October 2016

The title is a misnomer, because we woke on Monday to find that the worst of the rain and wind had disappeared and Great Southern was looking something more like we had expected. The ocean had abated and was no longer an angry mass of whitecaps and the local kangaroos were grazing peacefully in the paddock in front of the apartment.

While candlelight had been very romantic during the blackout, it was nice to have power and, remarkably for us on holidays, we’ve been eating at home. Our candlelit dinner featured a pasta sauce and artisan pasta from the exquisite Margaret River Providores. We discovered that the local IGA was one of those amazing ones you find in country towns, which put the local Coles and Woolies to shame (if they had opened on a Sunday), so we grabbed a vegetarian quiche that was really quite special, and it did for a lunch and a dinner. We lunched at one pub yesterday, but really it was an excuse to try the local lager from Albany Brewing Company.

Monday was a day for looking at historic Albany and, weather permitting, getting some miles under our walking shoes. Where we are staying is tucked under West Cape Howe, midway between Denmark and Albany, so we have a 25 km drive into town; but it is well worth it to be out behind the dunes and away from the busy-ness of the Port. The Harbour front is still very much working, with grain elevators, timber, wood chips and various minerals all loading into the two bulk carriers in the inner harbour.

Our first stop was the National Anzac Memorial, on a hill above the town and overlooking King George’s Sound. For an easterner, it’s hard to see why you would put a national monument and museum here, in a town of 17,000; but when you realise that this was the last bit of Australia that one in four of those 30,000 who embarked on the first two convoys saw, then it takes on an added significance. It also serves to remind one of the history of the place: until Fremantle got its harbour just before the war, this was the mail port for all of Western Australia and the only decent harbour between Cape Town and the Eastern States. For Western Australians at the time, with no Trans-Australian Railway and just a telegraph line to the rest of the Federation, Albany was a lifeline from complete isolation. It’s pretty isolated even today.

The Memorial itself is a brilliant piece of architecture – the Entertainment Centre down at the Harbour is almost as good, with its sails and windjammer prow jutting along the jetty – which cantilevers over the steep slope down to the sound. It sits in front of the old garrison artillery base and is a stone’s throw from the coastal artillery batteries on the head. Its picture windows are designed to help you visualise what the Sound must have looked like crowded with lines of ships in December 1914, as the first and second convoys in turn swung at anchor, waiting for the last of the fleets to arrive before steaming slowly in line ahead out of the heads, past the islands and off to Egypt for the Great War.

The Memorial is modern museum curation at its best, using technology creatively and engagingly to tell the stories of the soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who left on those first convoys (after December 1914, they didn’t sail in convoy because the menace of the German raiders disappeared after HMAS Sydney defeated the Emden and the remaining German squadron was defeated in the Battle of the Falkland Islands). As you enter, you are handed a nifty audio guide that responds to swiping across special buttons on exhibits, and a card that allows you to follow the career of Aussies and Kiwis who started their war on the convoys (or, in Paula’s case, a German officer who fought all the way through the war on the Western Front and survived to be an author and entomologist!). Very much like Flanders Field in Ieper, I thought. In front of a panoramic view of the harbour, LED screens under a water sculpture scrolled the names of all those who had left Albany in 1914.

I was handed a card for Major Iven McKay – jackpot! Here was a genuine ANZAC legend: science graduate, volunteer militiaman, enlisted as Major in the AIF, ending the war highly decorated and a brevet Brigadier. And, of course, the revered leader of the 6th Div in World War Two in North Africa, after a career as a Headmaster between the warm (I could go on about how many of Australia’s great soldiers have been teachers!). Though not a big space, the Memorial allowed views of the pick of the items from the West Australian Museum and the AWM in Canberra, and told the story of many of those who suffered and died, or suffered and survived.

Two of those great characters stood out: ‘Pompey’ Elliott, one of the real characters of the era. passionate, brave and loyal Brigadier; and Hugo Throssell VC, a hero many times over. Both ultimately committed suicide (I think all the VCs struggled except Harry Murray, who buggered of into the bush and farmed). Throssell’s story I knew a little, but hadn’t realise that he became a passionate pacificist as his health failed, but totally embittered by his treatment at the hands of the ‘Repat’, and had no idea he was married to Katherine Susanna Prichard, author and feminist. HIs story was heartbreaking and I want to know more; but sadly, Australia has always struggled to care for its returned men and women.

We walked through the Naval memorial and through the artillery fort and stared at the Sound, gradually returning to some kind of calm as the wind from Antarctica started to abate. Certainly, a time to reflect.

The afternoon was spent walking nearly nine kilometres through the dunes and up onto the headland behind the apartments, relishing the fresh air after all that rain. Albany is at the end of the Bibbulun Track, the thousand-kilometre walking train from Perth through Busselton, Margarito River, Denmark and through the Albany. The south-west is wild, wild country with few townships, so I think it is a bit more adventurous than I would want to try.

When we planned this trip, we had visions of driving through Spring-time in the West, with the predicted sunny skies and temperatures in the twenties. So far, that vision remains unrealised, and we have staggered from storm to storm as the locals apologise for the unseasonable weather. It’s still been stunning country, just not the walking and swimming weather we thought we would get!

Our last night in Margaret River was spent listening to the rain lashing down and 60 knot winds howling through the area. We didn’t hear any trees come down, and that gave us a false sense of security, because the moment we got out of town we were dodging debris blown down from the trees and no less than five trees across the road in the first 150 kilometres. Paula had bravely decided to do the first stint as the road looked a bit better on the map, but she copped what could only be described as the dangerous bit, as the tail of the gale buffeted the car and various large chunks of timber crashed down.

At one stage we thought we were going to be held up for a couple of hours as a tree had fallen right across the road, but there were busy grey nomads at work dragging enough of the tree away so that half the lane was free. All sorted after ten minutes. Then we travelled two hundred metres down the road and discovered why there was not much in the way of traffic coming the other direction – and even larger tree had snapped off four metres above ground leve and bridged right across the road. Nothing for it but to drive under the trunk, but that stranded the motor homers with us, so I hope the local SES got to them. Nothing but a major clean-up crew was going to shift that trunk.

Most of the rest of the four-hour trip was rain and wind until we got to Denmark, which is 45 minutes from Albany and has all the food and wine in the region. We raced into IGA, grabbed some provisions, and shot out the door so we could listen to the AFL Grand Final. This was not going to be our weekend for footie, as the Swans lost, The Wobblies failed to kick themselves to a win in Pretoria and Cronulla won the League. Brendan’s most despised part of Sydney holding the trophy? Give me strength.

Tucked up in our very nice holiday apartment under West Cape Howe, all seemed set for a relaxing afternoon, but our adventures weren’t over. We then had an 18 hour blackout as the storm came back for seconds – but we did better than ALbany, who had to put up with nearly 36 hours. The winds were ferocious and, once the power was back on at 7 on Saturday morning, we found out how strong when we dared to drive along the ocean side and saw the Southern Ocean in complete random chaos along the cliffs.

So that was it: no walks as the rain kept coming back for random showers and the wind nearly lifted Paula off her feet. My camera was soaked as we tried to get some sense of what the sea was doing, and even Albany looked a bit blown inside out. Tomorrow for the ANZAC Memorial – I keep trying to picture that convoy of troops in the Sound in 1915, so entirely remote from the rest of Australia. Even today, we feel a long way from home.

Margaret River has joined the list of amazing food and wine regions we have visited in Australia and New Zealand, and has made a fairly definite case for being at the top. Probably only Beechworth comes close to the quantity and quality of stuff we’ve come across, but how isolated  can a town be? It’s not just the distance – after all, it is only four hours from Perth and the roads are good – but you feel transported back. The town itself is enveloped in the old forest and the remaining stands of Karri and the other timbers we have been reading about make it feel primeval.

There is obviously a conscious effort here. Our cottage in its Bushland Retreat is an eco-preserve, something we were very aware of on the first morning when there were wallabies within three metres of the front door. The national parks and nature reserves make a concerned attempt to give you a sense of what it must have been like when the giant trees dominated everything and scorned puny humans before chain saws laid them low.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the complete lack of climate change identified by Pauline Hanson and her idiot crew has led to perfectly normal variations in climatic patterns in Southern Australia. Floods in NSW, cyclonic storms in South Australia resulting in power cuts caused by sustainable energy, wintery conditions here in the South West and a Labour government in Victoria. Actually, forget the last one, it was just random. Seriously, the weather is terrible for Spring, but we’ve tried to get out and about in the weather. We’ve had a wood-fired stove to warm the house and our hearts and we’ve eaten at home a couple of nights – especially tonight, when the wind is howling a gale and the rain comes through in squalls.

We’ve spent far too much on wine, but how often do you get it so nice and so cheaply? We’ve bushwalked and wandered around the coast a bit, but probably not enough because of the unseasonal weather.

I’m left thinking about the magic of such places: absolutely commercial, in the sense that no-one does it to lose money, but  much of the development around here is relatively small and decidedly driven by passion. Wine is big business for some of the bigger operators like Cape Mentelle and Xanadu, but so is beef and seafood and tourism and timber. In places like this, you get the sense that there is a belief in the value of what one does and a commitment to it. We’ve two conversations in restaurants – the quirky Arc of Iris and the more commercial Katch-up – which revolved around the mission of the establishment and what the owners and staff were trying to do. Wine regions like Margaret River seem to be full of cellar-door staff who want to talk to you about the art and science of wine-making, about the miracle that occurs when you take some stainless-steel tanks and some grape-juice and start to play in a creative but scientific manner. I like it when art meets science and science doesn’t dominate. It’s like the opposite of alcohol-free wine, probably the most pointless produce ever developed. Like commercial packaged beer, you end up wondering why anyone bothers to make it or drink it; but when the craft of the maker is to the fore, and there is an attempt to create something rather than manufacture something, then both the maker and the consumer have something to share that is immensely enjoyable.

That’s probably why we like visiting food and wine regions! And when the weather is as bad as this, at least there is somewhere to get warm…