The notion of returning to Western Australia one month after my trip to the Kimberly seemed crazy on the face of it, but my wife had vacation time coming and she had been impressed by my enthusiasm for W.A., as it is called here.  She was keen to see the Margaret River area just south of Perth, the state capital.  It is renowned for its wineries, tall trees and a spectacular coastline.

When I began putting the trip together, we toyed with several side trips, narrowing it down in the end to Perth, Margaret River and the Ningaloo Reef up north.  We would fly to Perth, stay a couple of days, then catch a local airline up to Exmouth to snorkel in the Indian Ocean at a place called Coral Bay.  A mid afternoon flight back to Perth would give us just enough time to drive down to Margaret River before it got dark.  That was the idea, anyway.  Nothing ever goes as planned.

Looking out over the Swan River from the plateau of King’s Park in Perth, it is hard to imagine the Dutch and French discovering  this place and then sailing on.  But the French were interested in exploring the area for its scientific curiosities and the Dutch were looking for trade goods.  Neither had positive things to say about the area.  It would have created a mess if the French had settled here with the British colony already established in Sydney.  That is still causing trouble in Quebec after 350 years.

On 25 April 1829, Captain Fremantle arrived in the ship HMS Challenger to make preparations for the  Swan River Colony.  On 2 May 1829, he formally took possession of the entire west coast of New Holland on behalf of King George IV.   A few days later, a camp was set up in a bay just south of the head, and the town of Fremantle was established.  It has been occupied ever since.  Two more towns were soon created upriver, Perth and Guildford.

Australians insist on abbreviating any words longer than one syllable, so it is understandable that they have shortened Western Australia and the name of the port of Fremantle,  although how they came up with Freo is a mystery.   The Swan River colony grew very slowly until about 1850, when convicts were brought in to alleviate the labor shortage.  Many of the public buildings in Perth and Fremantle were constructed with convict labor.  The discovery of gold in the 1880’s finally got things rolling for the new settlements.  Mineral wealth continues to drive  the economy.

The highlights of our quick visit were quite a contrast– King’s Park in Perth (which rivals Central Park in New York in size and variety and outdoes it in beauty) and Fremantle Prison.  Within walking distance of the business district, the park is on a bluff overlooking the Swan River.  It has the botanic gardens, of course, an excellent restaurant, a lovely cafe and great gift shop, graceful trees of all kinds and the wildflowers for which Western Australia is known throughout the world.

Fremantle Prison existed in my imagination long before our visit.  I had been taken there on a sea of words when we were living in Washington DC. Donal O’Kelly’s one-man play “The Catalpa”  is based on the true story of the daring rescue of six Irish political prisoners in 1875.  It is a bit of “Moby Dick” followed by “The Great Escape” capped by “Gone With the Wind,” literally.  From New Bedford, Massachusetts to Fremantle, Australia, across the high seas on the whaling ship Catalpa.  It culminates with the first ever ticker-tape parade in New York City.

The romance of theater hardly prepares you for the claustrophobic cells and the scary reality of the hanging room.  The prison was cut from local limestone and built by convicts over an eight-year period in the 1850’s.  It remained in operation until 1991.  Our guide made a distinction between convicts and prisoners which is worth bearing in mind in Australia.  Roughly ten thousand convicts were transported to Western Australia, but transport ceased in 1868.  By the end of the 19th Century, Fremantle Prison was for the incarceration of prisoners.

Our guide, who must have been a former guard, seemed to take a perverse delight in letting us know exactly how miserable the conditions were.  For years, there was no shade in the exercise yards.   There was no heat in winter or fans in summer.   There were no toilets in the cell blocks.   There was one bucket in each cell.   Two men to a cell.  There were no liberal notions of rehabilitation in the air.  This was a place of punishment.

We had made our way from Perth down to Fremantle by ferry, but we were relieved to be able to walk out through the front gates and catch a train back to the City.  It was a quick and easy escape.  One day of “doing time” in Fremantle Prison was time enough for me.

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