We didn’t see a single kangaroo. Nor a wallaby. Nor a possum. Not a single bush hat strung with corks and though we found lots of gum trees there was not a koala in sight. Was this really Australia?
I never really believed I’d go Down Under. Although I have plenty of Australian friends and knew from the way their accents made them sound like they were always smiling that their country might be fun, but part of me also doubted it really existed. I’d seen the YouTube clip where a Brit is taught the Aussie a lot of useful words. A can of beer, becomes a ‘tinnie’. A cool box, an ‘eskie’, a booze shop, a ‘bottleshop’ or ‘bottle-o’ , a laptop a ‘lappy’ and so on. I reckoned I’d cope without the aid of Google Translate, but still, setting foot in the land of Aborigines I expected an alien nation. A land made up of surf dudes who called their women Sheila and women who looked like Kylie Minogue.
I never expected it to be that clean. I never expected the road signs to actually help us to find where we were going, nor the maps to work. But they did, which was a jolly good job because our SatNav didn’t. Our first night took us to a B&B run by a lady called Kandy, with a K, called Greenskape. I was not hopeful. That first night, Kandy suggested we head to the Tavern in the town of Capel for dinner as most places closed at seven in the winter. It looked like a Little Chef, shared the parking lot with a bottle-o and was entered though a bar filled with darts players, their eyes fixed to a big screen showing footie. When I saw a door marked with the word Lounge, I relaxed. But the lounge, decorated in shades of mint green and terracotta and with plastic flowers on the paper-covered tables did not bode well. Our waitress had a curly perm and tattoos peeked out from the sleeves of her fleece. I think her name too, began with a K. We asked for a table for two, casting our eyes round the cold, soulless, empty room.
“No worries!” she said perkily.
We asked for the menu.
“No worries!” she said perkily.
We ordered fish and chips.
“No worries!” she said and when the fish was fresh and meaty and the beer served scarily cold we knew for sure we really were in Australia.
The following morning Kandy served us homemade granola and a range of homemade jams, concocted by her husband, Peter, in the ‘thermie’ – that ubiquitous pricey piece of kitchen counter kit it seems no self-respecting Aussie household is without. Apparently it takes the place of 12 other pieces of equipment and is able to cook, steam, blend, whisk and weigh all in the same small space. And so we learned that Aussies are not only civilised and eat healthily but streets ahead of the Brits, not least because they fine any citizen who does not vote in an election.
We were making for Margaret River, a wine region that lies a few hours south of Perth and is found in the very southernmost, westernmost tip of the country, its well-drained slopes blown by the breezes from both the Indian and Southern Oceans. A terroir I had never heard of until recently, we were lucky sods in that I’d recently met a vineyard owner who asked her estate manager to give us a private tour. Despite the drizzle, the Cabernet Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignon we sampled that lunchtime were the finest of our whole trip. Our guide, Col, even let Ian have a go at pruning, which was possibly rather stupid of him as he’d had a glass of wine and wasn’t wearing his glasses! Col taught us so much, not least the fact that vineyards appear to offer great investment potential and a lifetime supply of great wine. But not until we had driven as south as we could, through the Boranup forest to Augusta and its lighthouse, to work up a thirst.
Convinced that we now needed to sample a few more varieties of wine, just to be sure the first one really was the best we signed ourselves up on a day-long Bushtucker tour.
Our leader was called Bart, had the lean physique, tan and long tawny hair of the surfer and wore the hat we’d expected – minus the corks. A jolly fellow, he drove our yellow bus between three fine wineries (aka wine-o), with nutty names like Woody Nook and Knotting Hill and looked on while we got quietly sozzled on at least 8 wines in each place, then five beers in a brewery (no, they did not do anything other than freezing cold beer, shame on them but at least we managed to sit by a fire), cheeses in a dairy, chocolate in a choccy place and then, now nicely bonded with the rest of our party, goodness knows how many spirits at a place I can’t even remember the name of. Bemoaning our lack of roo activity, Bart told us we’d not be disappointed at the spirit place as we’d be bound to catch sight of the drop bears. Kirsten and Morgan tittered behind us in the bus.
“They fall out of trees onto tourists,” he warned. “Somehow they know to avoid the locals.”
“That’s because we know to put Vegemite behind our ears,” said Kristen.
“Oh dear,” I said, merrily into the swing of things. “I only have Marmite on me!”
Morgan tutted. “Drop bears can tell the difference.”
As we arrived at the distillery, Bart warned us. “Now, Steve, the guy here, may be offensive. He doesn’t mean anything but he has a very dry sense of humour. Very non-PC and permanently pissed. Oh, and watch out for those drop bears!”
Walking, or should I say, weaving, in the drizzle towards the bar, Bart indicated the gum tree above his head. We looked up and sure enough, there on the branches were a collection of white bears, nailed on and ready to drop. Spirits remained high as we approached the bar and the notorious Steve. He poured glasses fast, holding two at a time down firmly with his large hand, flattening his fingers against the wood to stop them shaking.
“Where are you from?” he asked us.
And from that moment he referred to us as Brexit and shook his head. The Irish and the Scottish chaps were accused of drinking too fast, the Malaysians of being too slow. Nevertheless at a rate of about a glass every two minutes, some of which had to be downed in one, looked like a brown tequila sunrise and tasted like Irish coffee, others had recently won awards, we did as we were told. It all went by in a flash of hilarity and then, seven hours after we had started we were back in the tranquility of our hotel and desperate for cups of tea. I think I had five in a row.
We spent two nights at the Basildene Manor in the town of Margaret River. A 19-room mansion, it stands in rolling grounds filled with peppermint trees (no, not another of Bart’s jokes, it is a kind of eucalyptus) and a variety of wild parrots. They serve a breakfast like no other, with a range of spiced and fresh fruits in a glorious conservatory overlooking the garden. But it was not just the breakfast that set it apart. I have never before stayed in a hotel that while it serves no meals apart from breakfast, expects the guests to make themselves at home in the two firelit lounges and the conservatory. You can bring your own food, order in a pizza or drink the wine you bought during the day. Glasses and board games are provided. Tea and coffee are permanently available as are homemade cake and fresh fruit.
Our final night was spent in the wetlands of Busselton in a B&B called Martin Fields. Ironically, the owner, Pattricia, was Malaysian! Our view was exceptional, as were the local sausages.
We only spent four nights here in total, leaving Malaysia for the Hari Raya celebration that comes at the end of Ramadan. But in this short time we fell a little in love in Western Australia. Without exception, we found the natives to be warm, welcoming and amusing. The landscape, made up of more gum trees than I knew existed is fairly flat and very green, somewhat shrubby and gorsey with expansive Norfolk pines, funny squat walking haystacks with black trunks that we discovered are called grass trees and the grey leaved wattles, dripping with yellow laburnum-like blooms. The sunsets flamed amber and the weather was more changeable than the Netherlands, moving from sunshine to showers several times an hour. Middle-aged women are mostly blond and may have piercings. Young man look splendid in wet suits and still jump the waves in the winter, wandering barefoot, sleek as neoprene seals.
Everyone, but everyone, seems to be smiling.
But we did not see a single kangaroo.