The Best Vacation Ever Part Two: Western Australia

After a few days of Hong Kong chaos, we were excited to head to my parents’ new hometown of Perth in Western Australia. Perth is located on the west coast of Australia, right along the Indian Ocean.

A quick note about Australian terminology: the accent of most Australians is not as dramatic as Americans expect. People don’t walk down the street yelling “crikey!”  and “G’day Mate!” I believe that some Australian slang we know of like “mate, bloke, g’day” were more popular in earlier generations. American film and television has penetrated Australia, and more and more Australian youth sound very similar to American youth, albeit with an accented twist. One of the interesting phenomena related to this is that almost no one in Australia cared that we were foreigners, especially not that we were Americans. Americans and American accents are old hat to them. When I consider how much attention an Australian gets in America, it really is an interesting contrast. As I write, I will include Australian slang and terminology in italics for clarity. For example, when I write “Aussies” you should know that this is actually pronounced Ozzies.

My first impression of Perth is that it really reminded me of San Diego, but with hotter summer temperatures. It’s definitely the land of beautiful people, with tall, blonde, tan, fit young people lolling around with casual confidence. Of course a major difference is that everyone drives on the left, which is a huge psychological hurdle to overcome, but for the next few weeks my parents drove us around which was nice. (I now think that being a passenger in such a situation is even more stressful than being the driver, but you’ll read more about that when I write about Eastern Australia). Another big difference is the cost of living, which is astronomical when compared to American salaries. The nice thing about Australia is that everyone gets paid higher wages than we do, so they don’t think things are expensive. But when you plop down a relatively low-income American (farming certainly isn’t lucrative, at least not yet!), she will experience some severe sticker shock.

The first few days we spent in Perth were extremely relaxing. My parents are renting an apartment right on the Swan River, which separates Perth’s downtown (the Central Business District, AKA the CBD, as Aussies call it) from the surrounding neighborhoods. At night we watched the skyscrapers of Perth light up with rainbow colors that shimmered off the smooth waterway. River dolphins sometimes swam by in the mornings as we drank our coffee on the veranda before the climbing mercury drove us back inside. It was truly a beautiful, peaceful place to call home base. We spent some time exploring Perth’s sights and sounds, taking walks in the CBD, and shopping in vintage stores in the hip neighborhood of North Bridge. When you walk into a shop the clerk always says “howyagoin?” which I thought was great.  This is where I had my first major sticker shock. All the girls walking around Perth were wearing high-waisted denim shorts with little crop tops, so I thought maybe I would buy a pair of second-hand denim shorts and join the fun (since I can’t wear stylish clothes on the farm!). Unfortunately the USED denim shorts hovered around $55! Needless to say, I opted instead for a delicious passion fruit popsicle (icy pole) and saved my dollars for more reasonable souvenirs.

Since my mom and stepdad have only lived in Perth for a year and a half, they decided to plan a little road trip with us to explore some parts of Western Australia they’d never seen. Our drive south was full of interesting bush scenery. The bush is what they use to refer to a wooded area. Again there was a resemblance to Southern California with a plethora of eucalyptus trees. Of course the trees are native to Australia and were introduced in Southern California, but having lived there for years my mind kept putting me back there. One of the major differences was the color of the soil, which ranges from burnt umber to strikingly bright red-orange. Our first destination on our trip was the small port town of Albany (the “Al” in Albany is pronounced like the name Al).  Albany was quaint, and it was apparent that many tourists flock here in other times of the year due to the variety of souvenir shops and restaurants, but when we arrived in the middle of the week on a non-holiday time of year, the town was pretty much closed for business. It was pretty though, and it’s always exciting to see a new body of water for the first time: in this case the Southern Ocean! It’s an amazing feeling to stand on a beach and imagine that on the other side of the horizon is Antarctica!

Next on our itinerary was a tiny town on the coast called Walpole. My mom had arranged for us to take an ecological and educational boat tour, and our guide Gary was a walking, talking encyclopedia. His family had been living in Walpole for generations, and he literally knew everything there is to know about the town’s history. He was charismatic and clearly pumped up on life (or something!), because he was non-stop animation as he explained how the continents shifted to form Australia using stuffed animals and other random objects as props. One of the most interesting tidbits he provided was about our American marsupial, the opossum. The word “opossum” comes from a Virginia Algonquian word, and the Australians borrowed that same word when they named their own tree-dwelling marsupial creatures the possum. I can tell you with confidence that they are entirely different animals. The Australian version is an adorable little guy with big friendly eyes and round ears, and I’m sure you know what ours looks like! Anyway back in the day there were TONS of marsupials roaming around North America, but eventually the “placentals” (as Gary called them) came around and started killing off the marsupials. The opossums survived because they are gross, ugly, and play dead, and no placental mammal in its right mind would eat that!

After exploring one of Walpole’s gorgeous beaches (while alternately discussing interesting anthropological books with Gary and watching him run laps on the beach just for fun), we headed to the amazing “tree top walk” in the Valley of the Giants. This wonderful experience was comprised of huge metal scaffoldings with gently sloping walkways that take you into the tops of the tallest eucalyptus trees I have ever seen. They rival the size of California’s giant sequoias, and the views from the top are stunning. These old growth eucalyptus trees are referred to as Tingle Trees, which is how they made me feel!  That night we stayed in a private chalet out in the bush, which had lounging kangaroos for lawn ornaments and laughing kookaburras in the trees. For dinner we hit up the local fish and chips shop and enjoyed a true Australian experience.

As we traveled around I started noticing some of the minor, every day differences between Australia and the United States. One, which I think is actually genius, is that almost every public restroom (toilet…no one says restroom or bathroom in Australia) is equipped with a lock that turns a little sign to read “vacant” or “occupied.” You know how they have those in porta potties? They have them EVERYWHERE there: in parks, restaurants, bars. It’s amazing. No more bending over to see if there are feet! (Ok, maybe this is only an issue for the ladies, but still!). Also the toilets all have two flush level options, which helps conserve water. This is the norm in Australia, not the exception, and it makes me wonder why such an easy environmental safeguard isn’t more common in the US.

In stores when you use a credit card to pay, you are asked credit or debit like normal, but when you say debit they ask “checking or savings?” So you can use your debit card to access your savings account, which seemed totally foreign to me. Also if you use credit, you can either enter a pin number or sign the receipt. The cars are slightly different too, especially their version of pickup trucks. They don’t have big pickup trucks like we do, or rather they don’t have the same style of bed. They have flat beds with no body around them, and they are all customized to suit the owners’ needs. Some are equipped with toolboxes and the like, while others are decked out with popup travel tents and camping gear. It’s a great idea! They call these vehicles utes which I assume stems from “utility vehicles.” The worst thing though, is that they have cars that look like ordinary sedans in front, but have flatbeds in the back. So they’re like a ute sedan hybrid, and to me they just looked like the automobile version of a mullet.

Finally, the biggest difference I noticed everywhere I went was the wildlife. The people and culture aren’t terribly foreign, so it’s a bit easy to forget how far away from the US you are, until you see a wild flock of white cockatoos screech by. Even the ordinary birds like crows, magpies, and pigeons look and sound different in Australia! Of course the kangaroos and wallabies that hop across the road at dusk are extremely unusual to us, although when you really watch them closely they remind you of funny looking deer more than anything.

Next up we visited the gorgeous area of Margaret River, where we checked out some wineries. Andrew and I especially enjoyed the small Adinfern Winery where the man pouring our samples was the grandson of the original owners. During the off-season they run sheep and ducks through their vineyards to help with pruning, pest control, and fertilization. This guy had all the same complaints about regulations and laws concerning food production that we American farmers have, and it was really interesting to get the Australian perspective.

After returning to Perth we braced ourselves for Australia Day, the country’s biggest national holiday that is similar to our 4th of July. My parents ordered a ton of food and hosted a bunch of their friends since they have a great spot for the annual fireworks viewing on the Swan River. Andrew inexplicably wound up as the barbecue (barbie) chef for the evening, which brings me to another interesting difference. It’s true that Australians love to barbecue, but most of the barbecues they use are basically propane-powered hot plates. There is rarely open flame or charcoal involved! Anyway Andrew didn’t mind the job, and everyone enjoyed the traditional Australia Day grub of sausages (snags) and burgers. The fireworks show that evening was the best I have ever seen in my entire life, and it was made even cooler when one of the unmanned barges in the river caught fire afterwards (no one was hurt!).

One of the best days we had in Perth was spent on Rottnest Island. Rottnest means “rats nest” in Dutch, and it was given this name because the island is overrun with quokkas, which are just about the cutest marsupial you could ever imagine. There is an interesting dynamic about Rottnest Island. It is a very expensive place to visit. Just to take the ferry over to the island was ~$80 AUD per person. Then once you are there you either rent bicycles or buy a bus pass (another ~$30 AUD per person). This is the only way you can get around the island. One of the major benefits is that the island is beautiful and immaculate, and it’s obvious that the people who come here love and respect it. The downside is that the prices mean many locals probably can’t afford to visit, and so being there felt a little bit like a privilege I didn’t deserve. The snorkeling on Rottnest was some of the best I have ever experienced, with sightings of gorgeous tropical fish and giant spiny lobsters that were splotched in bright pink and purple.

Our last day in Perth was spent checking out the animal rehabilitation center where my mom volunteers. We got to get up close and personal with many of the native marsupials that are generally shy and hard to spot in the wild. I can’t stress enough how cute marsupials are…almost every single one looks like it wants to be squeezed and cuddled. Fortunately for these critters there was a “look but don’t touch” policy, or they would have been in for some unsolicited Micha love. Afterwards we got lunch at a hotel that is known for its ring necked parrot population, who gather around as you eat, hoping for some French fries (chips) to drop off your plate. Later that evening we said goodbye to Meghan, who was flying back home to her husband and the cold Maine winter. We hugged my parents tight, knowing it would be a while before we could see them again, and boarded a red-eye flight to Brisbane (pronounced Briz-bin) in Queensland on the Pacific east coast of Australia.

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