Western Australia (WA) covers a third of the Australian continent, yet has a population of just 2.3 million. Conscious of its isolation from the more populous eastern states, or indeed anywhere else, WA is ironically the most suburban of Australian states: almost all of its inhabitants live within 200km of Perth and most of the rest live in communities strung along the coastline. The state offers an enticing mix of Outback grandeur and laid-back living, and is attracting increasing numbers of tourists keen to break away from “the East”, as the rest of Australia is known in these parts.
Perth retains the leisure-oriented vitality of a young city, while the atmospheric port of Fremantle, really just a suburb of the city, resonates with a youthful and somewhat boisterous charm. South of Perth, the wooded hills and trickling streams of the southwest support the state’s most celebrated wine-growing region Margaret River, while the giant eucalyptus forests around Pemberton provide numerous opportunities for hiking and generally getting to grips with nature. East of the forests is the state’s intensively farmed wheat belt, an interminable man-made prairie struggling against the saline soils it has created. Along the Southern Ocean’s stunning storm-washed coastline, Albany is the primary settlement; the dramatic granite peaks of the Stirling Ranges just visible from its hilltops are among the most botanically diverse habitats on the planet. Further east, past the beautifully sited coastal town of Esperance on the edge of the Great Australian Bight, is the Nullarbor Plain, while inland are the Eastern Goldfields around Kalgoorlie, the largest inland town in this region and a survivor of the century-old mineral boom on which WA’s prosperity is still firmly based.
While the temperate southwest of WA has been tamed by colonization, the north of the state is where you’ll discover the raw appeal of the Outback. The virtually unpopulated inland deserts are blanketed with spinifex and support remote Aboriginal and mining communities, while the west coast’s winds abate once you venture into the tropics north of Shark Bay, home of the friendly dolphins at Monkey Mia. From here, the mineral-rich Pilbara region fills the state’s northwest shoulder, with the dramatic gorges of the Karijini National Park at its core. Visitors also home in on the submarine spectacle of the easily accessible Ningaloo Reef, which surrounds the beaches of the Cape Range National Park – those in the know rate it more than Queensland’s attention-grabbing Barrier Reef.
Northeast of the Pilbara, the Kimberley is regarded as Australia’s last frontier. Broome, once the world’s pearling capital, is a beacon of civilization in this hard-won cattle country, while adventurous travellers fall in love with the stirring, dusty scenery around Cape Leveque and the Gibb River Road. The region’s convoluted, barely accessible coasts are washed by huge tides and occupied only by secluded pearling operations, a handful of Aboriginal communities, a couple of luxury retreats, and crocodiles. On the way to the Northern Territory border is Purnululu National Park, home to the surreal Bungle Bungle massif – one of Australia’s greatest natural wonders.
Travellers never fail to underestimate the massive distances in WA. If you hope to explore any significant part of the state’s more than 2.5 million square kilometres, and in particular the remote northwest, your own vehicle is essential, although you can still get to many interesting places by combining local tours with buses.
WA’s climate is a seasonal mix of temperate, arid and tropical. Winters are cool in the south and wet in the southwest corner, while at this time the far north basks in daily temperatures of around 30 °C, with no rain and tolerable humidity: this is the tropical dry season. Come the summer, the wet season or “Wet” (Dec–April) renders the Kimberley lush but inaccessible, while the rest of the state, particularly inland areas, crackles in the mid-40s °C heat. The southern coast is the only retreat for the heat-struck; the southwest coast is cooled by dependable afternoon sea breezes, known in Perth as the “Fremantle Doctor”.
WA is eight hours ahead of GMT, one and a half hours behind the Northern Territory and South Australia and two hours behind the other eastern states. Daylight saving between late October and late March was introduced in WA in December 2006, but a referendum in mid-2009 rejected its continuation and consequently the state is a further hour behind those states who operate daylight savings in the summer, namely the ACT, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
Aborigines had lived in WA for at least forty thousand years by the time the seventeenth-century traders of the Dutch East India Company began wrecking themselves on the west coast mid-journey to the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), where they sought valuable spices. While some dispute remains about the first foreigner to see Australia, with French, Portuguese and Chinese explorers all laying a claim, it can safely be said that Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog was the first European to set foot on Western Australian soil, leaving an inscribed pewter plate on the island off Shark Bay that now bears his name, in 1616. For the next two hundred years, however, WA’s barren lands remained – commercially at least – uninspiring to European colonists.
France’s interest in Australia’s southwest corner at the beginning of the nineteenth century led the British to hastily claim the unknown western part of the continent in 1826, establishing Fredrickstown (Albany) on the south coast; the Swan River Colony, today’s Perth, followed three years later. The new colony initially rejected convict labour and as a result struggled desperately in its early years, but it had the familiar effect on an Aboriginal population that was at best misunderstood and at worst annihilated.
Economic problems continued for the settlers until stalwart explorers in the mid-nineteenth century opened up the country’s interior, leading to the goldrushes of the 1890s that propelled the colony into autonomous statehood by the time of Australian federation in 1901. This autonomy, and growing antipathy towards the eastern states, led to a move to secede in the depressed 1930s, when WA felt the rest of the country was dragging it down – an attitude that persists today. However, following World War II the whole of white Australia – and especially WA – began to thrive, making money first from wool and later from huge iron ore and offshore gas discoveries that continue to form the basis of the state’s wealth. Meanwhile, most of WA’s seventy thousand Aborigines continue to live in desperately poor and remote communities, as if in another country.Read More
Ships and shipwrecks
Ships and shipwrecks
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were notable for the wrecking of numerous Dutch East India Company ships, including the Batavia in 1629, and the Zuytdorp in 1710. The Batavia’s story is especially compelling: the ship set sail from Amsterdam in 1628 for the Dutch East Indies, laden with silver and other goodies to trade for precious spices on arrival. During the journey, merchants Adriaene Jacobsz and Jeronimus Cornelisz hatched a plan to hijack the ship and effect a mutiny, allowing them to steal the booty on board and start a new life somewhere. After Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course, the Batavia struck a reef close to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Most passengers managed to get ashore, but on finding no fresh water Captain François Pelsaert, Jacobsz and other crew members set off to find help, eventually arriving at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) 33 days later. Pelsaert was given a new ship with which to rescue those left on the island, but on his return found that Cornelisz had unleashed a bloody mutiny, killing 125 survivors. The wreck of the Batavia was salvaged in the 1970s, with many of the items on board now displayed in museums in Geraldton and Fremantle.
In the 1920s the remains of a castaway’s camp were discovered on the clifftops between Kalbarri and Shark Bay, subsequently named the Zuytdorp Cliffs. The fate of the Zuytdorp survivors had been a 300-year-old mystery until a rare disease endemic among seventeenth-century Afrikaaners (ships en route to the Dutch East Indies routinely stopped in South Africa to stock up on provisions) was discovered in local Aborigines, which suggests that some of the castaways survived long enough to pass the gene on. Recent research has discredited this idea, but controversy surrounding the wreck remains, with various locals claiming its discovery between the 1920s and 1960s, and accusations of looting rife.
In modern times, the ship that has most interested WA is the HMAS Sydney, whose success in the early years of World War II was the source of much national pride. It was sunk in mysterious circumstances off the West Australian coast in 1941, after a confrontation with the Kormoran, a German merchant trader disguised as a Dutch ship. After decades of searching (and a bill of some $3.5 million), the ship was found 200km off Steep Point near Shark Bay on 16 March, 2008, 22km away from the Kormoran. It made front-page news in Australia and finally granted some peace to the families of the 645-strong crew who were lost.
Indigenous history in northern WA
Indigenous history in northern WA
The history of Aboriginal people in Australia’s northwest differs greatly from those on the east coast or in southern WA due to a colonial quirk. The British Colonial Secretaries Office decreed in 1865 that due to the extreme heat no convict labour was to be used further north than the 26th parallel. Consequently, rather than being slaughtered as on the East Coast, local indigenous people were pressed into service in the burgeoning pastoral and pearling industries, meaning that their white “owners” were paradoxically depleting their workforces whenever they wanted to imprison local Aborigines for minor offences (an unsurprisingly regular occurrence).
The story of Jandamarra or “Pigeon” gives an interesting perspective on relations between Aborigines and white settlers. Jandamarra, a member of the Bunuba group, was made a “tracker” in the 1890s, and was expected to work with the white police force to weed out Aboriginal criminals. When rounding up a group of such “criminals” at Lillimooloora Police Station in 1894, Jandamarra’s loyalties to his people returned to the fore, and he killed a policeman, Constable Richardson, instigating a three-year “war” between his followers and the police force. His escapes from Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek entered folklore – in the latter case the police staked out one end of the tunnel for days, in the belief that it was a cave, while Jandamarra escaped from the other end. Ironically, it was another Aboriginal tracker who caught and shot Jandamarra at Tunnel Creek in 1987.
By the 1880s, huge numbers of Aboriginal people were “black-birded”, or uprooted from their traditional communities, and marched for hundreds of kilometres to pastoral or pearling stations. With pastoralism dominating the area’s economy for the next hundred years, it took a shamefully long time for the mistreatment of indigenous workers to end, and it was only in 1966 that equal pay was granted to Aboriginal stockmen and farm workers. Unfortunately, this did not bring an end to Aboriginal suffering, as the increased mechanization of the farming industry resulted in the now-unwanted labourers being driven off the stations and into towns far away from their traditional land.