David Whitley gets an insight into how prison life used to be in Western Australia – and vows to be a good boy from now on

If the Australian government really wanted to cut crime, then the best thing they could do would be to put Old Fremantle Prison back into use, and from there broadcast a reality show on prime time TV. From tax return ‘massager’ to murderous psychopath, everyone would think twice. Sharing a tiny room with a violent criminal and a bucketful of festering human waste - in 40 degree heat with no fan or air conditioning – is no fun.

Up until 1991, when it closed, this is what conditions were like at Fremantle Prison. Holiday camp it wasn’t, as you can see at first hand as everything has been kept intact. When it closed down, after lots of thumb twiddling, the State government decided to keep it open as a tourist attraction. A rather ghoulish one, admittedly, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The refreshing thing about the tour is that there’s no romaniticising the prison life. You get the full details in all their guard-bribing, fist-fighting, drug-smuggling, soap-dropping horror. First up, we’re taken through the check-in procedure. We’re told how prisoners were stripped naked, had their belongings put in a bag, and were issued with the prison uniform.

As we’re guided through the chapels, cells and exercise yards, we’re bombarded with interesting titbits of information. Whether it’s the mundane stuff about how mail was read and luxury items bought or daring tales of escapes and riots, you get a real feel for the prison life. You learn things too – drugs being smuggled in through tennis balls being hit over the prison walls; the wing for non-violent prisoners being more violent than the wing for those up for bashing grannies; the wannabe artist who whittled his button into a pencil and covered up his incredible cell artwork with porridge every morning. It’s unexpectedly gripping.

What really comes across is the barbarity of the system though. Not from the prisoners, mind, but from the authorities. We’re taken to the flogging post, where misbehaving convicts would be whipped until they’re hospitalised, and then to solitary confinement, a hellish prison within a hellish prison. Eeriest of all though is the gallows. The last man hanged in Western Australia was Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer, in 1964. Amazingly, the death sentence was only abolished in 1984, but the tour takes you through what would happen if it still existed now. A rope round the neck, the sinister crank that opens the trapdoor, and you’re dead within two seconds. Strangely enough, silence fills the room after that.


ps Tours of Fremantle Prison run from 9am to 5pm every day, and candlelight tours are also available. You’ll need to book in advance.

Annoying Oz


If you’re going to Australia, it pays to be pre-warned about the country’s idiosyncrasies – so here’s what to brace yourself for.Australia is a great country, but that doesn’t mean to say everything about it is perfect. Though Australian culture may be similar to British or Irish culture in many ways, there are still a few differences that you only really start noticing once you’re over there. Some will charm – such as the willingness of people to give directions or the wonders of drive-through booze shops – but others will irritate. And, in no particular order, here are ten of the things that are almost certain to get on your wick.
A constant diet of rugby league/ AFL
Australia is a nation split by sporting codes. To a certain extent, cricket and rugby union cross the divide, but most states will identify themselves as either AFL or rugby league territory. Of the two, AFL (Australian Rules Football) is the most fascinating. It bears some resemblance to Gaelic football, and attracts gigantic crowds – sometimes up to 80 or 90,000 – yet the rest of the world couldn’t care less about it. It’s a fast moving game, worth at least one visit to see. Victoria is the game’s unquestioned hub.

Queensland and – in particular – New South Wales, are rugby league territory. For the uninitiated, imagine a load of Neanderthals constantly running into each other while the fans pretend they’re watching a sport of genuine international significance. You’re about there.What will get you riled up is that Australia’s newspapers can often feature little else but stories about AFL (in Melbourne) and rugby league (in Sydney).

If you want a pathetically one-eyed, regional focus on the world’s events, watch the Australian news. Coverage always tends towards the “One Australian and 473 other people have been killed in a bomb attack” approach. The country also shows itself up by fawning in the most feeble way imaginable every time someone relatively famous from overseas is kind enough to set foot in the country. Paris Hilton can drop by to plug something or other and it’ll be treated as if it was a Papal visit.
Combining the American approach to having five minute long ad breaks every ten minutes with the programming budget of a small, relatively unpopulated nation, Australian TV is almost unremittingly awful. At best, you’ll constantly cringe, at worst you’ll want to throw bricks at it. There are a few decent homegrown programmes, but they’re very rare. Otherwise it’s a diet of painfully unfunny talk show hosts, ads and every derivation of CSI you can possibly dream up.

Overattentive shop assistants
If you’re the sort of person that likes to browse without being disturbed, the Australian shopping experience is not for you. You’ll be leapt on with a “how can I help you today?” as soon as you walk through the door. Of course, the person doing this is unlikely to know anything useful about the stock – they’ve just been told to be attentive.

Obsession with house prices
Auction (incorrectly pronounced as ‘ock-tion’) prices are what passes for news in these parts. A house in a relatively uninteresting suburb sold for 5% more than a similar house did two months ago – hold the front page. Alas, this attitude leads estate agents to think they’re genuine celebrities, and doing you a favour by behaving like egregious arseholes on a constant basis.

Bacon, sausages and chocolate
On the whole, most Australian produce is of a higher standard than its British counterpart. But there are some notable exceptions. Those who like a meaty breakfast will probably be facing disappointment – Australian bacon and sausages tend to lack any taste whatsoever, as any expat living over there will tell you between the tears. Chocolate is another bugbear – it just doesn’t taste right. The usual argument for this is that they have to put special preservatives in to stop it melting in the shops, but nobody’s quite sure whether this is an urban myth or not.

Beetroot with everything
A far greater culinary crime is Australia’s obsession with ruining perfectly good food by putting a slice of beetroot on it. This is particularly the case for burgers, for which beetroot is no more suited to than custard or iron spikes. You’ll get your burger, sink your teeth in, recoil in revulsion and then realise that a beetroot slice has infected it. Remove said beetroot, and everything else will have been stained by it. It’s best to loudly bellow “NO BEETROOT ON MINE PLEASE” as soon as you enter the shop/ restaurant.

There are plenty of great pubs in Australia, but too many fall into a sadly identikit mould. You’ll find a basic range of fairly nasty beers, a food menu that’s chicken parmagiana or steak and little attempt to disguise that the real money is made from gambling rather than drinks. A large section will be devoted to the TAB (sports betting and horse racing on multiple screens) whilst the real goldmine is the poker machines. The area with the pokies (as they’re universally known) is invariably a tragic scene, with people thoughtlessly pouring their money into a game without skill, hoping against odds and logic for a payout.

Forget the sharks, crocs and snakes – it’s the flies that will drive you to the brink of insanity.

Casual racism
Australia has a perhaps unfair reputation for being a massively racist place. Like everywhere, racism certainly exists, but it is arguably overplayed. What you will probably discover, however, is a higher degree of casual racism. It’ll not be naked aggression, just a series of ignorant throwaway comments about all Asians being bad drivers or Aboriginal people being workshy. In many ways, Australia is like your slightly embarrassing granddad; it hasn’t learned that some lazy opinions are best not voiced and it would sooner stick to them than assess the evidence. It by no means affects the whole population; it’s just slightly more prevalent.






Rock-monkeying in Kalbarri National Park David Whitley ruins his trousers in one of Western Australia’s most rugged landscapes

There are many things that are designed to be done in brand, spanking new white trousers. Dancing to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees is a prime example, as is rollerskating whilst on your period in tampon adverts. However, such clothing is not ideal in all circumstances, as I now know to my cost. For example, sitting around a campfire in a muddy field, getting progressively more tipsy. 

Believe it or not, the next day your lovely gleaming trousers turn a dirty shade of charcoal, and they absolutely stink. Seeing as they were completely buggered up from the previous night, I thought I may as well keep them on while we’re strolling around the Kalbarri National Park. Now I don’t know what everyone else thinks of when they hear the phrase “National Park", but I tend to think of a few relaxing walks, with maybe the odd hill. I was wrong, and if there was any chance of my proud new purchase washing clean after the campfire, then there wasn’t after a morning in the Kalbarri. 

This place is astonishing, as much for the history as the scenery. Millions of years ago, this was the bottom of the ocean. Now, we know more about the surface of the moon than the ocean floor. To put in perspective, the only time man has gone to the deepest depths of the planet was in 1960, when two men and a submersible went right into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. They had tiny windows, nothing that enabled them to see in the dark and saw sweet FA. We’ve never been back since. That’s as mad as snakes, and thus walking through the Kalbarri is pretty special. You’re going back in time, and visiting a place that is a complete mystery to mankind at the same time. When I say walking, it’s a bit of a misnomer, unfortunately. Most of the time, we’re clambering up and down rocks, messing our clothes up big style. 

It’s all great fun and high adventure, but I really wish I’d put some kind of novelty Steve Irwin costume on beforehand. As we snake our way down through the dust, we encounter people who clearly believe in doing things these easy way – they’re abseiling. At the bottom, we arrive at the Murchison River, and after all that exercise, I’m having a swim. Everyone looks at me as if my brain has gone on holiday, and the river is, of course, freezing, but it’s remarkably refreshing after scrambling over rocks for the best part of two hours. From there, it’s a case of climbing all the way back up. It’s hard work with the sun beating out of a clear blue sky, but it’s worth it – the view is astonishing. The river carves its way through the surrounding landscape, and you’re perched on a ledge way above this ancient world. Let’s face it, I can always buy a new pair of trousers.


The Light

David Whitley heads east of Perth to view one of the world’s great engineering achievements, but finds himself wowed by one of Australia’s natural wonders 

Around 45 minutes east of Perth, there is a dam. A decent-sized, but unremarkable dam, if compared to enormous projects such as the Hoover Dam in the US, or the Aswan Dam in Egypt. But it is the pipes leading from Mundaring Weir that should inspire awe.

Before the 1890s, Western Australia was a bit of a struggling backwater. The Swan River Colony – as it was originally called – was only founded because the Dutch and French were snooping around the continent’s west coast and the British thought they should stick a flag down to stop the competition making a claim.

In 1829, Perth was founded. It’s an older city than Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide, but the other colonies grew a lot quicker than poor, bedraggled and forgotten Western Australia.

But in the 1890s, gold was found way inland at Kalgoorlie. There were fortunes to be made there, but many paid the ultimate price in trying to make them. It was desert, and you can’t drink gold. Many ambitious would-be miners didn’t even make it out there. There were no roads, and over half who attempted the 600km walk over dry bushland from Perth died of thirst.

Enter CY O’Connor, an Irishman with a reputation for handling massive infrastructure projects. He came to a tragic end, committing suicide under pressure from constant media carping about the costs of major achievements such as standardised rail gauges across the state and a new port at Fremantle.

He never got to see the finished version of the pipeline that would be, by any measure, one of the greatest engineering achievements in history. It runs for 560km from Mundaring Weir to the Kalgoorlie goldfields, uphill and through the desert. It required loans of what would now be billions of dollars, and what was then the largest single order of steel in history.

Stood on top of the dam, however, it’s not the engineering achievement that strikes. It’s something that’s hard to convey to anyone who has not visited Australia. It’s a stunning sight – the water of the lake created by the dam is a rich blue, whilst the rocks that make up the banks look gaspingly dry.

But the dazzling scene is made by the light. It’s the thing I missed the most when I returned to Britain after five years in Australia. Even on the sunniest days, Britain only ever gets a muted, hazy light. In Australia, however, the skies seem so much more vast, and the light so much more intense. There’s an invigorating, almost fearsome brightness during the day that turns into an enhancing, hugely flattering illumination at dawn and dusk. It’s only when you leave and lose it that you start to realise just how powerful and energy-giving it is.

On the way back from the weir, we decide to drive up to Kings Park, the giant 404 hectare green lung that overlooks the Swan River and central Perth. The road in – Fraser Avenue – is lined with tall gum trees. They’re striking at the best of times, gloriously pink-tinged white trunks soaring skywards with no branches on the lower levels to sully the majesty. But as the day draws to a close, the fading, marvellously complimentary light gives the honour guard of trees an entrancing, magical appearance.

And no man-made achievements will ever be able to top that.

Disclosure (and recommendation): For a great overview of Perth’s history and future, the two hour Perth Urban Adventure walking tour around the city with Two Feet And A Heartbeat ( is an excellent choice. David did the Two Feet tour as a guest of Tourism Western Australia (

WA Wombats


David Whitley professes his undying love for the grumpy little pig-bear-tanks that seem to enchant most visitors at first site

One of the things Australia does very well is wildlife. In fact, it could be said that I’m marginally obsessed with Australian wildlife. Koalas are undeniably cute, kangaroos are just magnificently built, while other things cram the scale from odd to gorgeous. Kookaburras are funny-cute, rainbow lorikeets are beautiful, cockatoos are cheeky, quokkas are loveable and crocodiles are tremendously calculating and fearsome.

But, for me, one Australian creature has an absurd magnetism that the others just can’t compete with. The wombat somehow manages to get everything right by getting everything wrong.

For those unaware of the wombat’s majesty, imagine a small pig, cross-bred with a bear and a tank. They can occasionally look cute, but delightfully weird would be a better description. They’re adorable in the same way an unfortunately ugly puppy is adorable.

Elegance is not their forte either. They shuffle about with the wobbling waddle that comes from having a big body on tiny legs (although they can actually scarper quite quickly if they have to). They often have snuffly noses and can be found sleeping in the most ungainly manner imaginable. Look at one inside its hollowed-out log, and it’ll often be flat on its back, legs in the air.

However, it is impossible not to have enormous respect for any creature that utilises its substantial backside as its major weapon. If you’re a dingo trying to capture a wombat from its hole, expect to feel the full force of a peculiar arsenal. The wombat will back into the dingo’s face, using its unbelievably sturdy bum like a punching shield. It’ll then claw backwards – and the claws on those feet are mighty sharp.

As much as I really, really want my own wombat, I secretly know that they’d be appalling pets. They’re generally blessed with a curmudgeonly, grumpy disposition – as if they’ve permanently just woken up and really can’t be bothered with the niceties of keeping everyone happy. They’re also the world’s largest burrowing animal. And that means that give them a couple of days, and they’ll dig massive holes all across your garden.

But it’s not just me that wants one. When my wife first visited Australia, we went to a wildlife park, ostensibly to look at a few kangaroos and koalas. As we turned a corner, the cry went out: “What’s that? I WANT ONE.�?

It was, of course, a portly scuffling wombat.

Four years later, and in Perth, we had heard a rumour. There is, so legend has it, a place where you can cuddle a wombat. If ever there was a justification for hiring a car and taking a 40 minute detour out of the city centre, then this was it.

We pulled up outside the Caversham Wildlife Park almost panting with excitement. “Where can we cuddle the wombat?�? we asked at the ticket booth, more than prepared to skip everything else and rush over there.

“Well, you can’t exactly cuddle it,�? the woman at the counter announced to quickly crestfallen faces. “But you can get up close and touch it.�?

That’ll do. We charged past the enclosures of roos, dingos and exotic birds to what’s essentially a giant barn. And there was the magical queue.

At the end of it was a happily smiling member of staff, holding a giant hairy-nosed wombat. She weighed around 30 kilos, and she was lying back in his arms without a shred of dignity or shame. Her little paws were waving in the air, her eyes veered between sleep and dozy awakeness and her face bore what looked like a contented smile.

Her name was Big Bubs, and I got to sit next to her and stroke her tummy. Given even the faintest sniff of a chance, I’d have kidnapped her and taken her home.