Man In A Suitcase

Margaret River, Western Australia

My adventure in Western Australia continued to the south. Margaret River, 120 miles or so from Perth along the coast, is a major center for wine production, although there are wineries in the state's other temperate regions. It is also a major tourist and surfing mecca. And perhaps a bit of a counterculture hangout, if the shop at left is any indication. Finding a store that specializes in hemp products is a useful reminder that I'm not in Kansas any more. (That and the Habana cigars on sale everwhere. I guess Fidel doesn't frighten Aussies the way he does Americans.)

But enough about politics; we came to Margaret River to enjoy the scenery and the wine. I guess I was expecting something like Napa, with big open spaces, carefully cultivated fields and wineries with tasting rooms that are welcoming and intimidating at the same time. And there are some wineries that would look right at home north of the Golden Gate. Like Voyager Estate, with its gigantic flagpole and its rose gardens and its oh so perfectly decorated restaurant. (And, it must be said, a Chenin Blanc that was like biting into a perfect apple.) Or Howard Park, whose tasting room was so feng shui but at the same time so stark and warehouselike.

Fortunately, there are plenty of wineries that don't follow that "bigger is better" model, places at the end of a paved road that seem like they evolved naturally from the woods around them. At left is a bit of Amberley Estates. Which always makes me think of Pemberley. Or maybe Manderley. At least I think this is Amberley; for some reason my memory got fuzzier as the day wore on. (And no, I wasn't driving.) At right is the view from Brookland Valley Winery's Flutes cafe, where we relaxed and sampled great coffee. Sadly, I didn't have a chance to sample the wines there. One can only do so much in a day.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse

A couple of days enjoying the delights of Margaret River and it was time to move on. Our next destination was Denmark, over two hundred miles south and east on the southern coast. The southbound highway turns east at Augusta. We didn't. Instead, we continued south until we reached the coast and then turned west to end of the world. Cape Leeuwin lighthouse sits at Australia's southwesternmost point, where the Indian and Southern Oceans come together. To the south there's nothing until you reach Antarctica; to the west you might just scrape the southern tip of Africa before eventually touching down near Montevideo, Uruguay. The cape is a windswept and starkly beautiful place that perfectly symbolizes Western Australia's isolation.

Denmark, Western Australia

The road from Augusta to Denmark is long and lonely, with only the occasional vehicle, the even more occasional town and the road itself to remind you that there's civilization around. Not that this is a bad thing; that peace and isolation is part of the reason we'd come this far. Denmark itself is a sleepy little place where, if our innkeeper is to be believed, the major industry is single mothers on the dole. But never mind; we had breathtaking views from our window, pastoral scenes from the center of town and easy access to the natural delights of the region. Also a wonderful restaurant with excellent local wines. Suddenly dropping out didn't seem like such a bad thing.

Driving back toward the town of Walpole to visit the Valley of The Giants, we saw a signpost for Conspicuous Cliffs. What, we wondered, made them so conspicuous? The sign neglected to mention the long expanse of dirt road between the highway and the cliffs, which might have led us to question the level of our curiosity. But in our ignorance we drove on, parked the car and then hiked up the path. All the while keeping an eye out for the deadly snakes that inhabit this part of the country. We didn't encounter any snakes, for which I am eternally grateful. And the cliffs and the beach were attractive enough. But I still have to ask: just what is it makes these particular cliffs so conspicuous?

With the theme to Jurassic Park on the stereo, we made our way to the Valley of The Giants. The area around Walpole is home to the red tingle trees, some of which are fifty feet around at the base. And although the trees of the tingle forest don't have the uniform bulk of California redwoods, they do have a grandeur all their own. Of course, we had to experience the Tree Top Walk, a sort of suspension bridge structure that takes you more than 120 feet above the valley floor to get a bird's eye view of the forest. You know, for somebody who hates heights, I seem to spend an awful lot of time looking down...

Albany, Western Australia

We followed up our time in the trees with a visit to civilization. Albany is Western Australia's oldest city, its principal port for most of the nineteenth century and a major whaling center until the moratorium of 1979. It's also the biggest city for hundreds of miles, assuming of course you care about that kind of thing. Thanks to its age and its historic importance, Albany has some classic pieces of architecture. The town hall at left and the former post office, soon to be part of the University, are particularly photogenic examples.

At left we have an example of Albany as the full service town: the tourist information centre, complete with taxi service, details on local places of interest and even showers for the perennially grungy who'd rather not be. And for the rest of us, there are a surprising number and range of places to part with your cash. Or just wander around admiring the architecture. In Albany that could be a full time job.

As always, Anzac Memorials are great vantage points for pictures. The local memorial is on Mount Clarence, a few miles east of the town centre. In addition to its panoramic view (and the heart-pumping hike up the hill to get to those views), the memorial is interesting for its own history as well as for the history it commemorates. Originally constructed at Port Said, Egypt to honor the Australian Light Horse, the monument was destroyed during the 1956 Suez conflict. After peace was restored, the memorial was sent to Australia, reconstructed and, in 1964, placed with its original base on this hill in Albany to mark the departure point of those original troops.

Mount Barker, Western Australia

Our journey south began on Melbourne Cup Day, which despite outward appearances is not a public holiday in Western Australia. (It is in Victoria. Really.) Yes, I placed a bet. And no, I didn't win. In fact, I think my horse is still looking for the finish line.

I mention this because our return trip north coincided with Election Day. Which meant, Australia having compulsory ballot laws, finding a polling place for my friend to cast her vote. Which explains our stop in Mt. Barker, a quaint little place north of Denmark on the most direct route back to Perth. Our hotel in Denmark had a brochure that talked about all the wonders of the Greater Mt. Barker area, written in prose even more breathless than mine own. Everything was covered, from the former police station turned museum to the combo restaurant (Australian cafe by day, Chinese restaurant by night) to the one hour photo place. Which sort of gave me a hint that I shouldn't expect too much. And that made me appreciate it even more, from the unprepossessing main street where the organic grocery sold really great wind chimes to the sheep shearer's supply store at right, where you can get one of those really useful slings to keep your back from going out while you're labouring over a hot sheep. Shear relief indeed!

That brochure gave particular emphasis to Centenary Park and to the sign at left, symbolizing as it does the town's twin roles as agricultural centre (those little wheels and gears) and transport hub (the track segments that make up its post and crossbar). Although not grand, the park seemed just right for the town. And as much as I couldn't imagine growing up in such a place, I found myself envying just a little those who did. And so we began our drive back to civilization and, eventually, to the planes that would return me to what passes for real life. If I sound wistful and a little sad, there's a good reason. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco. I think mine got dropped somewhere in southern Western Australia.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California