In 2013 it took me – alongside one of my favourite travel buddies Jill – a good solid couple of months to travel from the east coast of Australia to the west. I remember watching the sun go down over the Indian Ocean somewhere around Yallingup, in the beautiful Margaret River region of Western Australia. It was a touch symbolic, a satisfactory “we have made it” amidst the golden ambience; despite the fact that the engine of the car had knowingly decided to overheat earlier that day.
Four years later and I was crossing the continent again, only this time solo, facing regular interruptions for work, and ably assisted by Qantas, Jetstar and FlyPelican. But along the way there would be opportunities to revisit a few memories (mostly food related), let sand mingle with toes, and watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean once more.
It all started in Newcastle. Well Canberra then onto Newcastle, in that tiny but very handy plane again. Having been there so recently it was no great loss that there was little time to dawdle, facing a frantic trip to Officeworks and late night leftover sandwiches. Bookending a restless night was an early flight to Adelaide. But for about half an hour from around 6am, there was good coffee – located courtesy of previous investigations – and the sun rising majestically over the surf of Nobby’s Beach.
Just to ensure I clocked off five states and territories on this trip, my route to Adelaide incurred a brief stopover at Melbourne Airport. I had a bit more time on my hands in Adelaide but, barring an hour over lunchtime, the weather was mostly imitating England; cool, cloudy, drizzle interspersed with more frantic spots of rain. I ducked for cover in Rundle St Mall, and lingered in the Central Markets. I called in at Haighs, lured by giant displays of Rocky Road, and ambled under leaden skies through the ring of Parklands encircling the city.
For all its charm and grace, I had seen better days in Adelaide. But at least the rain had stopped by the time I found myself on the tram to Glenelg late Friday afternoon. I was hoping for sunset, but I was guaranteed kebab. Just catching up on another feast down memory lane, and, unlike the sunset, it didn’t disappoint.
The next day, in a swish of a jet engine I was whisked back to summer, crossing the seas and striking landfall near Esperance. I swear, 30,000 feet below, I could just make out a tiny piece of my heart deposited in the white sands of Twilight Beach. The Wheatbelt passed in considerably less time than the twelve hour drive, and then, before you knew it, Perth hills tumbling down to an archetypal Australian suburbia. Hello Perth! Hello 27 degrees!
I decided to spend the weekend staying in Fremantle, Perth’s port town, where there are plenty of shipping containers but an almost equal number of cafes and pubs and places to eat by the water. I really, really like Fremantle and enjoyed feeling slightly like a local, desperately praying the British accents in every cafe were not intent on making my flat white. They seem to be everywhere these Poms! I can understand this, because only Fremantle can offer the strong and stable leadership that is necessary in these times of smashed avocado goji berries and beards.
In fact Freo definitely meets the mark for the classic “I could live here” award. I think – in Australian terms – it must have the greatest concentration of fine Victorian and Georgian buildings, elegance established from the wealth of shipping Vegemite and DVDs of A Country Practice to the globe. There are facially hairy signs that hipsters have taken over, but Freo’s the liberal kind of place where you can let that go and sup on a pint of Little Creatures with the smell of the hops in the air and the sun sinking into the ocean. Before doing what everyone does in Freo and eating fish and chips (with malt vinegar…thank the lord for those fleeing Poms)!
On top of soaking up Fremantle I was keen to use my spare time in Perth to revisit some favourite old haunts and lingering places. The first was City Beach and nearby Floreat Beach, partly for food but also for, well, the dazzling light of that sand and sea and surf that is unendingly uplifting. It was more of an ordeal than previous trundles in the Subaru, but a train to West Leederville and bus through Wembley and Floreat to the coast offered more proof that my memory was still reasonably intact: look, there’s that petrol station on the corner! Behind there is an IGA where I bought a Chunky Kit Kat! Oh, Bold Park, that hill and lookout!
At City Beach I didn’t remember those rather fancy looking eateries and yet another pristinely positioned surf club in Australia. Some money had come into here, but from lord knows where. Perth has slumped somewhat since the state reaped lots of cash from rocks in the ground and lazily rolled about in its lucre. Still, I guess the new restaurants were an investment and they looked pretty busy. I opted for an original: my favourite calamari and chips at Floreat Beach Kiosk, worth the train and bus journey alone.
Being in these parts it would be criminal not to head to Cottesloe Beach and join the gathering masses for sundown. For some reason, the sun going about its natural business every day is an invitation to incessantly drum bongoes and get tangled in tie-dyed sarongs as if having some slow motion convulsion on a Eurovision stage. Head closer to the water and the sounds of the ocean drown it out. Cherish the sand and water and light and see the sun vanish behind that invisible strip of cloud that is almost always on the horizon.
Possibly just as famous as a Cottesloe sunset are the lorikeets in the Norfolk Pines, putting the bongo boys and girls to shame as soon as the sun has gone. In their thousands and purely deafening, this and the chill now hitting bare legs impels you to hot foot it back to the train station, goals ticked.
Compared with the Western beaches of Perth, Rottnest Island provides a more challenging task for my memory. I came here in 2003 and recall jumping on a bus to a beach for a while and walking up to the lighthouse. There was a quokka somewhere, and probably an ice cream. My hair was black, in contrast to those white, white beaches.
On a Monday in 2017, having achieved what I needed to in a work capacity (lest you think this is all one big jolly), I took the ferry over to Rotto and – like many on board – hired a lame red bike. Being a car free island, this is the best way to see the place, on roads that are occasionally lumpy and into the wind and may harbour the odd snake which you need to swerve to avoid running over. Yes, that happened to me #thisisaustralia.
There is not much more to say about Rotto, apart from glorious beaches and amazingly vivid waters and wonderful sands and beautiful bays and crystal coves. There are some sea-sculpted rock formations in between and – inland – a few smelly stagnant lakes, snake-housing scrub, and one bigger hill on which a lighthouse sits. Around the quay a touch of civility in the form of cafes and shops makes the whole place entirely tolerable as the temperature hovers around a pleasant twenty-six degrees.
The other main feature of Rottnest Island are the quokkas, who are generally very cute, incredibly tame, and quite keen to get a lick of your ice cream. The main goal of many visitors to the island these days seems to be to achieve the perfect quokka selfie and #quokkaselfie. Seriously, view that hashtag and see what you come across!
You know what I did though? At one bay where a cluster of identical red bikes sat in racks and quokkas attempted to steal picnics and people gathered round them with phones, I walked to the far end of the beach, across a brief mound of dunes and grass, and discovered perfection was waiting there… #notaquokkainsight #alltomyself #mumlookawaynow
The day trip to Rottnest was the obvious pinnacle of this trip and I will garner no sympathy at all for saying it was back to work after that. I was staying around Kings Park and commuting to nearby Subiaco, which had handy breakfast and coffee possibilities. The weather was still mid twenties, although cooling off in the nights.
Essentially, I managed a jaunt into Kings Park one late afternoon, which is undoubtedly one of the biggest assets outside of the beaches that Perth has to offer. It is scenic and sprawling and accessible and full of all those variants and species that are unique to small corners of Western Australia. It’s a reminder of how isolated, how individual, this place is. Yes, there may be Hungry Jacks down the road and Home and Away showing on TV, but there is also a Banksia that only grows on one or two of those giant bluffs of the Stirling Ranges.
The bonus with Kings Park is that it is also the place to capture city views, complete with the hum of traffic moving along its freeways and crossing the Swan River. From here, on my last night, the sinking sun illuminates its skyline, reflecting gold off the glass and steel structures. The distant Perth Hills turn fiery red before disappearing into shadow. And out across the Swan, down towards Cottesloe and Fremantle, bongoes sound and hippies gather. The sun that has crossed the country says its goodbyes, leaving Australia for a few hours before it gathers again in the morning and pierces the surf of Nobby’s Beach in a happily circular manner in which to join things together and tie things up. East to West.