Sometimes it feels like everything in Australia is out to get you. Poisonous snakes, jumping spiders, hungry crocs…all these are obviously dangerous but it is not these that are most likely to prematurely end your visit Down Under – drowning, evidently, is what you really want to worry about.
Today as I gazed out at yet another sweeping sea view (this time in the Torndirrup National Park near Albany) I fell into conversation with a local who casually started telling me all about rip tides and king waves. Australia can’t just have waves and currents you see, it has to have those added-value adjectives, the ones which hint at the possibility of death in the blink of an eye. More people die from drowning in WA each year than from all the poisonous species you could name put together. People have been happily standing on the coast here one minute, and washed away by a king wave the next. The sea is a terrifying place.
I spent my day finding out how the sea has impacted Albany and exploring the maritime history of this area and have discovered that it is really is littered with wince-worthy stories of death, dismemberment and disaster. At Whale World I heard not only tales of flensing the blubber from a sperm whale (which was disturbing, naturally) but also of legs being cut off by stray harpoons and deckhands being grabbed by a tentacled squid arm and drawn into the icy depths never to be seen again. At the Brig Amity, a replica of the ship which brought the first European settlers ashore here, there were stories of scurvy, disease and the dispossession of the indigenous people; while the Residency Museum told tales of difficult beginnings and environmental blunders.
But despite its difficult beginnings Albany is far from a negative place. When whaling ended here in 1978 the community sank into economic depression but there is no evidence of this today. Everyone I’ve met here has been very proud to be from this small city marooned on the south coast 400km from Perth and indeed, why shouldn’t they?
The city is set on a beautiful bay within easy striking distance of not only the coastal Torndirrip national park but also the mountainous Stirling Ranges and the rolling Porongurups. The attractions in town have been top-notch too. The Residency Museum is the only place I’ve seen so far to place Aboriginal history directly alongside European, showing how the two mirror each other and helping people understand the issues all the better; the nighttime tour of the Old Gaol with its amateur theatrics and spooky cell visits was the most fun I’ve had sans alcohol on any evening in recent history; and Whale World presented a difficult subject in not only an enlightening way but also a fascinating one, allowing visitors to independently explore an old whaling ship and make up their own minds about the whaling industry.
All in all I’ll be sad to leave Albany tomorrow - and not just because this is by far the largest place I’ll see for some time. The people here have been so welcoming and so keen that I should go away with a positive view of their home that I can't help but promise them I'll be back. I'll be sure to keep that promise.