Gertrude Goes West, Part 2

Gertrude's Diary

I awoke in the white linen acres of our king-sized bed to find that the rain and destructive winds of the night before had blown away and Perth sparkled in the morning sun. Rousing Mr PW with references to the exciting day awaiting us in Fremantle, we dressed and took the elevator down to breakfast. The Sheraton Breakfast Buffet is a small-room sized counter of every kind of breakfast food imaginable; a chef works behind a griddle in the centre of the breakfast counter, cooking waffles or pancakes or eggs just how you like them. I thought he seemed a big haughty, so never bothered him with my food heating preferences.

After about an hour, and swollen with more carbs and proteins than a small pie-stand, we set off at a brisk walk (well, a relaxed amble, anyway) and arrived at Wellington Street Station just in time to get our train, giving us that self-satisfied, “I”m-glad-I-don”t-have-to-sit-on-a-railway-station-platform-for-20-minutes”

My editor has complained that my column this week isn”t funny enough. But to be funny I need something to make fun of, and I can”t say anything bad about that fine place in the west or the many stand-up people who live there. Except maybe for the guy driving the wrong way down a divided road who nearly ran us over. And perhaps I could make passing reference to the plentiful “guns and ammo” and specialist weapon stores, which gave Perth a kind of frontier town feeling, and might unnerve the more sensitive visitor. Also, Northbridge on a Saturday night seemed like a cross between the Gold Coast during schoolies week and The Rocks on New Years Eve. Ah, alcohol and youth: A winning combination.

But Perth”s suburbs are pleasant, even pretty, and I fantasised about living there as we travelled south and west from the city. Being too far from friends and family was it”s only drawback, I decided. As the train drew near the coast we saw surfers in the waves off Cottesloe Beach, and the elderly man in front of us exclaimed, and asked in a loud and heavily accented voice what they were. The man in front of him answered, “surfies”, and this made our elderly friend laugh and shake his head in amazement, and caused us all to smile happily at the eccentricities of surfers.

Our train crossed the Swan River and entered Fremantle through the verdant grasslands (dear ed., the bit about verdant grasslands is a joke, credited to Peter Sellers) of the large container terminal and motor vehicle distribution plant, the sun glinting fiercely off thousands of new model sedans. The train station at Fremantle looks old and solid like a train station should; we wandered out of its cool depths, looked around and started walking.

It just so happened that it was the 60th anniversary of VP day. An official riding a postie”s bike was handing out flags, and we were encouraged to stand by the side of the handsome streets of Fremantle and wave them at the shortly to arrive procession. As we reached the top of the street three or four jeeps and a canvas-covered troop carrier rumbled past, carrying some well preserved veterans and a few sensible looking women under a Nurses Auxiliary banner, all wearing chests full of medals and waving to the crowd. Add a marching band, some bagpipers, a few cadet troops and an assortment of locally stationed military, and that was about it for a delightfully understated memorial procession. All that chest-thumping nationalism in Canberra makes my skin crawl.

Fremantle reminded me of some nice bits of Melbourne, with lots of fashionable shops and cafes. Everything looked well cared for and there was a clean, salty bite to the air. We wandered up the hill and found the place I most wanted to visit; Old Fremantle Prison. Gaols have always fascinated me. Some of the places I visited as a child ” Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Old Sydney Town ” were rich in convict history, (or in the case of Old Sydney Town, rich in pathetic dioramas, misshapen papier m”ch” figures and fake floggings.)

Our guide through the prison was informative without being boring, and even managed to get a few laughs. Not bad considering that the place was steeped in one hundred and thirty-six years of human misery. The prison only closed in 1991, and some of the more notorious inmates who served there are still remembered. (AC/DC fans; we saw Bon Scott”s cell). Many will scoff at the idea that a room can become charged by the events it has housed, but I thought the gallows room was the creepiest place I”ve ever set foot in.

Even our pragmatic guide gave us only a brief and uncharacteristically subdued spiel, before saying, “anyway, I don”t like hanging around too long in here.” Groan. “I thought you said they didn”t punish people here anymore”, I replied, and to the laughter of our guide we moved past the warden”s office ” with a brief stop to examine an ex-inmates matchstick models ” and out through the imposing gates of the prison.

We strolled back down the hill, and took in what Fremantle on a Sunday afternoon has to offer; a tasty snack and some shopping at the markets; a fire-twirling, clowning busker; and a cool, spacious pub for a pint of Redback. Pleasantly buzzing from our beer, we stepped out into the growing crowds and found our way through streets lined with splendid, well-kept old buildings, to the Shipwreck Museum.

There we had a good look around the Batavia Gallery ” a must for anyone with an interest in grisly mutiny, the depravities of human nature, and unlikely things used as ballast ” and then made our way around Arthur”s Head and back to the train station.

Another finely timed arrival for the train to Perth, the pleasing sight of dolphins in the Swan River, and a talkative local completed our Fremantle experience. We finished the day with a look around the Art Gallery of Western Australia ” which had a very fine collection of Australian artists ” dinner in Northbridge, and an early return to the Sheraton to pack for Kununurra and Purnululu National Park. Which clearly deserve their very own entry.

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