Western Australia the place to go, with or without Irish backpacker kids

Fed up of slumming it, Margaret Carragher travelled Down Under in style before covering Western Australia's vast distances in a camper van, just like many an Irish backpacker's mammy

Perth is the capital of Western Australia and, with a population of more than two million, the fourth-most populous city on the continent
Margaret Carragher

FOR generations, migrants the world over have been making their way by every available means to Australia. From disease-ridden convict ships in the early days to cramped and unsanitary steamers, the journey was not for the faint hearted.

Even the advent of air travel did little to ease the rite of passage Down Under, with London to Brisbane flights in the 1930s taking 11 days, with 24 refuelling stops en route; such were the engines’ noise levels at take-off, flight attendants were obliged to address passengers by megaphone.

I’m musing on how such travel has changed as the good man and I board our Emirates flight from Dublin to Perth. This trip is special – for the first time ever we’re taking the proverbial left turn beyond the curtains separating economy from the top end.

The novelty starts with a seat which, at the flick of a switch converts to a bed. Not that we have any notion of sleeping; with a flight time of just seven and a half hours to our stopover we’re out to max the onboard experience.

And so to the in-flight entertainment – over 2,500 channels of movies, TV shows, music and games, all at the touch of a button. There follows a gourmet lunch with a choice of fine wines and a binge fest of Mad Men, and before we know it we’re in Dubai. Then it’s straight to the Business Lounge where in addition to complimentary restaurants and bars, passengers have access to showers, reclining sofas, video games and spa treatments. You could get used to this.

Onwards then to Perth aboard the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner. As business class regulars take to their laptops we newbies head for the lounge. Located at the back of the upper deck, this mile-high bar stocks all the top brands with a bartender to serve cocktails and snacks. Here we swap tales with several kindred spirits who, having first travelled Down Under to connect with their working holidaymaker kids, became hooked on the place.

Now, kids or no kids, it’s the place to go. Fast forward through several meals and snacks, an entire series of Downton Abbey and a great night’s sleep and, hey presto we’re in Oz.

And this is where newcomers might find themselves biting off more than they can chew. In a country as big as continental USA (Western Australia alone is 11 times bigger than Britain) you really do need to adjust your mindset before setting out to explore. They don’t measure distance here in kilometres or miles so much as in units of time; it can be hours, sometimes days between Outback settlements.

And the further you venture beyond the state capital the greater the distance between fuel stops and ‘hotels’– which in Outback terminology can mean anything from your average hostelry to a spare room in the local pub. With 10 days at our disposal we opt for a campervan – arguably the most reliable and cost-effective way of getting around Western Australia’s vast rural sprawl.

And so with a full tank and no great pressure to get anywhere fast, we’re Outback bound. From Perth we plan to follow a trail blazed by countless young adventurers – our own included – seeking regional work in the agricultural heartland of WA’s Beautiful South.

But first to Fremantle. Located just outside Perth, Fremantle was the final port of call for generations of UK and Irish emigrants seeking a better life in hard times. Many of these Ten Pound Poms (so called because in a scheme designed to attract migrants, in 1945 Australia’s Immigration Authority introduced subsidised travel there; from then until 1972 over a million migrated from the British Isles at a cost of just £10 each) went on to become household names, including the Bee Gees and two former Australian prime ministers, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

Today, Fremantle showcases its rich social history in its museums, perhaps most notably the Maritime Museum whose ‘Welcome Walls’ bear the names and potted histories of some 45,000 Western Australian settlers; you could spend hours – days even – poring over the poignant, sometimes heartbreaking narratives of ordinary folk who stepped hopefully ashore to a new life here.

Our backpacker route meanders through the charming if unprounceable towns of Myalup, Binningup and Cowaramup (the ubiquitous ‘up’ suffix has its origins in a long lost indigenous language) to Margaret River. With its surf and beach vibe, lush vineyards and endless work opportunities Margaret River is buzzing, its backpacker hostel reminiscent of an Irish pub following an international friendly.

The same accents resound in the equally jam-packed hostel of neighbouring Pemberton, whose avocado harvest attracts regional workers nationwide.

From here, a leisurely drive through countless ‘ups’ brings us Pingrup, home to 85 souls, whose population spike in 2012 coincided with the arrival of our youngest, hell bent on extending his holiday visa with a stint of regional work.

Four years on he’s happily settled in Oz, not least because of the friendships forged in this delightful little community. In its Bird in the Bush cafe, barista Ros Shiner tells us that following his sojourn here, Pingrup has become something of a legend on the Irish jobseekers circuit; as if on cue, a young fellow from Sligo strolls to enquire about farm work.

Back then to Perth, and with a few days to spare before our journey home we check in to Miss Maud’s Swedish Hotel and Restaurant. As distinctive as its name suggests, Miss Maud’s was established by the good lady herself, a Swedish migrant who so missed her granny’s farm kitchen back home that she set about recreating it here.

Now, more than 40 years on, Miss Maud Edmiston presides over a hospitality empire with 500 staff, 15 pastry houses and a bakehouse operating 24/7. With its central location, welcoming staff and legendary breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets this is a great place to stay.

But all too soon it’s time to go. And while leaving here is always a wrench it’s worth remembering that nowadays even the most remote location is seldom more than a day away.


:: Tourism Western Australia

:: Emirates operates two daily departures from Dublin to Dubai with onward connections to over 150 destinations including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Asia and The Far East. Business Class fares from Dublin to Perth start from around €3,500. Economy Class fares from €970;

:: Britz/Maui offers the widest range of campervans and motorhomes in Australia and New Zealand with outlets in every major city;

:: Miss Maud’s Swedish Hotel & Restaurant, Perth;

:: Bird in the Bush Cafe and Gift Shop Pingrup WA6343;

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