From Perth to Mogumber: Western Australia, Past and Future

N.B. This post will be loooooong, not nearly as light-hearted, and will contain some potentially upsetting topics, especially in the second half.

The first weekend of March marked our first official, Notre Dame-organized trip we would embark on during our time in Perth. Our leaders- the eager and intrepid Martin, and organised and attentive Tania. Martin is a professor at UWA specialising in educational anthropology, and has been running tours for groups of ND students on behalf of our school for years. The brief lesson in Strine mentioned previously? That was Martin. A tour guide more enthusiastic about both teaching and learning you’d be hard pressed to find. Tania is a student of Martin’s working towards her master’s in anthropology, and well-loved purveyor of snacks and reminders to reapply sunscreen. Together, a formidable and enviable team to rally a group of ten 20-21 year old uni students on a Friday and Saturday through many mini-adventures.

Friday

We started off Friday with a tour around Perth and neighbouring port town Fremantle.

Perth, WA

We left from our residential college, boarded a bus, and headed into the city centre of Perth. We saw similar sights to our earlier tour though UWA, except instead of pointing out restaurants and clubs, we were told some about the history of the city and invited to examine differences between Perth and American cities. After walking through more of the shopping districts, we started our first unique event- a visit with two members of the local urban planning committee. We met the two of them at the site of Perth’s newest component of a years-long urban renewal development plan- Yagan Square, opened barely a year ago in March 2018.

View of the outdoor amphitheatre of Yagan Square in Perth with the business district rising in the background.

I’ve never put much thought into the planning and consideration that goes into all aspects of a large urban plan like this, probably because I’ve never lived in a city. Yet, the care that went into each element of this plaza was astounding to hear about, and made me examine everything with a much more critical and appreciative eye. The location was chosen to become a new meeting place for the city, both literally and figuratively. Literally, because it connected the business district in the centre of the city with the cultural centre in the suburb of Northbridge where once there was only an impassable train depot. Figuratively, because it once was a bend in the Swan River running through the city. To the Noongar people, the Aboriginal cultural/language group that inhabits southwestern Australia, a bend in a body of water is a place of significance, and in this case it represented a place of meeting and a source of food. After the establishment of Perth by English colonisers, the Swan River was redirected and the river has not flown here since the 1830s. However, this did not stop local people from using the site as a protest against colonialism and continuing to gather there, even as train tracks sprung up. Balbuk, a Noongar woman known for her colonial occupation protests, is memorialised in art pieces around the square.

The committee and designers paid tribute to the history of the site in more ways, like in the tall steel pieces that trace the path of a river while doubling to provide shade in the middle of the WA (Western Australia) day. The flora is all local, endemic species, and all businesses located in the square are WA owned and run, no franchises allowed. This square was really the first glimpse we got into one of the more fascinating parts of Australian culture- the Aboriginal people, and the relationship then and now with European-settled Australia. And the first interesting story heard came from the name of the square- Yagan.

According to our building committee tour guides, the square had been designed with a great deal of input from the Whadjuk people, the Aboriginal people in the area of Perth. But, the naming was done essentially unilaterally by the premiere of WA at the time. While many people praised the name for the homage it paid the local Aboriginal history, others were not as happy to have a place located on a former significant site named after a man who gave his life as a resistance fighter, a man opposed to the very urbanisation and ecological change that the cities represented. This was merely a small insight into the conflict surrounding this contentious issue that is still prevalent in Australian society today, and (spoiler alert) this weekend would delve much deeper into the topic. But before I get to that, we had a boat to catch. 

The Ferry

A short, 90 minute boat ride down the Swan River was our mode of transport for this next leg of our trip. Other than the weather being beautiful and sunny, the trip was noticeable for one other quality- it took us right past some of the most expensive property in Perth, and all of WA. These were the suburbs of Dalkeith and Mosman Park. This is another showcase of the great wealth brought into the city during the 2000s by mining money that made it one the most booming economies in Australia, if not the world at the time. This included a view of a mansion along the riverfront recently sold for A$57.5 million. While many of the homes were indeed quite beautiful, it was also a reminder that, in some cases, there’s no accounting for taste.

Fremantle, WA

Fremantle is Perth’s cooler, hipster, more colourful cousin just south, where the river meets the Indian Ocean. For my fellow Americans, think like much smaller Portland/San Francisco vibes. Lots of trendy restaurants and microbreweries, cool bars and pubs, and, admittedly, less industry than Perth. Our trip through Freo was motivated by a tour of local art and statues, a way Martin believed would give insight into local culture and ideas. Most of the statues and monuments were the kind that you would expect to see in a European-settled city of that size- a statue of the man responsible for the building of Fremantle’s port; the WWII-era politician John Curtin from the city who was Prime Minister from 1941 to 1945; a strange artistic representation of St. George guarding a giant chess set available for use outside an Anglican church; a statue of Bon Scott, the original lead singer of AC/DC who lived in Freo and is buried there. However, the most interesting monument was an innocuous pillar in a park near the ocean.

Bon Scott presiding over Fremantle Boat Harbour, microphone in hand, hopefully about to sing You Shook Me All Night Long.

You see, just like in the US, Australia is having conversations about controversial statues and monuments. Rather than Confederate memorials, Australia is debating about memorials commemorating colonisers, especially those who were killers of Aboriginal people. Freo was not immune to this, but they did have a rather unique reaction. The Explorer’s Monument in Perth was erected at the beginning of the 20th century to pay homage to a trio of white settlers who were killed by Aboriginals on an expedition north, and later “avenged” by a search party who recovered the bodies and killed around 20 Aboriginal people. In 1994, Aboriginal communities added a second plaque to the monument, reminding that the original work only tells one side of the history and in remembrance of the Aboriginal people who lost their lives as well. I found this a poignant reminder that the reality of history is complex and often uncomfortable, but that this can be addressed in ways that do not rewrite or gloss over parts of it. An interesting model to consider, in any case.

Explorer’s Monument in Fremantle, with the original plaque on top and added plaque on bottom.

This statue ended our guided tour of Fremantle, and we ended the day eating fish and chips (fried feta for our vegetarians, or vegos) next to the beach. We split up from their to make our own way back to college in Perth. A few of us popped into a nearby bar to try some of the beer Freo is known for producing, and caught the first half of an Australian Rules Football match (footy). It was altogether quite enjoyable to watch, especially because we had no clue what the rules were supposed to be. We have tickets to attend a live game in a few weeks, so I’m certain I can talk more about it them. I will leave it here with these observations- the game is played with 18 men on each team on a field at a time, boundaries and field positions seem to be mere suggestion, it involved a combination of hitting similar to underhand volleyball serving, kicking, and running while occasionally hitting the ball on the ground to move the oval-shaped ball around, and the finals scores resembled high school basketball games. I can’t wait to watch a game live.

After finishing up at the bar, we boarded a bus and returned to college to rest up for an even fuller day the upcoming Saturday. And if I thought I had had a glimpse into complex non-Indigenous/Indigenous Australian relations, it would be nothing compared to the next day.

Saturday

We set off early from Tommy More on a van bound- for the first time since my arrival in Australia- inland, away from the ocean. Western Australia, while being the largest state by area, has 78.5% of its population residing in the Greater Perth area. And boy, does the population take a sharp decline just a short ways inland. Only a short drive outside of this nice, beachy-cosmopolitan city I have come to know in my almost month of being here and the landscape gives way to what I immediately could identify as the famed “bush”, or Outback. And all of the sudden, it was much easier to make sense of the popular stereotypes I had heard- here was the land of deadly animals by the dozens, kangaroos hoping by dirt roads, and endless blue sky unbroken by clouds, tall trees, or real mountains. While in Perth I had been coming to know the people of Australia, this was my sudden introduction to the land of Australia. Enough about the flora and fauna right now, as I’m sure I will explore this more in depth in a later post. Right now, we were on our way to meet a different kind of Australian inhabitant- Benedictine monks.

New Norcia, WA

New Norcia is a Spanish-founded monastic town about 2 hours outside of Perth, and the only monastic town in Australia. Admittedly, this is not a stop I imagined making when I thought about my study abroad experience beforehand. To me, a monastery lies in verdant green hills somewhere in Europe and has for hundreds of years. Instead, we found ourselves rolling to a stop at a cluster of a few Spanish-influenced buildings set among red dirt in the middle of the bush, far from a town of real size.You can rely on Notre Dame to find a Catholic settlement to send their students to, I suppose. I would come to find out that this sleepy little town standing quietly under a blazing Australian sun had some interesting history to tell.

The archway into the cloistered section of the New Norcia monastery.

We set off on a guided tour of the town, under the direction of a guide who began to regale us with some of the history. We heard about the first Abbot, Bishop Salvado, who in his reign from 1846 to 1900, made New Norcia one of the most progressive missions in all Australia at the time. He did this through a close relationship with the local Aboriginal people, especially for the time. He attempted to learn their language and customs, and the museum at the monastery is full of artefacts from the local people and documents from monks under Salvado’s direction. The sympathy and willingness to live alongside the local people that the bishop displayed was rare for his time.

When the bishop died in 1900, his successor, come over from Spain, did not share his same focus towards harmony with the Aboriginals and instead shifted focus to turning the monastery to a school. It became one of the better schools in the state, and was in operation until the 90s. We saw many of the old school buildings and chapels, as well as the mill that used to run to provide bread for the students. After trooping about in the hot sun, we stopped for a break in the main chapel the monks use and were treated to an amazing organ and piano performance by one of the 11 brothers. Our Notre Dame crew had a quick picnic lunch, then were off to our next location.

Mogumber, WA- Moore River Settlement

A quick 20 minute drive in our bus took us to the “town” of Mogumber. And by town, I mean a classic Outback pub, signs advertising the rodeo being held in a few weeks, and some train tracks. We weren’t in Mogumber for the pub and its Carlton Draught, though. We were meeting Stephanie Mippy, an Aboriginal woman who was taking us just down a rough road to the now abandoned Moore River Settlement. Stephanie met us with a few of her aunties at the site of the former settlement, and began to tell us about a period of Australian history that I doubt many Americans would be aware of. I certainly wasn’t.

Moore River Settlement was set up a little over a century ago, in 1918, by AO Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia for several decades (spoiler alert- a man called Neville the Devil by the Aboriginals). He presided over the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families under the ideology of assimilation, the idea that the inferiority of being black should be “bred out” with whites or allowed to die. Using policies based off of this, many children, especially lighter skinned ones who were believed to have a better chance of successful assimilation to white Australia, were taken from their families and placed in internment camps like Moore River. Conditions were brutal and unforgiving, and abuse of the children was rampant under the guise of discipline. Of the 347 recorded deaths at the camp, 203 were children. Stephanie’s grandparents grew up in the camps, and she in turn grew up hearing stories about the place from her grandparents and their acquaintances. They believe that more died than were recorded. Most of the children taken were placed at Moore River, but some of the lightest skin were sent just a few kilometres away- to New Norcia for school. A weird, and not pleasant, sense of coming full circle.

Stephanie and her aunts told stories they had been handed down from elders who had grown up in the camps away from their families as we stood among what buildings were still standing. And I say still standing because no work has gone into preserving this site. Indeed, it seemed like a fairly low-traffic place, with no one else disturbing our time there. There are no real signs around to tell the stories of the people who lived, grew up, and died at this place. Once Stephanie and the others who work to make sure the stories are heard are gone, there will be little sign of what happened at this place. They are working to secure funding to develop it into a more permanent historical site to ensure the longevity of the tale.

Stephanie shares letters and important documents from the life of her grandfather, Ned.

Stephanie and her family also shared with us letters. documents, awards, and articles about her grandfather, the late Ned Mippy. In his lifetime, Mr. Mippy was known for his work in promoting Cultural Education in Aboriginal culture for all Australians, including preservation of the local Noongar language. For this work, he was awarded an Australia Day Award, given for community engagement and contribution (and we got to see the award letter). It was a nice reminder to have, after hearing the stories of the camp, that things are better today, even if they have not reached the point of being great. But there are good people like Stephanie and her family who are working to educate, to remind people, to heal old wounds, and to talk about productive ways to move forward for all Australians.

After a hearty thank you to the Mippys, we headed off again, for we still had one more stop in our weekend journey.

Gingin, WA- Observatory

We finished the trip on a completely different note- SCIENCE. Fun fact, the Notre Dame Perth program is typically made up entirely of STEM majors of some kind, and this years group is no exception. Trust me when I say we’ve been sneaking nerdy science moments into several of our trips so far. So of course, it was with great excitement that we rolled up to our final destination- the Gravity Discovery Centre and Observatory. It was here that we grabbed dinner at a small cafe dedicated to Einstein, eating quick because we needed to be done before the sun went down. Why? To make it to the Leaning Tower of Gingin to drop water balloons, of course. This is a 45 meter tall tower that stands as an homage to Galileo’s original gravity experiments from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The tower at Pisa tilts at 5.5 degrees from the vertical, whereas this homage tilts a full 15 degrees.

We happily climbed 222 stairs, water balloons in hand, stopping to catch our breath on landings decorated with cheerful reminders that time was going faster the higher we got and that we were now ageing faster.

One of the more cheerful reminders on the relative nature of time, or did you misread Einstein?

Once at the top, we dropped our loads to fall and splat on the ground far below, giggling like children the entire time. After the fun reminder of the power of gravity, we descended back down to explore the science museum as the sun fully set to kill time until it was dark enough to begin our final activity of the night- a guided stargazing tour with a few of the astrophysicists stationed at the Observatory. As our guide began to walk us through the constellations that could be seen, I was reminded that I was in the land Down Under- all the constellations where upside down to the orientation I am used to at home. Poor Orion (one of the only constellations I can identify with any degree of certainty) was standing on his head, probably having to hold his toga in place to protect his modesty. They spent a good amount of time talking about how to be sure you are identifying the Southern Cross correctly- a constellation I hadn’t even learned about because it’s only visible in the southern sky. This is the constellation that graces the flag of Australia with its celestial presence, though, so I imagine that being able to correctly identify the four stars at a BBQ with your mates is a mark of Australian pride, and probably a question on their citizenship test.

The Australian flag with the Southern Cross constellation located on the right side.

We were also able to gaze at several other distant galaxies and nebulas and contemplate our small place in a vast universe. After two days spent in historical reflection, it was a reminder about the work going into the present and future, and all the things we don’t know about it yet. A strange juxtaposition to end a trip full of interesting information and even more interesting people.

Well, if you’ve read this long, good on ya. I promise the next articles that approach a longer length will be split up. Cheers, mate!

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