Perth & Fremantle: 1st & 2nd Impressions

I went to Perth and Fremantle in my ‘year of travelling’, when I took a career break from work. They were places that a couple of my friends had raved about; especially Fremantle. The impression I’d got from them, and from things I’d read and seen online, that it was a ‘hip’ and ‘happening’ place, very ‘indie’ and chilled – all the casual Australian vibe with the added flair of ‘we’re miles awaysu from anywhere, no-one cares, let’s just do our own thing’.

Spoiler: it was not like that. In fact, I found them quite frustrating, and not places that lived up to my expectations. However, much of this has to be caveated; my visit there coincided with quite a drop in my mental health and my mood, caused by concerns about relationships (I was in a standard alloromantic one – you’d have thought I’d have known better!) and money. In addition, the little things that went wrong during my time there consequently affected me more than they really needed to have done. I only got out of my funk by physically moving on to a new town, which means my thoughts of the area were clouded by my bad experiences.

View from an aeroplane window, coming in to land at Perth Airport in May 2014.
View from a plane, looking at Perth, May 2014.

However, this doesn’t mean I ended up feeling anything against the towns themselves; I always knew it was a case of ‘right place, wrong time’, and I actively wanted to return, if for no other reason than to put my ghosts to rest. So four years later, I went back to Perth and Fremantle, and spent about two weeks there exploring much of what the region had to offer, and I had a much better experience. Obviously it was helped in part by hanging around with a good internet friend – Shelly from the WheresShelly website – and it definitely helps anywhere to have some local knowledge as it means, amongst other things, you’re not alone and you have someone there to help you with your confusion.

I thought it might be interesting to write a short post about my two experiences, comparing my mood and impressions, and hopefully show that how you feel about a place depends on you just as much as it depends on the place. Note that this works in reverse too – a place you think is great on your first visit might disappoint on future trips. It may also be affected by the time of year you visit – on my first trip I was there at the very end of May, so the start of Winter, whereas my second trip was at the end of August; the end of Winter, Not that “Winter” in Australia, even in Perth, is particularly onerous.

Side view of a beach in Fremantle, with my legs and feet lying on the rocks, across the foreground.
“Winter” was still warm enough to be predominantly barefoot.

Four Years Previously …

My first trip was quite haphazard and random; I didn’t really have any specific plan other than visiting places that I thought ‘sounded like they might be interesting’, and which I may never go to again. Perth is famously noted as being the city the furthest away from any other of comparable size, which is a bit of a vague stat since the cut off point is arbitrary, but that’s a debate for geography and economics majors. TL;DR: it’s a long way away from anywhere so it’s a place you specifically need to want to come to.

This means of course, if you make the journey, and something just doesn’t ‘feel right’, it does affect you quite a bit since you’re left with the feeling of ‘why did I come’, of ‘was this a waste of money and time’, and ‘oh my, now I’m stuck here’. Especially if part of your issues are around money; if you’re on a budget and are aware that this visit was a fair slice of that budget – Australia is one of the more expensive countries in the world to be stuck having a personal and existential crisis in.

First impressions of Fremantle

Statue of AC/DC vocalist/lyricist Bon Scott, who made Fremantle his home.
Statue of AC/DC vocalist/lyricist Bon Scott, who made Fremantle his home.

My first impressions of Fremantle weren’t exactly cheery. The journey there from Perth hadn’t taken that long, and it had given good views out over the harbour area – quite low-key and ‘industrial’. The main station itself was near the port, and a little walk into the town centre.

It felt a little weird to be there, in truth. So I’d been led to believe it was this ‘hip and happening’ place, but it felt to me a little more like a British seaside resort, and furthermore, one slightly out-of-season so it seemed to have a kind of low-key, lazy vibe. That said, I suppose that’s really what I should have expected, given I went in Winter. But there just didn’t feel like there’s as much life, as much ’happiness’ as there should have been. Wandering around the streets, I did notice a few ‘depressed locals’, aimless, hopeless, care-less, without smiles, without passion, shuffling, as though waiting for the Summer. The only ‘life’ seemed to be in the queue for the local nightclub; a place I wouldn’t have ventured into anyway.

Typical street in Fremantle town centre.
Typical street in Fremantle town centre.

My couple of nights in the town were spent in a backpacker hostel that was full of life, although obviously as an introvert, that’s not always a good thing. Again, I have to be in the right ‘frame of mind’ for peopleing. Plus of course being a newcomer into any kind of social environment, especially a hostel where everyone already knows people, means that life is something that takes place ‘around’ me, rather than with me.

The doorway to the Pirate Backpackers Hostel in Fremantle. There's a cartoonish image of a woman in t-shirt, shorts, and boots, bag on the floor by her feet. It looks nothing like me but maybe I like to think it should? Apart from the boots, obviously.
Entrance to the Pirate Backpackers, Fremantle.

What didn’t help my mood at the time either was the lack of internet provision, Fremantle has free public WiFi in the town centre, so the hostel didn’t see the need to have its own WiFi service; this also had the secondary aim of getting people to talk to each other. The problem came in that the hostel lay just outside the area served by the free town WiFi service, so if I wanted to get online I had to leave the hostel and wander into town to sit on a bench somewhere. As someone already having mental health issues, who uses the internet to escape from too social an environment, this just added to my feelings of angst about the town. Especially as my relationship troubles were only manageable online, and I was 8 hours ahead in time so it often meant me being outside in the dark at 9pm with my tablet fighting with the town’s WiFi, alone, stressed, and helpless.

Statue of a woman in a bathing suit sat on a bench. It's called 'Bella', by Greg James.
A statue of a woman, called “Bella” by Greg James; the plaque nearby says “The freedom to be who you are and to enjoy what it is!”. It’s this statue I tended to sit next to in the dark to pick up the town’s WiFi.

That it was quite a ‘party hostel’ and even a ‘party town’ was evidenced on my second night there. Three people (early 20-something guys from New Zealand) checked in the previous day, then left the next day, and it may have been that they were actually ‘kicked out’; something that I’d never known happen before. Even my first impression of them had been quite negative – they were sharing the 6-bed dorm with me and told me they were going out that evening to get high; they’d made a list of places they could get drink and drugs from, and were going to spend the night snorting coke. At this point in the early evening they already gave the impression of being quite drunk. When they eventually went to bed that night they just literally crashed onto their beds and fell asleep.

Except this was at 4am.

They’d forgotten their keycodes to the dorm room, so banged loudly on the door for … a while. At some point they gave up on that, and instead jumped through the window. All the while shouting and talking very loudly, disturbing pretty much everyone in the hostel.

That didn’t help my mood either.

First Impressions of Perth

Statue of kangaroos in the centre of Perth, by Joan Walsh-Smith. I talk more about these later.
Kangaroo statue in Perth. See more about this later.

I initially passed through Perth briefly on my arrival, between arriving on the bus from the airport, and catching the local train to Fremantle. The first thing I saw in the city were some statues of kangaroos; how typically Aussie. It took me a bit longer than I hoped to find not just the railway station abut also the right platform for the train, due to either a lack of signage in the city, or my lack of observational skills. Either way, it made me a little grumpy.

A couple of days later though, I had one full day exploring Perth on my own; this occurred after I was already irked by both my mood and my problematic night in the dorm, and to be honest I was already quite eager to get away. I’d mentally prepared myself to leave the next day anyway – I’d booked a train to Adelaide, because if there’s anything that gets you out of a funk, it’s a 41 hour train ride (!).

Anyway. My thoughts on Perth at the time were that it was very ‘English’ – I felt the the city centre itself wouldn’t seem out of place in the UK (although the wider streets just outside the main shopping area felt slightly more American than British). There were a similar array of types of shops, and the buildings and the layout of the streets had much more of an English ‘style’ to them than anywhere else I’d experienced.

One of the typical shopping streets of Perth city centre
One of the typical shopping streets of Perth city centre

I also didn’t get the impression that it was much of a ‘tourist’ city. Rather, it felt like a good place to ‘base’ yourself for trips away, rather than somewhere to go for its own sake. Apart from the likes of Rottnest Island, and of course Fremantle itself, many of the ‘sights’ were a drive or tour guide away. Once again, I felt a bit like I’d come all this way for no real purpose, and the experience felt like a waste of time and money.

One thing I did explore on that day though was King’s Park. This is a huge parkland area just to the west of the city centre, and it’s divided into several different ‘zones’, each of which caters for a different interest or ‘need’. What I mean by this is that, for example, one section was devoted to Children’s education, another was filled specifically with Australian flora, while a third was a long road lined with war memorials. Once again, getting between them felt more awkward than it should have been due to my not seeing any coherent signposting.

Overlooking part of King's Park, Perth.
An overlooking of part of King’s Park.

That said, it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours. While I know nothing about flora, for instance, it was quite interesting to see that part of the park. Some of the flowers, plants, and even trees had brought here specifically to ensure their survival (so for example a couple of the plants growing here only grow elsewhere in maybe one or two other spots in the whole country, and therefore by definition the whole world). There was also a Boab tree, a huge thing (a kind of baobab), that had been manually transported down from the North in a 5-day trek, when its original location was disturbed by a new bridge.

The boab tree, King's Park
The boab tree, King’s Park.

I finished off by standing on top of a cliff at the edge of the park, overlooking the river and also Perth’s city and business centre. It’s always good to get a sense of place, and it proves that no matter how you feel about a place, there’s always something that makes you smile.

Overlooking Perth city centre from the edge of King's Park, 2014.
Overlooking Perth city centre from the edge of King’s Park, 2014.

Four Years Later …

Overlooking Perth city centre from the edge of King's Park, 2018. At night.
Overlooking Perth city centre from the edge of King’s Park, 2018. At night.

In the four years after going to Perth and Fremantle, I started to chat to hundreds of other travellers online, and this included a couple of people who lived in the area. They were interested in my impressions of my previous visit, and kept saying that I should go back some day because I might like it this time. One of them (Shelly, of course) even gave me an open invite, an offer I was only too glad to eventually take up.

This visit was again part of a much longer trip, but rather than being a vague ‘let’s go round the world and see what happens’ adventure, this time I had a much more of a definite plan – Perth would be a natural stopover point between my exploits in Vanuatu and the Sunshine Coast of Australia, and a subsequent 11 days in Sri Lanka via Singapore. I arranged with Shelly the best dates to come – to coincide with wildflower season – but I planned to be there for the best part of two weeks so of course there was going to be a lot more that we could do and see.

A Return to Fremantle

Shelly lived on the eastern outskirts of Fremantle, very definitely in the lesser-visited suburbs, but still with easy access to the town. Surprisingly we didn’t visit the centre that often, but it was nice to have a wander through and see if much had changed.

It was again Winter, so it certainly still didn’t have much of the hip life that I’d previously expecting, but since I was with a friend and based in a much quieter and more comfortable setting (complete with WiFi!), it was less of an issue and I had fewer initial expectations anyway.

Many of the landmarks seemed familiar, likewise a few of the streets. The buildings I kind of recognised, and they looked a bit more appealing this time. Shelly also took me to places that i hadn’t been aware of on my last visit (or which I’d just passed by in some kind of daze), including the Whaler’s Tunnel and a promenade above it (Arthur’s Head Reserve) that goes past a site called The Roundhouse.

Some random artwork on Arthur's Head Reserve
Some random artwork on Arthur’s Head Reserve. It’s next to the Roundhouse but it is not the Roundhouse, self-evidently. It appears that I don’t have a picture of the Roundhouse. Because I’m not a travel blogger. * shrug.

This used to be a prison, and it’s believed to be the oldest building still standing and in use in the whole of Western Australia – I’ve no idea how I managed to miss it last time. It was built around 1830, though it’s no longer a jail, rather a small museum about its history. The Whaler’s Tunnel that goes underneath is a completely separate construction, of a similar vintage, and was built to allow easy access from the beach below (now called Bather’s Beach) to the town when whaling took place off the coast. It no longer does.

Some things were new though, including the multiple pieces of artwork that now adorn the streets. This included an Instagram-friendly piece of street art by the Swiss street Felice Varini. Called “Arc d’Ellipses”, it’s a series of yellow arcs painted all along High Street, the road leading from the Whaler’s Tunnel into the street. It was created for the first Fremantle biennale (High Tide) in 2017, but seems to have stayed.

View looking down High Street Fremantle of the Arc Ellipses artwork. It's a series of concentric yellow lines that look at this angle for all the world like the road is lined with circles. It looks very odd if you stand next to them, Because maths.
View looking down High Street Fremantle of the Arc Ellipses artwork. It looks very odd if you stand next to them, Because maths.

Another piece of artwork that wasn’t present on my previous visit is another favourite of Instagrammers. Called, simply, ‘Rainbow’ but dubbed ‘Containbow’, it’s by local artist Marcus Canning and is, well, exactly what it sounds like. It’s a rather odd rainbow made up of container crates. It stands around 9m high and is 19m from side to side. It’s by the side of the road a little way out of town, near the bridge to North Fremantle; indeed had it been there on my last visit I’d have been able to see it from the train from Perth.

The rainbow art installation, made up of shipping container crates painted in the colours of the rainbow. data-lazy-src=

I started near the yacht club and wandered for about 6m along the river bank, past an array of strange sculptures, cliff edges and rock formations that felt out of place here by the river, and finished up in a small nature reserve (Atterdale Cove) where I sat for a while and watched birds fly in and out. While not necessarily something that most tourists would see, it was nice for me to be on my own and do something calming, especially in an overall place that I’d been so irked about on a previous visit. Something to do with re-evaluating it in my own head and making necessarily mental changes.

Returning to Perth

We surprisingly didn’t spend that much time in Perth city centre; we had one full day there before going to watch an AFL game, but what we did explore did feel a little familiar.

The kangaroo statues in Perth city centre, as seen in 2018.
The kangaroo statues in Perth city centre, as seen in 2018.

So, it turns out that these kangaroos are in a pretty central location, very close to the council offices and the old governor’s house building. They’re also one of the more iconic symbols of Perth, and were erected in 1998 in honour of the “Perth – A City for People” project at the time. They’re representative of three situations the creatures often find themselves in – ‘drinking’, ‘alert’, and ‘in flight’.

Statues representing people walking to work, male and female, in business dress, in front of St Martin's Tower, Perth city centre. The middle statue is a man wearing a top hat. Holding his hand is a real human who ... is wearing a shirt, I guess, at least ...
I am not wearing business dress. Because hi have you met me.

The sculptor who created them, Joan Walsh-Smith (an Irish immigrant to Perth), has designed many things across Australia, but much of her work is in WA. Just down the main street from the kangaroos, at St Martin’s Tower (an otherwise non-descript modern office tower block), is a series of statues of business people throughout history all walking into the office. It’s quite a quirky little symbol of modern times, and something I seem to have completely missed last time I was here. In fairness the only reason I even saw the kangaroo statues is because the bus from the airport stopped literally next to them.

The plaque in the Perth walk of fame that commemorates 1972. It's to Dennis Lillie, the Australian cricketer and one of the fastest fast bowlers that ever played. He came from Subiaco, a suburb of Perth. I am standing just below the plaque – a pair of crochet-covered feet with teal toenails standing contrasting against the stone blue of the plaque.
Cricketing legend and Fast Bowler Dennis Lillee comes from Subiaco, a suburb of Perth. 1972 was when he really first made his mark on the cricketing scene, in the Ashes series in England.

Nearby, by the way, is Perth’s ‘walk of fame’, that every city needs to have if it’s to challenge amongst the notable places in the world (even Wakefield has one, ffs!). This one commemorates people from all over Western Australia, not just Perth, and rather than being a simple list, there’s one plaque for every year since 1829 (the year British colonists first arrived in Perth, and thus is taken to be the foundation year of the state of WA). Every year except 1959. Because in 1959, television was introduced into Perth and one of its early stars was ‘The Boy From Bassendean’, a local entertainer and cartoonist who, shall we say, it later turns out wasn’t exactly someone people should be associating with. So they removed his plaque in 2014. Which potentially means I would have seen it on my previous trip. Had I known it was there. Which I didn’t. I did catch a bit of his artwork on a similar pavement in Sydney though.

Scene in London Court; I'm standing in front of one of the entrance towers. It's tall and pointed, like a castle gateway.
One of the portals of London Court.

Between a couple of buildings further along the street is a small passageway called London Court. At either end it’s partially disguised by buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in fantasy literature – old fashioned and ornate towers that look like they’ve been repurposed from a disused wizard’s school of magic. The street itself is more style than substance, and there are no shops selling magic potions or enchanted weapons, but it’s a good place to go for a handbag.

Some weird street art on a wall I came across in Perth in 2014. I've no idea how to even describe it, it's weird, it's got monsters on it, that's about all I can feasibly say.
Some street art I saw in Perth in 2014. No, no idea either.

Perth’s also got a fair amount of street art, a fact I did notice on my previous trip. I do like me a good wall mural; I find it helps to brighten up the place. Doubly so if it’s a piece that’s designed to make you think, something that has a message. I’m less fond of gratuitous tagging, although sometimes the tags themselves can be artistic. I probably should do a blog post on ‘street art around the world’ at some point, but … now is not the time.

Some weird street art on a wall I came across in Perth in 2018. I've no idea how to even describe it, it's weird, it's got a cat in a cereal box, a potion jar with a flick-knife, a bird in a cylindrical jar, a crushed can, and someone's foot in a sneaker/trainer pushing half a car into the pavement.
Some street art I saw in Perth in 2018. No, no idea either.

And I could do the day trips!

I’ve written a couple of posts about trips that we did from Perth, including our adventures south to Balingup and Gnomesville (the creepiest place in the state!), and, as mentioned earlier, our adventures to see pink lakes and wildflowers, but there were a couple of other places we went to – because Shelly can drive and Shelly is also very proud of where she lives and likes to show people around.

One such was along the Swan Valley, further inland from Perth. It’s best accessible by car, and with a friend, because its most famous for being home to many, many, vineyards and wineries. Naturally enough, we stopped by and went to … a microbrewery.

Feral Brewing, in the Swan Valley. A series of glasses in a beer flight, plus a larger beer left over. Baby Ian and Dave are very interested.
Beer flight at Feral Brewing. Baby Ian and Dave are very interested.

On my previous visits to Australia, my experience with the local beer scene was mostly quite disappointing; I’m not just referring to Perth specifically here, I mean across the whole country (I didn’t have a particularly good brew in either Adelaide or the Sunshine Coast). It seems in the four years since my last visit though, beer has vastly improved, both in breadth and in depth. Leading light in the Fremantle area is Little Creatures brewery, who have, as far as I can tell, established themselves in the UK now too, but other breweries abound – the one we went to in the Swan Valley was called ‘Feral Brewing’, and, like most places of its type, do food as well as beer flights.

The Swan Valley area also brings you food. Waaaay down south in the state is Margaret River, another noted wine area, but one of the companies down there is the Margaret River Chocolate Company. Needless to say there’s a branch in the Swan Valley, and if you’re going to have a dessert after beer, it might as well be endless amounts of fancy chocolate.

A whole wall of shelving filled with different flavours and types of chocolate, at Margaret River Chocolate, Swan Valley.
Lots of chocolate of different flavours, all to buy and take home.

Large, one-off, pieces of chocolate in different flavours, including Smoked Bacon & Maple, or Green Tea.
Or you could go for the bigger, one-offs, in more peculiar flavours. As an aside, over the years, I’ve had beer in very similar flavours.

Between the two is the valley itself – I mean it’s not really a valley, in the sense that we Brits might associate (it’s reasonably flat), but it’s certainly green and rolling and picturesque, It’s a great place to drive through and have a picnic, or go horse riding (there’s a fair few liveries in the area too).

On a very different wavelength, it’s also home to All Saints Church, in a settlement called Henley Brook. It was built around 1840, and is the oldest church in Western Australia. As an aside, while it may seem that Perth and Fremantle have many of Western Australia’s oldest buildings, this is largely because this is where Western Australia started, and outside of Perth and Fremantle … isn’t a great deal. I also suspect even Americans might chortle at the ‘oldest’ designations.

The church building at All Saints, Henley Brook, in the Swan Valley. It's small, consisting pretty much of only one room and a smaller entryway porch. It's made of very bright pale red bricks. There is a very small annexe on top that presumably houses a bell. It's set in a garden with trees behind.
The outside of the All Saints Church.

It’s a small church, in a very quiet locale, and yet many of the early important figures of that first colony of Western Australia are buried here. In addition, the site itself is the furthest point reached up the Swan River by the first colonial party (led by James Stirling) in 1827 in their initial explorations of the area. As an aside, there was mutual animosity between Stirling and the local Aboriginal tribes; Stirling was one of the many colonialists busy around the world who would prefer it if the locals “gradually disappear”. A few years later he played his part in trying to make this happen when his force massacred quite a few in the Battle of Pinjarra, in the south of the colony.

Inside the church building at All Saints, Henley Brook, in the Swan Valley. It's fairly plain, quite white walls, with a small stained glass window on the back wall. Wooden pews, wooden rafters above, couple of plaques on the wall, is all.
The inside of the All Saints Church.

Anyway.
A bit further South of the Swan Valley lies another spot that’s quite peaceful and scenic, alongside a river. This is the John Forrest National Park (named for the first Premier of Western Australia). It’s been a National Park from as long ago as 1900, and is noted for wildflowers (obviously), bird life, and a couple of small waterfalls.

Small cascade of water over large boulders in John Forrest National Park.
Small waterfall in John Forrest National Park

The main trail is a former railway line that’s now a gravel path used by walkers and cyclists – its terrain making it one of the few places in the whole trip that I wore footwear.

The path through John Forrest National Park. It's red gravel / dusty stone. There's trees either side, just past a drainage ditch.
The path through John Forrest National Park. You can tell it used to be a railway line I think – it’s similar in style, if not ambiance, to some of the trails near where I live.

Several km from the main entrance point is the Swan View Tunnel, a narrow and steep tunnel about 260m long that wasn’t a pleasant place to ride through on a steam train (indeed people died in it from smoke inhalation). These days you can do ghost walk tours down it. Cheerful. We never got that far as we wanted to make sure we made it to our last destination before sunset.

In the nearby suburb of Kalamunda is a road called ‘Zig Zag Road’. This is because, well, the clue’s in the name. It’s a one way street and winds its way down the Darling Scarp, the escarpment that dominates the eastern side of Perth and which rises to around 500m, doing so because it was it was easier and cheaper to build a track that zigzagged rather than just climbed the hill normally.

Amazingly, it too used to be a railway line. I imagine that wasn’t a journey for the faint-hearted.

As it’s the last highest spot before the sea, it means at a couple of spots there’s enough land between the road and the cliff edge to just stand and watch the sun set over the city. It’s one of those places that makes you really appreciate the world we live in.

Sunset over Perth, taken from Zig Zag Road.
Sunset over Perth, taken from Zig Zag Road. I’m sure Shelly took better pictures of this.

Conclusions

Despite my issues on my first visit to Perth and Fremantle, I never actively disliked the places. I mean, yes, I was a little disappointed by Fremantle then, but that’s partly because I’d set too high an expectation. I tend to not do that any more. They were always places I felt I probably ought to go back to, to give a second chance for.

Also, I guess I was mentally in a much stronger place on my second visit than my first. And the way you feel, in yourself, definitely changes how you view a place. I have the same issues with Ethiopia, a place I was so angsty about when I got there that I came home after four days, because I was having mental health and self-confidence issues, but one which I have ever since had on my radar to go back.

It also helps to have a local friend. That way it’s easier to relax more, it’s easier to get around (both mentally and logistically) as they can guide you with local knowledge; it also means you can see places that may otherwise be more awkward or less convenient to get to.

So, I’m glad I returned. It is a region I feel comfortable in, though both Shelly and my other local friend Amanda have suggested it’d be a great place for me to move to. I’m not sure I’m that much converted lol.

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