Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feb 17th – Geraldton – A Town on The Up

The upcountry town of Geraldton in Western Australia is not on most tourist routes. You've really got to want to come to "Gero" (as the locals call it), because it's not really on the way to anywhere (unless you like thousand mile road trips through the Outback), or you happen (like us) to be sailing up the Western Australian coast and would like a stopover.

However, maybe because they don't have a lot to shout about, Geraldton works a little harder to lay on a welcome for us rare visitors. The people on the streets were very friendly, its museum is way better than you'd expect for a small town like this, and the atmosphere was slightly more cosmopolitan than your standard provincial country town.

Geraldton has clearly been doing fairly well over the last few years, as its ridden on the back of Australia's mining boom – even though prices have fallen, the port was still busy with cargo ships from China filling up with minerals. Plus, the huge grain terminal in the port, is a sign that the land around here is prime farming land. While, the fishing port is busy with lobster boats too, who bring even more money into the town.

The result is that the city has some pretty good infrastructure, plenty of nice cafes, plus a cleaned up waterfront, now they've removed the old railway tracks that previously cut the town off from its attractive beaches. So, with a healthy economy, there seemed to be quite a few new housing developments going up around town, particularly in its sparkling new yachting marina.

In the morning, I joined a tour that took us to the Mid-West's farming heartland – rolling fields of sheep and wheat country. Even though it has been a wet summer, the red earth looked pretty parched, while the main creatures that we saw thriving here were huge amounts of flies – flies that did their best to aggravate any passing tourists by persistently crawling into their eyes, mouths, noses and ears. Fortunately, we were given fly masks, but you do wonder how people can live here, with this constant fly-born nuisance.

We visited a historic old farmstead, where you really got to appreciate the hard lives of the early settlers who arrived here in the 1850s. Never mind the flies - with no electricity and no refrigeration, their tin-roofed old farmhouse would have turned into an oven during the long hot summers – our guide told us that we were lucky that it was "only" 34C today.

It was an interesting little tour, but we were starting to wilt in the heat. However, we all perked up when we were taken to the "Burnt Barrel Smokehouse", where we were treated to some lovely barbecued meats and an array of refreshing craft beers and ciders. Just what we needed.

Then, as we sweated our way around town, we visited its main landmark, the striking HMAS Sydney Memorial, at the top of a hill, commemorating the 645 sailors lost in Australia's biggest naval tragedy of the Second World War. A really beautiful way to commemorate a pivotal moment in Australia's wartime history.

So, Geraldton doesn't promise too much, but it delivers a decent amount to keep a visitor entertained. Sometimes when you have fairly low expectations of a place, you can be pleasantly surprised.....




Friday, February 17, 2017

Feb 15th & 16th – Round Rotto From Freo

There's not many cruisers who pray for a cloudy day in port, but we seeing as we were planning a day of cycling around the normally sun-drenched Rottnest Island, then we were pleased to see a decent cloud cover this morning. So, we caught a bumpy 45-minute ferry ride across from Fremantle ("Freo" as the abbreviation-obsessed locals call it) over to "Rotto", and we went about hiring a bike to explore.

Because the great thing about Rotto is that it's car free – its miles of well tarmacked roads are set aside purely for cyclists, shared with just a few tourist buses that circle the island. Fremantle itself is a pretty relaxing place, but the change of pace when you get to Rotto is striking – no traffic, no noise, wide open spaces, the sea all around, empty beaches. If you want to feel like you've got away from it all, then this is the place to do it (even if you can still see the skyscrapers of Perth in the distance across the water).

The maps that you're given, provide you with a choice of routes – an "easy" 4km one that takes one hour, an "intermediate" one that covers 10 kms and takes 2 hours, and a "hard" one that does a full circuit of the coast road around the island, covering 22 kms and taking "between 3 and 5 hours". Seeing a challenge to be taken on, we went for the full circuit – although, we were concerned that if it took the full 5 hours, we wouldn't have time to eat, and that we'd be in danger of missing our ferry back, so we decided to go as quick as we could.

So, having picked up some food supplies from the general store, we set off. It was great fun just breathing in the freshest of fresh air, looking across the open landscapes, and visiting some of the most beautifully unspoilt beaches that I've ever seen. These deserted beaches boasted an idyllic combination of powdery white sand and incredibly turquoise seas that were so photogenic – blues and turquoises that became increasingly vibrant as the skies cleared over the course of the day.

For an island that looks pretty flat from the sea, it turns out that Rotto is actually a fairly hilly place, but none of the inclines were too steep, and it meant that there were plenty of freewheeling downhills to enjoy. The other thing that cyclists have to contend with are the winds – when you see so many trees that have been bent over by the relentless winds, you know that at some stage you're going to be cycling straight into the teeth of a gale.

But, the views were always exhilarating, and the other thing that kept us going was the chance to see a quokka in the wild – the cute marsupials that are unique to the island. These inquisitive little beasts look like the cross between a beaver, a groundhog and a rat, and were a little bigger than I'd anticipated. When we were eating our picnic, they were fearlessly crawling and hopping all around us, sniffing our shoes and peering into our rucksacks to see what goodies they could find. Sadly, having had our first encounter with these charming little creatures, we almost got to see our first quokka roadkill, when one ran in front of a bus and got (at least) its tail run over. I think it survived, as there was no trace of it when the bus stopped, but it will be nursing a very sore tail at the very least.

So, we cycled on remorselessly around the island, spurning myriad opportunities to stop at swim on various beach paradises – before, after a couple of hours, we finally decided we weren't in danger of losing our race against time and decided we'd go to the next beach we came across. So, imagine our surprise at making our way to the beach to find that we were at our start point! This 5 hour cycle had been conquered in little over 2!

But, the good thing was that we now had plenty of time to find a beachside bar, cool off in the (surprisingly cool) sea, and have a cold beer, enjoying the most idyllic views. On talking to a couple of holidaying Perthites, we concluded that they were incredibly lucky to have such an island paradise right on their doorstep – although they had to admit that Perth is so remote, they didn't have a lot of other choices!

If you're in Perth, I'd highly recommend a day on Rottnest Island – one of my favourite stops on this World Cruise so far.

PS. The rest of our time in Fremantle was spent eating Fish and Chips, doing a bit of shopping, getting a haircut, and visiting the Shipwreck Museum – all very chilled out. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Feb 11th – Enjoying the Space in Adelaide

Every time I go to Adelaide, I get struck by the sense of space in and around the city. Even though you're visiting a state capital of 1.3 million people, the city is so well laid out that it never feels busy or crowded. Plus, with the hills all around it and the Barossa Valley just over an hour away, it's never difficult to get into the Great Outdoors.

My tour today took me up into the hills to Mount Lofty, where we got some spectacular views over the city on the plain below. From this vantage point, we could see how central Adelaide is totally surrounded by a green "moat" of parkland that acts as a vital leisure resource for its population.

While we were up Mount Lofty, we had a fun visit to the Cleland Leisure Park, where I got to see all the stars of the Australian animal kingdom – comatose koalas, scurrying Tasmanian Devils (partly making up for the fact that our call in Tasmania was cancelled due to strong winds), pea-brained emus, overheated kangaroos, and inquisitive quokkas (or at least I think that the little marsupial peering into my camera lens was a quokka).

After lunch, we went down to Adelaide, where (on its refreshingly traffic-free streets), we saw a decent collection of sober Victorian and Edwardian colonial buildings, and also, a modern construction nearing completion that claims to be the third most expensive building in the world – the new Adelaide Hospital. This huge new hospital will have 800 beds, and is costing in the region of a cool $2.1 billion. That the city can afford to spend such an eye-watering amount is, I guess, a sign of a healthy economy here (or perhaps a very unhealthy population!); but, the rest of the city seems to exude a comfortable, middle class solidity to it.

Tracy and I went to the South Australian Art Gallery, which had a good collection of mainly colonial art, but had some good Aborigine stuff, some interesting modern works, and a few European paintings too. The collection seemed to reflect my overall impression of the city – it was nicely put together and well organised, a good mix of historic and modern with plenty of interesting things to look at, but without any absolutely blockbusting showstoppers.