Arriving in a Wintery Perth

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August 13th 2009
Published: August 13th 2009
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In Oz

So I’ve arrived in the country they call Australia - a name derived from the ancient Greek cartographer, Ptolemy (AD 90 - c. 168) who called this part of the world Terra Australis or “Southern Land”. It's also called the "Lucky Country", a phrase used ironically by its original author as an indictment of 1960s Australia but subsequently used as a term of endearment ever since.

I’m sure there are some of you who have been waiting in eager anticipation for this one…you know who you are. As for other people reading this, in particular the anonymous - I'm not travelling to Australia to confirm your nationalisms about a land that you universally call "awesome', I aim to be opinionated and truthful with my impressions of what I see and experience. If you disagree with my opinions that's fair enough, I'm not getting paid to do this and neither are you paying to read this.

The shock of the new

When I left Singapore, the geographic centre of south east Asia no less, it was warm and humid. When I arrived in Perth, Western Australia it was night time, rainy and cold. I was also still wearing the t-shirt, shorts and flip flops I'd been accustomed to for so many months and soon had to rummage through my backpack to get to the double layered Bergaus waterproof jacket I'd been carrying all that time.

Perth's winter weather is harsh to somebody who's been in SE Asia for months: Strong winds, bright blue skies followed by heavy downpours and then followed by 30-40 minutes of bright sunshine and repeat for the whole day. In the evenings there are very heavy rain storms and freeeeeeezing cold weather; I simply didn't expect to feel the cold and certainly not in Australia (you don't feel the cold watching Neighbours!)

I was often told by fellow travellers on the road that Australia was expensive, and compared to Asia it's true and in some things the UK too. For instance my first night in Oz was at the city's YMCA for around 30 dollars (15-16 quid). It was also full of misfits and the destitute and in the morning I saw my first aboriginal Australian. Sadly, she was barefooted and walking aimlessly along the corridors with a child at her tit and her other child walking an urchin as if from the children of Dickens’ imagination.

The next day I checked into another hostel, this one the Youth Hostel Association - and again expensive.

Anyone for Internet?

I had gotten so used to accessing (often free) internet from my laptop inside hotels and hostels in Vietnam and Cambodia that I wasn't shocked to find this not the case in Perth. Instead I found myself having to pay 2 Australian dollars (1 GBP) for 15 minutes on some crappy machine in a foyer of a hostel. Although I eventually found a patchy and weak wireless place at an artsy Bohemian cafe but I just wasn't satisfied.

Beer in Perth

So what's the beer like? Well, alcohol is available in pints but they serve what they mistakenly call “ale” and serve as if it is a lager - cold and fizzy. Oh, and it’s not very good and it’s not very cheap (a pint of their stuff in a pub costs about $5-7 (2.50-3.50 GBP)) whereas the smaller cans in an off-license will cost even more each -$5 (2.50 GBP)

The pub scene is similar to the UK in many ways, without the history or the general atmosphere. I saw a pretty average but central “pub” in Perth with oafish signs outside such as, “leave your husband with us,” etc. - I boldly entered and instantly regretted it.

Ordering an ale and being served a horrible cold fizzy pint of “beer” by a miserable Irish girl, I thought to myself: why would anyone come to this dull, expensive, parochial, ersatz city? I then, somewhat despairingly, began watching the Ashes test match from the big screens placed around the pub. Suddenly an early Aussie wicket is taken and roars from vocal Englishmen till now sat anonymous amongst the locals.

Beer O’Clock

That night I went to some more shitty “British” themed pubs and once again had the cold fizzy “ale” they keep serving me. It’s a Samuel Smiths, this stuff is hard to find in London and is pretty good stuff. However, a strange cross-cultural fuck-up is taking place in Oz.

“Ale” as we know it is brewed entirely differently than lager and its subtle taste is maintained when served flat and warm, but that’s not what they do here. They fizz it up and make it cold, and then call it ale or a beer - when they are serving it as a bloody larger. Maybe a warm beer in this hot climate is just a bit daft, but I can’t get a decent beer in this place, and its cold outside!

Moreover, I’m confused about what I’m getting, actual ale, a larger or an ale dressed up as larger? Should I be worried about this? Anyway, the Samuel Smiths, was freezing and fizzy by the way.

Later on in the evening I retreat to the Belgian bar in Perth; I have one or two beers in the busy heaving place and instantly feel justified in my loathing of “Aussie beer”.

Walking around Perth

Perth is meant to have a population of 1.4 million, but you’d never think that being in the city. I was bemused to find myself wondering where everybody was? It felt like a weekday afternoon in Harrow more than a bustling metropolis and capital of the state of Western Australia. Later it was explained to me that people in the winter in Perth “hibernate” to avoid the bad weather. Well, stone me, the Western Aussies are a bunch of weather wusses, wait until that one gets out I chuckle - the shame! Despite this I did go to the Art Gallery of Western Australia which highlighted my utter ignorance of Australian art and artists. Clearly, some paintings were well known to Australians - showing romantic images of bushmen in the outback and Jackaroos herding sheep as well as views of the Australian landscape.

Sentimental and classically 19th Century, they were influenced and trained in European and in particular English schools. The tour guide, a middle aged woman with a slightly Anglo Aussie accent (feigned for my presence - I don’t know) looked proudly towards aboriginal art works (indigenous art to some).

The art is unique as it is quite literally made from the land - some canvas are traditionally made from the bark of a tree and ochre for paint, which is ground from the earth. The patterns are like maps from the air and they are meant to be - reflecting the unique spatial awareness of the aboriginal peoples over tens of thousands of years. She explained as best she could these deeply abstract art pieces, but she freely admitted that she was unable to explain everything. Further lamentation from Aussies: the art was often exorbitantly expensive
The Round House in FremantleThe Round House in FremantleThe Round House in Fremantle

...built in 1830 is the oldest remaining building on mainland Western Australia
for people interested in the art to actually purchase.

Day out in Freo

I got out of the city one day and took a train to Fremantle 40 minutes just south of the city. It’s described as a cool, artsy, café hangout - and it is, but only in comparison with Perth, not much of one. It had some nice colonial Aussie frontier town architecture, and the first I’d seen in Australia.

It was sunny for most of the day and I looked in at some second hand bookshops - $30 (15 GBP) for a second hand book? I visited the fascinating shipwreck museum where I was given a tour by one very informed Scottish lass from Stirling who’d married and settled down in Freo about ten years previous.

Anyway, the remains of the 17th Century shipwrecked Dutch ship Batavia was on display, eerily lit up as well as her lost cargo (a stone archway for the fort of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Batavia - modern day Jakarta). The story of what next happened to the survivors of the ship on its maiden voyage from Holland was compelling. With echoes of the Lord of the Flies, incredibly the captain and some men launched into a small boat and sailed their way back to Batavia. In the meantime one of the minor captains left the shipwrecked Rottnest island where they went on a senseless killing spree. This clearly psychotic man went around killing and torturing dozens of survivors including women and children with a band of equally murderous bastards. When the original captain returned, a plot was already afoot to kill him as soon as he landed, but he was warned and saved by some folk who managed to evade capture. The fella was eventually captured put on immediate trial and sentenced to death by the most gruesome way possible.

Every Dutchman knows about the story and it is apparently as infamous in Holland as The Bounty is in the English speaking world.


I was fed up with the cost of things in Perth so I returned to my savior, to see if I could stay with somebody. I sent a request to a young Aussie girl who almost immediately replied and picked me up the next day from the boarding school - I mean the YHA youth hostel. We hit it off straight away (always a bit of tension in the air) and we had a cup of tea and my first slice of Vegemite. The quintessentially Australian food stuff, it can best be described as “alright”, neither horrible nor gorgeous.

Anyway, my host had wireless at her place so I was able to use her own Mac for several hours without being charged by the bloody minute. That night I slept on the futon in the freezing spare room, listening to the giant thunder storm outside.

An aside upon ethnic matters

My humble host and I discussed many things over two nights but one struck me in particular. She was irritated by the fact that at her university on the East Coast (Chemical Engineering) she was only the 3rd “Australian” in her class. Indeed she went further, uh-oh in that she opined how Australians don’t like being “overrun” by “non Australians” - and I presumed she meant people from Asia.

At her work place in Perth there were only a few Aussies amongst a united nations of foreign: Danes, Scots, English etc. As we discussed more she referred to one of these graduates despite being Australia born and bred as not Australian but “Italian”. I didn’t ask her what an Australian was, an aborigine perhaps? But I knew her answer already, an “Australian” clearly meant something similar to her own background- white and Anglo-Celtic.

Interestingly, despite this essentially “British” heritage with which she identified with, she didn’t seem to have any sympathy for its continuance. It’s as if she thought Australia would remain as ethnically the same as it always had been (no such thing as emigration or convict settlement or the whites-only preference). Neither do I think she saw herself as being “of British stock”, but rather just being an “Australian”. I found this strange, in that she found it easy to identify and separate those Aussies like her but who had an Italian or Greek background but was unable to identify her own ethnic roots.

What struck me more was her mockery for her British work colleagues for what she said was complaining about their lack of “special treatment” for getting into Australia.

I tried explaining that what had made Australia what it was and what she had herself identified with was in fact as a result of favouritism towards the British - the modern founders and cultural bearers of Australia. She didn’t like being over-run by Asians but neither did she like the idea of favouritism towards her ethnic kin. But she didn’t understand the contradictions in her own ethnic identifications.

I’ve found it quite a common attitude here in Australia, fear of the non-English speaking migrant, yet the anathema to British people and their identification with being “Australian” - which essentially aims to ignore their British roots. It’s as if they think they were all just here all along. Basically there’s a hell of a lot of Aussies around hating their family and ancestors - from Britain, which understandably annoys me. Mind you, they all call us POMS, which I'm beginning to come around on as a genuine term of endearment.

The Aussies have similar food tastes to us - there’s a surprise! In the streets opposite the shitty bars are kebab shops - I’m startled by the same immigrants as back in England are serving the same shitty fast food as back in England. However, the fish ‘n’ chip shops that are just as big here as they are back home. It seems this place is just like home sometimes - shitty unhealthy take away food.

Perth overall?

Anyway, I’d clearly had enough of Perth by this stage, I'm sure it's nicer in the summer, with so many beaches nearby and lots to do outside. However, what I found had confirmed my suspicions why everyone I'd met from here had left. Even every Aussie in London had described it as dull and even the couchsurfer chick said she wouldn't be staying long. Unsurprisingly, Perth is tied for 5th place in The Economist's 2009 list of the World's Most Livable Cities - which is often a list of pleasant, safe but ultimately dull places to live.

Anyway, the weather was getting worse and so I looked to heading north, where thankfully it was a lot warmer.

What I’m reading:

The Fatal Shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia 1787-1868 by Robert Hughes

Additional photos below
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