Monday, 31 December 2012

New Year’s Eve 2012 – Perth WA

A New Year’s Eve to remember……or not?

Oddly, Perth city does not celebrate New Year’s Eve with a firework display.  Instead they save it all up for huge display and let loose on Australia Day in a display that rivals Sydney’s NYE fireworks.  I also telephoned the casino, the race track and some other venues I had heard have done fireworks in the past, but it seemed a no-go everywhere.  When I asked at the Perth Visitors Information Centre how locals celebrate NYE, I was told most went to house parties, or just waited till Australia Day.  Odd.
However, a fireworks display was planned at Mandurah, a coastal town about 80km south of Perth, but part of the Perth train system.  They had a children’s firework display at 9.00pm.  Perfect!

We packed our usual nibblies of crackers, cheese, olives, salami, carrots, a picnic blanket, some sparklers, warm jackets and began our public transport journey at 5.50pm.  We had plenty of time to get to the 9.00pm fireworks.  Or so we thought.  I should also mention that we had Shania with us, the 10 year old staying in the caravan park.  This was her first NYE fireworks.

Elizabeth, Shania, Kate
We needed to get two suburban trains each way, and a shuttle bus was taking passengers from the newly constructed Mandurah train terminal down to the foreshore.  We had plenty of time.
The 5.50pm train was uneventful.  However when we got off in Perth city and walked to the next platform, there was an electronic message board saying that the Mandurah line was down and that buses would be replacing the train for all but the final two stops.  No problem, we had 3 hours and it was NYE so there’d be plenty of buses to replace the trains if breakdowns occurred.  Right?  Wrong!

We got on the connecting train for only two stops and then all the passengers got off and trudged into the BusPort to catch the replacement buses.  There were about 200 people ahead of us and the bus waiting area must have been at least 40C.  It was stifling.  20 minutes later and a bus appeared, filled up and took off.  20 minutes later a second bus appeared, stopped, kept its doors closed and then drove away.  WTF? 
Finally we got on a non-air-conditioned bus.  The bus would obviously follow the train route and call into each of the stations, dropping off and collecting passengers.  The first few stations were fine, but when a passenger yelled ‘Turn right driver, turn right’ it became apparent the driver didn’t know how to reach the next station!  We got to the next station, the passenger who advised the driver departed and another passenger got us to the next station.  For the next station however, none of the passengers seemed sure of the way.  They were used to being rail commuters, not navigating the same area by road.  So I opened my phone and used Navigator, a very handy GPS app, to provide directions.  How surreal, a Queenslander giving a Perth bus driver directions!! 

We finally got to a station, got on a train and two stops later arrived in Mandurah.  By this time it was 8.45pm.  We’d barely make the fireworks before having to go through the whole rigmarole in reverse to get home.  It would be totally inappropriate if I put into words my true feelings at the time!!  Still, we would make it. Right?  Wrong!
So we are now at Mandurah railway station.  On the footpath in front of the station an irritated group was waiting for the shuttle bus.  We had no idea of the geography of the area, so walking wasn’t an option.  Just as well, as it turned out the station was a good 10 minute drive to the foreshore.  But I digress….

After a few minutes of waiting, a bus with ‘Mandurah shuttle’ appears.  About 60 passengers board.  We wait.  The bus driver looks at us. The bus driver asks a passenger where they are going. The passenger says 'the Mandurah foreshore for the fireworks in 5 minutes'.  The bus driver tells us he is not the fireworks shuttle bus, but another ‘shuttle’ bus.  60 people get off the bus.  Again, I really can’t begin to describe the general mood, but I’m sure you're starting to get the picture
About 8.55pm, a small 18 seater shuttle bus appears, then another.  We manage to get on one and two minutes into the journey, hear the first of the fireworks going off.  Occasionally we can see them.
We arrived at the foreshore at 9.10pm (at least we didn’t decide to start walking!) just in time to see the last few seconds of the fireworks display.  The journey had taken 3 hours 20 minutes.

We found a table and ate the food we’d brought and discussed what to do next.  Just turn around and do it all again?  If we didn’t have Shania with us, we wouldn’t have hesitated to stay till midnight.  The three girls were all keen to stay, but Larry and I wondered what we’d do for the next 2 ½ hours till midnight.  It’s not as if we could wander into a local bar for a few drinks to pass the time with three kids in tow!
Across the water, about a 20 minute walk away was a very low key theme park which we’d noticed on our first visit to Mandurah earlier in December on our way to Margaret River.  We had assumed there would be a side show alley of some sort at the fireworks area and had previously given Elizabeth & Kate $20 each to spend, as had Shania’s dad.  They were obviously desperate to stay and visit the theme park and spend their money.  So I went to call Shania’s father to check if it was OK by him, only to discover my phone on the warning signal for a flat battery.  You’ve got to be joking?  Instead I sent him a text asking if it was alright for his 10 year old to get home at 3.00am (assuming the same debacle to get back), instead of the planned 11.00pm.  Fortunately the message went through and he was okay with it.

Anyway, the girls had a ball at the theme park.  Most of the crowd had dissipated after the kids fireworks at 9, so they pretty much had the place to themselves.  The big hit, both in fun and cost ($10) was the water balls.  I couldn’t have stood getting inside a ball in the humidity, but they all loved it and because it wasn’t busy, actually got a fairly decent ride for their money. 


By the time we had finished at the theme park it was 11.30pm and time to head back to the foreshore for the main fireworks.  They were OK as far as fireworks go, but there was no co-ordinated countdown so you could hear people celebrating at different times.  The girl had a sparkler and whistles and made themselves heard.  They weren’t flagging at all and I suspect they found it very exciting being up so late and in such a big crowd.

At 12.15am, 1 January 2013, we then had to scoot back to the shuttle bus (the correct one!), back to Mandurah train station, to be greeted with the wonderful news that the train problem had been rectified and our journey home would be as it should be, ie, just two trains and 50 minutes.
There was a 20 minute wait to change trains at the main Perth station.  The girls got quite an education with some of the outfits and shenanigans of people who had been drinking the last 5 hours.  We finally got back to our original train station, discovered the car hadn’t been stolen or vandalised and reached the caravan park by 2.00am.  Shania’s dad was waiting for us.  We were all in bed by 2.45am. 

What an adventure - and all because Perth must be the only city on the planet that doesn’t do NYE fireworks!

Travellers Tip:  If you want to attend NYE fireworks, relocate to one of the surrounding towns, most of which have displays.  Otherwise, plan a quiet night in!  If you do decide to use public transport, ring the TransPerth info line before you depart to check for any route changes.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

19 December 2012 – 6 January 2013, Perth WA

We generally try to book into a caravan park for at least some of the school holidays, primarily so the girls have plenty of other kids to play with. However when I rang the parks in Perth, those still with vacancies were asking $50-60 per day, so we ended up back at the no-frills Advent Campground, which is a caravan park managed by the Seventh Day Adventists and a far more reasonable $42.  As it’s no frills, there was no pool, and as it turned out, very few caravans with kids! 
The park also has a number of cabins and fortunately, a 10 year old girl, Shania, was spending the holidays with her dad there.  Shania was literally the only other child who came into the campground in the 3 weeks we were there.  She and Elizabeth and Kate became firm friends and spent plenty of time together.

With Shania at Advent Campground, Perth, Xmas 2012
Another reason for aiming for Perth during the holidays is that cities tend to have a lot going on for kids during school holidays.  Apart from Christmas Festivals including Carols by Candlelight, most museums also have holiday programs and a visit to any pool or playground will have plenty of other kids around. 
We attended a Nativity Play in the city which was fabulous.  It included real camels, donkeys, goats and chicken and did a pretty safe representation of the nativity story.  The singing and acting was top class and we all enjoyed it.  It was held in the Murray Street Mall and walking back to the bus we were able to see all the Christmas lights and decorations.

Carols by Candlelight however was disappointing.  It cost $25 entry, which we’ve never come across before.  It was a fundraiser for Apex but I couldn’t help think that many of the families Apex might help with their fundraising efforts wouldn’t be able to afford to attend.  For our $25 we also received those plastic candles and a very polished glossy song book and again, I couldn’t help think that money could have been saved on a less glossy production.  Still, a huge crowd gathered at the Supreme Court Gardens but somehow it didn’t have the usual Christmassy atmosphere for some reason.
Kate and I with our $25 plastic candles!
Kate turned 9 on the 22nd December and we made an elaborate flower basket cake and spent the afternoon at Bayswater Waves Aquatic Centre which included a wave pool and large slide and LOTS of other kids.

Perth was having a head wave when I made this flower basket cake and the icing wasn't able
to hold the weight of the lollies.  It didn't even occur to me to turn on the air-conditioner in the van! 
We had arranged to have a Christmas Day picnic lunch at King’s Part with John and Julie, friends we first met at Ningaloo NP near Exmouth. King’s Park proved a great location as it was a hot day but we managed to have a breeze, although it was too hot to play much cricket.  At one point an Indian man and about 6 Indian women came up to us and took photos of our picnic table and then photos with us.  I asked the man if this was different to how they celebrated Christmas and he replied that they don’t celebrate Christmas in his religion!!  Oh.  After John and Julie left we walked across Federation Walk, a tree top walkway in the park.  King’s Park is somewhere I think we’d spend a lot of time if we were Perth locals.  

Christmas Day 2012 with John and Julie at King's Park, Perth. 
We didn't go hungry!

During the Christmas period we also visited the Museum of Western Australia.  There was an exhibition of wedding dresses from the Royal Albert Museum in London which I dragged everyone into.  They all enjoyed it, even Larry!  Maybe it was the fact that it was 40C outside that made them appreciate the dresses?

Dinosaur in the entrance of the Western Australia Art Gallery -
promoting the wedding dress exhibition
200 hundred years of wedding dresses

Kate loved this Christmas tree made
from books at the state library
We also called into the State Library.  Now this was interesting.  It’s a big building and there wasn’t a book to be seen on the ground floor. There were just library computers and people on their own computers, a coffee shop, a bookshop and a check-out counter.  So, as you do in a library, I went looking for the books!  The second floor housed the kids’ area and a research/archive area.  Finally on the third floor I located books and periodicals, but no-where near as many as you would expect for the city’s main library.   Apparently e-borrowing has taken off in a big way.  Basically, you have to be a member of the library and, using special software, you can borrow an electronic book for up to 4 weeks like a regular book.  After that time, if you haven’t renewed the book, it disappears from your computer.  Simple as that. The books are not able to be copied.  I expect this is the way of the future for other libraries eventually.

In the same area is the Western Australia Art Gallery.  We were running out of time so only had a brief time to check it out but it looked good.  We found this interesting coffee cup sculpture in the art gallery coffee shop and another interesting, if not bizarre, green street sculpture nearby.
Marilyn Munroe made from upturned coffee cups

Not sure what this is meant to be, maybe just a funky green sculpture!
A fantastic floating ring of stones in the WA Art Gallery
 Perth has excellent public transport, including three free CAT buses which follow routes that connect to the city.  When we tired of walking, we would jump on a CAT to cool down and see the sights a bit further afield.  A great idea which must cut down on the amount of traffic in the CBD as many workers also use the free service to commute to work if they live in one of the many inner city suburbs. 
A popular water feature in the centre of the CBD
We also did a day trip into Fremantle which was full of old buildings, lots of people, pubs, coffee shops and busy markets. There are two very good museums in Fremantle and the gaol, but it was so hot I didn’t dare mention visiting any of them and we were all starting to get 'museumed out'.
Probably our favourite Perth activity was the Swan Bells, a bicentennial project located on the Swan River.  We attended during bell ringing practice so got to see the bells in action.  Larry and I had seen bell ringers when we lived in London but Elizabeth and Kate had no idea how the bells were operated.  The tower includes bells from Saint Martins in the Field church in London which were about to be melted down and recast.  A Perth bellringer, living in London at the time, heard about it and instead began a campaign to have the bells gifted to Perth as a bicentennial gift.  In return, Western Australia provided the metal needed for new bells at Saint Martins.   The bells sounded great.  We were told that the bell tower itself was very controversial during construction, but it seems to be accepted now as something quite unique and iconic to Perth.

Swan bell tower

The bells during ringing (see the upturned bells)

On the whole, we really liked Perth.  It is very spread out but the public transport is cheap and efficient.  We also couldn’t get over how clean the city was.  Either the city has a very effective maintenance and cleaning department, or Perth residents are more litter-conscious than their other capital city counterparts. The coast line is gorgeous and there are lots of distinct suburbs each with their own feel and Perth has a pretty active cultural scene.  House prices would be a downside but on the whole, we could definitely live here if need be!
Travellers Tip: Caravan parks are quite expensive for families (quotes ranged from $58-68 during peak period). Advent Campground Maida Vale was $42 for 4.  Very basic, no frills, but easy access to bus or short drive to Midlands Train Station.  Pick up a copy of the Let’s Go Kids booklet for discount vouchers to various attractions.  Fabulous Family Rider ticket cost $11.00 for unlimited travel on bus, train and ferry. Likewise, the free CAT buses within the city area will get you everywhere and are good for a free tour of the inner suburbs.  Oddly however, you cannot get a public ferry to Fremantle from Perth.  Bayswater Waves Aquatic Centre is excellent value, less than $11 for all of us.  Wave pool operates for 10 minutes every hour and there is a large twisting waterslide.  AQWA is good, but expensive at $75 family.  If you’ve been to the Townsville, Mooloolaba, Sydney or Melbourne aquariums, give it a miss.  Having said that, it was much better value than the underwater observatory at Busselton. King’s park is really too large to cycle in and there are not many bicycle paths.  There are two large playgrounds depending upon the age of your kids.  Great place to visit if it is hot.  Swan Bells ($35 family) excellent, but time your visit for when the bells are actually ringing (details on their website).




Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Great Tree Climb

Speaking of forests and tall trees, and twitching thighs, Kate and I climbed to the top of the Bicentennial Tree – 68 metres up (almost 200 feet if you pre-date metric). There used to be 8 similar trees, all used as fire lookouts, staffed by ‘Towermen’ employed by the Forestry Department and staffed in 24 hours shifts during the fire season. Plane spotting replaced the need for the trees in the 1970’s so now three of them are open to the public to climb.

This is the goal!
To climb, you basically step up onto huge thin pegs which spiral around the tree. Each step is the equivalent in height of two-three normal steps, so each step up is a stretch. There is nothing to prevent you falling to certain death, or at best, being impaled on a nail further down the tree!

Kate was keen to go up and I don’t mind heights so we agreed to go to the middle platform, but once there, and we’d caught our breath, I thought ‘what the heck, we’re halfway there, let’s keep going’. Kate was completely fearless and would have scampered to the top if I’d let her.

Kate looking very pleased to have reached half-way.  Notice the sign
below telling us that was the easy bit!
Third of the way up - that's Elizabeth in the right hand corner of
the ground level platform.
Half way point

Almost at the top, just before the caged section. My foot on the
right - totally wrong footwear for the task.

Once at the top there were three more platforms, connected by ordinary metal, almost vertical ladders, and the platforms had mesh surrounding them, so you couldn’t fall from here.The view was amazing; we could see for kilometres and were completely above the tree line so it’s clear to see they would have been effective as fire lookouts.

Still going up.....

Kate again looking very pleased with herself at the top of the tree and
above the canopy. I was still gasping for air at this point.
Coming down was even harder than going up and that’s when one of my thigh muscles started twitching and I thought I was getting a cramp or that something else was going on. Still, get down we did. I almost kissed the ground. While I was never scared (and Kate certainly wasn't), I was certainly conscious of the consequence of a fall. It could only end badly. Larry couldn't watch us and had to walk away until we returned to the ground.

 It was only when we climbed down the tree that I noticed the 'Tree Climbing Risk' sign,
which included not climbing on wet or windy days, wearing appropriate
footwear and no children. All of which we had inadvertently ignored!

We later had a picnic lunch at another climbing tree, the Gloucester Tree, slightly shorter at 58 metres. I was in no mood to climb another one and Kate didn’t mention it. Just manoeuvring onto the picnic table seat was painful as by now my legs were more like jelly. We were content to sit and watch others, knowing we had successfully climbed the tallest climbing tree in Australia!

Mission accomplished. It was easy to smile when it was all over!!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

11-15 December 2012 - Great Southern Forests & Tree Top Walkway (Pemberton, Northcliffe, Shannon, Walpole)

This area is full of national parks (NP), which is no surprise as it seems that most of WA is either a national park or a mine, but these national parks were completely different from those in the Pilbara or Kimberley.  The national parks were were full of tall, old growth forests.  We had no idea these forests existed in WA or in Australia outside of Tasmania for that matter. 
In Tassie, forests and tall trees, old growth forests, timber felling and chip barking are constantly in the media, whereas here in WA there is no mention of them at all apart from bush fire alerts.  There is still environmental activity, however much of the forests are now protected as a result of environmental action in earlier decades.  Plantation timber, grown specifically for milling, is now harvested and the number of sawmills has dramatically reduced from earlier years.  As a result, the forests that remain are available for us all to enjoy and what a joy they are!  The Karri forests are gorgeous, reaching to the sky and when you slow the car you can hear loads of bird chatter.

At the Sawbrick outdoor art gallery - this area was once the scene of
fierce anti-logging protests in the 1970's
This is actually our reflection.

Kate under another piece of art, the 300m trail had an
unusual piece of nature-inspired art every 30m or so.
There weren’t any free camps in the area, so we headed to a shire campground on the coast at Windy Harbour in D’Entrecasteaux (I have no idea how you pronounce this!) NP. 

To reach the campground, you drive through a quaint settlement of small holiday homes, all similar in shape and size.  Like monopoly houses. The settlement began  as holiday homes in the 1950’s and all the work in the settlement, such as water treatment, rubbish collection and road maintenance is carried out by the leaseholders of the huts.  The land belongs to the shire.  The huts are far superior to the fishing shacks we saw at Quobba but when I checked out some for sale on I couldn’t believe to see they were in the $300,000+ mark!

The 12km drive around the coastline threw up some gorgeous, unused beaches and dramatic cliff faces.  Windy Harbour lived up to its name while we were there as the weather was overcast and drizzly so we had the camping ground, scenic drive, walking tracks and views to ourselves.

We thought this looked like a map of Africa (sort of!)

About 30 km from Windy Harbour is Northcliffe (pop 900).  Of course, there was a pioneer museum that I couldn’t go past.  The rest of the gang came along reluctantly.  Well, you never know what gems you are going to find when you travel and this turned out to be a town with a fascinating story. 

Essentially, in the 1920’s a politician in WA had a mate who was a Lord in England.   The WA politician needed labour to clear the forests and commence a diary industry to supply WA rather than import products from the eastern States.  In the UK, just after WWI, many returned soldiers were unemployed.  So the Lord, who owned a number of newspapers in the UK, advertised for immigrants to go to Australia to establish a dairy industry in return for a piece of cleared land and a house for free.   

The scheme was known as the Group Settlement Scheme.  6000 families arrived in WA and headed to the southern forests area, including Northcliffe, to find dense forests, no cleared land and no house! 

The immigrants were also largely from British cities and had few farming skills or rural knowledge.  Having spent their savings getting to Australia, many tried to make a go of it but ultimately deserted their farms, often far poorer than when they left England. 

Others persevered and with the use of cattle, saws and dynamite, managed to destroy almost one third of the native forests. The settlements were groups of approx 20 families and were known as Group 1, Group 2, etc and there were almost 200 groups at the height of the scheme.

Girls in a typical one teacher settlement school, now part
of the museum
Once again, I am amazed at how I know nothing about this important and interesting part of our history!  Even displays about post war immigration that we’ve seen in major museums fail to mention the scheme.  I can’t wait to see what the national curriculum history syllabus looks like, but I’ll bet money it won’t mention the Group Settlement Scheme! 

Pemberton, a small town about 30 km from Northcliffe is also a timber town with a functioning sawmill and has a number of streets full of old, identical timber worker cottages which I suspect will become  heritage listed in the future and eventually some sort of tourist attraction.  For the moment, they are still family homes for the mill workers.  The Pemberton sawmill processes  Karri timber, while neighbouring towns mill Jarrah. 

There are quite a few of the original sawpits still in the area,
what hard yakka that would have been. 
In the early days, the mill primarily felled and milled over half a million railway sleepers, many of which ended up in the London underground and other railway lines in the UK.  In addition to the timber industry, the area also has dairy farms and a few vineyards.  It’s also the biggest producer of avocados in Australia.   Who knew?  Tourism has become a major industry with the forests being the main drawcard.

Note the saw in the centre of this log.
We camped overnight in nearby Shannon National Park.  The camping area is in the actual town site of a timber town called Shannon.  It commenced in the 1950’s and was abandoned in the 1970’s.  Nothing remains of the town except for a number of plaques showing black and white photos of the buildings that used to be on the same site where a caravan might be today. 

I find the notion of towns that are created for a specific purpose and then dismantled when no longer required fascinating.  People live their lives, go to work, children are born and people die.  A whole community just generally gets on with the business of living and yet there is no longer any evidence of that life.  It must be weird to work or grow up in such a community and not be able to return to any familiar landmarks. 

We’ve seen the same in Strathgordon in Tassie (dam construction town), my parents lived in Island Bend (a Snowy River construction town) and I even lived for three years as a kid at Collinsville in the 1970’s in an area set up as a huge caravan park for the power house construction families - complete with amenities blocks, playground, gardens and roads.  I can close my eyes and see it all so clearly; where our van was located, the clotheslines, the hills we rode our bikes down and yet now it’s just scrub.  Maybe that explains my fascination with such places. 
While in the area we walked the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walkway, basically a 400m suspended steel walking platform approx 40m in the tree canopy.  The walkway was designed to sway slightly to replicate the movement of the trees, but it meant people like Larry and Elizabeth, who aren't keen on heights,  scurried across, while people like Kate and I dawdled across and loved the movement. 

The story of the walk construction is fascinating in that they used ute cab trucks to bring in the pre-fabricated pieces of the walkway, then used hydraulic jacks to lift it into position - no semi-trailers or cranes.  The total footprint of the walkway is something like 4sq metres.  The visitors centre and carpark is obviously much larger.


The walkway floor was designed for you to see the forest
floor but freaked alot of people out instead.

A rare family shot.

We also saw massive 400+ year old Tingle trees, some of which looked every bit of 400+ years!

The knots on the tree are the equivalent of age spots and wrinkles
in humans.  Not too bad for 400 years though I guess!

The base of a Tingle tree which had fallen over.  They have very
limted root structures so it's amazing they can stay upright for so long.

It's hard to capturre the size of this tree in a photo.
We also saw a quokka in the wild near the Tree top Walkway, which was very exciting and saved us about $500 visiting Rottnest Island to see them, so I was secretly pleased he decided to show up!

The other thing worth mentioning in this blog entry (apart from the fact that it took my legs about 4 days to recover from the tree climb - see separate blog entry) is that it is freezing!  We’ve had jackets and scarves on most of the time we’ve been in the area.  It’s the middle of December, in Western Australia.  What happened to summer?????

Middle of summer in Western Australia.  Who said the
weather wasn't stuffed?
Travellers Tips:  Windy Harbour camping area is $33 for a family, no power, no water.  Shannon Campsite is operated by DEC $22 per night with flushing toilets and hot showers!  There are a number of other DEC campsites suitable for tents or camper trailers only. Tree top Walkway was $25 for the family.  No dump points in Pemberton, Northcliffe or Walpole.  The one and only is located in the shire centre at Manjimup.  The tourist offices would love any travellers to complain to the shire CEO!  The Pioneer Museum at Northcliffe is open 10-3 and is a donation entry, and is generally staffed by an elderly ‘groupie’ who is happy to chat about the group settlement scheme.   Pemberton has a well-stocked IGA, which provide fuel vouchers for the local BP.  Diesel was $1.55 litre without voucher.