The Cure, whose leader Robert Smith had stepped into the breach to play guitar for them due to the their original guitarist John Mckay walking out on the band at the last moment. Not only did Robert Smith play a support set with The Cure he then came back on with The Banshees and fulfilled his duties with them. I went to the Sophia Gardens with a bunch of friends from school, this was when I was in Stanwell Road Comprehensive in Penarth, and not only did we see the whole show but we attended the sound check as well. We were able to watch this from the side of the stage as Siousxie stood dead centre wailing into the microphone so as to check the acoustics. With her jet black hair and red lipstick, wearing black trousers, a green mohair jumper and shining red stilettos, she had the distinct appearance of a goddess who was impossible for us to even hope to obtain or ever get closer to. No, I have never forgotten bunking off the last lessons of school that day in order to see Siouxsie & The Banshees supported by The Cure play a sold out show in Cardiff’s long since closed Sophia Gardens, so diving deep into the swirling worlds of Tinderbox seemed like the perfect thing for me to do as I lay there wide awake in the middle of the night, in the dark of my room at the Dog Rocks. Guess it was just the time and the place, the fact I needed that kind of music to listen to and reflect on whilst staring into the black of the night being the furthest away from home that I had ever been in my life. In fact I have to say it was one of the highlights of the whole damn trip for me, and when after an hour or so it was over, I was sorely tempted to listen to it all over again. But now it was just gone 4 in the morning and I knew I needed to rest for a while, as I had some serious driving ahead of me later that day, where I would need to have my wits about me in order to deliver Dad and myself safely back up to Freemantle.

Somehow I was up and ready for breakfast by 8 O’ Clock, doubtless enlivened by the sight of a young man gliding past the window of my room on a skateboard whilst he tenderly held a baby close to his chest. Dad was in good spirits when I knocked on his door, he said that he’d slept very well indeed and was not too tired at all from our trip down the day before. We soon made our way across the motel car park for our Dog Rocks breakfast which was included in our stay. This turned out to be a pretty good start to the day and we both realized that clearly the best place to eat in Albany was none other than the Dog Rocks Motel! It boasted a pretty extensive menu and tellingly it also had a very well stocked bar. Probably just as well that it had been closed the night before, because if we had endured our previous evening in Albany only to find it would have been possible to have eaten there all along, we would have been pretty gutted. Due to the wedding we’d had no option but to look for somewhere else and at least it provided us with some amusing conversation over breakfast as we recounted our experiences from our evening in Albany the day before; the surly, rude waitress, the bar with its own betting shop and then finally that awful bowl of pigswill which was my spinach gnocci.

Our plan for returning to Freemantle was to head straight back up the Albany Highway, but first we would make a small detour in order take a drive through the Porongurup National Park which meant our itinerary would go something like this –

Stirling Hills
Mt Barker
Arthur River

The Porongurups were one of the things I had been wanting us to do on this little trip as I had spent quite a bit of time back home checking them out on the Net to see what was there – basically a range of low lying but very ancient hills – and whether we would be able to drive through them without it taking too long. Pleased to report that it all looked perfectly doable and by my calculations we would rejoin the highway just before Mt. Barker after we had come out the other side of the Porongurups. So, after a hearty breakfast in the Dog Rocks dining room, with more than one or two laughs about the night before sprinkled over our cereals, we went back to our rooms in order to get our stuff together.

As I was packing my little case there was a nagging thought in my mind that we should check out the bay which was at the end of the road on which the Dog Rocks Motel was located. Albany had been a laugh for us so far, simply because of its complete and utter strangeness, but it had hardly been mind blowing and I felt a vague sense of disappointment that we had come such a long way for what we had so far done with our time there. Dad was up for going to the bay as well, apart from anything else we were both in need of a refreshing Sunday morning walk before what would be another full day in the Toyota Kluger. So after handing in our keys at the reception of the Dog Rocks we made our way down to the bay and I am happy to say it turned out to be one of the best decisions we could have made. This was because it was clear that when we got there and parked the Kluger, the bay was where all the discerning locals went to when they wanted to have a good long walk by the sea.

The breeze was fresh and the waves crashed upon the shore as we made our way along the open sands, walking into the wind and following the curve of the shoreline. Needless to say it was just what we needed, we were soon setting a brisk pace whilst taking in the stunning views of the wide expanse of the bay spread before us. It sure was a very different scene to looking out over the blue waters of the Indian Ocean in Perth, where if anything things had felt, if not tropical, then most certainly sun drenched. Down in Albany we were on the edge of the Southern Ocean where there was an unmistakable wildness to things, which made you realize that if you over crossed the water in a straight line you would eventually end up in Antarctica. This was a pretty amazing thought in itself for me, the fact that somewhere in the sea we were now casting our eyes upon, there would be big icebergs floating.

There were plenty of other people on the beach, many of them jogging along with dogs or striding out power walking, all giving off a distinct impression of health and fitness, making me think how fantastic it must have been to have such a place to roll out of your house and make your way to. As we were walking on the sands around the bay we turned to look out over the waters and saw what we could only assume were a couple of whales not that far offshore. As soon as we spotted them there was the realization that they were indeed whales, and not only that, there were also a couple more just a little bit further out from them. What an incredible sight! By a stroke of good fortune a couple who had been walking towards us stopped to have a chat and it turned out they had very good knowledge of the whales because both of them were lecturers at the University of Western Australia which had a campus in Albany. They provided us with lots of fascinating information about those magnificent creatures of the sea and they remarked we were indeed fortunate to have stumbled along at that time, as it was by no means common for the whales to be close to the shore and so easy for people to see them. Nice one!

We must have stood and talked with them for 40 minutes covering a whole range of topics during the course of our conversation, where things ended somewhat bleakly with a chat on the devastating potential effects of climate change. In all the time we were there those wonderful whales played in the waters of the bay right in front of us and to say it was a mighty big thrill for both Dad and I would be a massive understatement. It was quite simply magical, suddenly the whole trip to Albany had meaning, the effort we had made to get there all the way from Freemantle was now more than worthwhile, where to be in the presence of those magnificent mysterious whales was something we would never forget. It was strange to think that on the one hand people paid a lot of money to go out in boats just to get a glimpse of them, whilst others in the past had chased them with big harpoons and killed them in the most bloodily horrific way. In fact some people still did and it struck me how messed up human beings were as a race on this planet, how we would never come close to possessing the same degree of knowledge of our habitat those whales naturally had built into them. We could kill for sure, but really there was no power in that, if we tried to stay with those whales, learn their secrets, we would soon find that we were way out of our depth, quite literally!

By the time we got back to the Kluger the morning was pushing on and we still had a hell of a lot of driving to do in order to get back to Freemantle. We were now behind schedule, having spent far more time in the bay than what we had anticipated, but it had been more than worth it, both of us were buzzing from those whales, having gone overboard taking shots with our digital cameras, although I knew that out of the two of us only Dad stood a chance of having captured anything decent. Cruising in the Kluger back past the Dog Rocks Motel we stopped at a garage to fill up on gas and then made our way out of town. So that was Albany then, all in all a pretty interesting place and one that we would remember for a good while to come, even if our time there had been pretty brief.

On the edge of town we took the Porongurups road and once we were clear of Albany, the Kluger was virtually the only vehicle on the road. Sure was quiet in that part of the world, late Sunday morning and all was empty, with not a single soul in sight. Clearly the locals had other, better things to do than jump in their cars and go for a spin, but what those things were I simply had no idea. We drove into the hills and as we climbed were able to view the Stirling range which lay in the far distance to the north east. Like the Porogurups they were ancient hills and it was weird to think that after being there for millions of years they had recently been given the name Stirling, a bit like Ayres Rock I guess. The most appropriate name for them was something I doubted we would have ever been able to imagine, although that name most certainly existed, given to them by a people now buried beneath the detritus of modernity and all the nasty ugliness which came in its wake. Nevertheless it was a beautiful scene, and now that the sun had come out the light it shone upon all which lay before us meant it was possible for us to see for many miles into the distance. Whilst it would have been great to have been able to stop and take a walk in those hills we just did not have the time and had to keep pressing on.

We did stop for a coffee at a small winery however and inevitably ended up by a buying a bottle of their wine as well, which I think might have been called Ironwood, but I just can’t be sure. The woman who ran the place with her husband was originally from Kent, England and they had been out in that part of Australia for the last 40 years. Even after all that time it was still possible to detect a sense of resentment she had towards those other members of her family who had stayed back in the UK and in her eyes had more or less ignored her in the New World she had come out to. It was probably a common experience the whole country over. No matter how beautiful it was in Australia there was always a sense of desolation in some people, something which was possible to feel. Maybe not if you had been born there for sure, but if you came from somewhere else then yes, that could easily be the case, that yearning for the Old Country.

We were out the other side of the Porongurups by midday, back on the highway at Mt Barker, with a good few hours straight driving ahead of us. The Porongurups had been a pleasant enough excursion but we would have needed more time to get a true feeling for what they were like, no doubt about that, but at least we seen them. Now they were behind us and it was just a case of making the long ride back, of arriving in Freemantle in one piece, something I dearly wished was going to happen. At Mt Barker we bought sandwiches, crisps and drinks from a roadside shop, as we were not sure what would be open further up the road with it being a Sunday and the distances between one tiny place and another pretty big, colossal even. It was not long before I found I was having to dig deep into my energy reserves, as after my early morning session listening to Tinderbox in the Dog Rocks, along with the walk in the bay with those whales for company, I was definitely feeling more than a little bit tired. Both were on top of the exertions from the day before, the drive down to Albany, the wandering around town trying to find somewhere decent to eat, trying and failing as it turned out. But there was no choice for me but to keep my eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel, Dad would not have been able to take over as it was only me who was on the papers I had signed for the car at Hertz back in Freemantle. It is always more than a little disconcerting when you find your concentration drifting before pulling yourself back to the task at hand. In this case of course, the task was driving safely and not falling asleep, not becoming the cause of another crash on the highway and subsequent roadside shrine, where it would have been a hell of a long way to come for anyone to put flowers on.

We stopped at Kojonup to eat our lunch and there I took the opportunity of grabbing an expresso from a coffee house which was open. It meant that along with the Coke I had washed down my sandwich with, I was soon feeling somewhat revitalized and raring to go. The only question in my mind was how long it would last once we were on the highway again, sometimes you get false dawns, thinking all is OK when it is not and you soon start nodding. Fortunately I was fine, there were no more bouts of drowsiness and the further up the road we got the more relaxed I began to feel, knowing we were getting closer and closer to our destination. Nevertheless the trip down to Albany and back in just a couple of days had more than made me realize the consequences of underestimating the terrain we were in, and like I said before, if the trip had been undertaken in the middle of the hot season, it would possibly have all been a very different story.

We had one more stop at the same roadhouse in Bannister we had used on the way down the day before when we had eaten slices of apple pie. This time it was a different waitress and she took my money from behind the till, telling me to come in and collect my drinks when they were ready. From her demeanor I realized there was no question of her actually coming outside to where we sat at our table under a tree and serve them to us. No, that wasn’t part of the deal, nothing that friendly was on the cards. Dad and I amused ourselves by observing a somewhat grizzled and miserable looking farmer pull his wagon up at the petrol pumps and leave it there whilst he showed his daughter a pair of alpacas grazing in a little pen at the side of the roadhouse. The fact that other travelers might drive in and want to use those pumps for fuel did not seem to enter his mind, even though his vehicle blocked all access to them. Whilst his little girl was full of wonder at the sight of those strange animals, all he could do was mumble to her, “They’re alpacas, just alpacas!” in a tone that seemed to suggest he was sick of the fucking sight of them.

We came off the highway and hit the edges of Freemantle at just gone 5 in the afternoon which was actually pretty good going, and if anything ahead of schedule. Then made our way once more through the endless strips, lots, gated and non-gated communities which now comprised the southern suburbs of Perth. All of it would not too long ago have been pretty close to being in the middle of nowhere, but now things were growing fast due to pressures of population, where even in supposedly spacious Australia, land was now at a premium. Traffic was now busy on the roads, clearly people were returning from their weekends out of town and many of them were probably just like the friendly chap in the Freemantle Hertz, having just gone south and enjoyed some quality time in their holiday homes down Margaret River way. Not a bad life then, if you could find it! By the time we rolled up at The Esplanade it was coming up to 6 and it was with a big sigh of relief that I hauled myself out of the Kluger and handed the keys to the friendly concierge girl for her to park it in the hotel car park. I was tired, dog tired, Dog Rocks tired even, and knew I had pushed it fairly close to as far as I could go in terms of driving. I had got away with it this time, but of course if there was a next time I might not be so lucky. Dad was glad to be back as well, it had been a long and tiring trip for him sitting in the front passenger seat and forever gazing out over the vast emptiness of the country, no doubt silently praying I wasn’t going to crash the car. Strolling down the corridors of The Esplanade it felt like we were home, even though we’d only been away for a night. Opening up our rooms we agreed to rest up for an hour or two before we met up once again at 7 down in the bar.

That evening we enjoyed another couple of cold pints of Carlton Draught and then ate in the hotel restaurant for the first time. We were treated to a quality evening meal of steak and chips, washed down with plenty more of that fantastic Margaret River wine from down there in the depths of Western Australia. It certainly felt good to be back in Freemantle again, far away from those spinach gnocci horror shows of Albany, and Dad and both of us were in high spirits. We agreed that after the thrill of seeing those whales in the bay, our long trip down to Albany and back again the next day had been more than worth it. Later in the evening we took another stroll around the familiar streets of Freemantle and it did indeed have that feeling of coming home, despite the fact we’d barely been there a week since flying into Perth from London. Needless to say when I hit the pillow that night I slept like a log and woke up in the morning with a head full of dreams I couldn’t remember, which was probably just how it was meant to be.

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