Australia: Perth of a nation

Western Australia's capital still holds strong links to the Dreamtime period, writes Elisabeth Easther.

The beach view from Rendezvous Grand Hotel Perth.
The beach view from Rendezvous Grand Hotel Perth.

Until recently, I knew very little about Perth aside from the fact that it's in Western Australia, which is pretty far away from New Zealand - about six and a half hours if you fly direct.

I also knew the Royal Perth Yacht Club hosted the America's Cup in 1987 and that the region currently heaves with miners who've brought pots of money into the area, thanks to their toils underground. So it'd be fair to say my knowledge was sketchy.

Having spent a few days in the region recently, I now know more. Interestingly, Perth was one of Australia's first free colonies - although in the spirit of "if you can't beat them, you might as well join them", the Fremantle Prison opened for business in 1855 and quickly became one of the most notorious penal institutions in Australia, until a couple of riots closed it in 1991.

I can also state with some authority that the beaches are stunning and, thanks to the elegant older houses built in the Federation style, the suburbs have a pretty colonial feeling, as long as you ignore the ostentatious clusters of McMansions that've sprung up all over the place.

And I also discovered there are plenty of establishments where visitors can eat, drink and be merry.

But enough of the present, because the best way to begin a trip to Perth is to go right back to the beginning, to the period the Aborigines call Dreamtime. Taking a walk through Kings Park with local man Greg Nannup, a member of the Whadjuk tribe, Greg explained how his people are "the guardians of the link between land and sea" so who better to lead us on a nature trail?

Kings Park is an impressive 400ha green space, one of the world's largest city parks, looking out over the city and the Swan River with views all the way to the Darling Ranges. Winding roads lead visitors to the top of Mt Eliza with impressive trees standing sentry along the way, many of them memorials to fallen soldiers.

The park's first president, explorer Sir John Forrest, was a genial colonial who took to the Australian bush like a platypus to water and he was well known for the daring expeditions he went on with the locals. During one of his early trips, Forrest was accompanied by Greg's fifth great-grandfather, Billy, and wrote in his diary that if it weren't for Billy, the Europeans would surely have perished because only the Aborigines knew the secrets of bush tucker and, most importantly, how to find water in the bottle-shaped boab trees. One mighty specimen, Gija Jumulu, is 750 years old and famous for having travelled 3200km from the Kimberley region to be replanted in its current location.

As we sheltered from a smattering of rain, Greg told us an abridged version of creation. Before reality kicked in, the world was in Dreamtime; during this period the sky pressed on the land, rivers were snakes and the world's first woman stole children and adorned her hair with them, there they became stars, eventually forming the Milky Way.

Greg also explained how Aborigines once used fire to manage the land. Back in the olden days, the elders knew exactly when to burn, to prevent dry material from piling up and combusting in the hot months. They'd time these blazes so that the dew would fall at exactly the right time to put the fires out.

Greg believes if his people were allowed to manage the land in this manner again, the damage done by forest fires could be minimised. Interestingly, the Australian Government isn't making any moves to test this theory, although the American Government is looking into the method - food for thought, that's for sure.

You could happily get lost in Kings Park, but to be fair, the main reason for my visit was to road test the Rendezvous Scarborough. This hotel has just been subjected to a multi-million-dollar makeover and somehow I'd made it on to the guest list for the opening night shindig.

Built in the mid-1980s to cater to the America's Cup hordes, at the ripe old age of 30, the Rendezvous Hotel was due for a spruce up and, to mark the work's completion, a glamorous cocktail party was held with WA Premier Colin Barnett cutting the ribbon.

I sashayed into the party to find a gorgeous young woman suspended from the ceiling, perched above the crowd in a swing shaped like a crescent moon. Pouring champagne from a great height, she eventually surrendered the bottle to perform daring aerial feats.

Australian singing sensation Emma Birdsall was also on hand to give a delightful performance, accompanied on a baby grand that'd famously been played by Michael Jackson.

Sadly though, I was four hours behind the Perth-ites so left the revellers to it and elevatored up to the 23rd floor. However, I didn't feel like I was missing out because, in my sumptuous room, I was that much closer to heaven. Gazing out on the Indian Ocean, a fleet of container ships lit up the horizon with the lighthouse on Rottnest Island keeping them safe.

And not only did the mild jetlag send me early to bed, the four-hour time difference saw me up at the crack of dawn, keen for a run. Stepping out the front door of the Rendezvous Hotel, the rugged beach was all mine. Mussel shells, washed up and tangled in seaweed, were the biggest I'd ever seen, you could've strapped them to a stick and turned them into paddles. Trotting along, I kept to the paths, partly out of respect for the marked conservation areas and partly out of deference to the signs warning about snakes.

Fremantle Prison is Western Australia's only World Heritage-listed building and while it's a showpiece now, the conditions there were famously inhumane till the day it closed in 1991. Our guide told us stories of riots and fires, floggings and hangings, a chilling reminder of man's inhumanity to mankind. With cells that were little more than concrete boxes, a chapel with a ghost trapped in a windowpane and archaic toilet buckets that were used until the prison closed, this must have been a terrible place to serve time.

There's nothing like a glimpse into life's darker corners to make a girl feel like a beer - at least that was my excuse for making Little Creatures, the craft brewery by Fishing Boat Harbour, which was my next port of call. Looking out to sea, with a pirate ship moored at the jetty, this vast complex is run by groovy young hipsters covered in tattoos and topped with beanies, and all of them really seem to care about beer.

This establishment is modern and industrial, a shrine to beer, and what's more, the tasting is free. Bartender Daniel, an incredibly energetic chap, whippet slim and resembling a muppet, handed round 12 little glasses of beer, each accompanied by an interesting story. Refreshed and enlightened, we moved on to the equally fabulous food. Naturally, I ordered kangaroo - if your drink is made from hops, your meat might as well continue the theme - now that's what I call food and beverage matching.

With only one day left, we headed for Rottnest Island. Originally called Rats Nest, this fruity island is heaven for cycling enthusiasts and especially for snorkelling - the coast, consisting of 63 beaches, is ringed by numerous wrecks. Visitors are welcomed by the resident quokka, a marsupial I had never even heard of before much less patted, imagine if you can the lovechild of a rat and a wallaby.

There are loads of tours to do on the island's 50 kilometres of road: by train, bus, on foot or by bike. Hiring bikes was definitely my preference and I merrily zig-zagged around the island wishing there'd been more time. The lighthouses are amazing. I've always romanticised the keeper's life and one towering lighthouse, with its five stories of spiral staircases, was worth the entire trip all by itself. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to stand outside on the balcony, as we'd almost certainly have been blown off the top.

It took just two days to turn me into a big Perth fan and if I ever go back I'll stay for much longer because there is so much to do - although next time I'll try to aim for more amiable weather.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas flies five daily services from Auckland to Perth via Sydney or Melbourne. From December 5 to April 26, Qantas will fly direct to Perth twice weekly.

Accommodation: The Rendezvous Hotel, in Scarborough, is a fine place to stay.

Further information: For information on Indigenous Tours WA, go to indigenouswa.com.

The writer was a guest of TFE Hotels.

- NZ Herald

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