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Articles Blog

Perth, Australia

Karyn Planett

Western Australia’s “City of Lights”

It was 1961. The United States’ manned space program was operating in full swing. Astronaut John Glenn had been selected as the first American to orbit the earth. While in flight, he and his craft flew directly over the Western Australian city of Perth. Though this was during the deep dark of night, it is said that Perth’s 1.2 million enthusiastic citizens flicked on the switches for every single working light bulb in the entire city. In doing so, these jubilant Australians signaled a luminescent hello to Colonel John Glenn from his land-based comrades below.

Lonely Isolation

Western Australia is by far the nation’s largest state. In fact, Alaska and Texas combined are not nearly as big as this 960,000-square-mile state. Note for comparison that India, while approximately the same in scale, is home to 700 million people. Western Australia, in contrast, is home to a mere 1.5 million. And those people choose to live there for a host of reasons including the glorious beaches (some 4,000 miles of them to be exact!) and delightful climate. In fact, the sun shines an average of eight hours each and every marvelous day.

Perth holds the dubious title of the “world’s most remote capital city.” How remote is it, you ask? It is so remote that many Sydneysiders have never even journeyed there. Perth, oddly enough, is geographically closer to the Indonesian island of Bali than it is to Sydney.

Early Settlers

The first European to lay eyes on this vast area was a Dutchman by the name of Dirk Hartog. That historic event took place in 1616. Following in his wake, over the years, were many seamen from the Dutch East India Company, some of whom who had been blown off course while sailing to Java, formerly Batavia. The noted British explorer William Dampier also arrived here, in 1688 aboard Cygnet, but he declared the entire area devoid of anything worthy, and sailed off in disgust. 

Close to 100 years passed before another Brit, Captain James Cook, sailed these waters.

This part of western Australia remained overlooked and underpopulated until 1827, when the London-based British Colonial Authorities grew suspicious of the French, whom they felt were interested in establishing a base there. That action, they believed, would threaten the British stronghold in eastern Australia. Therefore, the British authorities hurriedly sent out Captain James Stirling to demonstrate England’s presence in the area by building a British stronghold. He selected, for this fledgling community, a site along the Swan River some ten miles upriver from the sea. And within two years, the city of Perth was somewhat established, boasting a population of 300 permanent residents.

Unfortunately, not many others were eager to follow in their footsteps. In fact, only 3,000 residents called Perth home as recently as 1858! At that time, local government officials were forced to ask for convicts to be imported as a source of desperately-needed labor. Harsh conditions, lack of good roads, and unreliable communication all combined to add to the town’s feeling of isolation.

There’s Gold In Those There Hills

Gold was discovered in the 1890s at places called “Coolgardie” and “Kalgoorlie” found some 300 miles east of Perth. In fact, within one frenzied 30-day period during the goldfields’ greatest boom time, a staggering 200 pounds of this precious metal was mined. Waves of fortune-seeking prospectors flocked to the countryside. Telegraph and telephone service was brought in. A well-needed railroad was completed in 1917. Then, with the discovery of oil in the region, even more fortune seekers flowed in.

Over time, huge cattle ranches were built up providing not only enough beef to feed the nation but a surplus for exports as well. More money was to be made from the uranium mines that were later discovered. And, if these riches were not enough, in 1970 a productive diamond mine was also developed nearby!

All this glorious prosperity was not lost on the citizens of Perth and nearby Fremantle. Skyscrapers rose from the earth. Theaters and marinas were built. These sister cities truly blossomed, flush from the riches the land had provided.

But Perth and Fremantle really came into the limelight when the world’s eyes were focused on the 1987 America’s Cup race, held on the waters off Fremantle. The crew of Australia II had, in the previous race a few years earlier, relieved the United States of this prized sailing trophy which had been in American hands since the race’s inception, an incredible 132 years earlier. (Note, for the record, the Cup was successfully wrestled away from Australia’s competitive sailors and returned to American shores following the races off the coast of Fremantle. This coveted Cup then went to New Zealand where the competition will heat up again in a few short weeks.)

Perth today enjoys all the trappings of a vibrant, young, prosperous city glowing in the sun. And the port of Fremantle is its lively sister city.