Tuesday, 27 November 2012

27-29 November 2012 - New Norcia WA

What have Spanish architecture, old religious artefacts, an Aboriginal mission, boarding schools, an agricultural community, beer, bread and monks have in common?  They are part of New Norcia, a fascinating monastic town 130km north of Perth. 

Our Lady of Good Counsel - in the early days of the monastary, the settlement
was threatened by bushfire.  One of the founding monks raced to a chapel,
grabbed this painting and held it in front of the fire.  The fire front changed
direction and the settlement saved. This was considered a miracle that reinforced
the belief that New Norcia was going to be a viable monastic community.  True story!

The Gates to the monastery

When I say ‘monastic’ town, it’s just that – everything is constructed, owned and controlled by a small group of Benedictine monks.  Commenced in the mid 1800’s by two Spanish Benedictine monks, it is the only town of its type in Australia.   Originally a self-contained mission, it was unusual in its day in that the monks paid the Aboriginal labourers for their work in addition to providing housing, education and spiritual opportunities (also known as 'converting the natives to Christianity!).  In the early 20th century, girls and boys boarding schools were established (segregated into male/female and Aboriginal/European) and the town became renowned as an education centre.  Today, the schools have all closed, and the town focuses on tourism and providing residential facilities for retreats, school camps and accommodation for travellers. 

The European boys school - St Ilifonses

Throughout all of these varying purposes, the one thing that has remained constant has been the monks daily routine, revolving around six defined group prayer sessions as well as daily mass.  It looks like this:

5.15am - Vigils
6.45am - Lauds
7.30am - Mass
12.05pm- Midday Prayer
2.30pm- Afternoon Prayer
6.30pm- Vespers
8.15 - Compline

The public are invited to attend any of the above and we went along to Vespers in the monastery chapel at 6.30pm one evening. Together with 4 other tourists, we waited (a bit nervously) in the chapel, not knowing what to expect.Right on 6.30pm, the 8 remaining monks (all elderly, apart from the head monk, known as the Abbot, who is about 50) entered the chapel.Four monks sit on either side of the chapel facing each other.The prayers were all sung, or chanted.One side (4 monks) would chant something and the 4 monks on the other side would respond. I say they were chanting ‘something’ as most of it was in Latin.They basically continued this for half an hour, then all faced the Alter, bowed, and silently left the room.I can’t begin to tell you how great the singing was - imagine what the sound must be like when the monks were at their maximum numbers of 70-80 monks. 
Based on our Vespers experience, we thought it might be interesting to attend Mass with the monks the next day. As we have become very indulgent in the mornings with a lie in and at least two cups of tea in bed, I didn't old high hopes we'd actually follow through with our intention. However, we did get up early, it was even chilly and drizzly outside (the best lie in weather!) and made it to Mass - at 7.30am on a Thursday, and it wasn't even Christmas Day! I don’t think I’ve been to Mass on a weekday since I was at secondary school and we used to go the first Friday of every month. Again, it was just the four of us, one other parishioner, and the 8 monks and 1 nun.  Again, they faced each other, but this time it was the familiar Catholic mass that I remembered, except most of it was sung. All over in 30 minutes, and then the monks filed out and it was all over. They walked single file over the road into the monastery courtyard and that was the last we saw of them. Not that I want to start attending Mass every morning, but it was a very calm way to start the day.
Originally, the monks were very hands-on in the fields, in their own flour mill, growing olives and tending orchids and teaching in the schools, but these days their focus is on theology study and the administration of the township. That’s when they aren’t praying of course! 
The churches and chapels are full of wall-to-wall artwork similar to what Larry and I have seen in hundreds of churches in Europe (in fact, we saw so many churches, it’s been over 20 years before we could even contemplate appreciating the interior of a church – see the Geraldton blog entry!). All of the art work was completed by one of the monks with an artistic ability. Likewise, most of the fine timberwork and carving was also completed by a monk with exceptional woodturning skills.


The museum above the Visitors Centre is predominately full of traditional religious paintings similar to what we’ve seen in galleries in Europe and not something I thought we’d ever see in Australia. There are also some interesting and unusual modern religious art on display as well.

This piece of modern art, located just outside the Visitors Centre, seemed a
bit incongruous with the surroundings.

In addition to the art, St Joseph’s Aboriginal girls’ boarding school has a small exhibition showing what life was like in that institution. Basically it was all about a basic education and a lot of work –washing, mending, cleaning and cooking for the 400 inhabitants of the township. While these boarding schools would no doubt have been unduly strict by today’s standards, reading the reminisces of many past pupils, the kids seemed to have been well cared for in terms of food and shelter and seem to look back fondly on those years. Children were not removed from their parents to attend the school as most had parents who lived and worked in the township. I don’t doubt for a minute however, that many kids would have had a horrendous experience as well and I only hope the monks don’t get caught up into the upcoming royal commission into child abuse in institutions.

All four schools were next to each other yet totally isolated with these
huge fences.
Original timber shingles covered by corrugated iron!

While there we visited the hotel and sampled the Abbey Ale, at 7% alcohol, one was enough for me. The hotel, built as a hostel for European parents visiting their children at the boarding schools, is now a hotel and I couldn’t resist sneaking upstairs to check out the huge staircase and wide verandas. It reminded me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. New Norcia is full of grand buildings; it’s amazing what you could do with cheap labour!
New Norcia also has its own bakery so we had bread both days we were there. Of course, I couldn’t resist buying a couple of books about the history of the town, which have since been successfully hidden from Larry so I don't get the usual lecture about the weight of books yada yada......
Like Coober Pedy in SA, New Norcia was totally unexpected. It literally felt like we’d boarded a plan and got off in Spain. We loved the history, the story of its beginning, the buildings, but above all, we loved the atmosphere. It was calm and peaceful. The religious side of things was not overly obvious, yet it clearly permeates everything. The staff speak softly, the notices for visitors were respectful, the cost to visit is reasonable and we found ourselves just chilling out. It’s a place that will stay with us for a long time. http://www.newnorcia.wa.edu.au/
Travellers Tips: Camping is available for $14 behind the roadhouse (powered, toilet/showers) however the ground is very uneven.If you are self-contained, you can camp on the oval for $7 per night.No facilities.Tickets into New Norcia was $60 (family) for a 2 hour guided tour and entry to the museums.You can just do a self-guided tour but you won’t have access to some of the chapels. Accommodation in the hotel would be a great experience and is $90 per room + $20 per extra person, so a family of 4 would be $130 per night for an unusual experience in a grand building. Communal bathrooms however, as ensuites were not part of hotel design in the 1920
It's Jacaranda season!!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

21-25 November 2012 - Sandy Cape Recreation Reserve/Processing lobsters/The Pinnacles

We took up residence at the Sandy Cape Recreation Reserve 16km north of the small fishing village of Jurien Bay.
Watching the sunset at Sandy Cape Recreation Reserve
Our campspot

We decided to visit Cervantes and The Pinnacles as a day trip rather than drag the van down there.  Cervantes is another small fishing village with crayfish as the main industry and also tourism as it’s the town closest to The Pinnacles. 

While in Geraldton I’d wanted us to visit the fish co-op to see live lobsters being processed, but we were literally there just as the lobster season began so tours hadn’t yet commenced.  However by the time we reached this part of the coast, the season had been going a week or so, so we did a trip to The Lobster Shack, part of the Indian Ocean Lobster Company located in Cervantes.  Here, from a ramp constructed above the processing area, we were able to see the entire process from the lobsters arriving, being graded according to size, then packed according to the orders received and then packed live in poly Styrofoam boxes with sawdust.  Apparently the lobsters can survive up to 30 hours in a stunned state, brought on by putting them in cold water for 2 minutes.  The packed boxes were finally loaded into a refrigerated van to travel to Perth airport. 

These tubs are straight from the lobster boats and have
been placed in stun tanks for 2 minutes prior to being sorted
by size (known as 'grading').
Lobsters being graded (sorted by size)
Once graded, the lobsters are placed in trays back in salt water in lanes
according to their grade.

Over 95% of West Australian lobsters are exported live, with the remaining 5% making their way to the Australian fish markets.  The main international customers are Japan and China (who like small crays) and Saudi Arabia (who prefer the bigger size). 
A lobster order appear on the computer and the lobsters are
hand picked according to the size requested on the order.
Once the lobsters have been stunned again in cold water, they are packed
in sawdust ready for travel.  They remain asleep for up to 30 hours.
Final part of the process - being packed in a refrigerated van for the
journey to Perth international airport.
All bar two of the staff working in the processing shed were Taiwanese backpackers. When we asked why, it was explained that the company has difficulties getting Australian workers as the work is seasonal and physically demanding.  Hence the international workers.  During the peak of the season, the processing shed might work 14 hours a day.  Just watching made us feel worn out!  
After the tour we splurged $30 to try a grilled lobster tail.  Can’t say any of us can see what the fuss is all about.  We were sitting near a tour group having lunch as part of their tour and the tour guide came up to us and asked if we’d like to help ourselves to the chicken and salads.  Absolutely! I thought my chicken leg and salami was more impressive than the lobster.  Still, we tried it and I was happy both girls had a taste.  Maybe we need to sample it cooked a few different ways before making a definitive judgement.   Overall, we found the self-guided tour really interesting, even Kate thought it was one of the best ‘tourist things’ we’d seen!  High praise coming from Kate!
There's lots of these corny cutouts in WA!
 We then drove 16km to The Pinnacles.  I got the usual grumbles when I mentioned it was a national park, but added that it was different to other national parks as it was a desert environment without any gorges or bushwalks.  That seemed to calm the troops. Once inside the park, we drove a 4km circuit to see all The Pinnacles with a few short walks to raised platforms to get a better idea of the number of them.  I thought they were really funky!  Bit like a crazy graveyard with erratically shaped headstones.  Kate dubbed them the ‘6000 sisters’, referring to the 3 Sisters at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. 

We got out of the car and did some silly stuff around some of them.  I’m sure we could have been a lot more imaginative if we’d tried!  The sand is the colour of mustard and most of the pinnacles are a few metres high and narrow, while others just look like lumps of rock. 


A visit to the excellent Information Centre told us that the geologist’s jury is still out regarding how they were formed.  Some believe erosion; others believe they were always there and have only recently been exposed.  Whatever the explanation, they certainly were ‘different’ and it’s easy to see why they are such a major drawcard to the area.

A Western Australian Christmas Tree in full bloom.  These trees lined the drive to
The Pinnacles and are spectacular.
 Travellers Tips: Sandy Cape Recreation Reserve, 6km gravel road, smelly drop toilets. $15 per night 2A+2C, honesty box system, 4 nights maximum stay. Jurien Bay, 10km once back on the main road, has a large IGA, hardware, servos etc.  The Lobster Shack, Cervantes $35 family.  The Pinnacles entry is included in a NP pass, or $11 per vehicles.  Caravan parking is available and there are lookouts near the information centre for those that are unable to drive the 4km circuit.  If you do take a caravan in, I’d recommended unhitching and doing the drive as you get a better sense of the scope of the park.  The Pinnacles are an easy half day trip from Jurien Bay.





Wednesday, 14 November 2012

14-20 November 2012 - Geraldton & surrounds

After a week in Geraldton we decided we really liked the place – it’s a city in the sense of services and facilities, but without the traffic congestion and urban sprawl.   Geraldton itself and the surrounding area had plenty to keep us occupied.

We visited the WA museum a total of three times!  There's an excellent display of the HMAS Sydney and her discovery and a lot of information about the social history of the Geraldton area, but the highlight was the Shipwreck Gallery which was full of stories and artefacts from the various shipwrecks that had occurred in the area, some as far back at the 1600’s.  Some of the survival stories are fascinating, as are the stories of the discovery of the wrecks and evidence of the lives survivors led on land while awaiting rescue.  Amazingly, there were successful rescue attempts which provide evidence that plenty of Dutch citizens were the first Europeans to set foot on Australian soil.  In fact, it’s amazing how close we came to being a Dutch or even a French colony, as explorers from these nations were on the scene well before Cook planted the Union Jack.
While chatting to the lady at the museum counter, she mentioned a replica of the Batavia longboat was moored at the back of the museum and often took tourists out for a sail on Sunday afternoons.   There was no set time, it wasn’t an organised tour; you just had to be at the right spot at the right time.  We didn’t give it another thought.  Anyway, our third visit to the museum happened to be on Sunday afternoon and while the girls were in the kid’s activity area and I was browsing in the museums bookshop, Larry was out the back chatting to the skipper of the longboat. Long story short, we were invited to sail on the boat!

We couldn't believe our luck being invited to sail on the Batavia longboat.

Prior to boarding the Batavia longboat.

Larry and I hadn’t been on a sail boat since at least 1984 when we spent an Easter sailing Moreton Bay with an inexperienced friend and his partner, while the girls have never been on a sailing boat before.  This replica, built in 2000 is an exact copy of the Batavia longboat, with the addition of a motor.  However once on the harbour, the engine was killed and it was all under sail.   

Apart from the skipper and the four of us, there was also a man with this two teenage children, all learning to sail.  Larry ended up being heavily involved with one of the sails every time the boat tacked, while the girls and I just enjoyed the experience and tried to imagine what an amazing journey (and hellish experience) it must have been to sail 5 weeks to Batavia (now Jakarta) with 48 people on board (we had 8 on board) to seek rescue for the Batavia survivors.  It is also amazing that all 48 survived the journey.  The rest of the Batavia story is fascinating.  A rescue ship successfully returned to the site of the shipwreck and was able to recover the majority of its valuable cargo, however while awaiting rescue, 125 men women and children had been murdered by their own countrymen as part of a mutiny.  Finally, the Captain got sacked for wrecking the state-of-the-art ship in unchartered waters.
The rigging and sails were built to scale, with the only modern additon being some
metal pullies rather than timber pullies.

Without doubt, the most impressive structure and visitor attraction in Geraldton is the HMAS Sydney II memorial on a hill in the centre of town.  We timed our visit with a volunteer guided tour so we could get the most from the site.  The idea of a commemorative memorial initially began as a local Rotary Club project in 1998 and it’s grown from there.  Today the memorial overlooks Geraldton and the Indian Ocean.  The memorial consists of black marble walls with the names of all 645 men who died on 19 November 1941.  There were no survivors. The main structure is a dome of 645 metal seagulls over an upturned ship propeller.   Inspiration for the seagulls came during an early anniversary service when a flock of seagulls swooped down over the assembled crowd.  In maritime folklore, seagulls represent the spirit of souls lost at sea.  There is a brass statue of The Waiting Woman, a woman dressed in 1940’s style clothes, holding onto her hat due to the Geraldton winds, looking out to sea for her missing husband/father/son etc.   She was constructed 8 years before the wreck of the Sydney was discovered in 2008 and yet it turns out she is facing in the exact direction the Sydney was located.  Eerie! 
This was one of the more ambitious Rotary projects we'd seen.
The entrance to the memorial. The other side of the white walls are black
marble slabs with the names of all 645 crew engraved.

The dome of seagulls at sunset

Bronze statue of the Waiting Woman.  Larry and Kate being a little bit disrespectful!
Spookily, she is looking in the exact direction of where Sydney was located, yet she
was constructed and put into position a number of years beforehand.

There is also a life sized copy of the ship’s bow and when you stand beneath it looking up at the deck of the bow on a cloudy day, it feels like the boat is sailing towards you.  Also eerie!  Once Sydney was located in 2008, a further structure was added, a descending fountain, signifying the depths of the ocean, where the water flows downwards.  The coastline and co-ordinates of the Sydney location are at the base of the fountain.  Everything about the memorial was well thought out and significant.  It’s not an official war memorial as such, but it felt every bit of one. 
An exact replica of the Sydney's bow.

This feature was added when Sydney was discovered. The seagull is placed
on the exact co-ordinates she was located in.  The night lighting made it very dramatic.

As we happened to be in Geraldton at the time of the anniversary of the sinking of the ship – 19 November 1941 – we attended the anniversary service which had the full military presence, wreath laying etc and the playing of the Last Post.  As the sun set, which was when the Sydney was last sighted by survivors of the Kormoran (the German ship she fought), a cannon was let off and flares released over the harbour.  Of course, I had a good cry throughout the proceedings.
Wreaths laid as part of the memorial service.
The upturned ship propellor signifies a dying ship.

We don’t tend to visit many churches, possibly because we are still ‘churched out’ after backpacking in Europe almost 25 years ago.  Churches in Europe are significant buildings so they are difficult to avoid, but given the passage of time, we thought it was time to venture into one as a tourist.  St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral didn’t disappoint. Constructed and designed by an Anglican minister who converted to Catholicism and who also happened to be an architect, John Hawes constructed a number of distinctive church-related buildings in the area, including the Cathedral during 1916-1938. 
Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier - an imposing edifice and you can see the Spanish influence in its design.

What made it stand out from other Catholic churches I’ve been in, apart from its dome roof structure, is the internal painting – stripes no less, bright orange stripes in fact.  Like the majority of churches I have ever set foot in, it was peaceful and calm but the interior took a bit of getting used to, but even in 10 minutes I went from ‘oh, it’s a bit out there!’ to, ‘yeah, it’s different, kind of funky, kind of OK’.  I would like to have done a guided tour to learn more about Hawes and the church itself, but our timing was out for this visit.  Have added it to  my ‘to do’ list for our next trip!

The text around the dome was originally written in Latin.

Basically any arched or circular edge had the bright orange stripes while
the rest of the church interior was pale grey stipes.

About 30 minutes south of Geraldton is the Greenough (pronounced Grenuff) Historical Village.  It’s basically the remnants of an 1860’s town that was the administrative hub for the surrounding farmlands.  After the area was largely abandoned due to flooding and wheat diseases, the town fell into disrepair leaving only the stone buildings and a small number of substantial timber buildings still standing.  Enter the National Trust in the 1970’s and a process of stabilisation and restoration began before the buildings constructed along a main street, including churches, dance hall, police station/cells, courthouse, convent, schoolhouse and residences, opened to the public.  One of the original stores has been extended to include the information centre, gift shop and cave and we can recommend the Devonshire tea and deliciously coffee! 
Kate inside the old school house. Smaller desks at the front leading to larger desks behind.
The enrolment of the school room ranged from 19 - 63 students to a single teacher.

Greenough original school house
We spent about two hours wandering through the various buildings.  Most have minimal furnishings and minimal interpretive texts, but the brochure given out at entry provided an outline of the buildings history and use over the years.  I thought it was very well done, not dissimilar to Cossack (see earlier blog entry) in that the buildings weren’t restored to within an inch of its life, you could easily imagine what the buildings looked like and how they were originally used.  Quite a few old photographs also gave us a good idea how little the buildings had altered over the years.

This note was in one of the cottages explaining the sleeping arrangements of the local
police officers 12 children - 3 in a trundle bed kept beneath their parents bed, 1 in a cot,
4 each head to tail in 2 single beds.  Elizabeth and Kate didn't believe it!

As usual, the Greenough cemetery didn't disappoint. This was an interesting
headstone, describing the death of two brothers in 1875 - one through
exhaustion, the other murdered by natives.

We also ventured about 60km south to the Larry the Lobster Festival at Dongara/Port Denison, two small fishing villages also south of Geraldton. The official lobster season (called crayfish, or crays) commenced on 15 November so the festival includes the blessing of the fleet for safe passage and successful catches. There was a market and entertainment. We arrived around midday and had intended staying until the fireworks at 8.00pm, but with a resident population of about 600 people, all of whom I’m sure were at the festival, we’d seen the markets and were ready to head home by 2ish!
An unexpected gem however was the Hampton Arms Inn about 20km away – an 1860’s hotel now a musty, dusty second-hand book shop, run by an eccentric Englishman, who although having lived in Australia for years, I could barely understand and had to resort to lip reading. Some of the rooms had old wallpaper, the floorboards creaked, dust covered the books and it was clear that some of the books were very old 1st editions. I was on the lookout for ‘My brilliant career’ and ‘Little Women’ for the girls and ‘Sons in the Saddle’ for me but were out of luck. I love these out of the way, unexpected businesses. Larry meanwhile, retired to the car to listen to the cricket! http://www.hamptonarms.com.au/

Many of the boats 'dressed' for the blessing of the fleet.
Rope coiling seemed to be a major drawcard with about a dozen
different categories of 'coilers' vying for surprisingly good monetary prizes.

The person who can coil the rope, tie it off and raise it above their head first is
declared the winner.  The neatness of the coil didn't seem to be an issue!

One of the things we noticed almost straight away driving around Geraldton is the number of fish and chip businesses. We’ve never seen so many in one place.  One of the better known is called ‘Chis & Fips’, so we duly spent $40 just to see what the fuss was all about.  Down to the foreshore to eat them, along with most of Geraldton’s resident seagull population it seemed.  Got the thumbs up from all of us!
So, all in all, we really liked ‘Gero’ as the locals call it,  it was neat and tidy with a good mix of old buildings, an excellent art gallery and library and a good foreshore.  All we need are jobs and we might be seriously tempted to move to the other side of the country!!

Famous leaning tree (windblown, like many others we saw)

Victoria Hospital, Geraldton

Point Moore Lighthouse

Travellers Tips: Free Volunteer Guides tours worthwhile and very informative. HMAS Sydney memorial 10.30am every day, Hospital and Gaol 2.30pm Tues and Thurs. Free entry to WA museum, kids can do an easy activity and receive a friendship band-making kit once completed.  Kids play area. Batavia longboat trips – this is a  ‘right place at the right time’ affair, but boat usually goes out each Sunday afternoon. The boat is moored right behind the museum so if you see people on it, just go out and hang around and look interested and you’ll get an invite if room is available. Life jackets provided. No cost.  The Greenough Historical Village is $14 family, or free to National Trust members.  Low cost camping available at Coronation Beach (30km north) or at Fig Tree Crossing (13km west). Fig tree crossing is meant to be an overnight stop only, but almost everyone stayed for the duration of their stay in Geraldton.