Beneath a Southern Sky

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September 16th 2007
Published: September 28th 2007
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Penguin IslandPenguin IslandPenguin Island

Mine, the only footprints on a pristine beach beneath southern skies. © L. Birch 2007
TransPerth trains had a very helpful habit of telling you where you were and where you were going. "The next station stop," the lightly accented voice would announce over the PA system, "Is Kuranda." It made city navigation so much easier. And, should you chance to fall asleep and miss your stop, the PA system would be on hand to inform you - most helpfully - that you had in fact missed your stop. On this particular day however, missing our stop was unlikely to be a problem since we were taking the train to the end of the line at Fremantle.

After a busy few days catching up with the family, we had decided to broaden our horizons, visit some old friends south of Perth and try to see a little bit of the south while we were down there as well. In the same spirit as TransPerth train announcements, my Aunt very helpfully informed us that it was at least 5 degrees centigrade cooler in the south. She had been keeping an eye on the weather reports, she told us gleefully, and there was bad weather coming in from Antarctica. I had always thought the weather to be
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The architecture of Fremantle harks back to the time of WA's earliest settlers. © L. Birch 2007
a British preoccupation but perhaps my Aunt had a hidden agenda (we suspect that she hadn't really wanted us to go, this latest bid to stop us following on from an offer to cook beer stew if we stayed). It was not that we disbelieved the weather reports but as the train left Mosman Park - an impossibly blue Indian Ocean suddenly coming into view - it was hard to imagine that such a sunshine-filled day was never meant to last.

Fremantle was the sort of place that should have been more popular as a destination, but ever since hosting the America's Cup in 1987, its tourism industry has seemed to stall. Which is a great shame for it boasts some fine old colonial-style architecture and was once considered for a World Heritage Listing. We caught up with our friend Peta at Fremantle station. Peta had been taking a short break on Rottnest Island thirteen years ago when - rather unfortunately for her - she had bumped into us. The three of us had hit it off instantly and remained friends ever since. Meeting again now, it was almost as if the intervening years had never happened and that
The Welcome WallThe Welcome WallThe Welcome Wall

The family's arrival in Australia is commemorated on the Welcome Wall in Fremantle (6th entry down)... a little bit of family history on a foreign shore. © L. Birch 2007
we had only seen each other the week before. But there was much to catch up on and we spent the day 'lost' in conversation - surprised to discover, when we finally looked up, that it was 4 o'clock in the afternoon. We stayed the night at Peta's place - a squat, single storey building in a quiet suburb of squat, single storey buildings. It had a wonderful colonial-style veranda that would be perfect for enjoying a beer on during a hot summer evening but as it was winter, we huddled around an electric fire in the kitchen and drank tea instead.

Next day, after seeing Peta off to work, we walked into Fremantle along roads and avenues filled with native trees and the chortling calls of wattlebirds. Like the Romans when they first visited Britain, we wanted to be able to say that "We came, we saw, we did a little shopping." But more than that, we wanted to get in touch with a bit of family history.

A walk along a deserted and windswept South Beach finally brought us to the edge of town where the docks began. Following directions and buffeted by the wind, we
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A rainbow lights up wooded hills in Australia's far south west. © L. Birch 2007
trudged out onto a wharf lined with woolsheds and finally found what we were looking for - the maritime museum. More specifically, we were hoping to find the Welcome Walls. Back in the days when Australia still welcomed British immigrants (sadly, long since gone), the government actually paid people to come and live on its far-flung shores. Thousands of commonwealth citizens took advantage of the offer and came looking for a new life in Australia under the Assisted Passage Scheme. Immigrants paid just £10 GBP each for their boat passage to Fremantle and became known as “Ten Pound Poms”. My Aunt Bette, Uncle Bernard and 2yr old cousin Kate were among them - stepping off a boat at Fremantle docks, ready to start a new life Down Under. Today, the Welcome Walls commemorate the arrival of those new settlers and the valuable contribution they made to the building of modern Australia.

We found their names on wall 155 under my Uncle’s surname - Bradley, and noted that they had arrived in 1962 on the “Orion”. The walls stand looking out over Fremantle docks and the mouth of the Swan River, a long way from “England’s green and pleasant land”:

Well, we could hardly come to Australia and not see any, could we? © L. Birch 2007
a small slice of family history on a foreign shore. We spent our final night at Peta’s enjoying red wine and Australian sausages - unheard of luxuries after the rice and noodle diets of Asia - and reluctantly took our leave next day with promises to meet up again before we finally left Australia.

Publicans and Penguins

A day or two later and 200 miles further south, we stepped off a train in Bunbury and promptly wished we hadn’t. Aunt Bette had been right and the postcards we had seen depicting Bunbury with cobalt blue skies and golden beaches - were obviously digitally enhanced fakes. It was raining and unbelievably cold. As we ran for the shelter of the bus depot, we were thankful we hadn’t tried to hitch after all. The train journey from Perth had taken 2½ hours and it had rained all the way. Looking out of the window, I recorded my impressions of the journey on the back of an old envelope. This is what I wrote:

Through a green and wet landscape. Flat fields backed by sparsely wooded hills, filled with sheep and cows. Were it not for the fact
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Spring sees the flowering of many unique species of plant, like this delicate fairy orchid (Caladenia spp). © L. Birch 2007
that the trees populating the nearby hills were Eucalypts - a species of tree as uniquely Australian as didgeridoos and kangaroos - it could just as easily be Somerset we were passing through.

Surely this wasn’t right, Australia wasn’t supposed to be like this was it? Well, yes actually, it was and the Australian Tourism Authority had done a good job of keeping it a secret. The fact is that there was nothing standing between Antarctica and Australia’s south western corner and sometimes… the weather could be a tad cold and unpredictable. We were not staying in Bunbury but it was the nearest stop to our final destination, another 60 miles inland, where we would be staying with two dear friends - Pete and Gill. Pete had retired to Australia 6 years previously. Before that, he had been the landlord of our local pub in Cornwall - “The Caradon Inn”. Back in those days, we had lived within staggering distance of the Caradon and had known Pete very well. Viv once worked behind the bar, and because we seemed to spend so much time at the old pub, with its low ceilings and granite walls, it sometimes felt as
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Carpet the ground in Eucalypt forest near Bridgetown in Australia's SW corner. © L. Birch 2007
if it were an extension of our own home.

We did not have long to wait at the bus depot before a familiar face appeared, pressed up against the rain streaked window. Apart from a beard, Pete hadn’t changed much but he looked fit and well. Greeting us excitedly, it was almost immediately obvious - from even this first meeting - that his new life quite agreed with him. After a quick look at the ‘sights’ of Bunbury (which didn’t take very long), we headed inland for Bridgetown. We had so much to catch up on that we talked non-stop - or at least, Pete did. His partner Gill, sometimes accused him - quite good naturedly - of talking too much. But he was just so excited by his life in Australia that he wanted to try and share it all with us, and that was fine. It was almost as much of a pleasure to see him so happy and enthusiastic about his life as it was to see “his” Australia.

Bridgetown had been ambitiously named for it was little more than the size of a Cornish village, a delightful place of red brick buildings that dated
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The old farmhouse at Bridgetown looked out over the valley and hills beyond. © V. Birch 2007
back to the days of Australia’s earliest pioneers. Pete and Gill had a farm plot up in the hills overlooking town where they had built themselves a beautiful wooden house. It was warm and cosy inside and a veranda provided sweeping views of the valley and hills beyond. Gill’s daughter Sue, her husband Mick and their two daughters, also shared the spacious plot and lived in the original wooden farm house within shouting distance of Pete and Gill's place. But there was still plenty of room. The great outdoors was their backyard and they shared it with pets, parrots, kookaburras and Australian magpies. Over the next few days we got out and explored, were offered jobs on a neighbouring farm and generally got to know everyone. We could quite see why the family had settled in Bridgetown - a small but friendly community surrounded by Big Tree country… it was tempting to stick around and ‘go bush’ ourselves.

The weather remained unsettled and two days of rain put paid to plans for a trip down to Albany in the Deep South. That didn’t stop us getting out into the surrounding countryside or of going in search of kangaroos. After
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When threatened, shinglebacks often put on an impressive display - opening their mouths, sticking out a blue tongue and hissing. © L. Birch 2007
all, it wouldn’t have seemed right to visit Australia and not see at least one kangaroo. But we need not have worried, the bush country around the farm was full of them and as dusk approached, they were out in force - hopping away when we disturbed them with that unique form of locomotion that had so surprised the first Europeans to see it. A local rehabilitation centre gave us a chance to get closer to these strange animals in a semi-wild setting. “Roo Gully” was a wildlife sanctuary primarily set up to rescue orphaned or injured kangaroos. Many were later re-released back into the wild, though some remained as permanent residents due to injuries or emotional traumas that had left them unable to re-assimilate. Large, 'wilderness' paddocks meant that you could wander around getting close but not so close that the roos couldn't escape if they felt uncomfortable with your presence.

And of course, we took every opportunity to get out into the bush and see how the spring flowers were progressing, delighting in each new discovery. There were bright blue Lesnaultia's, yellow Hibbertia and the first orchids appearing. Every day offered something new and if we were
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The lighthouse at Cape Leuwin stands on WA's most south-westerly point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. © L. Birch 2007
lucky, or unlucky depending on your point of view, there were good chances of coming upon a shingleback lizard taking the first rays of early spring. These big reptiles are aptly named, with scaly skins that look like pine cones. But when you tried to catch one... that's when it got really interesting. Shinglebacks were sluggish when still cold but they had big, powerful jaws and advertised the fact by opening wide, sticking out a blue tongue and hissing loudly when threatend. Of course, being part of the Steve Urwin generation, I just had to have a go. It's fine if you grab them behind the head. Eventually, once they realise they're not going to be eaten, they settle down but don't relax that grip - otherwise they'll spin round in your hand and latch on with a bite that feels like you're being pinched with a pair of pliers.

Our longest foray into the south west started well but nearly ended in disaster. we had gone out to Augusta, a town that had grown up on the back of the whaling industry. Whales are still big business for Augusta today but at least they don't shoot them anymore.

Experiencing hospital life in Augusta following a fall at Cape Leuwin. © L. Birch 2007
Nowadays, people come to this small southern town in spring in the hope of catching a glimpse of migrating humpback and right whales. Which is pretty much what we were doing when Viv had her fall. We had gone down to the tip of Cape Leuwin where a lonely lighthouse overlooks the ocean. This is the place where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet in a swirling maelstrom of warm and cold currents. Viv had wandered close to the rocky shore when she lost her footing and fell hard on her back. Running to where she had fallen, Pete and I dragged her away from the clutches of the sea - already snatching at her feet. It didn't look good, her eyes were closed in pain and her face ashen. At first, we feared she might need to be air lifted out for she was unable to move, but gradually she recovered enough to crawl up to the beach where Pete and I helped her back to the car. A hasty consultation in the car resulted in us going back into Augusta to seek medical advice. There, we were directed to the tiny local hospital where a doctor saw Viv
Penguin Island CoastPenguin Island CoastPenguin Island Coast

The deserted west coast of Penguin Island looks out upon an empty expanse of Indian Ocean, where there isn't another landfall until you hit the coast of Africa. © L. Birch 2007
almost immediately.

After a quick examination, the Doctor stood back and stroked his chin.
"Feel nauseous?” The Doctor asked.
“Yes”, replied Viv - looking as if she was going to fill the kidney bowl clutched in her hand at any moment.
“Hmm. Looks to me like you’ve jarred the crap outta yer spine.” He said, offering us what was obviously his professional diagnosis. Turning to one of the other staff, the Doctor said, "Let's put her in ICU for now."
"What? Said Viv. "It's not that serious."
"It's not that much of a room." The Doctor replied, favouring us with a grin.
It wasn't either. It was a tiny room with a single bed surounded by medical support equipment. Emergencies it seemed, didn't happen very often in Augusta.

Viv was in hospital for two hours while a sedative was administered and observations made, but our movements after this little episode were seriously curtailed. It was not clear how we were going to manage but it seemed likely that I would be carrying the baggage from now on. Two days later, we said reluctant goodbyes to Mick, Sue and family, accompanying Pete and Gill back up to the Perth
Penguin Island ResidentPenguin Island ResidentPenguin Island Resident

During the day, adult penguins spend their time fishing out at sea while junior stays home to guard the roost. © L. Birch 2007
area where they planned to do a little shopping for a big purchase. There was still a week remaining before we had to return to Asia - enough time perhaps, to say our final goodbyes to all the family and catch one last adventure before we left.


Spring was progressing nicely when we got back to Cottesloe. Deciduous trees had began to bud up and the Eucalypts were just coming into flower. There were lunch engagements to keep and a brief run around the Avon Valley National Park with friends whose land stood on its doorstep. Viv was still not up to anything too strenuous so it was left to me to file a report on our final Australian adventure - a trip out to Penguin Island.

Located just 42 km south of Perth, Penguin Island was part of a small chain of limestone islands and was principally famous for its, er... penguins, oddly enough. You could walk around the 12 hectare island in just over half an hour but it boasted some breathtaking scenery and was home to the largest (and most northerly) colony of little penguins in Western Australia. The
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A nesting silver gull sits tight on a nest at Penguin Island. © L. Birch 2007
train and bus links to Rockingham - the nearest jump off point for the island - were fast and comfortable but I had to wait 45 minutes at Shoalwater Point for a ferry out to the island. Not that there was a problem with this. It was a stunningly beautiful day with low, bright sunshine that cast long shadows - perfect for photography, and mainland dunes offered a chance to familiarise myself with the local ecology. There were skinks - large lizards like our old friend the shingleback - among the coastal spinifex, as well as snakes but I saw no sign of these. I only knew they were there because beach signs (right next to the ones warning dog walkers not to let their pets foul the beach) said they were, complete with a menacing picture of a snake - head raised, ready to strike.

The boat trip took twenty minutes, depositing me at a jetty white with bird droppings. Penguin Island had no human inhabitants but as well as penguins; it had large breeding colonies of gulls, terns and pelicans. The gulls were the most vocal and announced their displeasure at my visit by screeching loudly and
The Next GenerationThe Next GenerationThe Next Generation

Three eggs lay cupped in the nest of a silver gull on Penguin Island © L. Birch 2007
mounting aerial attacks - particularly when I got too close to their nests. The nests weren't easy to steer clear of for they were everywhere. Rangers warned you to stick to boardwalks in order to avoid unnecessary disturbance but this made no difference to the gulls. Boardwalk or not, you were in their territory and fair game as target practice. Sticking to the beaches and making a circumnavigation of the island seemed the safest option but I still got straffed and regularly had to duck to avoid a peck from a sharp beak. Seeing penguins was more difficult. The adults would be out at sea during the day, only coming ashore after sunset but their chicks were there - hidden away in burrows and rocky limestone caves. That was where I found mine, after crawling through a dusty, low-ceilinged cave rank with the smell of regurgitated fish (you see the things we have to go through in order to bring you a report?). The immature bird was still fluffy with down that it would shed eventually, taking on the characteristic blue plumage of the adult phase within the next couple of months. For now though, it was still dependant on
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Get too close to a silver gull's nesting site and you stood a good chance of being dive bombed by an irate parent bird. © L. Birch 2007
its parents and was not happy to see me. Braying hoarsely with a sound not disimilar to a donkey, it saw me off the family premises after I managed to take a quick shot with the camera. "Ok, Ok," I said, backing out of the cave. I knew when I wasn't wanted.

Continuing my walk around the island, I was fortunate to see nearly all the fauna for which it is most well known including an Australian fur seal hauled up on a remote beach. It was so exhausted after its long migration up from the south that it lay immobile, hardly acknowledging the presence of a number of roseate terns chattering harshly from nearby rocks, except to open a wary eye every so often.

After spotting pelicans and numerous other birds, I just managed to catch the last ferry boat back to the mainland. The warmth of the light, burnishing all it touched was beautiful to behold. The moment seemed filled with a lingering sense of poignancy, for these were our last hours in Australia. Would we be back, would we see any of it again or was this to be the last time we would visit
Are You Still Here?Are You Still Here?Are You Still Here?

An Australian fur seal eyes me warily as it takes a beach nap following its long migration north. © L. Birch 2007
Australia? Those trees with their white, papery bark. The evocative calls of magpies and that beautiful, long western light. It was a long way from the UK and I could envisage the possibility that this - our third visit - might well be our last but all of my being said "No!" As I watched the island recede behind the boat, a single phrase from Arnold Sharwzenegger's "Terminator" films, popped into my head. "I'll be back," It said in a dull Austrian accent and somehow, someday - I knew that we would be.

Click on the link below to learn more about the work being conducted at "Roo Gully". It should be noted that the facility is currently in financial difficulty and may have to close down as a result. At the time of our visit, the centre was still open and advertising for volunteers and financial assistance. See the website for more information and to find out how you can help.

Roo Gully Widlife Sanctuary

Final Thanks

It was very hard to say "Goodbye to Australia" but to all those who helped make it so special - to all our wonderful friends and family, we offer heartfelt thanks.... it would not have been the same without you all.


28th September 2007

boo hoo
What a great read! But it's made me sad at your departure all over again...
1st October 2007

Travel Envy
Hi Chaps, I almost feel I'm with you, what a wonderful journal, can't wait for the next instalment. Take care, much love Anitax
3rd October 2007

well you sure covered your w. a. visit pretty thoroughly, your observations spot on. - (especially about me being full of YOUTHFUL ENERGY ha! HA! TRYING to think when I last saw a Pobblebonk ...... how is your back Viv? Hope it's on the mend. Helena is going bananas because she wants to watch Noddy on the computer - while she's here I'll get her to say a few words: HELENA; hELLO! oink oink Bye bye
8th October 2014

random reading
I chose this one for tonight's read and I really enjoyed it and it made me laugh as well.
9th October 2014

Random Reading
Thanks Lou. Glad you enjoyed the random read and got a laugh out of it too... we do our best to please! Do drop by again sometime soon.

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