Albany

I was born in Albany, I kept telling people here – Albany, New York!   They were quite aware of their New York State counterpart however, because it often came up first when they were searching for Albany, Western Australia.

This Albany is a very special place to Australians.  It was “the first white settlement” in this part of the country, as the guidebooks put it.   Captain Vancouver (yes, the same one) claimed it for king and country in 1826, well before Perth, mainly because it has a perfect natural harbor.  Two, in fact:  The outer harbor with an outlet to the sea is King George’s Sound; the inner harbor, completely sheltered, is Princess Royal Harbor.  The port is rated number two in the country (second only to Hobart, Tasmania) and number six in the world by whoever rates such things.  Unlike Auckland and Perth, there aren’t a lot of pleasure craft about.  This is a working port, from whence the produce from this whole fertile farming area ships.

Whaling fleets operated out of there as late as 1978.  We toured the last whaling station, a fascinating experience, and got to clamber around the last working ship in the whaling fleet.  It can’t have been pleasant duty, either working on the ships or in the gory processing plant, but whaling industry workers were paid triple the wage of their portside counterparts.  This was basically a one-industry town, so when the last of the whaling companies closed down the area experienced real economic hardship.   Imagine Wilmington, Delaware if DuPont decamped – or Schenectady after GE, for that matter.   The demise wasn’t for politically correct reasons; economics did the industry in.  OPEC’s leveraging up the price of oil made running the ships ruinously expensive; meanwhile, the development of synthetic lubricants reduced the demand for whale oil and therefore the price.

Now the main industry is tourism – the Albany area is the number one tourist destination in WA.   And tourists are certainly well looked after, judging by our experience.   We booked in advance through the Albany tourist info office into a motel a block off the main street and when we got there, the lady on the desk upgraded us into a two-bedroom apartment.   She also gave us tips on restaurants, which bottle shop to go to (not the nearest one), and where the nearest grocery store is.

We’d come down from Perth on another Transwa coach.  We’ve found them clean, comfortable, convenient and reasonably priced.  Sure beats driving for five hours or whatever and seeing nothing but the road ahead.  I remember a slogan from Greyhound bus company advertising in the U.S. decades ago:  “Take the bus and leave the driving to us.”   We were happy to do exactly that.  We went through suburban Perth, then sparsely settled countryside, then farm country, then woods (“bush” in Australian parlance), then sheep farms and as we got closer to Albany, cattle and horse country.  Pretty drive.   We didn’t see any kangaroos on the way down, but it was the wrong time of day.

A guy on the bus who lived in Albany recommended his friend’s restaurant, the Mean Fiddler, and the hotel lady did too, so after we’d shopped to stock the refrigerator and picked up the wine for the weekend (it was Saturday, the next day was Sunday, and Monday was a public holiday for ANZAC Day, so we figured we only had one chance) that’s where we went.  It’s perfectly acceptable to BYO wine here and all over Australia, so we’d picked up an excellent local Sauvignon Blanc, anticipating eating fish in a restaurant a stone’s throw from the sea.  We got the second-last table available at the Mean Fiddler (it was sold out by 6:30), which we reckoned was a good sign.  It was.  A tad expensive (although eating out anywhere in Australia is a shock), but absolutely worth it.   I had a blue crab and prawn cake (don’t tell my trainer) and a lightly pan-fried barramundi on orzo with lots of veggies, along with a Vietnamese salad that despite my initial misgivings turned out to be a perfect accompaniment.  We split a sticky date pudding for dessert – couldn’t resist it.   (Natalie, if you’re reading this, cover your eyes!)   We’d struck up a conversation with an English couple who were seated just after us provided that they agreed to vacate the table by 7:30.   They overstayed by a quarter of an hour, but Australians are pretty laid back.  Punctuality is not a prized personal attribute.   “No worries, mate,” grinned the waiting guests as we crept out apologizing.

We had been enjoying the conversation, so we and the English couple hiked up the hill to our “local” (called the Earl of Spencer because it’s on the corner of Earl and Spencer Streets!).  They were only in Albany because they got stranded by the Icelandic volcano that shut down all the European airports and couldn’t go home, so they rented a car and drove down.  Nice people; we had fun.  The pub had a pretty good selection of tap beers, including a Greene King ale from England that I found too delicious.

We all planned an early morning (I was going to go to the mountaintop sunrise service in honor of ANZAC Day), so we said good-bye after one drink and repaired to bed.   Our apartment was only one block down the hill; couldn’t be more convenient.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by what sounded like a woman screaming.   Sure enough, when I peeked out through the blinds I saw a young girl in what might have been a nightgown was staggering around in the middle of the road, screaming at the top of her lungs.   I debated about what to do.  No one seemed to be chasing her and she didn’t appear to be injured.  (Kitty Genovese came to mind, the young woman in Queens who was murdered by the Son of Sam while neighbors looked on from the safety of their apartments and did nothing.)  While I was wondering whether I should go out to her to see what might be the matter (I figured she was either drunk or stoned, to tell the truth), she gathered herself and headed back up the hill where she’d come from, navigating OK though still hollering away.

I did manage to wake up at 3:30AM and walked the couple of blocks over to St. John’s church to catch a bus up to the top of Mount Clarence for the solemn ANZAC memorial service.  So did hundreds of other people, including a lot of old soldiers proudly wearing their battle ribbons pinned to their blazers.  It was a moving experience.   Albany is small, only 16,000 people or so, and the really big remembrance for Western Australia would be in Perth, the capital city, attended by most of the state-level dignitaries and the top military brass.  But Albany is special because this is where the first convoys headed for Gallipoli left from in 1914, full of 19-year-old Australians and New Zealanders eager to fight for queen and country.  The hills behind Albany were their last sight of home.  Tens of thousands never came back.   They were the first ANZACs.  This was the 80th Anniversary of the very first dawn remembrance, held right here on this very spot.  They showed documentary war footage on a big screen behind a flag at half-mast and the band played “Waltzing Matilda” – not the jolly swagman ditty, this heartbreaking version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VktJNNKm3B0&feature=related

They also played “I Was Only 19”:

When the bugler blew the Last Post, tears flowed and the hair went up on the back of my neck.

Later in the morning I collected Sylv from the motel (she wasn’t quite up to a dawn service on the cold mountain) and we walked down to see the parade, which started a block below us on the main street.  It ended in the just-dedicated ANZAC Peace Park on the front, where all the marching groups assembled.  Diggers, sailors, mounted cavalry, military vehicles full of the last surviving veterans and even a pipe band complete with kilts.  (Perth is named for Perth, Scotland of course.)  Among the dignitaries laying wreaths was the mayor of Gallipoli, interestingly enough.  The Turks lost as many if not more in that terrible battle.  The woman mayor of a sister city in France was supposed to be here too, but her flight was cancelled (the Icelandic volcano again) so we had to make do with the French consul.

The high-ranking officer who made the keynote address, a brigadier general in the Australian Army, was surprisingly political.  He talked about how “our national moral compass is spinning” and said he had “no ambition to bear the title ‘World Citizen’.”  “Australian families embody the ANZAC values we treasure,” he said.  “It is a hard-won gift for us to live here in freedom,” he said, “but it is the nature of humanity that gifts are not always realized.” “The pilgrimage starts here,” he concluded.

At the end, the beribboned old veterans formed two lines and all the younger people marched out between them.

After the ceremony, we wandered over to the Albany Tourist Info office and asked what we should do with the rest of our half-day today and our full day tomorrow.   The lady there couldn’t have been more gracious and helpful.   She looked at her watch and said there’s a free cruise around the sound leaving from a landing up the shore in 15 minutes; can you make it?   An older guy and his young employee, water engineers down for the day, were standing nearby and said they’d like to do that too.  Moreover, they had a car and would run us up there.  She called the boat to make sure there was space and that they knew we were coming.  OK, she said, now let’s take care of tomorrow.  She signed us up for a different cruise up the Kalgan River in the morning; then she set us up with a private tour in the afternoon and had the guide meet us where the boat docked.  All done that quickly, with time to spare.

The free cruise was on a whale-watching catamaran.  The owner-operator is a sixtyish former teacher turned eco-activist named John who offers this free tour every year to commemorate ANZAC Day, going out to where we could look back at the harbor just as the boys on the first and second convoys did 95 years ago – the last look at home for many if not most of them.  There were about 30 of us on board and John lectured extensively on ecological issues as well as on the history and geography of the sound and the harbor.   He explained why the fishery is as it is, that Indonesia traps water below the equator that builds up and spills down the west coast of Australia.  That hot current creates the conditions for marine life to thrive and also makes the climate mild.  It was as instructive an afternoon as it was enjoyable.  The weather was perfect; blue skies, hot sun, cool air, nice breeze to fill the sails.  At one point he asked us all to be silent and “Listen to the song of the sea” as we drifted.  Idyllic.

As we came back in toward the harbor we passed an Australian submarine at a remote dock; it had come in to Albany for yesterday’s ANZAC Day ceremonies.   I’d seen a crew of sailors up at the dawn service; I guess that’s the boat they came off.

Afterwards in gratitude (and because he was an interesting guy whom we wanted to get to know better) we invited John and his wife Forrest to be our guests for dinner, an invitation they seemed quite pleased to accept.   We also asked the water engineers without whom we might’ve missed the boat to join us as well.   John suggested a steakhouse half a block from our hotel that we’d actually planned to eat at anyway; we’d bought a good cabernet merlot in anticipation of sinning.  (I’ve been on a supervised diet for three weeks now in conjunction with my exercise program; I don’t think I’ll tell my trainer about this dinner!)   The steak was as good as the conversation; a delightful evening.   John is a born teacher and he’s passionate about how we should all be minimizing our negative impact on the environment.  I’m a bit of a skeptic, suspecting that a lot of the global warming hoopla has more to do with people getting government grants than it does with the conviction that anything puny humans can do would actually make a difference in the larger scheme of things (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t be less wasteful), but it was hard not to be swept along by his concern and command of statistics.

The next morning (Monday) we walked into town center to catch the public bus out to Emu Point where that day’s cruise would leave from, only to discover that it was a Public Holiday and the buses weren’t running.   Fortunately the bus stop was only a block from the taxi company office, so we were able to get a cab out there.   We’d started early enough so we had a little time to spare, so the driver gave us a mini-tour on the way out.    One interesting sight he showed us was a rubble-strewn building site enclosed by a cyclone fence hung with hundreds of single socks (and the occasional bra, thong and pair of gutchies).   There had been a charming small hotel on this spot, he told us, where the locals loved to come in the evening to have a drink on the veranda and watch the sun set into the Indian Ocean.   A Singaporean developer bought it several years ago and immediately razed the hotel.   No one seems to know what he’s going to do on the site, but meanwhile the locals’ beloved watering hole is gone and he’s left an eyesore.  Festooning the fence with socks and such is their way of protesting.

The fun started early on the cruise, before we even left the dock.  The boat had a glass bottom and there was a big stingray gliding back and forth down there.   Even more amusing was watching ducks dive under the boat and swim by.  I’d never seen a duck underwater before; they streamline themselves and go like a rocket.  Surrounding the boat was a flock of a dozen swan-sized pelicans.  Several that Jack the boatman called by name performed tricks for him in exchange for a mackerel or two!

His father had started the business, he told us, when he came out from England as a “ten-pound Pom.”   To populate Australia, the British government encouraged people to emigrate by transporting them for only ten pounds, hence the sobriquet.

Coming out of the harbor Captain Jack followed an indirect route that he said was an underwater river.  The shallow harbor – you could literally walk to shore from the middle – doesn’t have to be dredged because those river currents keep the channel open.   We could look through the glass bottom when he slowed and see the banks of the underwater river quite clearly.

He was full of stories and kept us entertained all the pleasant way up the winding Kalgan River to a landing where a van from a vineyard there picked us up for a wine tasting.   Montgomery Hill was the name of the place; I’m afraid that again, none of their wines pleased Sylv’s or my palates enough that we wanted to buy a bottle.   When we got back to the boat he’d made coffee and tea and heated up several loaves of “damper.”  I’m not exactly sure exactly what damper is – some sort of old-time bread, probably a staple of the colonials’ diet.  To me it was heavy and doughy and not worth the calories, but by then we were so hungry we ate it anyway.

Cruising back down the river was equally pleasant.  The boatman used a whistle to call a couple of big sea eagles down out of the trees to come get a fish; that was exciting.  But he can’t do that with the ospreys we saw, he told us, because the ospreys won’t eat dead fish.  They have to nail their prey alive.  To my amazement, we were also accompanied by two or three of his pet pelicans who’d flown all that way up with us.

We got back to the dock nearly an hour late, but the guide for our next tour was still patiently waiting.   Fortunately, we were his only customers that day, so we hadn’t delayed a vanload of other tourists.

Terry took us first all the way around Princess Royal Harbor to Whale World.   It was billed as a must-see attraction, but I was sort of expecting some kitschy Wally World thing.  It wasn’t.  First an old guy who had worked there before it closed (as had his father and grandfather) walked us through and told us in considerable gory detail just what it had been like, both on the boats out whale hunting and in the processing sheds here on shore.  He even switched on some of the machinery.  There were also a couple of huge whale skeletons to wow over.  I was most fascinated by the bones of the whale’s flipper.  It was eerily like a human arm, with a ball joint in the shoulder, two arm bones meeting at the “wrist” and what looked for all the world like long fingers.  Interestingly, the nearest land-based mammal relative to the whale is the hippopotamus, he told us.  Then we watched several short films in theatres set up inside the great old whale oil tanks showing whalers in action back in the day, and finally we climbed all over the last of the old steel whaling ships to see how the crew had lived.  Cramped, for openers.  And in constant danger.

By the time we got back to the entrance to connect back up with our driver, two hours had fled by, it was that absorbing.

In the time we had left, we visited the natural wonders that constitute the other two most popular tourist attractions, a gap in the granite cliffs that the waves pound through and a natural bridge the sea has created.   Spectacular scenery.

We looked down into a cove from the top and saw a fisherman up on one of the rocks, which the guide said was foolish and deadly dangerous.  A “king wave” could easily sweep the person off with no warning and he’d be gone, which is exactly what had happened a day or two before.   Yet here was this guy out there defying death in hopes of catching a salmon for dinner.   We could even see wet on the rock where the odd wave had in fact come up within a couple of feet of him.

On the way home, Terry showed us a bunch of black swans roosting on a beach and to our particular joy pointed out a herd of kangaroos in a field we passed.  It was dusk, which is when you are most likely to see them, but we hadn’t seen any in the whole three months we’d been here.   And we got another bonus – we saw a big emu out there too!

Back in town we had a hard time finding somewhere to eat – a lot of the restaurants closed for the Public Holiday too.  But our trusty local pub, the Earl of Spencer, wasn’t one of them.   The meal was OK; the pint was delicious!

And so to bed, ready to go home – back to Perth – early the next morning.

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