My friend K lived in Perth for a while as a teenager, and has just moved back. She tells me that much of Western Australia cares little for the rest of the nation, seeing it as merely a drain on the state’s resources. It’s easy to see how resentment could grow in isolation. She also claims that Perthians are more than a little classist, and it matters what suburb you live in and which school you attend/ed. But it’s kind of like that in Sydney, not that I try to care very much about these things. I’ve been to the “good” schools and the average ones, and lived in a dodgy suburb or two. What’s the difference? I’ve also lived in a state and a region that felt ignored or ridiculed by the rest of Australia. None of us are the favourite child, after all.
Perth is on a river, but it’s brackish, and the sea is close by. In one day of driving outside the city we go through lush valleys, dry bush, desert sands and the western coast. The Pinnacles are eerie in the afternoon light. We wonder if the rocks might come to life at night, stand up and move about, settling down into stone again as the sun rises. Aboriginal legend tells that the rocks are the grasping fingers of foolhardy boys who drowned in the sand though they were warned by the elders not to go into the desert.
On this, the other side of Australia, there is a Benedictine monastery, keeping fifteen-hundred-year-old tradition. Almost all of the town of New Norcia is owned by the monastery or related in some way. There used to be four schools run by various orders, and a hundred and fifty monks at the monastery. Today the schools are closed, and there are eight monks. And yet the town and the monastery continues on, almost delightfully medieval, and I do not mean that in any pejorative sense. There is a miracle story attached to the site, and stories of ghosts. The monks aim for self-sufficiency, and sell bread and other products. I bought some nutcake, darkly chewy but also thick with hazelnuts, almonds, and pecans – signifying courage, integrity, and passion.
At Fremantle we visit the Round House, one of the oldest buildings in Australia. It was a prison, but not for convicts – they arrived at the colony later. Underneath the cliff is a tunnel cut into the rock for hauling whale carcasses into town for processing. At one of the maritime museums we view what seems like endless caches of materials recovered from Dutch shipwrecks. A partial hull of the Batavia is here, and gruesome tales about the fates of those aboard. Is it that the coast of WA has suffered more shipwrecks, or that they have discovered and excavated more shipwrecks off the WA coast? The remnants of the drowned and dead always hold a morbid charm, don’t they.
We made sure to catch a sunset over the Indian Ocean, as we only get sunrises over the Pacific. Man, this country is big.
In a couple of weeks I am going to Canberra, and so in the space of just over a month I shall have visited QLD, WA, and the ACT, while living in NSW. Not bad for someone who up until seven years ago had never left Queensland.