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Enigmatic Variations

I’ve just spent my hols in Western Australia, which is an enigmatic place.

The plane landed without incident at Perth and we all lined up to leave. As I walked past the stewardess at the gate one of the engineers on the bridge asked her, "Have you got any willies?", thus setting the scene for much puzzlement over the ensuing weeks.

Our plane was nearly an hour early and so we had to wait at the airport for Robin's family who were due to meet us at the scheduled arrival time. Unfortunately her father was in charge of the meeting arrangements and so we knew that the family wouldn't be there until the exact moment of (scheduled) touch down. Had her mother been in charge, the family would have been there at least two hours before the scheduled arrival time, just in case. Robin's mother shares all my neuroses and we get on famously as a result. Unsympathetic souls pull our legs unmercifully, but we don’t care.

While we waited, I basked in the heat. Even though the sun had gone down, the night air was still very hot. Eventually the family arrived. Mother, father, brother, nephew, niece and Herbert, an iBook laptop computer who accompanies Robin's niece Alex wherever she goes. When Herbert is turned on he says, "I am smelly and nobody loves me." in a variety of heart-rending voices.

The next day dawned hot and sunny. The temperature rose to about 29 degrees and I dressed in shorts, a short sleeved shirt and sandals with bare feet. All the natives dressed in woolly sweaters, fur lined overcoats and boots because they were cold. We played tourist and drove hither and yon.

The area depends for its existence upon bore water drawn from deep beneath the ground. The water stains everything red. Concrete pillars, footpaths, even the trees all look rusty. A few years ago a cyclone in the North agitated the sea to such an extent that the swell stirred up the sand and also the red earth beneath it. For several days, the seas around Perth were incarnadined as though blood were leaking from a giant's corpse. Australia is red all the way down inside.

The sun beat down pitilessly from a clear blue sky. A hotel advertised a heated swimming pool as an attraction, but for the life of me I could not see why they bothered. We drove past a CALM (Conservation and Land Management) bush reserve with a barbed wire fence around it, presumably to stop the feral trees from escaping and rampaging around the countryside beating up foreign flowers and demanding pollen with menaces. The foliage was brown and desiccated, though later we learned that there had been unseasonably heavy rains in January and as far as the locals were concerned, everything was green and flourishing. I began to understand why the average Australian, visiting New Zealand for the first time, invariably says, "Gosh! How green everything is!"

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We took a train to Fremantle. A sign at the station said:

Crossing the line is prohibited. Please use the maze.

The maze turned out to be a fence with two offset gaps on each side of the rail line thus forcing the pedestrian to zig-zag through them and check for oncoming trains along the way. After such a dramatic sign, I had been expecting something on the order of Hampton Court maze with security guards on hand to rescue the poor unfortunates who were unable to solve it by rigorously following the left hand rule, and I was quite disappointed. However the rail system had not finished with me yet. Just outside Fremantle station I spotted a sign which enigmatically proclaimed:

End of Train Ordering Territory

I have absolutely no idea to what it referred. Even more entertainingly, a small station in the middle of a park a few minutes walking distance from the main station sported a notice which told all who were interested that:

Passenger Trains Do Not Stop At This Station

Since the station was in a park and since it had no facilities whatsoever apart from a platform, I don't imagine freight trains would want to stop there either. Which raises the interesting question as to just what other kinds of train exist and when, and for what purpose, do they stop at this station? I remain unenlightened.

The Western Australian authorities seem fond of odd notices. On one of our trips to the middle of absolutely nowhere, with sand and scrub stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction, we drove past a fenced off area indistinguishable in its aridity from everything else in sight. A large notice proclaimed it to be a Naval Base. From this I deduce that Western Australia has a land based navy that sails sand yachts on regular patrols around the desert to discourage pirate frigates from hijacking tourist buses.

When in Fremantle, one must dine and drink coffee at Ginos and then, suitably refreshed, visit the Fremantle Prison. So that’s what we did.

The prison advertises itself as Western Australia’s Premier Cultural Heritage Site, which must say something about culture in Western Australia, though I am not sure what. Given that Fremantle also boasts an annual Sardine Festival, the mind can do nothing but boggle.

The prison was built in the 1850s by the convicts themselves (a strange irony) and was in continuous use until 1991. The cells were 7 feet long and 4 feet wide; barely wide enough to stretch your arms out and just long enough to sling a hammock. Cat swinging was completely out of the question.

Prisoners were locked up in their cells overnight but spent their days working on the chain gang building the prison itself and later (when that was finished) working on the infrastructure of the city. At the turn of the century, with this labour largely completed, the chain gangs were discontinued and the inmates were locked in their cells for up to 14 hours a day. The authorities decided that incarceration in such a tiny space was far too inhumane. Consequently the connecting wall between pairs of cells was knocked down and one of the doors was welded shut, thus doubling the size of each cell and halving the prison’s capacity at a stroke.

When the prison was refurbished prior to opening it to the public it was discovered that one of the prisoners had spent his evenings drawing beautiful pictures on the walls of his cell. Since this was against the rules, every morning he would gaze his fill and then camouflage his work by smearing his breakfast porridge over the pictures. The next night he would decorate another section of wall. His pictures remained hidden for almost a century, which says much about the quality of the porridge, not to mention the efficiency of the cell inspections. I wonder how many more secrets lie forgotten in the other cells, perhaps concealed behind an old fried egg or hidden in a leathery slice of toast.

When the pictures were finally discovered, the porridge was carefully removed oat by oat and the pictures are now preserved behind perspex. They are truly exquisite.

There is a rather beautiful chapel in the prison and on the wall behind the altar the ten commandments are displayed. The sixth has been subtly altered. It reads: Thou shalt not commit murder. At the time the chapel was built, the gallows was still in regular use and the injunction Thou shalt not kill was considered more than a little hypocritical.

The chapel is the only place in the prison without bars on the windows. These days it is a very popular venue for weddings.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We went to Joondalup via Wanneroo (which has a notice warning you that a Round-A-Bout is imminent). On the way, we passed two shopping centres, one called Joondalup Gate and one called Gateway to Joondalup. Neither of these is in Joondalup. Joondalup has its own shopping centre called Lakeside in the heart of the town.

There is a park on Joondalup Lake where the cockatoos will perch on your arms and allow you to feed them. In the evening after the sun goes down, kangaroos come out of the bush to crop the grass and mosquitoes come out of the lake to crop the tourists.

The kangaroos all knew we were there, but they paid us little attention. If we got too close they would slowly bound away. Two adolescents held a boxing match. I have never been so close to wild animals before. It was a magical moment that I treasure.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We went to Innaloo where we did all the appropriately punny things. I went to the loo Innaloo. I went to a shop Innaloo and I ate Innaloo. The "oo" suffix means "by water" in one of the aboriginal languages. Another aboriginal language uses the "up" suffix in a similar context, hence the preponderance of names such as Joondalup, Karrinyup, Wanneroo and Innaloo.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We went into Perth itself to visit the Mint. In there you can put your hand through a hole of carefully judged dimensions in a perspex cabinet and try to pick up a gold bar about the size and shape of a brick. The weight is tremendous and I half expected my wrist to shatter and my hand to drop off beneath the strain. It is at times like this that you realise just how ridiculous are the movies that show bank robbers casually carrying bars of gold around.

A special display of gold pouring is put on each day for the tourists. The gold is melted in a crucible in a furnace. After about 15 minutes of fierce heat, the demonstrator dons a protective apron and goggles and then removes the crucible from the furnace with a pair of large tongs. The crucible glows so brightly that you can read by its light. He pours the molten metal into a mould and it flows like liquid fire. The mould is doused in water and within a very few seconds the gold has cooled and can be picked up by hand. The demonstrator picked it up and rubbed it lasciviously against his cheek, but he didn’t offer to pass it around the crowd, much to our disappointment, and the relief of the security guard who was standing behind us monitoring the proceedings very carefully indeed.

The gold pouring demonstration takes place several times a day. They always use the same gold ingot. That particular lump of gold has been melted and moulded in excess of 10,000 times.

Every time the gold is melted, a minuscule amount is lost due to evaporation. The demonstration area was the site of the original furnaces. This area was decommissioned when the old furnaces were replaced with more modern equipment in a new area of the building. One of the original furnaces remained for the edification of the tourists and the area around the old furnaces was cleaned and the sweepings and demolition material were re-smelted. Umpteen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold was recovered; the detritus of many, many years. The area around the tourist furnace was not processed and nobody knows how much gold remains there.

I have never seen a city where the streets are paved with gold, but I have seen a room where the walls are impregnated with it…

There is a strict dress code for the furnace workers in the mint. Jeans are de rigueur. Trousers with turn ups are not allowed in any of the working areas. Gold particles could accumulate in the cuffs and over time a reasonable fortune could be collected inadvertently (or sometimes perhaps, advertently). It took the authorities quite a while to wake up to this one and the dress code in the early years had no such specification. Nobody knows how much gold was lost this way.

Directly across the road from the Perth Mint is a pawnbroker’s shop run by Mr B. P. Atwill (Licensed Second Hand Dealer). I can’t help wondering who his main customers are…

The next day we checked the weather forecast. But it wasn’t going to be warm and sunny. On April 27th we had winter. It rained stair rods and the sky was solid cloud. The dry ground soaked up the water greedily and the sea tossed and turned with an enormous swell. A few hardy surfers braved the weather and were rewarded with some quite exciting waves for their pains.

April 28th was winter again and now, between rainstorms, the bush looked quite green. I can’t tell you what happened after that, for we flew home on that day. The in flight movie had subtitles in Japanese, though I did not spot a single oriental face among the passengers.

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