Bells, kangaroos and 25kg gold nuggets - Pamela Wade is dazzled in Perth.
THE BELLS! THE BELLS!
She's head and shoulders below me, 30 years older, and weighs nothing, but I'm not going to mess with the formidable Laura. When she says, "Pull!" I heave, and so does everybody else up here in the bell-loft of the bell tower. Nothing happens. The massive bronze Swan Bells above our heads, 12 of them brought here all the way from St Martin's-in-the-Fields in London, swing in complete silence. Laura sighs: we've forgotten her instruction about the all-important check on the ropes that jerk the clappers into action. Finally we get to produce bongs that satisfy us - if not Laura - before continuing up to the top of the tower where we gaze at the view. It's a cracker: at the moment in the foreground piles of bright yellow sand are busy with big machinery and hi-vis vests; and beyond are Perth's skyscrapers, the green hill of Kings Park and the sweep of the Swan River.
TWO WHEELS GOOD
What I took for a skate park is actually a training ground for novice Segway riders, set up with a slalom course, maze, obstacles and ramps. It's a lot of fun, but it's really a test that we all pass. We follow Sarah along the jetty and past the eye-catching Bell Tower. The first challenge is to negotiate the building site that is Elizabeth Quay - a 10ha waterfront development of park, pond and attractions that will bring the river back to the city. Then we enter the elegant gardens of the Supreme Court, taking the opportunity to race across the lawn at a heady 12km/h. From there we head along the river bank on a wide path where pedestrians, cyclists and ducks give us the chance to show off our smooth swerving skills. Sarah keeps up a lively commentary about history, wildlife, city plans and gossip, interspersed with advice on handling the odd steep slope, sharp turn or narrow bridge. The only thing that wipes the smiles off our faces is returning to base an hour later and having to surrender our magical self-balancing machines.
FOR COMMONERS TOO
Perth's crowning glory, Kings Park is 4sq km of manicured gardens, wild flowers and areas of native bush, a short (free) bus ride from the CBD. Here is where to get the standard, and obligatory, view of the white city, the blue river and the green Darling Ranges under a huge sky: it's a stunner. There are picnic areas, playgrounds and walkways, and among thousands of plant species in the botanical gardens, you can see a 750-year-old boab tree, brought more than 3000km by road from the north of the state. Overlooking Perth Water is the war memorial, where an eternal flame burns in the middle of a reflecting pool and an obelisk stands above Anzac Bluff, named for its similarity to Gallipoli. Long before white people arrived, the Kings Park site was important to the local Aboriginal tribe and indigenous tours are provided.
The iron ore boom may be over, but no-one's told Perth's developers. The city is buzzing with new buildings going up, old ones being repurposed, railway lines being tucked out of sight and once-insalubrious areas becoming the new place to be seen. Northbridge is the brightest example: once seedy, it's now a cultural centre with a K Rd vibe, full of little lanes, buskers and restaurants, some of its hideaway bars so trendy that you need to know the password of the day to get in. The stylish Standard Bar Kitchen Garden is well worth seeking out, and not just because its Kiwi owner makes sure there are New Zealand mussels on the menu. On a warm, black night there's nothing nicer than sitting on the rooftop with a table full of shared food including fava chips with mushroom ketchup, spanner crab salad and pork croquettes. The CBD has an alternative side too: lanes decorated with striking street art done by international artists, and plenty of bars like the Printery where workers finish the day with a sociable drink. And everywhere there is sculpture: it's a requirement that every development must include public art. It's not all kangaroos, either (though some of it is).
If anyone ever tells me I'm worth my weight in gold, I can put an actual price on it: $2,275,896. That's the sort of useful thing you can learn at the Perth Mint. Also, that it takes 20 seconds for a 200oz ingot to solidify; that 16-year-old Jim Larcombe found a 35.5kg nugget in 1931; and that if $2700 for a 1oz coin souvenir is too rich for you, the shop sells chocolate ones too. Western Australia boomed when gold was discovered in 1892 after a flash flood exposed a 16kg nugget in a riverbed, the first of tons of gold to be found. The Mint was built to refine the precious metal and to strike coins, which it still does today.
An interesting tour fills in the detail of the hard graft and harsh conditions behind the glamour of the gold, but the grind is soon forgotten in the face of a dazzling collection of nuggets, one of which weighs 25.5kg, and the world's largest coin. The Australian Kangaroo One Tonne Coin is 80cm across, 12cm thick and totally impractical; but it is worth $50 million.
Most fun is the gold pour, when a stream of molten gold is tipped from a crucible into a mould, dipped into water and tipped out as a seductively gleaming ingot. "Can I scrape the bowl?" somebody asked.
Getting there: Fly on Air New Zealand's new Dreamliner direct from Auckland to Perth. Air New Zealand
Getting around: Within the central city, the CAT buses are free.
For more information: Visit westernaustralia.com
The writer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia and Air New Zealand.