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The morning of our return flight from Exmouth to Perth, I got a text message followed by a call on my mobile (cell phone).  The departure was going to be delayed by four hours.  We had planned to arrive at Perth airport at 3:30 in the afternoon, allowing us enough time to pick up our rental car and drive to Margaret River before dark.

When we drove past the airport on our way into Exmouth to gas up, I saw the plane on the tarmac.  There had been no explanation for the delay, but I would not be surprised if it had something to do with a certain offshore oil rig.  I phoned the owner of the B&B in Margaret River and the car rental company about the delay, but when we finally arrived in Perth, the Thrifty agent had disappeared.  It took a good half hour to round her up.  It was nearly dark when we started driving toward Margaret River, and we  finally pulled into Rosewood Guest House about 11 PM.

Our host had been diligent, however, and the keys were waiting.   A breakfast menu had been left out and we could even select what we wished to have in the morning.  This was my kind of place.  If you get a breakfast “down under,” it tends to be British– fried eggs and bacon or sausage, baked tomatoes or beans and toast, spaghetti with tomato sauce.  We had stayed in only one B&B that offered more than this, and several that offered less.  One had a shiny cappuccino machine sitting on the kitchen counter, but we were treated to instant coffee from a jar with powdered milk.

The siren call of Margaret River are the vineyards.  The wine business has exploded in recent years, bringing the total up to an impressive 125 wineries.   We were less than assiduous in our tourist duties, dropping in on exactly one, Voyager Estate.  The grounds were gorgeous, based on a South African approach to landscaping and architecture.   The weather and topography are not dissimilar, and Margaret River does very well with white wines and Cabernet blends, exporting much of the output world-wide.

The other main attractions are large limestone caves, fabulous surfing, fine breweries and high quality arts and crafts.  Academic demands required my wife to spend more time at the internet cafe than I would have liked, but we did squeeze in a bike ride to the beach, a visit to a gift shop with beautiful, hand-made furniture, a tour of the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, and a long walk among the towering trees near the town of Pemberton.

We managed to rendezvous for lunch and dinner with Graham Reeks and his lovely wife, Ella.  Graham is a fellow expat scribbler I met in Melbourne who is on a long driveabout.  His blog is called ofnofixedabode, and he has just written a wonderful post about the western woods. Check it out with the link I have to his site.

Thanks to our hosts at the B&B, we began each day with a fine breakfast and plenty of good coffee.  For me, all’s well that begins with a good breakfast.   Buttermilk waffles or blueberry blintzes are perfect, but something other than English fare is just fine by me.  Thanksgiving in Australia, reason to celebrate.


When we booked our flight to Exmouth, I assumed we would be boarding a small plane.  I was hoping the aircraft would be post WW II, and that the pilot wouldn’t have to start the engine by spinning the propeller.  My error was in assuming that tourists would make up the majority of the passengers.  It turned out the SkyWest flight was a shuttle service for off-shore oil workers. In the two hours it took our packed plane to reach its destination, I learned more about tools for oil rig work than I ever wished to know.  The airport for the town is located 37 kms south of town, which makes the drive south to Coral Bay a reasonable two hour run.

I was dismayed to discover that I would have return the car with something approaching a full tank of petrol.  This meant driving back past the airport and on into Exmouth before dropping off the rental car at the airport.   Between the tarmac and Coral Bay, there are thousands of termite mounds and some cattle with precious little shade.  The Cape Range separates the road from the ocean, hiding some rugged and forbidding-looking terrain.

The Ningaloo Reef extends about 260 kilometers (163 miles) from North West Cape (north of Exmouth) to Amherst Point, south of Coral Bay.  Unlike the Great Barrier Reef on the other side of Australia, this fringing reef  starts only 100 meters off shore.  There are over 500 species of fish, 250 species of corals and 600 species of molluscs.  It is a snorkeler’s paradise.

Coral Bay (population 160) hosts thousands of divers and snorkelers every year, particularly when the giant whale sharks are in the area– March through mid June.  Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean and the largest cold blooded animals on earth.  They are filter feeders, so swimmers can have a close encounter with ten-ton creatures without getting stepped on or eaten.  In the pictures I’ve seen, they are beautiful.

Thanks to a very early flight, we arrived at our hacienda in Coral Bay in plenty of time to kick back and wait for the room to be made ready.  Our hostess made it clear that we had arrived too early and shouldn’t expect miracles from her staff.  The sun was already hot and the flies were already out in full force.  At least there were comfortable chairs and good coffee available.

We didn’t realize until later that the Melbourne Cup, “the race that stops the nation,” had followed us across the continent.  The three minute race for three year-olds would require the entire population of Coral Bay to dress up in fashionable hats and begin their serious drinking before noon.  Everyone was coming to the Ningaloo Reef Resort to celebrate.  On top of the 5 AM wake-up call to catch our flight, we would have to put up with the post-race revelry until way past our bedtime.

But the next day was perfect, as it tends to be in Coral Bay.  We had signed on for a snorkel cruise with Ningaloo Experience, an outfit that has actually been eco-certified.  Peter Shaw, the owner/operator who pioneered the business in the area, limits his groups to 12 and tries to do a little fish education on the side.  The word eco is now used very loosely, but “Pedro” takes it seriously.  I was dismayed to see the word “Eco” plastered on a fleet of ATV vehicles, tempting lazy tourists to go out and find turtles hatching without having to walk.

The outer reef provides sanctuary for whale sharks, turtles, dolphins, dugongs and manta rays.  We were after the rays, those cloaked and elusive creatures of silent movies, sensuously propelling themselves along the sea floor.  We were soon treading water furiously in an attempt to keep up with their effortless pace. Later, there would be time for the little fish and the corals, for a more relaxing time in the giant aquarium we had crossed a country to see.

Our brief stay up north had been dictated by the availability of seats on SkyWest, by the schedule of oil workers.  On both evenings in Coral Bay, our walks took us only a few hundred yards from the resort to Fins Cafe and back.  The setting sun (rising Earth) offered us a stunning, ever changing kaleidoscope, appearing as liquid and colorful as the coral reef itself.  It was a little bit of paradise a long way from home.


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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