Thursday, June 8, 2023 | 08:27 WIB

A visit to Australia. Perth Part I: Invaders


IO – Perth cast an enchantment over me that lasted for days after I had left it far behind. I could not seem to get its tranquil beauty and beguiling magic out of my blood. When later, I looked at the high-rise buildings and bustle of central Melbourne what I sensed instead, was the loveliness and saturating tranquillity of Perth. I felt bewitched. As though some sorcerer had cast a spell over me.

Yellow hibiscus in a Perth garden. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

Recently, I was invited to visit a friend and celebrate 40 years of friendship in Perth. We met many years ago while studying at Cambridge and somehow two people with very different personalities and from extremely different cultures managed to remain good friends for what is now 40 years.  My friend was born in England but raised in Australia and some years after Cambridge he met and married a charming Swiss lady and now lives in Switzerland. However, he happened to be holidaying in Perth just then. As I was in Melbourne for a wedding, I flew over to see Perth which I had not seen for 40 years – but mostly to see my friend whom I had not seen since before the pandemic.

The Norfolk Island pine, icon of suburban Perth beach areas. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

If you are one of those who love nature and birds, then you must visit Perth. Perth is a piece of paradise. As my friend remarked, it is incredible the amount of open space that the city has. With dozens of tennis court facilities and nearly 30 public golf courses for a population of only about 2,427,000 – not to mention all the reserves, parks and sports fields – it must surely set some sort of record for green spaces. The city is wound around acres of beautifully landscaped nature; parks and gardens along quiet treelined streets with the striking Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) silhouetted against the skyline in suburban beach areas. Perth gardens are bejewelled with enormous pink and yellow hibiscus, white or red oleander bushes, colourful bougainvillea, pineapple like banksias and scented frangipani. There are plants from all over the world – and they seem to be the most beautiful plants the world has to offer. These are further embroidered with Australian natives such as yellow or pink wattles, proteas with their spidery petals and red and green kangaroo paws.

Frangipani tree in Fremantle. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

My friend loves birds and insists we go nowhere without binoculars and as there are so many inconceivably exotic birds in Perth this makes sense. For an Indonesian especially from the cities of Western Indonesia where birds are not that easy to spot, the birdlife of Perth is simply breathtaking and astounding. There are corellas which are like white cockatoos, and which fly around like raucous flocks of white doves. Then there are the pink and grey galahs who look elegant to me although my friend feels they are too in your face with their colours. He calls them the punks of birddom. There are the pelicans which look so clumsy that one cannot imagine that they could possibly fly until suddenly like some airborne avian ballerina they gracefully hoist themselves up into the sky – and fly. The famous black swans of Perth with their deep red beaks, were first mentioned by Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh in 1697. In fact, Perth was first known as the Swan River Settlement. Then there are the kingfishers and the king of all kingfishers: the kookaburras which look more like furry, brown animals rather than birds. These are just to mention a few and in Perth they fly around like common sparrows in Indonesia.

The punks of birddom: galahs or rose-brested cockatoos (Eolophus roseicapilla). Photo credit: Jean and Fred from Perth, Australia, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There is one bird though that my friend does not approve of, and it is perhaps the most colourful bird of them all: the rainbow lorikeet which has red and black on its back, green wings, an orange chest and what looks like black swimming trunks across its abdomen – oh yes, and let us not forget the red under its green wings. My friend says passionately, “It’s an invader! It does not belong in Perth at all! And all these invaders are threatening the native birds!”

“Where is it originally from? Africa? South America?”

“It’s from Sydney!”

The Invader from Sydney is apparently ravenous and eats any fruit it can get its claws on: apples, pears, cherries, grapes and vegetables – to name a few – which is a headache to Western Australian farmers. Apparently, the rainbow lorikeet will even eat minced meat if they can get their beaks on it and in Darwin where they have the red-collared lorikeets it is rumoured, they even get drunk. Then, they fly awkwardly and bump into things and get quite pally with people. It is suspected that their inebriation is caused by eating fermented fruit and probably a virus.  The Invader was introduced to Perth in the 1960s when about 10 of them apparently, either escaped or were deliberately introduced into the wild. For the rest of my trip, my friend would invariably mutter or shout (as the mood took him) ‘Invaders!’ whenever we spotted one.

The Invaders: Rainbow lorikeets. Photo credit: resascup, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Once, I saw a house on whose side someone had painted an enormous and strikingly beautiful rainbow lorikeet. “Look! Someone has painted an image of the Invader on that wall! Shall we go tonight with spray-paint and erase it?”

My friend deigned to even respond to such a ridiculous suggestion. Australians are not that revolutionary. But humour aside, he is right. The lorikeets drive away the native birds from their sources of food. Despite having come from another region of Australia rather than another country or continent, they are an invasive species that threaten the existence of the other beautiful native birds of Perth. It is a delicate balance.

We began my first day in Perth with a visit to the dog beach south of Cottesloe to see the sunrise. This stretch of sand is so much about the freedom and pleasure of dogs being allowed to run freely along the beach. It is also rosewater at dawn. The beach at daybreak begins with a rose-tinted sky over a slate grey sea.  Where the waves throw themselves on to the sand, they retreat leaving the wet sand reflecting the rosy flush of the sky. It is a dream beach with distant boats on the horizon and one of the few beaches in Perth where dogs can frolic happily in the waves and with each other, as their owners stroll along the sand some determinedly fixed on some future goal of weight loss or strengthening themselves for some distant race – while others yet, leisurely and happily, move along the seashore in tune with their dogs.

The dog beach south of Cottesloe. Photo credit: PP.

In the sea meanwhile, there were kayakers with their arms moving gracefully up and down like delicate windmills. A group of swimmers followed with their arms moving in rhythm to those of the kayakers all preparing for the races on Rottnest Island in a week’s time. It is 20 kilometres to Rottnest and the swimmers and kayakers would be traversing the distance.

In 1696, again the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered the island and named it Rotte Nest meaning ‘Rats Nest’ when Dutch sailors mistook the island’s native marsupial the quokka, for large rats. Quokkas which are a type of small wallaby are friendly and good natured and can climb trees. The name quokka itself, comes from the native Noongar name for them, which is kwoka.

Banksia victoriae at Kings Park, Perth. Photo credit: MainlandQuokka, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rottnest has however, an older name and history and with the Australian policy of sensitivity and reconciliation towards its First Nation citizens this history and name is now given an exposure that was not there when I visited the island 40 years ago. Wadjemup is the name that the Aborigines gave to Rottnest long before the arrival of Europeans. It is an important site for Aboriginal people all over Australia. In the distant past nearly 6500 years ago when the island was still connected to the mainland, it was a site for important ceremonies where the Whadjuk Noongar people who are its Traditional Owners would meet for important occasions. It is a place of the spirits, and a memorial place of Aboriginal men and boys who are buried there, a place of transition from the physical to the spirit realm.  

Native green and red kangaroo paws. Photo credit: SeanMack, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Once the sea waters rose however, separating Wadjemup from the mainland, it seems the Whadjuk Noongar people were no longer able to visit it. Later, Wadjemup was turned into a prison island where thousands of Western Australian Aborigines were given forced labour. On the island there is now a bust of Noongar Boodja (in the Noongar language boodja means ‘land’ or ‘country’) who represents all Noongar men; there is also a Wadjemup Museum, and it is possible to obtain a Noongar guide to provide a cultural tour and to explain the meaning of the island to the Aborigine people, especially the Whadjuk Noongar people.

Victorian heritage building in Freemantle with lace ironwork balcony. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

That afternoon, my friend brought me for a visit to Fremantle whose eclectic 19th century buildings have all been most impressively restored and for which a very good use has been found. (Finding a good use for well-restored historic buildings is the bane of restored historic buildings in Jakarta.) In Fremantle, they are used for Notre Dame University, and it really is one of the most charming universities I have seen. All I remember of Fremantle 40 years ago, was the maritime museum and the remains of the Batavia housed in some historic buildings. There is still a maritime museum in Fremantle but how it has grown and what a variety of interesting objects are so beautifully displayed there.  

Pearls and mother-of-pearl on display at the Western Australian Maritime Museum. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

With my love for the Banda Islands, the most interesting for me were the artifacts relating to the pearl fishers.  In the 19th century the Orang Kaya (Chieftain) of Banda, Kapitan Baadilla Tjong with his fleet of 36 schooners was known as the Pearl King of Banda and his divers discovered the largest natural pearl in the world which he presented to the Dutch regent, Queen Emma and which remains a part of the Dutch crown jewels till today. Most of his pearling activities were centred around Dobo in the Indonesian Aru Islands of the North Moluccas. Many Australian pearlers also went to Aru to look for pearls, especially from Broome.

The pearl schooner at the maritime museum in Fremantle. Photo credit: Tamalia Alsijahbana/IO

After the Spanish American War, when the Philippines were taken over by the United States, many Spanish pearlers in the Philippines moved to Broome as they did not wish to be under the United States. Kapiten Baadilla Tjong met many of them and invited them to Banda for the months that the sea is rough, and pearling is not possible. They liked it so much that many met and married Bandanese ladies and this is how there comes to be a 19th century Spanish flag amongst the adat (traditional) heirlooms of Banda and why there are such names as Villanueva, Torres and Rinaldi in Banda. It was a delight to see a life size model of such a pearl schooner with divers, the equipment for pearling, pearls, mother-of-pearl – and even an old photograph of the Banda Islands on display.

The Round House built in Fremantle in 1831 is the oldest building in Western Australia and was built as a prison. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The next day, my friend took me for a walk to see birds in Bold Park with its bush and native plants, birds and water reservoir for the surrounding area and its view of the sea and Rottnest Island. There were honeyeaters, corellas, the lovely in your face pink and grey galahs – and sorry to say a few ‘Invaders’. Imprinted in my memory remains the sight of two grasstrees snuggled up against a gum tree with the wind running its hands through their green hair.

Jupiter and Venus at sunset. Photo credit: Rian Alisjahbana

In the evening before sunset, my friend brought me to a small hill just behind the flat where he was staying, known as Buckland Hill. It is not a secret place, and I was surprised that there was not a soul in sight for it has a very enjoyable feature. We rushed up the hill to a viewing post overlooking the sea, to see crepuscular rays re-emerging after the sunset. This was something I had never heard of before and for me it was extraordinary. From a splendid outlook, we watched the sun sink like an orange globe below the horizon. It went so rapidly that I could see it moving downwards into the sea (although this is in fact of course, the earth moving rather than the sun). It was followed by a rich, orange gold sunset glow and then the twilight seemed to be setting in, when the rays of the sun gradually appeared all over again like the crown of the sun god rising above the horizon. Jupiter and Venus were in a straight line from each other just above the horizon and far above them Orion, the hunter stood guard, twinkling overhead. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Emblem in a Fremantle window. Photo credit: Tamalia Alsijahbana/IO

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about A visit to Australia by the same writer in:

Part II:


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