The Travel Blog That Wasn’t – Australia part 4 (early February 2011)

After Australia Day, I headed to Perth at the very end of January.  One of my goals was to visit all the capital cities, which I eventually did do.  The one thing I wish I had done in Western Australia, though, was head out to the Kimberley which is apparently just an amazing place to visit.  Of course, Western Australia is the country’s largest state, so Perth is nowhere near the Kimberley.  Perth is also nowhere near anything else — some accounts have it as the world’s most isolated city; that is, of all the cities in the world, it’s the one city that’s furthest from the next nearest city.

That didn’t stop Perth from being a great destination though.  Perth has a beautiful, but very small, CBD.  Mining in the state has ensured there’s been enough economic activity to keep up some development over the years.  I didn’t do anything that was particularly noteworthy the first day I was there, other than wandering around exploring the city.  I do recall at some point running into Damien, the Twitter friend I met on Australia Day, in the area by the museum / art gallery.  I also recall it being extremely hot!  I did everything I could to stay indoors much of the day, but it wasn’t really an option except when I was in the museums!  The other option, which I availed myself of a couple times, was the free city CAT buses that mostly drove around the CBD – and were air conditioned!

The next day I hopped on a suburban train to Fremantle.  Fremantle is an older suburb with some beautiful buildings and a couple of small beaches.  But the real ‘attraction’ there is Fremantle Prison.  It’s one of the few remaining prisons from the days of convict Australia that’s still standing (many of them, as they were closed, were destroyed by the prisoners who were being freed).  Interestingly, one of the reasons this prison has survived is that it remained open until the 1990s.  It was ultimately closed because they were unable to provide basic human rights to prisoners in the facility, which was originally built by convicts sent to Australia in the 1800s.  About six months after it closed, it was reopened as a tourist attraction.  Very little was changed inside, other than a few efforts to show some historical uses.

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The fact that the prison was essentially in the same form as it was as recently as 20 years ago is what really made it interesting — it gave as much insight into modern prisons as it did into historic ones.  I suppose there was nothing particularly surprising about it (though it was the site of many deaths – capital punishment was legal in Australia for quite some time during its history, which explains the modification of this bible passage), but it was still a terrible, terrible, place.  I’m kind of glad the prison is only accessible by guided tour, or I might have broken down into tears at numerous points along the way.  Though maybe it was worse, as the guide did his best to explain what life was like in the prison system over the years.

The day I went to Fremantle, the area was originally forecast to be hit by a cyclone. Like, a full-on cyclone.  It only formed after I flew to Perth, so it was really unavoidable, but it still threatened the visit.  Fortunately, it had been downgraded to just a severe storm by the time it got anywhere near land, but it was still a very severe storm.  I got out of Fremantle just as it was starting to hit and by the time I got back to the hotel from the train I was already soaked.  I had one day left in town, though, and I planned to meet up with Damien again for it. Before I was scheduled to meet him, I had some spare time so I wandered along the banks of the Swan River, which flows through town.  It was some good insight into why we should not build on flood plains — something Brisbane’s planners clearly didn’t consider, but Perth’s clearly did (this, along with most of the Swan River’s riverbank, is a park).

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(The left of the photo is the actual river).  Anyway, I eventually met up with Damien and we went to Swan Bells, which is really a highlight in Perth.  They have some of the historic bells from St. Martins-in-the-Fields in London, amongst others, to form what is essentially a bell museum.  It was fascinating seeing how the bells work and getting to actually ring them myself!

I rounded off the day with a trip over to South Perth on the ferry (just for the sake of riding the ferry), and a short wander through Kings Park.  After a month of travelling, and the extreme weather (very hot, followed by the remains of a cyclone, followed by more very hot), I was wearing thin and was really just happy to sit an enjoy a cold beverage in a cafe somewhere.

I had almost a week back in Sydney after my Perth trip – in which I got some well-needed rest, and got caught up on work that had been lagging for a while.  I also finally got a chance to go out in Oxford Street (Sydney’s gay strip) again, and was reminded of one of Australia’s lesser-known but marvelous talents: drag performances.  They’re seriously astounding.  This particular one (and, when seeing the photos, I remember it well) did an entire routine to the audio from Britney Spears & *NSYNC’s performance at the 1999 MTV VMAs.  With props.  And sets — I don’t know where they came from but they had high school lockers on stage to correspond to the music.  I’ll digress for a moment. Whereas most drag performances I’ve seen (in Canada) are generally a drag queen, occasionally, but rarely, more than one, lipsynching to some sort of song or another in a bar or club.  Sometimes they have interesting costumes, sometimes there are props, sometimes they’ve done a remix of some sort… but rarely all of those things.  Sydney drag generally incorporates all of those things (and still takes place in a bar or club) to one degree or another, plus seamless music (sometimes even original mashups), multiple performers that are usually fully choreographed, production quality you’d only expect to see in a real theatre, and in some cases (such as the Friday/Saturday night shows at the Imperial, made famous by the film of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) it’s a full show rather than a couple of isolated performances.  A highlight for me was this, which took place (at The Midnight Shift, which became a favourite haunt for me) the weekend before I left Sydney.  I’ll let the photo speak for itself.

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Anyways, back to February.   The next day was the Chinese New Year parade, which was highly involved and really fun to watch!  So many enthusiastic people, and as always, well produced.  There seems to be a glut of highly talented production people in Sydney – anything that has even the slightest hint of falling under the category of “performing arts” is just done with such amazing and creative production quality.

My next trip, that same week, was to Tasmania – the last state I had to visit.  I tweeted upon arrival that I’d now officially been to all of Australia’s states and territories — I was promptly informed that there were a lot more territories than the NT and the ACT.  I eventually made it to all the mainland territories, at least.

First stop: Launceston.  Just for one night, yet I somehow managed to take 163 photos there anyway (go figure).  Launceston looked good in sepia.  It was that kind of town.  Old buildings in an old town that peaked a number of years ago, in the middle of a beautiful landscape setting.  There weren’t really many particular highlights to Launceston – other than my hotel.  On most of my trips I generally picked the most affordable place I could find that looked reasonable (usually using Hotels.com – I’ve had enough stays with them that I just got two nights in Seattle for free!).  This sometimes meant the dodgiest of the dodgy, and sometimes meant incredible luck.  In this instance, I stayed at the Batman Fawkner Inn, which is half backpackers’ hostel, and half hotel.  The room itself was sort of average – I was in a newer extension of the building – but the main building was the original inn in which John Batman & John Pascoe Fawkner agreed to create a settlement over the Bass Strait at what is now Melbourne.  It’s a beautiful colonial building with friendly staff, and a dumb waiter for luggage!

Anyways, the main reason I was in Launceston is that it’s the starting point of tours through the island towards Hobart.  I took the “Wild West” tour, along the West coast of Tasmania down to Hobart.  We started in Launceston’s Cataract Gorge, and wound our way down through numerous small towns and bits of outback.  The first town stop was Sheffield, which has attempted to save its economy by inviting tourists to view its many murals.  It made for a beautiful town!

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From there we wound our way into Cradle Mountain National Park (a name that will be permanently embedded in my memory thanks to the German tourist who I had to share a room with who wanted to see Cradle Mountain and only Cradle Mountain and was really upset that it was raining which obscured the view (this was somehow someone’s fault, I don’t remember the details, but I recall him calling Australians “lazy” numerous times)).  Anyways, we spent the later part of the day and early part of the next day in the Cradle Mountain area, which despite the rain was quite pretty.  The park is crawling with Tasmanian pademelons, which are sort of like a tiny and super-cute version of kangaroos.

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I also went searching for wombats in an area that was supposedly well known for them — I apparently got there (and left) slightly too early, and missed them despite everyone else on the tour finding some.  I finally got to see one live (though not in the wild) at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo months later.

On the drive the next day we stopped in Zeehan, which has been described by some as Australia’s ugliest town (I don’t think I agree)… it’s an old mining town that’s now practically abandoned, and has buildings that look drastically overbuilt for their current use.  It reminded me of Ember Swift’s song Bliss (which I can’t seem to find a good link for anywhere).  It reminded me of the idea of a “false economy,” that is, an economy based entirely on non-renewable resources that, once depleted, make the whole bottom fall out. It was almost post-apocalyptic – a city without people.  We didn’t spend much time there but it was an interesting highlight.  The kind of thing that really gets you thinking.

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We wound our way down to Strahan, where we spent the second night (the first night was in Cradle Mountain National Park).  Strahan was yet another beautiful old mining town, which fortunately had survived thanks to tourism — being on the water helps with that!  The last day we wound our way further along until we got into Hobart – stopping in mining town Queenstown as well as a number of national park stops along the way – with plenty of views of the forestry industry and hydro dams – which both provide a lot of jobs and, equally, are devastating the state’s ‘green’ environmental image.  The whole island is just beautiful, it was nice to just explore — though now that I’ve spent time driving around New Zealand, in retrospect I would also have done this tour driving myself.

I got to Hobart and had a day to explore, which was not enough.  I had planned to spend most of the afternoon at MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art – an eccentric millionaire’s amazing public museum – a must-see if you go to Hobart), which is a ferry ride away from the CBD, so I really only had the morning and evening to spend in the city.  Never wanting to miss out on anything, I tried to cram everything into this first day, rather than spread it out to the additional day I had at the end of my stay in Tassie.  I made the best of it and explored the CBD, the harbourfront, and so on all in the day, in addition to MONA.

The next day I was right back on another tour, this time to Port Arthur with a stop at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park – the first and only chance I had to see Tasmanian Devils in Tasmania, and even those were in captivity.  Sadly, the population is dying out due to a communicable form of cancer that’s spreading amongst them.  They’re seriously the cutest little things ever though.  I’m glad I got to see them while they’re around – unlike the Tasmanian Tiger which was hunted out of extinction last century.

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From there we headed to the ‘actual’ destination, Port Arthur.  Port Arthur is another old colonial prison, which is now mostly in ruins (thanks, in part, to being ransacked by prisoners and former prisoners).  What remains is quite beautiful, and the stories of the property were quite interesting.  I got back to Hobart in time to view fireworks from my hotel balcony!  There was a big boat show in town all week that, I believe, was the reason for them.

At the end of a long week of travelling, I spent the next day just wandering Hobart, making a brief stop in the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery and exploring the waterfront a little more.

It’s getting late, and this seems a good place to pause.  I’m only in the middle of February, but there isn’t going to be much excitement to blog about in March so I’ll stop here for now.
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One response to this post.

  1. […] The Travel Blog That Wasn’t – Australia part 4 (early February 2011) […]

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