Perth 6

It didn’t rain for 100+ days here.  Farmers were desperate.  City fathers put in water restrictions.  Lawns were dying.  Rain would be predicted, hopefully, breathlessly, and occasionally there would be clouds in the cobalt blue sky.  But nothing happened: a few minutes of sudden cooling, a bit of breeze, but no moisture.

Yesterday afternoon Mother Nature made up for it.   A sudden storm hit, and what a storm.  Thunder, lightning, winds measured at 128mph, hail the size of the proverbial golf balls and a deluge that might have caught Noah’s attention.  Wow.  I was at school and it hit just before I had to go to lecture halfway across the campus.  There was a brief lull, so I got to class relatively dry, thanks to a golf jacket borrowed from my colleague Dan Hardy and plastic bags from wastebaskets tied around my ankles to keep my costly Italian loafers from getting soaked!   But then the storm hit, big time.   The hail clattered on the tin roof of the auditorium and the lights went out, but the computer projector stayed on for some reason – maybe a backup power source – so I carried on too.   First presentation I’ve ever made in the dark!

Meanwhile in the alley behind Bally, Sylv had started to go out but came back for something she’d forgotten and crash! The storm hit.  The hailstones bouncing off all the metal rails and stairs and fencing made a terrifying roar, she said, and the brickwork pavement looked like it was covered in snow.   There are curbs under our gate and below our door, so our apartment didn’t get flooded, thank goodness.

The school wasn’t so lucky.  By the time my hour-and-a-half lecture was over, the fury had subsided and we were down to spritzing rain and a few big puddles as I walked back to the office.  Power was off all over campus, but that was the least of it.  When I walked into our dark office suite, the squish-squish from the carpet under my feet told me we had a bigger problem.  I’m not sure whether the roof let go (many did in this storm) or the wind and rain blasted through a window, but whatever it was, our end of the office suite had as much as six inches of water on the floor.   I didn’t have anything stored on the floor (for a change, Sylv says) and as nearly as I could tell in the dark, water hadn’t come down on my desk full of papers.  I didn’t stick around very long because my plastic-bag overshoes were failing; I just grabbed what I thought I needed for the evening tutorial.  Turned out I’d grabbed the wrong pile, but it didn’t matter anyway.   The tutorial classroom was locked and security had bigger issues to deal with than coming to let us in; besides, there was still no power and the room had no windows so it would have been impossible to do anything anyway.   Then one of the students had the bright idea of our moving to the TAV, a beer bar on campus in a nearby building, so off we went.   I felt like the Pied Piper leading my little troupe down the path.  But the sour lady who runs the TAV had decided to close early because, she said, there was no trade.  I waved at my thirsty mob and said, “What about this bunch of customers who just walked in the door?”   But she wanted to go home, period, and wasn’t to be persuaded.  So we bagged the tutorial and one of the students volunteered to drive me home.   Good thing; my colleague waited more than an hour for a bus that never came.

Around Perth there was a lot of flooding, of course, and hail damage.  All 90 cars on the Toyota dealer’s lot had damage ranging from dings in the paint to broken windows and soaked upholstery.   Trees were down on houses.  The roof on the Qantas terminal at the airport collapsed and rain poured in on the luggage that had been off-loaded.  Takeoffs were delayed for up to three hours, with people already on the planes.

The only people happy about all this were the farmers, who not only welcomed the rain but also were overjoyed by the flooding.   It seems flood put water deep in the soil where the sun and wind can’t get at it, so they’re predicting a couple of years of good harvests.

I didn’t go into the office today.   I’ll let the carpet dry a bit first.  Besides, as luck would have it, we’ve now got a couple of weeks off, a study week followed by Easter break.   All I have to do is grade 40-odd assignments they handed in yesterday and re-plan the rest of the semester.

Friday we finally left the immediate environs of Perth for a tour into the countryside.  We took a bus excursion 300 kilometers north to the Pinnacles, a unique field of limestone spears sticking up out of the desert.  And going down, too, the guide told us.  He said they extend 40 meters below the surface, rooted on a tier of bedrock.  This area used to be at the bottom of the sea.  Limestone is composed of amalgamated shellfish shells and the pinnacles are hardened by coating of calcification.   Thus as the blowing sand scours away everything else, these odd formations remain.  Interesting.

Sylv and I wandered out into the desert to get a closer look at them and managed to get ourselves lost!   We had no idea where we were or where we’d come from or how to get back to the ranger station where the bus was parked and where we were due in ten minutes or so.  We climbed a lookout tower, but still couldn’t see anything but the desert hills, blowing sand, and thousands of sticky-up rocks.   We weren’t quite panicked, but we were getting concerned.   Fortunately some Burmese people came along in a big black Ute (4WD vehicles are called “Utes” in Australia) and drove us back up the track a couple of miles to the station, just in time.

We felt a little sandblasted.  The wind comes in very strong off the Indian Ocean.  We’d passed a 48-turbine wind farm a few miles back and now we know how well placed it is.   On the way back down the coast toward Perth we stopped at a beach where a couple of guys were windsurfing and were they ever tearing along!

The trip actually took twelve hours, from 8AM to 8PM.   As we left Perth we passed the domestic airport, which the driver told us was the busiest airport in the world weekdays at 6AM.  There are more than 300 mines in Western Australia – the booming mining industry has surpassed farming as the number one contributor to the WA economy – and they shuttle their workers back and forth by air from Perth to the distant interior where the mines are located.

The first leg of our trip took us along the Swan River, up the wide valley that ends at Perth.  I didn’t realize how extensive the Swan River wine region was that close in to the city, only 20 minutes or so up the river.  There are 75 wineries along the river, plus a few breweries and even a distillery.  There’s a half-day wine-tasting tour we could take, the driver told us, and we probably will.   Chenin blanc is the primary grape and we haven’t tried that here yet.  It’s said to be a little drier than its California cousins.

It was a pretty drive north through gently hilly scrub forest and farmland, gradually steepening as we climbed out of the valley.   The Great Northern Highway is a two-lane macadam road that we had to share with “road trains.”   Road trains are huge tractor-trailers, with the tractor pulling as many as four trailers farther out in the bush.  In more populated areas they’re limited to two and they can only haul one at a time into the city.  There are “road train assembly centers” near Perth and 150 miles or so out where the trailers are put on or taken off, sort of like freight trains are assembled in rail centers in the U.S.

The Great Northern Highway is also Route 1 here, which if we stayed on it for the next 18,000 kilometers would take us completely around Australia.

To our left as we drove north was the Indian Ocean; to our right the Darlington Ridge, low mountains which millennia ago were sea cliffs.   Coming from NASCAR country, it amuses us that two of the nearby Western Australia towns are named Darlington and Rockingham!

We passed through a little town called Moora on the Moore River that had to be completely evacuated three straight years due to flooding.  They average six cyclones a year on this side of Australia.   When one hits too soon after the one before it, the ground is already saturated and the river is already full, so there’s nowhere for the water to go except up over the river banks and out into the flat river plain where this poor town is situated.  I think I’d move.

Our first destination was a picturesque monastery village named New Norcia.  The mission there was founded in 1846 by Benedictine monks who were sent out from Spain to convert the heathens.   They established schools for Aborigine children, teaching the boys a trade (like brick making or carpentry) and the girls how to cook and do laundry.  Some of the students were part of the “stolen generation” – Aboriginal kids taken from their parents to be raised by whites.  The scheme was well intentioned, but disastrously disruptive for Aboriginal families.   It’s still a subject of great bitterness, among even the children themselves who “benefited.”  The government only recently has begun to apologize.

From there we went to see an enormous 18,000-acre wildflower farm.  It started as the ranch wife’s hobby and now exports both fresh and especially dried flowers all over the world.  The order that she and her crew were processing when we visited was “a million stems for Italy.”   We learned about the two methods of drying flowers, with a glycerin and water solution (which is expensive but leaves the flowers soft) or by curing them in the smoke of burning sulphur (which is labor-intensive).  Labor is obviously much cheaper in Western Australia than it is in Europe, so that’s why the work is done here and the flowers can be flown halfway around the world to market.  Plus of course that much land is available here and everything grows like mad if you can get a little water on it.

Sylv and were sitting in the front seats of the bus and the lower part of the windshield was protected by a wide-mesh screen.  A few miles out of Perth, a butterfly got flattened against it by the wind.   When we stopped at the wildflower farm a hundred miles later, Sylv picked him or her off the screen.  To our surprise, it was still alive!  When she set it on a nearby shrub, it flapped a few times and then flew away.  From imminent death by bus windshield on the highway to a new life in an 18,000-acre wildflower farm?   That’s got to be a butterfly that lived right!

We were rewarded by the sight of an impossibly bright green parrot who swooped by shortly thereafter.

There are all kinds of interesting flora and fauna in Australia.   For example, lining the highway for some miles are Salmon Gum trees.  Their bark is black and looks like charcoal, but where it’s been peeled away the wood is salmon red in color.

We also saw lots of Indian Brahma cattle, the ones with a hump on their back.  This is very dry country and it turns out that like a camel’s hump, the Brahman’s hump also stores fat and water and thus lets the animal survive when ordinary cows not so equipped would die during a prolonged drought.

Farmers in this part of the country consult one another so that everybody doesn’t plant the same crop and therefore produce a glut that would drive down prices.  That sounds a lot more sensible to me than the farm subsidy program in the U.S. that pays farmers not to grow anything.   There’s also a burgeoning olive and olive oil business, the climate being more or less Mediterranean and the population becoming more sophisticated in their tastes.  Another recent phenomenon is sheep being raised not for wool but for meat.  Because of the growing population here there’s a shortage of lamb.  You can tell because sheep raised for wool will tend to be all of one breed on a farm; flocks of sheep raised for meat are integrated – white, brown, black, mixed, it doesn’t matter.

Sunday we headed back to Freemantle on the train, just for an outing.   We got off at North Freemantle to see a photography exhibit we’d seen advertised.   It was in a bar and the bar was closed, but the photographer herself let us in to see the work.   Nothing special, I’m afraid, and it was a crummy venue (drunks had damaged a couple of her photographs last night), but she was grateful to get the chance to exhibit anywhere.  Everybody’s got to start someplace.

There are a lot of antique stores in the North Freemantle and we took a look at a big one before heading on to the port.   We found our Royal Worcester china there; they’d priced a milk jug and sugar basin like ours at $59 a piece.  Wow, if we could afford to ship it over we’d make a fortune!

We grabbed a bus into Freemantle proper (our Perth SmartRider cards work here too) and headed to the docks for fish ‘n chips.  There was a boat show on and we ate out on the deck by a 41’ fishing boat for sale for only $990,000.  No takers while we were there.  Later we walked around looking at other offerings.   We got into a conversation with one older couple repping a line of small pleasure boats that looked for all the world like the boats Maine lobstermen use.  Sylv was horrified that I said so, but the couple said that the boats were in fact modeled on just that kind of working boat used in the North Sea – the one on display even had a roller bar on the rail for getting the traps on and off.   I didn’t ask the price.

The poor woman had just had her wallet lifted while she was in the grocery store up in the town.   The thief seemed to have taken it right out of the purse she was carrying on her shoulder.   There is apparently a significant risk of being robbed if you’re not careful throughout this whole area.   We’ve met a few people who’ve lost things.   Diane was horrified a few weeks ago when I almost left a little utility bag with my camera in it on the seat of her car at a shopping center near her home.   “Never do that,” she said.  “It would have been gone when we came out.”   Hmmm.   Makes you think.   Makes you wonder.

We ended up at the Maritime Museum in Freemantle, which was fascinating.  There have been a lot of ships wrecked on the rocks off this coast – not on the scale of Hatteras and the Outer Banks in Carolina, maybe, but still a bunch.  Their proudest exhibit is a Dutch ship that went down in 1629, the Batavia.  (Batavia is the old name for One side was buried on the bottom and pretty well preserved.  They’ve treated the old wood somehow with some sort of glycol solution and reconstructed a big part of stern.  Impressive.

We took the train home again; the public transportation system is so good here.  We could learn a lot of lessons.

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