When it comes to elbow room, the state of Western Australia has no competition. It’s bigger than Texas and Alaska combined and more than ten times the area of Great Britain. Most of the state’s vast expanse is desert, semi-desert or otherwise difficult terrain. The bulk of the population of about 1.860,000 has therefore gravitated to the Mediterranean climate found around the beautiful capital city of Perth.
Closer to Jakarta than to Sydney, Perth faces the Indian Ocean with an open, outward-looking stance. Here the cares of the big population centres of eastern Australia seem worlds away. The state’s Outback produces great wealth. and even the forbidding deserts are bursting with minerals.
It was gold that brought the state’s first bonanza, during the 1880s The startling, but harmless, and 1890s, followed by nickel, bauxite and iron. Considerably more appealing are the above-ground riches: the hardwood forests. the orchards and the vineyards. And. since the climate is so sunny, it’s only fair that there is a beach for every possible mood along the 6,400km (4,000 miles) of coastline.
The first European to set eyes on a Western Australian beach (in 1616) was Dirk Hailog, a Dutch navigator making his way from the Cape of Good Hope to Java. It was not long before other Dutch travellers touched base here, and one of them reported spoiling a wallaby, though not by name: he thought it was a giant cat with a pouch for its kitten. Later in the 17th century.
the British adventurer William Dampier happened upon Shark Bay, near Carnarvon. and could hardly wait to leave: the land seemed hopeless for farming, there was no drinking water, and he dismissed the indigenous population as ‘brutes’. More than 200 years after Hartog’s discovery of Western Australia, the British finally got around to colonising it. The site chosen, on the Swan River. became Perth. But what the Colonial Office considered a good idea turned out to be less brilliant in practice.
It would take more than the scenery and the climate to attract settlers to what seemed. even by Australian standards, the end of the world. Problems of development persisted, including poor communica-
tions. financial difficulties and a shortage of workers. Prospects for the new frontier became so precarious that the colony’s leaders had to make an appeal to Lon-don, asking the government to send over a supply of forced labourers — convicts. Even so, nothing really worked in Western Australia until the gold rush during the 1890s, when the population quadrupled in just 10 years. Throughout the 20th century and up to the present. the exploitation of mineral deposits throughout the state provided the main basis of its wealth — from uranium and iron ore to gas and oil.
Once it was launched on the road to prosperity, there was no stopping Australia’s largest state. Its isolation finally ended in the early years of the 20th century, when the transcontinental railway linked Perth and Sydney.
Perth Bright new high-rise office buildings scrape the clear blue skies of Perth. If this city brimming with vigour and enthusiasm were a person, you might imagine it had been born with the proverbial silver spoon in its mouth: a handsome. clean-cut youngster with every possible advantage, inevitably growing up to become an unqualified success in life. Although history refutes the silver-spoon theory, you can’t miss Perth’s easy selconlidence.
The people are relaxed, friendly and anxious to help the stranger. They are proud of their efficient town and its up-to-date facilities — the stylish shopping arcades, the art galleries and Entertainment Centre.