As the Indian-Pacific train slogged its way along the desert, stopping every couple of hours to pull aside to allow a freight train to pass on the single track, the flat, vast scenery remained unchanged until a little after one in the afternoon when miraculously trees—as in real trees, not scraggly, overgrown bushes—started to appear. Not long after that we began to see sheep grazing on brown grass in vast, arid pastures and then a paved road, a car, a pick up truck and, voila,a house. Civilization again! We were about a hundred miles from Perth, and small villages started to pop up as we got closer to the city. In an hour we were passing through typical suburbs of modest, ranch style homes and at 3:30 arrived at the small Perth train station where we said our goodbyes to the Indian-Pacific and to our fellow passengers as the train emptied and we went our separate ways.
Our separate way began with a bus tour of the city arranged by Indian-Pacific. We were joined by 20 or so of the departing 400 plus passengers and spent the better part of three hours touring the downtown area and some of the adjoining suburbs. It was another one of those “I had no idea” moments. Somewhere I had gotten the idea that Perth was a rinky-dink, small town on the coast. Hardly. In fact the city is a thriving metropolis with sparkling skyscrapers making it feel more like a Sydney or a Melbourne rather than an Adelaide. With a population of over two million it is pretty much tied with Brisbane as the third biggest city in Australia. What is rather amazing is that Perth is really the only game in all of Western Australia, accounting for more than 80% of the population of an area that includes about a third of the entire country. The balance is—you guessed it—the Outback. By all accounts that I have read, Perth is the most remote and isolated, large city on the entire planet.
What stands out most about Perth , however, is its extraordinary riverfront. The city is not a port. It is located about 10 miles from the Indian Ocean where the neighboring town of Fremantle serves as the port city. That was the location of the America’s Cup races in the early 1990s that featured Dennis Connors recapturing the cup from the Aussies, who had pulled off a major upset a couple of years earlier. Perth is located on the Swan River, which is the tidal estuary that flows through Fremantle and into the Indian Ocean. When the river reaches Perth, it opens up into a bay, which in some places is more than a mile wide. It is the perfect location for small sailboat racing, which was happening all over the place in various spots.
Perth is also different from the East Coast cities in terms of climate. It has a rainy season from March through July, which is responsible for producing about 39 inches of precipitation, about what we get in Washington. The balance of the year is dry with clear skies most of the time and moderate temperatures. The hot day we encountered was something of an anomaly.
Our bus ride took us past a major university and then to a large park on a steep hill overlooking the river with stunning views of the Perth skyline. We then wound our way through fancy, single family neighborhoods where all the houses were worth millions of dollars—all guides seem to be obsessed with how high housing values are—and then to two beach areas. Since it was Saturday afternoon and unusually hot with 95 degree temperatures, the beeches were packed with sun bathers and surfers. At six the driver started dropping people off at various downtown hotels and went out of his way to deposit us at a bed and breakfast about three miles from the downtown area.
There were two highlights of the Perth experience. The first was spending virtually the entire day, the day after we arrived, at a beautiful beach in Fremantle where we sat on the grass under the shade of a large tree in a manicured park area alongside the public beach. Embry got her swim in the Indian Ocean, and I just chilled out since I still have not completely recovered from the respiratory virus. Truth be told, we were both pretty exhausted by this time. We left Washington on December 22 and have traveled God knows how many miles and through eleven time zones, using almost every mode of transportation. I could not help thinking, time for the cows to head for the barn.
We did take a brief walk around Fremantle and stopped for a beer at a seaside bar, packed with Millennials. The actual port of Fremantle is pretty small, unsightly, and industrial, but the town is fairly quaint and worth a visit.
The other highlight was the bed and breakfast, a charming cottage nestled under a huge shade tree that resembled a live oak, located in a quiet, suburban community only a five minute walk to the local light rail station, which made it easy for us to get to Fremantle. The owners were retired farmers who had sold their sheep farm located on the coast about 50 miles north of town. They started the bed and breakfast about 15 years ago, permitting them to be near their children and grandchildren, who live in Perth. Two other guests were a German couple (husband a retired engineer and wife a retired nurse of Korean ancestry) spending several weeks touring Australia by car, and a middle-aged physician from Melbourne, who is a regular at the B & B when he visits his son and his family. The doctor from Melbourne pointed out that by missing the north coastal area (Darwin), the northeast rain forest, and the Great Barrier Reef, we could not truly understand the country. We told him those places would be on our agenda next trip to Down Under.
It did not take long for our conversation over breakfast to turn to Trump. As for almost all Australians and others we have chatted with over the past month, our president is a major worry, if not outright frightening.
But not for all Australians. I have already described one Trump supporter on the train; and our Uber cab driver, who gave us a ride to the airport this morning, is not only a Trump supporter, he is a conspiracy theorist who has “compelling evidence” that George W. Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks in order to gain popular support for invading Iraq. He is also bitter and angry, unlike almost all the other people we have met on this journey. His major source of news is the Russia Today channel, which he watches every day and maintains is the “only reliable source for news you can trust.“ His two heroes are Trump and Putin. Chalk up another one for global dislocation and alienation.
So now we are headed home aboard an American Airline flight, which should deposit us in Los Angeles in about 15 hours, then a five hour flight to Dulles. Total flying time from Perth to DC, about 23 hours, not counting the transition time in Sydney and L.A. The total distance is about 12,000 miles. The cows are headed back to the barn.
Thanks for following us on this journey. Put Australia and New Zealand on your bucket list. Long way to go but worth it.