As the plane descended towards Perth, the brown landscape of Australia’s vast interior finally gave way to the brilliant blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Even from the air, I could see the white sand of Perth’s renowned beaches reflecting the sunlight. The journey from Cairns involved a plane change in Alice Springs, and gave me a far better understanding of the massive scale of the Australian landmass.
Despite being the country’s fourth largest city, I’d heard many people talk about Perth as a backwater compared to the nation’s other big cities. Its isolation from the rest of metropolitan Australia, only too obvious when you fly across the country to reach it, doesn’t help. It’s as quick for Sandgropers (as Western Australian’s are known) to fly to Singapore as it is to reach Sydney.
On the ground, Perth was something of a revelation. It felt more cosmopolitan than its reputation led me to believe. It also felt very liveable. The broad Swan River flows through its centre and has pleasant riverside parks, walking paths, cafes and bars; there are lots of green spaces; and nearby is a coastline with golden beaches. Despite the tall glass towers of the business district, it felt like a relaxed, easy-going place.
It truth, the city has been growing quickly thanks to a commodities boom driven by China’s insatiable desire for raw materials. The immense size of Western Australia once hid large gold deposits, which sparked a gold rush in the 1890s; more recently vast deposits of iron ore, along with nickel, diamonds and coal, have fed its growth. No surprise that Perth is the regional headquarters of the big global mining companies.
I’d come to Perth to visit an old friend, who migrated here several years ago. It was interesting to see the city through ‘local’ eyes, although, as with any reunion, that did involve visiting a disproportionate number of local ‘watering holes’. Despite rising costs and a general sense of isolation, Perth clearly offers a high quality of life.
I spent a sunny morning wandering the city centre and strolling along the attractive landscaped riverfront at Elizabeth Quay. I walked through the grounds of Government House, before visiting St. Mary’s Cathedral, probably the most English church you’re ever likely to see outside of England. One of the church volunteers gave me a potted history of the city and the cathedral.
Later, I went up to King’s Park, which sits on an escarpment offering fantastic views over the town and river. The day ended with a visit to the city’s most trendy nightlife area, Northbridge. It’s an area full of boutiques, small, atmospheric bars, coffee houses and good restaurants. The vibrant atmosphere is helped along by a large student population and money from the mining boom. Perth certainly offers a warm welcome.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to discover and explore this coastline between the 1650s and 1690s. Their ships were travelling to Batavia, modern-day Jakarta, and shipping spices back to Europe that would make the Netherlands rich enough to spark the Dutch Golden Age. These early explorers had a low opinion of the value of the land near Perth, not to mention the dangers of reefs, which sank one of their ships.
The Dutch recommended against colonisation, and with it European interest in the area waned. It would take well over 150 years before the British founded the Swan River Colony, as it was then known, which was established in nearby Fremantle in May 1829. The first European immigrants in Western Australia had arrived.
Perth was founded in August of the same year, when the wife of a British naval captain ceremonially chopped down a tree. Initially, it was set up as a ‘free’ colony rather than a penal colony, and colonists were encouraged to migrate from the UK. Unfortunately, the Dutch reports of the quality of agricultural land proved to be true, and the colony struggled for survival.
In the 1850s fewer than 6,000 people lived here, which may be why this was when the first penal ships arrived with their human cargo. Transportation of convicts ended in 1868, but by then many Irish independence fighters and political activists had been shipped here by the British authorities. This led to the Catalpa Rescue of 1876, the legendary escape of six Fenian prisoners in a ship flying the flag of the United States.
Shortly after this the gold rush began, and Perth became the transit hub to the gold fields of the interior. This was to prove only the first of several mining booms that wouldn’t just secure the city’s future, but would propel it to become a today’s city of over two million people.