baked Australian desert on their way to Perth to take ship for Turkey and the First World War. 'If we don't stop them there, the Germans could end up here,' they explain to a passing man on a camel. To which he replies: 'And they're welcome to it.'
There is still a general perception, especially in Australia, that Perth is as cut-off as a desert island, marooned between nothing but water to the west and the biggest beach in the world to the east. True, the nearest big city, Adelaide, is nearly 2,000 miles away across the Nullarbor ('No Trees') Plain, and there are more quadrupeds than bipeds to the acre. But Perth is a lot closer to London - and South-east Asia - than Sydney is, and it provides a convenient point of departure for antipodean adventures.
My intrepid mother-in-law once journeyed to the forgotten world of the North-west and explored the Bungle Bungle ranges with a poet, a painter, a naturalist and a helicopter. This wilderness is about 1,500 miles or so out of town. I never made it that far, but I did hitch a ride with a busload of surfers to Shark Island, a mere 10-hour drive due north. Fortunately, Australian wave fanatics are a tough breed, and they scared off any peckish Great Whites.
The next stop west from Perth is widely supposed to be Madagascar. But more accessible land lies just a few miles offshore, in the shape of Rottnest Island, known to the locals as 'Rotto'. It was named in the 18th century by a visiting Dutchman who mistook the small and friendly marsupials, quokkas, for rats. In the past, if you were transported there, you weren't intended to return. Now a hydrofoil plies the channel twice daily.
When I went to catch the ferry at the Barrack Street jetty, my old friend Bruce, an expatriate English ophthalmologist whose name had drawn him inexorably to Australia, whispered a dire warning in my ear: 'Watch out for the jellyfish.' He claimed that he had once gone out windsurfing on the Swan River and been chased back to land by an armada of pulsating pink blobs. 'Some of them are the size of dustbin lids,' he recounted, quaking. Sure enough, the water was bubbling with the blighters. But a hardened deckhand assured me that the plague only lasted a month or two at the end of the summer.
On paper it doesn't look far to the open ocean on the opposite side of Rottnest, where from September through to November, humpback whales serenade one another as they swim south to mate. So I cycled west (bikes are obligatory) with the vague idea of joining in the cetacean singalong.
After an hour or two's hard riding beneath the unrelenting sun - punctuated by picnics, conversations with quokkas, and dips at deserted beaches - my fellow wanderers in the wilderness (aged nine and 13) started wondering how far it was to the next fast-food refuelling station. They amused themselves by speculating about 'quokkaburgers'. 'You didn't make it?' crowed a passenger with more stamina on the boat back. 'Jeez, mate, you should have seen those whales jumping]'
While the whales romped on towards Antarctica, I took the lonely road south out of Perth through Bunbury and Busselton with barely another vehicle to toot to. Occasional kangaroos veered away through the trees as I passed. A friend in Perth had lent me his 'surf shack' in Yallingup, where I found a three- foot snake coiled around the shower. I decided I didn't really need a shower anyway.
Stashed away on top of the bedroom wardrobe was the Australian equivalent of an urnful of Dead Sea Scrolls: a hoard of Sixties surfing magazines called Beach Scene, Quest and Surfing Life. I drooled over double-page spreads of colossal waves and quivered to rapturous tales of experiences 'in the tube'. Surfing was a kind of religion in those days and preached a life of austerity and chastity. It was either women or waves: you couldn't have both. The real waves hitting the beach were double-overhead, and I sat before them for hours in a trance composed in equal parts of terror and ecstasy.
The Margaret River area is one of the lushest and loveliest in all Australia. The olive-
skinned landscape is like Provence without the crowds. Amid gentle hills and languid rivers, grape-fanciers can conduct a pilgrimage through legendary vineyards, such as Woodlands, Leeuwin Estate and Chateau Xanadu.
If you wimp out on the waves, as I did, you can always test your mettle on the Gloucester Tree in Pemberton. The karri trees, with the distinctive whitish-grey trunk of the eucalyptus, are one of the tallest species of hardwood in the world. The Gloucester Tree is about 185ft high and used to be a fire lookout. Now it is mainly a tourist lookout, but the rope ladder to the top deters the fainthearted.
I have a certificate, signed by the Authorising Officer of the Pemberton-Northcliffe Tourist Bureau, which states that I climbed the Gloucester Tree 'with courage, dignity, and decorum'. But even from below, the karri forests, where the kookaburras cackle, are awesome and inspirational.
The South-west has been allotted more than its fair share of natural wonders. The Mammoth and Jewel Caves are huge underground pleasure domes, the size of car-parks, populated by extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and other formations ending in 'ite' that have shaped themselves into enigmatic hieroglyphs and pictograms rivalling any corn-circle.
At Augusta on the extreme south-western tip of Australia, two oceans meet: the Indian and the Southern (or Antarctic). I looked west and saw turquoise seas gently ruffled by sultry breezes; I looked south and saw a grey shroud swollen with the phantoms of terrible storms. A distinct line, like a frontier, ran down the middle and stretched to the horizon.
But for the city-lover, Perth - a mixture of hayseed idyll and science-fiction metropolis - has enough pleasures and rarities of its own. I shall never forget my first sight of the nocturnal skyline, the reflection of the neon-lit downtown towers glimmering in the river, pricked here and there by surfacing jellyfish.
A few miles down-river are the lovingly restored colonial hotels along the esplanade in Fremantle, the town that witnessed the national disaster of the America's Cup. On the road in between is a dream-like drive-in, where couples still canoodle in their cars in front of flickering B-movies.
Last year, the Waca (home of the West Australian Cricket Association) was host to the world boomerang championships. Britain was not represented. If it hadn't been for the fact that you had to throw at least two boomerangs simultaneously and catch one between your legs and the other behind your back, I might have earned my first international cap.
Even the bureaucrats are friendly - in what other town hall on earth could you go and haggle about a dollars 60 parking ticket (watch out for parking spots that become no-parking zones at 5pm) and get it commuted to dollars 18?
But Perth needs no more justification than the Blue Duck, an airy beachfront cafe in the suburb of North Cottesloe. From there, stoked with croissants and cappuccino to rival any on the French Riviera, you can look out over the wild blue yonder, savour its isolation, watch the joggers sport upon the shore and listen to those endless rolling waters. -
GETTING THERE: A Superpex return to Perth with Qantas (0345 747767) starts at pounds 773 (minimum stay 14 days, maximum stay a year); one stopover of unlimited length is allowed in each direction, in Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong. Trailfinders (071- 938 3366) offers returns to Perth from pounds 583, including stopovers in Bangkok or Singapore and a continuation flight to Sydney. Austravel (071-734 7755) from pounds 549 return.
TOUR OPERATORS: Rainbow Holidays (0904 628080): 14 nights hotel accommodation from pounds 953, including flights from London or Manchester, stopover in Singapore possible; Austravel (071-734 7755): 15 nights self-catering from pounds 809 including flights.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Australian Tourism Commission, Gemini House, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (081-780 2227).
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