From the Kimberley’s splendid isolation to the giant Karri forests in the south, Western Australia is a massive multifarious never-ending den of sublime distractions writes Andrew Harris
‘We could’ve been French!’ There’s a hint of alarm trending toward outrage in Anne’s voice that momentarily distracts me from the stunning sun- seared vista stretching out below us. An enormous expanse of pristine beach, which in Europe would be dotted, if not completely inundated, with prostrate UV worshippers, is devoid of any human interference whatsoever. It simply carries on kissing a never-ending slab of ocean disporting the deepest hue of blue, which reciprocates with spectacular crashing curls of surf for a lone dolphin to play in.
We’re walking along the coastal path between Cape Leeuwen and Cape Naturaliste, 170 miles south of Western Australia’s capital city, Perth, nearby Margaret River, the burgeoning gastronomic hub whose premium wines are now feted the world over. Anne, my guide with Walk Into Luxury, which as its name implies, curates upscale walking itineraries, is explaining the first Europeans to explore this coast. Aside from the Dutch, who occasionally missed their target while aiming at their colonies in modern-day Indonesia, the French were also traversing the Indian Ocean and sniffing the salt spray for anything interesting around what they referred to as New Holland. Cape Naturaliste is named after one of two ships despatched from Le Havre by Napoleon in 1800. However, in 1829 Captain James Stirling established the Swan River Colony, and another rather large pink piece was slotted into the British jig-saw of global dominance.
Western Australia has remained one of the best-kept secrets of the post-imperial Anglophone world. Remote and under-reported since… well, 1829, it harbours some of the most memorable experiences and awe-inspiring landscapes to be found anywhere on earth. Occupying a third of a continent, with a population of just 2.6 million, three quarters of whom live in and around Perth, its vastness is almost beyond comprehension. The entire United Kingdom could fit into Western Australia eleven times over. Everything’s big, from the people to the steaks, huge trucks pulling enormous road trains along seemingly endless roads, to farms bigger than some countries, and the longest stretch of straight rail track in the world (478 km). West Australians not only think big, they probably dream in Cinemascope. And forget about Texas. W.A. sticks Texas in its back pocket.
The traditional off-grid and under-the-radar perception of this Western portion of the great southern land and its capital Perth, has long seen it languish in the shadow of sexy Sydney and cosmopolitan Melbourne. Not so much Westward Ho! as Westward Ho Hum! But the concept of Western Australia as simply one million square miles of Ramsay Street, has probably only served to preserve its unmolested magnificence, which these days is accessible as never before. Earlier this year, Qantas initiated the first ever non-stop flights from Europe to Australia with a 17-hour daily service from Heathrow to Perth. That’s a long time in the big silver tube (although there are longer!). But while economy passengers might need to psyche themselves up before partaking in this great aviational leap forward, for Business Class travellers, (there is no First), I can confirm only a very smooth, trouble-free transglobal trajectory.
Perth’s presence has often seemed more overgrown country town than state capital. In the pre-internet age, where a seven-day-old copy of The Times, was considered keeping abreast of things in London, there were constant affirmations of being in what Bill Bryson maintained was the world’s most isolated city, although technically it isn’t. Auckland is 29 miles further from Sydney than Perth is from Adelaide, but with Singapore closer than Sydney or Melbourne, Perth can certainly feel like it’s out on the world’s longest limb. Gazing out across the city centre from the heights of Kings Park, a fabulous semi-feral amalgamation of Central Park and Hampstead Heath with the sedentary Swan river framed by the Kalamunda hills in the distance, Perth has always been pretty. Now it’s all grown up too.
A very impressive renovation of a group of long-disused Victorian government buildings in the heart of the city is but one of several embellishments adding considerable pace to Perth’s hitherto pedestrian progress. At its core is Como The Treasury, the first Australian venture for Singapore based Christina Ong’s Como hotel group. This low key uber-cool conversion into a chic property of 48 very spacious rooms and suites sets a new hospitality benchmark, staking a claim to the best city-based hotel in Australia. An assertion that I for one, wouldn’t rush to contradict. An ongoing A$2.6-billion-dollar development on the riverfront, scheduled for completion in 2019, Elizabeth Quay, will also see the arrival of a 205-room Ritz-Carlton delivering spectacular views onto the Swan River.
What was not so long ago, a down-at-heel central neighbourhood of dubious provenance, Northbridge, has gradually matured into a stylish quartier of cafes and restaurants, bars and clubs. Always segregated from the city centre by the main railway line, (long considered a blessing), a recent development around the central station now sees Northbridge fully conjoined with and breathing new nightlife into an expanded and extensively pedestrianised Downtown.
Perth’s port Fremantle, 30 minutes down river at the mouth of the Swan, while these days part of the same sprawling metropolis, still disports its own distinct character. Fremantle is emblematic of how Western Australia’s off-piste pedantic plod through the 19th and 20th centuries, inadvertently preserved many of the jewels in its crown. In this case, Fremantle’s huge pubs and hotels with their wonderful wrap-around balconies, from W.A.’s gold rush days. Freo, as it’s known locally, with its Friday night fights was just a wild colonial boil waiting to be lanced. Which it was in 1987, when it found itself unexpectedly playing host to the Americas Cup. With world attention focused on Fremantle and W.A. like never before, a light bulb moment suddenly illuminated the architectural gems wasting away in its midst, which were rapidly and lovingly restored.
Fremantle today, has morphed into an irresistible urban cocktail incorporating its large Calabrian community, the many creatives who now call it home, entrepreneurs, and aboriginal artists, all rubbing shoulders with the traditional mullet-headed arbiters of W.A. culture burning up and down the ‘Freo strip’ in their burbling V8s and Harleys. A kind of Antipodean revolving performance of Grease.
And it’s outside Gino’s, the iconic very first café on the cappuccino strip (Calabrians simply didn’t take to Anglo-Saxon beer halls: Gino Saccone led the way out in 1983), that I find myself in the company of Fremantle’s youthful mayor, Brad Pettit. No, not Mr Fight Club. This Brad’s close-up is more tree-hugger than street-slugger. He walks me around the corner to a cute little boutique hotel, the Hougoumont, after Chateau d’Hougoumont, the farmhouse where part of the battle of Waterloo was fought. It’s also the name of the last convict ship to Australia. Docking in Fremantle in January 1868, it had 279 convicts on board, including Brad’s antecedent Edwin Hooper and 62 Fenians, often shouldering disproportionately heavy sentences for what was casually labelled ‘treason’.
There was a time well within living memory when ‘the stain’, the shame of a convict heritage, was a feature of Australian middle-class angst. But the sight of Freo’s young mayor standing in the Hougoumont lobby next to a huge mural bearing the names of all those convicts, pointing proudly to his own personal place in history underlines the seismic shifts that have upended Australian society over the course of just a few decades. Edwin’s transgression is listed as ‘firing stacks’, setting fire to haystacks, for which, in Gloucester, he was sentenced to eight years transportation. Lucky in comparison to John Lockwood and his 15 years for ‘forgery of a promissory note’, and poor 21-year-old Fenian sympathiser, James Kiely who was given life in Dublin for ‘not informing of a mutiny’. Hard young lives about to get a lot harder.
These days, visiting Western Australia whose resource-based economy has been a major contributor to Australia’s record-breaking 27-year economic expansion, is anything but hard. Its enormity may seem a challenge but it’s one that’s well worth rising to. Indigenous tourism is also gaining traction, representing a fascinating perspective on the land from the people who’ve inhabited it for the last 65,000 years.
Twenty-five years ago, I was taken out into the shudderingly beautiful landscape of the Kimberley in the far North, in the company of one Sam Lovell. Part of the ‘stolen generation’ (perhaps where any real stain lies), forcibly removed as a child from his Aboriginal mother and raised on a remote station, Sam Lovell AM (Order of Australia) as he now is, can be credited as the founding father of indigenous tourism in Western Australia.
That Kimberley trek, with its crocs, incredible hidden rock paintings, secret swimming holes, and privileged access to aboriginal lands, still resonates as a stand-out travel moment. Sam’s now retired, but the followers in his footsteps are active right across W.A. and accessible through WAITOC (West Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council).
From the Kimberley’s splendid isolation to the giant Karri forests in the south, Margaret River’s wineries and swimming with whale sharks off the Ningaloo reef, a 300-kilometre-long world heritage site, Western Australia is a massive multifarious never-ending den of sublime distractions. Historically, the rest of the world has seemed a little slow catching on. See it before they start catching up.
Qantas direct London to Perth in Business Class from £3,143; qantas.com
Double rooms at Como The Treasury from £335; comohotels.com
Image credit: pixabay/renatawrightart