In and Around Perth, Natural Wonders Abound
“I mean, naturally I’m really posi, but Perth was a great place to grow up,” said my friend Ariel Katz, who is indeed a sunny and positive (posi, in Australian slang) person.
“The weather is always good, there’s proximity to the beach and there’s just this nice sense of outdoorness.”
She and I were debriefing after I’d rather spontaneously decided to explore her populous (roughly two million) yet isolated hometown, the capital of the vast slice of desert and coastline that we know as Western Australia. I’d stayed with Ariel’s parents, Peta and John, who, demonstrating typical Aussie hospitality, warmly extended the invitation to me just hours after we’d met.
Perth is an interesting sprawl of a place, closer to Bali than it is to Sydney and over 1,200 miles from the nearest large city. It boomed as a mining town in the 19th century and its downtown buildings bear the names of multinational corporations like Rio Tinto. While Perth’s city center, on a bend in the neck of the Swan River, certainly has some worthwhile attractions for any budget-conscious traveler, getting the most out of Perth means getting outside — that is, exploring the outskirts of the city as well as making the most of the natural surroundings.
Once that is accomplished, there are wonderful opportunities for beach strolling, refreshing swims and bike rides, and wildlife watching that you’ll be hard pressed to find in any other place on the planet.
My four-hour flight on Qantas from Melbourne (about 300 Australian dollars, or $225) went smoothly, and upon arrival I was greeted by bioscanners and very stern warnings about bringing produce into Perth. Western Australia, by virtue of its relative isolation, has remained free of some pests that plague the eastern part of the country (make sure to ditch any produce on your way off the plane).
Peta met me at my gate at the airport and we grabbed a snack at Boucla, a quirky daytime cafe on Rokeby Road in the Subiaco suburb. I ordered the Persian Slipper (18 dollars, or around $13.50), a pastry stuffed with tender braised beef, pumpkin and sweet potato. It came with a small salad and yogurt, a perfect meal after a longish flight. Peta got a slice of nutty soufra cake for her husband to go and I picked up a very good 5-dollar muesli bar for later.
The next couple of days were full of exploration, both with and without my adopted family. I joined John and Peta in their morning routines — a swim in the ocean at the crack of dawn by Cottesloe beach (John) and a walk up the beach path near Marine Parade (Peta).
“Mate, you’ve got to come for a swim in the morning,” John told me. “It’s absolutely fantastic.” He was right; early morning is the ideal time to hit the beach (“before the punters move in,” as he put it) when the crowds are sparse and the sun isn’t at its strongest (though sunblock is still recommended, as is a pair of beach shoes or flip-flops). The walk along the waterfront was invigorating, and offered great views of the coastline.
The beach serves a purpose in the evenings, as well: Perth’s location on the west coast means it has the best sunsets Australia has to offer. We caught a stunning panorama of pink- and blue-streaked sky near the south end of Cottesloe beach in North Fremantle, a suburb, then checked out a nearby bar and restaurant called Coast Port Beach. It wasn’t quite our scene, but the smartly dressed crowd, 8-dollar Swan drafts and great views of the water made it an attractive destination for locals. Even better: There was a promotion offering a free drink to anyone who arrived via Uber.
The beach isn’t all Perth has to offer; Kings Park and Botanic Garden, overlooking the Swan River, is also a wonderful place to spend a few hours. The nearly 990-acre park, with thousands of native flora species, is a great place for a casual stroll. The peppermint willows and gum trees with their leopard-spotted bark are beautiful, as are the views overlooking the city (a great vista is right where Fraser Avenue meets Wadjuk Way). There’s a native art gallery nearby worth perusing; it’s called, simply enough, Aboriginal Art Gallery. There are some great pieces (many of which cost upward of a thousand dollars, a bit out of my price range) from indigenous artists like Norma MacDonald and Penny Archer.
The real fun for me, though, started when we began visiting attractions on the outskirts of town. I’ll just come right out and say it: I wanted to see a kangaroo, preferably in the wild. An excellent recommendation from one of John and Peta’s friends took us north to Padbury and the Pinaroo Valley Memorial Park. Much of the park is a cemetery run by the Western Australian government, but it also happens to be one of the best locations to see kangaroos — dozens and dozens of kangaroos.
We drove in and asked a helpful employee, who directed us to a paddock down the road. And there they were, more kangaroos than I could count — lounging about, tending their young, taking naps in what available shade they could find (it was midday, and it was hot). There were adorable joeys as well as hulking males the size of a full-grown human. They are incredibly cool to watch: Find an open spot on the grass and observe these amazing marsupials. Their tails were thick and muscular, and they had strong legs with long claws.
The conventional wisdom that kangaroos box is partly true; when they fight, they more closely resemble a kickboxer than Muhammad Ali, balancing on their tails and clawing with their legs. (I recommend keeping a safe distance, especially in the more obscured bush areas, where you may stumble upon a napping kangaroo. I accidentally got too close to one and he jumped up from his prone position, startled.)
There are more controlled ways to view the wildlife of the outback; it will naturally cost a bit more. The Caversham Wildlife Park, about a 30-minute drive from the city center, is a family-friendly way to see some of Australia’s native creatures. For a 28-dollar admission (12.50 for children), you can see koalas, bettongs, kangaroos, even a Tasmanian devil. There’s a “meet the wombat” event where you can, well, meet a wombat. I was paired with Neil, a southern hairy-nosed wombat. He seem less than thrilled to meet me, but I found his company pleasant enough.
The most enjoyable solo trip I took, though, incorporated all of Perth’s major appeals. Rottnest Island, about 11 miles from the coast, is a small, relaxing island known for its blessed lack of automobiles (bicycles are the primary means of transport) and its population of a tiny, cute marsupial called the quokka. Daily ferries go to and from Perth and Fremantle (I recommend leaving from Fremantle, as leaving from Perth tacks on quite a bit of time to the boat trip). The ferry cost me 30.50 dollars each way, plus an 18-dollar admission fee to the island. With a 30-dollar bike rental tacked on, this isn’t the cheapest trip, but there’s enough on the island to keep you busy for a day.
What’s there to do, you ask? Simply bike around and get lost, as I did, knowing that on such a small island, you’re never truly at risk of going astray. I went to a couple of beaches, including the gorgeous Parakeet Bay, where I was one of just a handful of people.
I also got to hang out with my favorite marsupials of the trip, the adorable quokkas. Their almost complete lack of fear around humans makes them vulnerable (do not feed or touch them) but also extremely easy to photograph. While I wasn’t able to score a vaunted “quokka selfie,” I found the little guys to be much like Perth and its environs — laid-back, friendly, outside the mainstream and definitely underrated.