Wednesday, 14 November 2012

14-20 November 2012 - Geraldton & surrounds

After a week in Geraldton we decided we really liked the place – it’s a city in the sense of services and facilities, but without the traffic congestion and urban sprawl.   Geraldton itself and the surrounding area had plenty to keep us occupied.

We visited the WA museum a total of three times!  There's an excellent display of the HMAS Sydney and her discovery and a lot of information about the social history of the Geraldton area, but the highlight was the Shipwreck Gallery which was full of stories and artefacts from the various shipwrecks that had occurred in the area, some as far back at the 1600’s.  Some of the survival stories are fascinating, as are the stories of the discovery of the wrecks and evidence of the lives survivors led on land while awaiting rescue.  Amazingly, there were successful rescue attempts which provide evidence that plenty of Dutch citizens were the first Europeans to set foot on Australian soil.  In fact, it’s amazing how close we came to being a Dutch or even a French colony, as explorers from these nations were on the scene well before Cook planted the Union Jack.
While chatting to the lady at the museum counter, she mentioned a replica of the Batavia longboat was moored at the back of the museum and often took tourists out for a sail on Sunday afternoons.   There was no set time, it wasn’t an organised tour; you just had to be at the right spot at the right time.  We didn’t give it another thought.  Anyway, our third visit to the museum happened to be on Sunday afternoon and while the girls were in the kid’s activity area and I was browsing in the museums bookshop, Larry was out the back chatting to the skipper of the longboat. Long story short, we were invited to sail on the boat!

We couldn't believe our luck being invited to sail on the Batavia longboat.

Prior to boarding the Batavia longboat.

Larry and I hadn’t been on a sail boat since at least 1984 when we spent an Easter sailing Moreton Bay with an inexperienced friend and his partner, while the girls have never been on a sailing boat before.  This replica, built in 2000 is an exact copy of the Batavia longboat, with the addition of a motor.  However once on the harbour, the engine was killed and it was all under sail.   

Apart from the skipper and the four of us, there was also a man with this two teenage children, all learning to sail.  Larry ended up being heavily involved with one of the sails every time the boat tacked, while the girls and I just enjoyed the experience and tried to imagine what an amazing journey (and hellish experience) it must have been to sail 5 weeks to Batavia (now Jakarta) with 48 people on board (we had 8 on board) to seek rescue for the Batavia survivors.  It is also amazing that all 48 survived the journey.  The rest of the Batavia story is fascinating.  A rescue ship successfully returned to the site of the shipwreck and was able to recover the majority of its valuable cargo, however while awaiting rescue, 125 men women and children had been murdered by their own countrymen as part of a mutiny.  Finally, the Captain got sacked for wrecking the state-of-the-art ship in unchartered waters.
The rigging and sails were built to scale, with the only modern additon being some
metal pullies rather than timber pullies.

Without doubt, the most impressive structure and visitor attraction in Geraldton is the HMAS Sydney II memorial on a hill in the centre of town.  We timed our visit with a volunteer guided tour so we could get the most from the site.  The idea of a commemorative memorial initially began as a local Rotary Club project in 1998 and it’s grown from there.  Today the memorial overlooks Geraldton and the Indian Ocean.  The memorial consists of black marble walls with the names of all 645 men who died on 19 November 1941.  There were no survivors. The main structure is a dome of 645 metal seagulls over an upturned ship propeller.   Inspiration for the seagulls came during an early anniversary service when a flock of seagulls swooped down over the assembled crowd.  In maritime folklore, seagulls represent the spirit of souls lost at sea.  There is a brass statue of The Waiting Woman, a woman dressed in 1940’s style clothes, holding onto her hat due to the Geraldton winds, looking out to sea for her missing husband/father/son etc.   She was constructed 8 years before the wreck of the Sydney was discovered in 2008 and yet it turns out she is facing in the exact direction the Sydney was located.  Eerie! 
This was one of the more ambitious Rotary projects we'd seen.
The entrance to the memorial. The other side of the white walls are black
marble slabs with the names of all 645 crew engraved.

The dome of seagulls at sunset

Bronze statue of the Waiting Woman.  Larry and Kate being a little bit disrespectful!
Spookily, she is looking in the exact direction of where Sydney was located, yet she
was constructed and put into position a number of years beforehand.

There is also a life sized copy of the ship’s bow and when you stand beneath it looking up at the deck of the bow on a cloudy day, it feels like the boat is sailing towards you.  Also eerie!  Once Sydney was located in 2008, a further structure was added, a descending fountain, signifying the depths of the ocean, where the water flows downwards.  The coastline and co-ordinates of the Sydney location are at the base of the fountain.  Everything about the memorial was well thought out and significant.  It’s not an official war memorial as such, but it felt every bit of one. 
An exact replica of the Sydney's bow.

This feature was added when Sydney was discovered. The seagull is placed
on the exact co-ordinates she was located in.  The night lighting made it very dramatic.

As we happened to be in Geraldton at the time of the anniversary of the sinking of the ship – 19 November 1941 – we attended the anniversary service which had the full military presence, wreath laying etc and the playing of the Last Post.  As the sun set, which was when the Sydney was last sighted by survivors of the Kormoran (the German ship she fought), a cannon was let off and flares released over the harbour.  Of course, I had a good cry throughout the proceedings.
Wreaths laid as part of the memorial service.
The upturned ship propellor signifies a dying ship.

We don’t tend to visit many churches, possibly because we are still ‘churched out’ after backpacking in Europe almost 25 years ago.  Churches in Europe are significant buildings so they are difficult to avoid, but given the passage of time, we thought it was time to venture into one as a tourist.  St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral didn’t disappoint. Constructed and designed by an Anglican minister who converted to Catholicism and who also happened to be an architect, John Hawes constructed a number of distinctive church-related buildings in the area, including the Cathedral during 1916-1938. 
Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier - an imposing edifice and you can see the Spanish influence in its design.

What made it stand out from other Catholic churches I’ve been in, apart from its dome roof structure, is the internal painting – stripes no less, bright orange stripes in fact.  Like the majority of churches I have ever set foot in, it was peaceful and calm but the interior took a bit of getting used to, but even in 10 minutes I went from ‘oh, it’s a bit out there!’ to, ‘yeah, it’s different, kind of funky, kind of OK’.  I would like to have done a guided tour to learn more about Hawes and the church itself, but our timing was out for this visit.  Have added it to  my ‘to do’ list for our next trip!

The text around the dome was originally written in Latin.

Basically any arched or circular edge had the bright orange stripes while
the rest of the church interior was pale grey stipes.

About 30 minutes south of Geraldton is the Greenough (pronounced Grenuff) Historical Village.  It’s basically the remnants of an 1860’s town that was the administrative hub for the surrounding farmlands.  After the area was largely abandoned due to flooding and wheat diseases, the town fell into disrepair leaving only the stone buildings and a small number of substantial timber buildings still standing.  Enter the National Trust in the 1970’s and a process of stabilisation and restoration began before the buildings constructed along a main street, including churches, dance hall, police station/cells, courthouse, convent, schoolhouse and residences, opened to the public.  One of the original stores has been extended to include the information centre, gift shop and cave and we can recommend the Devonshire tea and deliciously coffee! 
Kate inside the old school house. Smaller desks at the front leading to larger desks behind.
The enrolment of the school room ranged from 19 - 63 students to a single teacher.

Greenough original school house
We spent about two hours wandering through the various buildings.  Most have minimal furnishings and minimal interpretive texts, but the brochure given out at entry provided an outline of the buildings history and use over the years.  I thought it was very well done, not dissimilar to Cossack (see earlier blog entry) in that the buildings weren’t restored to within an inch of its life, you could easily imagine what the buildings looked like and how they were originally used.  Quite a few old photographs also gave us a good idea how little the buildings had altered over the years.

This note was in one of the cottages explaining the sleeping arrangements of the local
police officers 12 children - 3 in a trundle bed kept beneath their parents bed, 1 in a cot,
4 each head to tail in 2 single beds.  Elizabeth and Kate didn't believe it!

As usual, the Greenough cemetery didn't disappoint. This was an interesting
headstone, describing the death of two brothers in 1875 - one through
exhaustion, the other murdered by natives.

We also ventured about 60km south to the Larry the Lobster Festival at Dongara/Port Denison, two small fishing villages also south of Geraldton. The official lobster season (called crayfish, or crays) commenced on 15 November so the festival includes the blessing of the fleet for safe passage and successful catches. There was a market and entertainment. We arrived around midday and had intended staying until the fireworks at 8.00pm, but with a resident population of about 600 people, all of whom I’m sure were at the festival, we’d seen the markets and were ready to head home by 2ish!
An unexpected gem however was the Hampton Arms Inn about 20km away – an 1860’s hotel now a musty, dusty second-hand book shop, run by an eccentric Englishman, who although having lived in Australia for years, I could barely understand and had to resort to lip reading. Some of the rooms had old wallpaper, the floorboards creaked, dust covered the books and it was clear that some of the books were very old 1st editions. I was on the lookout for ‘My brilliant career’ and ‘Little Women’ for the girls and ‘Sons in the Saddle’ for me but were out of luck. I love these out of the way, unexpected businesses. Larry meanwhile, retired to the car to listen to the cricket!

Many of the boats 'dressed' for the blessing of the fleet.
Rope coiling seemed to be a major drawcard with about a dozen
different categories of 'coilers' vying for surprisingly good monetary prizes.

The person who can coil the rope, tie it off and raise it above their head first is
declared the winner.  The neatness of the coil didn't seem to be an issue!

One of the things we noticed almost straight away driving around Geraldton is the number of fish and chip businesses. We’ve never seen so many in one place.  One of the better known is called ‘Chis & Fips’, so we duly spent $40 just to see what the fuss was all about.  Down to the foreshore to eat them, along with most of Geraldton’s resident seagull population it seemed.  Got the thumbs up from all of us!
So, all in all, we really liked ‘Gero’ as the locals call it,  it was neat and tidy with a good mix of old buildings, an excellent art gallery and library and a good foreshore.  All we need are jobs and we might be seriously tempted to move to the other side of the country!!

Famous leaning tree (windblown, like many others we saw)

Victoria Hospital, Geraldton

Point Moore Lighthouse

Travellers Tips: Free Volunteer Guides tours worthwhile and very informative. HMAS Sydney memorial 10.30am every day, Hospital and Gaol 2.30pm Tues and Thurs. Free entry to WA museum, kids can do an easy activity and receive a friendship band-making kit once completed.  Kids play area. Batavia longboat trips – this is a  ‘right place at the right time’ affair, but boat usually goes out each Sunday afternoon. The boat is moored right behind the museum so if you see people on it, just go out and hang around and look interested and you’ll get an invite if room is available. Life jackets provided. No cost.  The Greenough Historical Village is $14 family, or free to National Trust members.  Low cost camping available at Coronation Beach (30km north) or at Fig Tree Crossing (13km west). Fig tree crossing is meant to be an overnight stop only, but almost everyone stayed for the duration of their stay in Geraldton.

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