Friday, March 2, 2012

Perth: a day to my own devices

The Perth Writers Festival wrapped on Sunday and I didn’t fly out till 9am on Tuesday, meaning I had all of Monday to explore. So I picked up a rental car from Thrifty bright and early and headed for Fremantle.

It was my first time driving in Australia in five years and I was quickly reminded how infuriating an experience it is. I had no map (not only did Thrifty not supply one, they did not stock any for sale), but I figured it couldn’t be too hard to get to Fremantle – just head to the coast for 25kms – then buy a map there. But Australia must have a road sign rationing programme (most of my WA disappointments come when it behaves/looks/feels just like the rest of Australia): I only saw one sign indicating the direction to Fremantle the whole journey, meaning most of the time I was in that uneasy ‘I feel like I’m still heading west’ mode. And when there is a sign to mark a turnoff, it is often on the far corner of the intersection, meaning you can often the sign as you drive past the turnoff.

And don’t get me started on the rigmarole of turning right (made worse because NZ follows suit at the end of the month - grrr).

At least I didn’t have to do any hook turns.

Later on, when I was well north of the city, I was also reminded of the great difference between New Zealand and Australian roads. In New Zealand, the landscape is inescapable. In Australia, it is so often hidden – either deliberately, behind those 3m high slabs that preserve the serenity of the houses over the fence, or the place is just so flat that you can only see the same row of scrubby eucalypts as you drive for miles.

Man, I really seem down on Australia today. Must be all that mid-twenties-spent-in-Queensland misery welling up.

Samuel Plimsoll figurehead
Anyway, I went to Fremantle to check out the port, the shipwreck museum and the maritime museum, as there may be a brief stopover in ‘Freo’ in THE NOVEL. The shipwreck museum was mostly devoted to wrecks of the Dutch East Indies Company, particularly the Batavia, all of which happened well before THE NOVEL’s late Nineteenth Century timeframe. The real highlight was the figurehead from the Samuel Plimsoll, one that I’d seen in books and online, so it was great to stand beneath old Sam and see his unsanded, unvarnished, unpainted underside.

The WA Maritime Museum was a waste of time (and $10). Hardly anything about the age of sail. All flash and no substance.

I then drove north to Yanchep National Park. Cue another grumpy generalisation about Australia (and how NZ kicks its arse): Upon entry into the park, I was reminded how manmade Australian national parks feel. I’d suspected that it was just the ones I went to in SE Queensland, and I’m sure Kakadu and the Bungle Bungles and all those really isolated places are raw and wild and fantastic, but a visitor to Yanchep’s first encounter is with several hectares of landscaped lawns, a restaurant, a gift shop, coin operated BBQs and a lake where (water levels permitting – and they weren’t when I was there) you can take a boat tour. And as in Springbrook and Lamington National Parks, even when got away from the mown grass and Streets Ice Cream flags, I was never far away from the roar of a hidden highway.

Yanchep National Park (seriously)

So it took me a while to get over this flood of animus against Australian National Parks for me to really enjoy Yanchep, but I did in the end and it was all thanks to the animals.

After observing the Western Greys take over the lawns at dusk, I headed to the beach to catch the sunset. As I stood atop the cliffs at Quinn’s Rocks it was difficult to get my head around the fact that you could never see the sun rise over the sea in WA (except at the very bottom and very top), only the sun set. Narrow is often used in a pejorative sense (as in limited, penurious, cramped, ‘narrow-minded’… the Tacoma Narrows Bridge) but one of the great joys of New Zealand is its narrowness: the ability to hold an endurance race from one coast to the other (passing through some amazingly varied country in the process). Of course, it means the weather’s changeable (read: shit), due in part to the narrowness and our mountainous spine. But to never see the sun rise over the sea? Inconceivable.

I then drove down through the Swan Valley (I often have to stop myself from saying/writing Swann’s Way, which a very wanky Freudian slip), a wine producing region to the north of Perth, found a quiet spot and slept in the back of my Hyundai i20. I was awoken after a couple of hours by the sound of galloping hooves. In the faint comingled light of the moon and the nearby conurbation I could make out a white horse running back and forth in its paddock across the road from me. I wondered if maybe it was displaying for my benefit (most likely it was telling me to eff off), but it soon settled down. When I rose after sunrise its head was leaning over the fencepost, eyeing down my car.

I dropped the rental car off at the domestic terminal just after 7am and proceeded to fly home to Wellington via Sydney.
Movies I watched:

Crazy Stupid Love – It has its moments. The last twenty minutes is unbearably Hollywood: everything must collide and then get smoothed out (there’s even a scene where Steve Carrill gives an impromptu address about love and soulmates at his son’s middle school graduation).

Midnight in Paris – Sheesh. Watching a Woody Allen movie these days is like sitting at the table next to a bunch of rich, entitled American Tourists. In the flesh these people are often annoying, but if you get the chance to talk with them, there’s usually a warmth and generosity below the surface that is some small redemption. But in Midnight in Paris, as in Vicky Christina Barcelona (the last Allen movie I saw) and Match Point (the one before that), Americans are irredeemable. I nearly gave up watching after 20 minutes, but then Owen Wilson (who’s sounding more and more like Jack Nicholson these days, don’t you think) met up with Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The actor who played Hemingway did a good job, but in the end all these writer and artist cameos were just as shallow as Woody’s contemporary characters.

While waiting for my baggage at Wellington Airport, I turned my phone back on and found I had two voicemail messages, both from Thrifty Car Rentals. The first asked if I was going to return my car today. The second was, like, uh, so you never returned your car today, do you want it for a third day?
I’d parked it in a Thrifty parking spot at the airport (my agreed drop-off destination) and handed the keys to a dude in a Thrifty-emblazoned safety vest. ‘That’s fine,’ he’d told me, ‘there’s no need to go into the office. I’ll sort it out.’

These words took on a sinister tone as I replayed them back in NZ. Had a thief come across a Thrifty safety vest and waited for a gullible Kiwi to give him the keys to a car he’d then nick? What’s my liability in such a case? Or had Thrifty’s returns system just had a hiccup? It was 11.30pm NZT and 6.30pm Perth time, so I couldn’t get a hold of anyone to give me some answers. I couldn’t even leave a phone message for anyone from Thrifty anywhere in Australia (the NZ call centre was open and were lovely but their system is quite separate from Australia’s). So I got home, composed a mildly distressed email to Thrifty stating the minutiae of my return (the number of the parking space, the time of my return, a detailed description of the dude I gave the keys that would please any police sketch artist) and went to bed to enjoy a poor night’s sleep.

When I finally got hold of Thrifty in Perth the next day, they said that their system had expected the car to be returned back to Perth CBD, despite the fact I’d laboured this point I’d be returning it to the domestic airport with the person who’d served me (she knew what time my flight was and everything). So in the end the car was found, the charge for the extra day was reversed (though I lost a little money on the exchange rate, as well as the exchange margin my bank charged and the numerous international calls I had to make on my phone to sort it out). Not good enough Thrifty. Not good enough.

Man, I’ve been a total Grinch in this post.

Let me reiterate what I said in previous Perth posts: I had a great time at the writers festival. It would be hard to top my time in Sydney Writers Festival (8 sessions around greater Sydney and the Blue Mountains, all the outreach activities, the awesome writers I met, the free breakfasts and wifi at the hotel, the great weather, and the general buzz around the festival precinct), but Perth would probably come second if I ever made a list (which I won’t).

In one week it’s Wellington’s turn to wow me. I already know I like the city, the roads, the national parks… I even like the festival (I’ve been an audience member at three writers and readers weeks). There’s no way I can be stranded at the airport and I’ve no need to deal with rental car companies. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh yeah, I’m moving house!

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