Gertrude Goes West, Part 1

Gertrude's Diary

The big trip is over. The impossibly good, once in a lifetime,dream holiday in Western Australia, proudly brought to you by WA Tourism and the adorable man who decided to take me along with him when his name was drawn out of the email barrel. I”ve had the added amusement of hearing the words, “I can still take someone else with me to Western Australia, you know”, whenever I voiced dissent or disapproval during the months it has taken to organise. Not that I have let that stop me airing my opinions. It”s kind of my vocation.

So I cannot speak highly enough of WA Tourism and their generosity. I haven”t stayed in a 5 star hotel since my marketing days, and I don”t think I”ve ever had a holiday that included such a densely packed itinerary. I”m talking a ready-made flurry of pre-planned activity the likes of which you”ve never seen, the first extra being 2 day 4WD hire with equipped with a gourmet picnic hamper, and so with these goodies in our possession, we set off north of Perth towards New Norcia.

By fortuitous coincidence, my prize-winning friend”s parents were also in town for a few days, and during dinner on our first evening their charming and hospitable friend had recommended we drive to New Norcia ” her mention of St Gertrude”s Girl”s School was the clincher. We”d also seen the place mentioned in the Virgin Airlines in-flight magazine “Voyeur”. (That Richard Branson bloke seems like a borderline psychopath and sexual compulsive to me, but maybe I”m just prejudiced by his relentless talent for self-promotion and success. I”d like to point out that “voyeur” only has one definition, ie. sexual gratification from looking at another”s sexual actions or organs. The OED doesn”t say, “boring magazine found on crappy airline.”)

In fairness, what Virgin lacks in free in-flight service (bring lots of change for the coin operated life-jackets) they make up for with friendly and attractive cabin staff. Our chief steward had a few amusing comments to relieve the safety information boredom: “In the unlikely event of cabin depressurization, an oxygen mask will fall from the ceiling. When you have finished screaming, attach the mask like this””??.

So on our first full day in Perth, after the obligatory tension when Mr Prize Winner (hereafter Mr PW) took a wrong turn and then headed for miles in the opposite direction while I bit my cheeks and refrained from asking what he was doing, we made our way through well watered river valleys and agricultural land to the little town (pop 80) of New Norcia. Established by Benedictine Monks in 1846, this place boasts a preposterous assortment of large religious buildings, one enormous hotel, a little police station, and some sheep paddocks. It was a peaceful place, quirky and gentle.

Gertrude’s College, New Norcia

New Norcia is home to an excellent museum and gallery, and because it was my first day I hadn”t yet accumulated a critical mass of things observed. The humility and humanity of the Benedictines was apparent from the museum displays, there were some noteworthy artists included in the gallery, and the unlikely surroundings and isolation seemed to accentuate the collection”s value.

After our delicious lunch and a poke around, we headed off to the town of Northam, via Toodyay (I was saddened to hear it pronounced “2J”, which hardly gives justice to it”s eccentric spelling), for the next of our extras; bed and breakfast in a quaint place next to the Avon River in Northam, and a dawn hot-air balloon ride. It was my first time in a hot-air balloon, and I enjoyed it very much.

Much more enchanting than the unnatural feeling of jet-propelled flight, and lent a curious intimacy by the confined space, the flight had a touch of magic about it. Our aeronaut was friendly and informative, in a “this is serious business” kind of way. He was also just a bit of a show off, landing the balloon on top of the car trailer that we met in a paddock an hour after our ascent. Our ride over the picturesque Avon Valley was uneventful, with a few sheep bleating in alarm and running in pointless circles the main sign of life. I also learned the name for rain that falls but never reaches the ground (it”s verglas).

One of our companions at the champagne breakfast that followed our flight suggested that we visit York before returning the car in Perth, and being the oldest inland town in Western Australia, York was worth a look. It was an attractive town, with it”s 19th Century streetscape largely unspoiled. I also liked the sign warning not to swim in the creek because of the risk of amoebic meningitis. Encountering strange diseases in one’s travels is so exotic.

After returning the car in Perth and enjoying the comforts of The Sheraton for a few minutes, we set off to explore the city. Our walk towards the shopping district took us past a cool looking music store, and when Mr PW paused and looked yearningly inside I offered to leave him to it while I availed myself of a pub named Bobby Dazzler”s. It turned out to be full of people wearing either West Coast Eagles or Fremantle colours; just can”t get away from that footy. They also had the cricket on, with a few people yelling at the large screen television. Sigh.

The next day we had an 11.00am appointment in West Perth for our Day Spa Getaway. More pampering. I think because we were the “prize winners”, and not regular clientele, the staff I met at these posh establishments dropped their impervious professional exteriors for me a little. Or perhaps we were just a little more approachable than the wealthy. Certainly everyone we met was friendly and warm in a way I don”t usually associate with providers of high end service. Perhaps that”s something to do with the informality of the Western Australian style. In any case my therapist had lots of interesting things to say about the lifestyles of the rich and famous in at least two cities, leaving me feeling morally superior and not the least bit inclined to want wealth or fame.

The weather was wild that afternoon, so we poked around the shops a little and tried another pub, then returned to the opulence of The Sheraton for some R&R before dinner with friends living in Perth. We had an enjoyable dinner at Il Padrino Caffe, a classic place featuring fabulous food, an accordion player, and the Pizza King himself, Nunzio Nici. He seemed a friendly chap with nothing particularly regal about him except some very expensive cars, judging by the picture on his postcard.

We tried the crowd at the Subiaco Hotel for a few minutes, but you needed a bottle of baby oil and a tyre iron to move around in there, so we retired reasonably early. Our first totally unplanned day beckoned, and we had plans to explore Fremantle. Which should perhaps be the subject of the next Gertrude.

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