According to recent survey results, among the most popular names given to Australian born babies this year is ‘Bruce’. They don’t help themselves, do they? If ever there were a nation that lived up to its stereotypes then surely this is it. Think of Australia and you picture the dusty outback, surf breaks and Merv Hughes’ moustache; beach side barbeques, corked hats, Alf Stewart and flamin’ gallahs – arrive in Australia and you’ll generally find most of the above quite quickly. It’s a country that’s comfortable in its ways – being stuck alone thousands of miles from anywhere will do that to a place – and so it seems that everything you ever thought and feared about Australia is generally true. Yes, most of its animals want you dead. Yes, it’s ridiculously hot and yes, it is indeed full of Australians. But you know what, it’s also bloody brilliant.
A six week jaunt down the east coast in 2008 had given us a good taste of what was on offer and having just spent eight months next door in New Zealand, what better place than to start a slow journey home than here? On top of this we had friends to see. Amongst the hordes of English who’ve found themselves transported down to this remotest of the old colonies over the years, a smattering of friends have succumbed to Australia’s charms and made the move voluntarily. Conveniently for us they’d mostly opted for Perth on the West coast, meaning we got to tread unknown ground whilst in the company of old pals. Ripper!
First was a fleeting visit to Sydney however and a swift double bashing of both the heat and the prices – both excessive, both unavoidable. Our first few days were littered with conversations such as the following:
Scruffy Herbert (me): I’d like two beers please barman.
Barman (the barman): Of course sir, that’ll be $20 please.
Scruffy Herbert: Sorry I think you may have misunderstood, I just wanted two beers – not to purchase the entire establishment.
Barman: Welcome to Australia, you sweaty mess. The tap water is only $5 a spoonful if you’d prefer?
So yes, despite knowing it was more expensive over here, it came as something of a shock when confronted by it, as did the warmth. We took a ferry on our first day, across the harbour and past the iconic Opera House to Mosman Bay. After exiting the welcome breeze from the ferry, we from then on slowly melted. There is no doubt still a trail of melted skin and flip flop rubber tracking us to Cremorne Point where we found splendid harbour views, before heading back around the shoreline, across the bridge and onto Circular Quay. Having enjoyed our first Essex-Australian reunion that night with a friend in Bondi, we soon found reason to grumble at the weather again (I’m British, it’s what we do) the following day as searing heat turned to pouring rain. A drab mooch around Darling Harbour and Chinatown was overwhelming beaten by unlimited circuits on the Monorail, cruising above the city streets while keeping dry in the meantime was the best $5 I ever spent.
Australia is a bit big. Beyond comprehension big in fact. It took us five hours to fly from Sydney to Perth, which for the sake of comparison would get you from London to Lebanon, Nigeria or perhaps Eastern Russia. That’s an entire continent crossed in the time it takes this lot to get to a fellow city. It’s also ridiculously remote out here – Perth is closer to Jakarta at just over 3000km than it is Sydney, and if you head west the next time you’ll see land is on the coast of South America. Such a desolate location means it generally needs to have something going for it, and well, it does that in abundance. Tucked away towards the bottom of the west coast, a balmy Mediterranean climate feeds a quite spectacular setting for the fastest growing population in Australia, and it was quickly plain to see why over 1500 people a week are upping sticks to move out here.
It started with a boisterous Frank Turner gig, which despite being to Jamie’s disgust and probably general bemusement to everyone else reading this, was about as good a way to kick off a holiday in my book. Having spent the last eight months cursing the gigs at home that have been and gone in my absence, it’s safe to say I was pretty damn chuffed that we’d managed to coincide our arrival here with one of my favourite musicians. A good start – I even caught Jamie singing along at one point so he must have done something right. From there on the standard never dropped. Our hosts were massively enthusiastic to show us the sights of their new home, and we were more than willing to be guided.
We ticked off our first beach at Leighton, a place we were not so delighted to know was not far from where over 100 sharks had been spotted a few weeks before, some news our friends had joyously shared with us before our arrival. Nonetheless, in we went and underneath the repeated drone of shark spotting helicopters spent several hours over the next 10 days in the water. We visited Leighton, City and Cottesloe – there’s many more– and it seems they’re pretty spoilt for beaches here, so much so that they have large stretches of otherwise immaculate sand set aside as ‘dog beaches’. At home you’re lucky if the turd floating past you is from a dog and not human. Perth is built around water. Along with the the Southern Indian ocean to the west, the mighty Swan River and its tributaries thread their way through the city and is for the most part, pretty much unavoidable. By day it affords stunning views from the lofty perch of Kings Park, and by night it’s a river that offers one of the finest night time cityscapes I’ve ever seen, where from the foreshore of South Perth the towering neon lights reflect unbroken in the river below. We went sailing too, with some definite clear instructions from the guy renting them out – “go in a straight line there, and then in a straight line back – do not go in the ferry lanes, do not go near anyone else, do not fall in” – and astoundingly enough we managed them all!
Back when we had originally tried to plan our time in ‘dubbo’ (slang for Western Australia, or W.A, it seems – and not some mystery town we’d not heard of) there had been tentative plans to head up to the Coral Coast. It sounded jolly nice and didn’t look that far on the map, so why not. Well once again the concept of distance had been lost on us here. Not looking very far on the map turned out to constitute an 11 hour drive (one way) – about the same as driving from London to Copenhagen – so that idea was quickly panned. We did manage to get North however, up to the the affluence of Swan Valley and then among the Kangaroos and Koalas of Yanchep National Park. With our hosts heading back to work for a few days we took ourselves South, away from the city lights and into the wine soaked roads of Margaret River.
Now finding something to do down in Margaret River if you’re not a fan of wine can be tricky enough at the best of times, but trying to do it in a steady drizzle makes it unfairly tough. We did manage to catch some brief sunshine at Busselton where lies the longest pier in the Southern Hemisphere, and we did manage to catch the sun setting at Canal Rocks – but from there on out, it was pure grey. This was probably due to the fact we were visiting a lighthouse – it always rains when we do so – so as such we found our way down to Cape Leeuwin, walked out to the point, got wet, got windswept, left again. Standard lighthouse procedure. It’s a good place for whale watching down here where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, but alas we were out of season – however we were fortunate enough to see dolphins from Sugarloaf Rock, plus some more at Hamlyn Bay along with the resident mammoth Sting Rays. The only other things flouncing about in the water were us. We’d made a promise to try surfing in every country we visit, and so once again the wet suits came out and the fear took hold. I think our efforts are best summed up by the board hire shop owner insinuating that a group of handicapped children having a go nearby had fared better than us. Enough said. And so we left Margaret River both equally impressed and disheveled and quite possibly the only people to ever visit the region and not touch a drop of wine.
Back in Perth and our final weekend had arrived, and it was about as stereotypical Australian as you can get. First up, an Aussie Rules Football game, otherwise known as AFL. Not content with being annoyingly good at pretty much every other sport, they decide to invent their own one as well. I’d always thought of AFL as a bit of an amateurish free for all – a general excuse for a scrap basically – but I take it all back, for it’s actually a professional free for all. It was chaotic as it was captivating – the two teams (Fremantle and Essendon) contested a feisty top of the table clash which showed far more skill than I’d anticipated and more importantly produced some absolutely superb abuse from the surrounding crowd. Our Australia weekend continued with a trip to Fremantle the next day, home to not only the outstanding Little Creatures brewery, but also to some of the foundations of colonised Australia itself. This was the first port of call for millions of immigrants to these shores, most notably the convict ships who’s passengers built much of the early city here including the very prison in which they found themselves housed. Our tour of the jail was fascinating, not only for the slightly eccentric guide and the information received, but also for the former inmate (it only closed in 1991) who turned up half way through from another tour and added some colourfully worded vigour to the proceedings.
So our two weeks was up. Having spent some quality time with plenty of old friends and seen some fantastic sights, we realised that as Aussie stereotypes go, we had in fact ticked most of them off. The surfing, the Antipodean animals, the mullets and moustaches, the famous Australian view on the world (“Margaret Thatcher, she’s DEAD AS” from a radio presenter, amazing!) and the huge long drives of nothing – they were generally all there. So although it was apt that our final meal here was of the most famous Australian of all, the Kangaroo, it turned out we’d somehow not managed at any point, and we hang our heads in shame at this, to throw a shrimp on the barbie.