Australia in general revels in the fact that, as a continent and nation, it is an odd place. I don’t mean odd in a bad way, but it’s hard to deny a certain quirkiness that exists in the Land Down Under. Many things are just a little unusual, a little off but in as positive and (usually) fun way as possible. The state of Western Australia though takes this proclivity towards oddness to new levels, partly of their own making and partly thanks to Mother Nature. I experienced many strange moments, but these are a few of the quirkier discoveries I made during my exploration of Australia’s largest state.
1. Quokkas – Australian wildlife is amongst the oddest in the world, thanks to the continent’s many millennia-long isolation and the diversity of the habitats across the nation. Somewhere on the middle of the quirky spectrum, is a small marsupial that may not have the fame of kangaroos of even bilbies, but is no less important. The quokka lives on only a few small islands and in a hard-to reach mainland colony in Western Australia. That’s it. They don’t number in the millions like their larger ‘roo cousins and few people know about them, even though they were one of the first of many strange animals Europeans to the continent encountered. That’s why I felt so lucky to see them in the wild, but to be honest that’s a common experience on Rottnest Island. A one-hour ferry ride from Perth, Rottnest is a popular place to relax, do some biking and enjoy nature – especially the quokkas. Islanders have embraced their most popular resident, even if the small creatures are at times a nuisance. You can’t deny how cute and how incredibly quirky these strange residents are though.
2. Slumber party in the Hoover House – When I was planning my trip to Western Australia I discovered something that surprised me for just how improbable it is – the home of a former U.S. President in the middle of Western Australia’s vast Goldfields region. Located about half an hour from nothing and 45 minutes from nowhere is Gwalia, a ghost town home to three things: 1) abandoned houses; 2) an active mine and 3) the very comfortable home of Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st President. Before he was President, Hoover was an engineer and worked for a mining company that shipped him around the world many times, including Australia. He built this comfortable country house when he was made manager of the mine, which is adjacent to the property, and today it’s part museum and part bed and breakfast. That’s right, you can venture out to Gwalia, see the mine and spend the night in Hoover’s bed. Definitely odd, but it was also one of my favorite experiences in Western Australia. Go figure!
3. One the oldest forms of life on the planet – 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth was a fairly inhospitable place. But a slow process was quietly going on in the planet’s seas. A rock-like organism was doing something the Earth had never seen before. Stromatolites were gradually filling the atmosphere with oxygen, paving the way for more complex creatures to arise. These unique organisms weren’t just the important first step in life on Earth, but their fossils now provide valuable data for scientists trying to learn about early life on the planet. Scientists assumed they vanished into the ether of time long ago, until 1956 when living examples of these amazing organisms were actually found. Where else would something this bizarre and extraordinary happen, except for Australia? Hamelin Pool, located in the Shark Bay World Heritage Site of Western Australia, is home to these amazing creatures, one of the rarest sights in the world. Visiting the rock-like creatures was important to me, and instead of boring blobs (which they are) I was struck by the incredible beauty of the pools, dotted with the creatures still working hard to create life. It’s a humbling moment and one I encourage everyone to seek out when they’re in Western Australia.
4. Strange animal crossing signs – Australians are used to living in a strange and varied country; their own quirkiness no longer apparent to them. For outsiders though it’s a different story and so often I saw little oddities that made me laugh but which my hosts didn’t even notice. One of my favorite aspects of driving around the immense state involved the road signs, specifically the variety of animal crossing signs. From warnings about birds that could crash into my car (really?!) to signs featuring animals not even Tolkien could have imagined, they were a fun part of my travel experience. This sign though is my favorite; clearly warning drivers that magical creatures cross at this point, right? As it turns out it’s a bilby crossing sign – an animal I bet most people haven’t even heard of. They’re another cute marsupial, much more common than the quokka and about as odd. As you can see from the sign, they’re hard to miss but don’t worry, like most marsupials they’re harmless.
5. Flat tire (and rescue) in Siberia – What’s even stranger than visiting long forgotten ghost towns in the middle of nowhere-Western Australia? Getting a flat tire in one of the aforementioned ghost towns. Whenever you drive anywhere in Australia, even a quick jaunt to the market, you are warned continuously about bringing the necessary provisions, in case the worst happens and you break down. Australia is beautiful but it’s like a rose with thorns, you have to be careful if you want to get close to that beauty. I’m the type of person who believes nothing bad will ever happen, so it’s perhaps fortunate that I was driving through the Goldfields region with someone with a more developed sense of self-preservation than I have. As it happened, we were driving through the abandoned town of Siberia when the worst happened and we got a flat tire. That’s right, I had a flat in Siberia. The bush of Australia isn’t like a normal place, it’s a vast area the size of which is hard for us mere mortals to even comprehend and we couldn’t fix the tire with the tools on hand. Again, had we been in a normal place we would have called for help, but this wasn’t a normal place and cell reception was nonexistent. Luck truly was on our side though because within a few minutes a passerby stopped to help us out. I can’t tell you how very rare a thing that is and to say we were fortunate is an understatement.
6. AC/DC Statue – Most cities have statues recognizing famous residents, founding fathers and even mascots. In the Perth suburb of Fremantle though, the statues are a little atypical, especially the one dedicated to Bon Scott. Scott was the lead singer and lyricist of the Australian hard rock band AC/DC from 1974 until his death in 1980 and spent much of his formative years in the fishing town of Fremantle. Once labeled as “socially maladjusted” by the Australian Army, today his memory is warmly embraced thanks to his music and his deep ties to this beautiful town.
7. Lake Ballard – If it seems like a lot of my favorite quirky moments took place in the Goldfields region, that’s no coincidence. The dusty and dry area is far removed from just about everything else in the world, but thanks to the incredible quantities of precious metals and ore has been an economic powerhouse for the state. But it’s a weird place. Ghost towns, miners and animals of questionable origins all call it home, as does one of the oddest but most impressive art installations in the world. In 2003, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Perth International Arts Festival artist Antony Gormley was commissioned to produce a unique art installation, a series of 51 sculptures that now cover 4 square miles of Lake Ballard. The Inside Australia sculptures installed on this millions of years old lake feature images of real people, scanned digitally before they were shrunk by 2/3 and artistically reinterpreted, creating alien forms in the process. Each sculpture has a spirit to it and their positioning constantly leads you to the next one, flickering apparitions in the distance. If you’re anywhere even remotely close to the lake, do yourself a favor and stop to walk amongst the statues. It’s a beautiful and profoundly unusual experience.
Which one of these experiences sounds oddest to you?