Man In A Suitcase

Perth, Western Australia

What must it be like to live in the most isolated city in the world, a place that's closer to Singapore than to Sydney? During the planning of my trip to the west coast to visit a friend, I was advised by a friend of that friend to read The Shark Net, Robert Drewe's account of growing up in Perth in the late 50s and early 60s (and his encounter with a real life serial killer) to get into the proper frame of reference. It was a fascinating and depressing tale of a place that I wouldn't have wanted to visit. Fortunately, the Western Australia of the twenty-first century is a more pleasant, hospitable and interesting place than the one of Drewe's youth.

Here's a tip for budding photographers visiting Australia: find the local Anzac memorial. Every city and town will have one; just look for the highest elevation you can find. And they'll inevitably be placed to give you the best vistas in town. So it was with Perth, where a ride on the free CAT service to the logically named Mount Hospital stop and a long and sweaty trudge up to King's Park got me some spectacular views of the skyscrapers of the central city, the soothing green of its parklands and the vast expanse of the Swan River.

Not that there's anything wrong with the view at street level. Some clever city planner put a grassy field between the government buildings and the riverfront, which I appreciate no end. One of the challenges of shooting pictures in cities is finding the right vantage point: far enough away to frame the shot the way I want but close enough to get the right level of detail, and without anything big and opaque in the way.

Some buildings need to be seen up close to be appreciated. Like the white building at right. Or at least what's left of it. The story I heard was of a grand old railway hotel whose owner wanted to demolish. The city insisted the hotel deserved to remain. But did he listen? I guess there was money involved. Because one night the hotel vanished, leaving only its entrance as a sort of Cheshire cat to grin down at the street. The city ordered that that last bit of hotel be preserved. And here we are, with a grand entrance and no building for it to be the entrance to. You have to love free enterprise.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression; not all of Perth's old structures go bump in the night when they no longer serve their original purpose. Here are two examples from 1899: at left the Perth Mint; at right the old firehouse. The mint building may only be a hundred years old, but it clearly belongs to a different era than the Victorian buildings of Melbourne (pun acknowledged but not intended). It's still used to produce proof and precious metal coins, with gold pouring demonstrations on the hour. The fire station kept the city from harm for eighty years. Now it's a museum devoted to the efforts of the city's firefighters.

Of course, not everything that looks old is old. And anyway, there weren't a lot of Elizabethans in Western Australia. London Court was built in 1937, the product of a local businessman's fevered imagination. This Tudor shopping mall looks surprisingly at home among the more contemporary shop fronts of Hay Street Mall, where I finally found a Mambo shirt loud enough to satisfy even me. (Okay, I admit it; I just wanted one like Crichton and Harvey had on a very special episode of Farscape.) In any event, the Hay Street and Murray Street Malls were well populated on this particular sunny Sunday. I guess I'm not the only one to think of shopping as both a competitive and a spectator sport.

Moving on from the old and the old-but-not-as-old-as-it-looks, we have an example of old-made-new. At left is Perth's central railway station, which is home to a clean and modern commuter rail system that puts BART to shame. The original station has been preserved, with a modern roof keeping the passengers comfortable and dry and elevated walkways to connect to the shopping mall across the street. (I tried to get a picture of the front of the station, but there were way too many trees in the way. Damn trees!) As for the bronze kangaroo at right, I really don't have anything to say about him. I just thought he was cool. Sometimes that's reason enough.

One of our reasons for going downtown was to experience a temporary exhibit that had set up shop in the Supreme Court Gardens by the river. My friend Heather had described it as a bouncy castle for adults, which wasn't quite accurate. Then again, I've been inside and I'm still not sure what would be more accurate. Try to imagine a giant inflatable multichambered structure made of latex plastic. Add bright colored walls and monochromatic lighting and you have a surreal and entertaining setting.

Part of the fun of wandering inside all that plastic was playing around with my new camera in such an interestingly lit environment. If I ever find myself doing technical talks again I think I'd like to use the shot at left for the conference brochure. It just screams fascinating personality, doesn't it? (No? Awww, who asked you.) As for the picture at right, I tried desperately to avoid referring to it as a womb with a view. But sometimes you just have to let the joke out. Even a groaner as bad as that.

Fremantle, Western Australia

Fremantle, situated where the Swan River empties into the Indian Ocean, is a picture postcard of a place that owes much of its current charm to the America's Cup. Established around 1830 along with Perth, Fremantle had become seedy and somewhat dangerous by the time Australia II stole liberated the cup from the Americans. But with four years before the world came calling for the rematch, the locals put a new/old face on the city. The result is visible everywhere you turn. And unlike Perth, Freo hasn't let a bunch of big, modern buildings interfere with its skyline. The two cities are so different. And yet they complement each other so well.

I'm told that Fremantle can be an unbearably hot and sticky place in summer. Which I guess explains the verandas and balconies you see all over town, covered in the kind of lacy ironwork I first encountered around Melbourne. Hotels (which is Australian for tavern, mate) like these seem the perfect place to sip mint juleps or Singapore Slings or whatever the local equivalent might be while waiting for the cooling breeze they call the Fremantle Doctor to come a-callin'.

Unsurprising for the state capital's port city, Freo is also home to the Western Australian Maritime Museum, which tells of man's heroic and often fatal relationship with the sea. This building is the Shipwreck Museum, with exhibits on the Dutch sailors who traveled these waters a hundred fifty years before the Brits. The exhibit at right is a recreation of the hull of the Batavia, carrying the stones of an archway to Indonesia when it went aground in 1628. It's a harrowing tale of disaster, survival, heroism, mutiny, horror, rescue and retribution that would do Hollywood proud.

Within minutes of arriving in town I was off to explore the Fremantle Markets, first built in 1892 and now open on weekends as a combination produce, craft and touristy junk market. As with the best such places, the market is a riot of color, sounds and smells, nearly all of them pleasant. I managed to do most of my holiday shopping in record time, finding items from all over the world that will delight the recipients. At least if they know what's good for them, they will...

If these walls could talk... My local informant tells me that the building at left once held an establishment of the more questionable nature, where many a drop of blood was spilled. Sounds a bit too Anne Rice for my taste. The one at right is the Arts Centre & History Museum, a lovely cheery place. But it wasn't always so; before these walls held beauty and history, they held Fremantle's loony population. Hmmmm, that's not quite right. Let me rephrase that: Fremantle's population of loonies. No, that's no better. How about this: the loonies who live in Fremantle. Oh, you get the idea. The point is that it used to hold crazies and now it holds artists. That's better, right?

I once attended a talk that Alan Kay gave at a MacWorld Expo in San Francisco some years ago. During the talk, Mr. Kay used a line I've never forgotten: "The right point of view is worth twenty IQ points." I mention this to illustrate these two views of the Fremantle Railway Station, although I know this isn't remotely what he meant. From the front we see a small but classic bit of Victorian architecture, circa 1907. (Or would that be Edwardian?) But from the rear we see how much things have changed. The once extensive railyard is gone, replaced with a thrice hourly commuter train service into Perth. Still, at least something of the station's former glory has survived. Including its public restrooms, reputed to be the most impressive in town. And no, I'm not joking.

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