Albany, Western Australia: Travel guide and things to do

What an extraordinary town! A main street which seems to go straight into the Princess Royal Harbour. Magnificent views across the harbour from just about every vantage point. Gracious churches, public buildings and historic harbourside stores and wharves. Superb stretches of dramatic coastline weathered by the timeless forces of the Southern Ocean. There is no debate: Albany is one of the truly remarkable places in Western Australia. A beautiful town in a beautiful setting.

As Henry Lawson, who lived in the town for six months in 1890, put it: 'Albany will never change much - it is a pretty town, but vague. It seems to exist only in a far-away-on-the-horizon sort of way; I like it all the better for that.'

Located 406 km south of Perth, Albany is the major centre on the Western Australian south coast and the oldest European settlement in the state. It is hard to imagine a more ideal harbour. The seas of the Southern Ocean can lash this coast with wild storms and the notorious southern wind, 'the Albany Doctor', can blow the ocean into a fury. Yet the sailor can enter King George Sound and then, through a narrow channel between Point King and Point Possession, enter the quiet waters of Princess Royal Harbour.

Unlike nearly all of Western Australia, Albany is cool and wet. It receives an average of 942 mm of rainfall per annum and its average summer temperature is only 22.4C.

Albany was established as a penal colony. The coastline had been sighted by Europeans as early as 1627 when Pieter Nuyts had sailed across the Great Australian Bight in the ship Gulden Zeepaardt. Nuyts' report of the land was such that the Dutch showed no interest in settlement.

It was on the basis of the maps drawn by Nuyts that Jonathan Swift, when writing Gulliver's Travels, located the land of the Houyhnhnms almost exactly at the present site of Albany. With some kind of extraordinary vision Swift had Gulliver land on the coastline, eat oysters and be chased by Aborigines. He could not have known that George Vancouver, 65 years later, would enter one of the bays of King George Sound and name it Oyster Harbour because of the abundance of oysters he found in the area.

The second European to visit the area was George Vancouver who entered King George Sound in 1791. Vancouver spent two weeks in the area during which time he named Bald Head, Breaksea Island, Michaelmas Island, Oyster Harbour, Seal Island, took possession of the area at Point Possession and declared 'This port, the first which we had discovered, I honoured with the name of King George the Third's Sound, and this day being the anniversary of Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Augusta Matilda's birth, the harbour behind point Possession I called Princess Royal Harbour.'

Vancouver's report on the area was not good. He suggested that the soil was poor and the local Aborigines (he had not seen any of them) were extremely primitive.

The next explorer to visit the area was Matthew Flinders who arrived at King George Sound in July 1801 and he was followed by Nicholas Baudin who stopped in the sound on 11 February 1803 and stayed until 1 March noting the poor soils of the region but fascinated by the seemingly endless wildflowers. By the 1820s the area was being visited with some regularity by explorers and the whalers and sealers who worked in the Southern Ocean.

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The turning point for Albany came on Christmas Day 1826 when the brig Amity entered King George Sound. The brig brought Major Edmund Lockyer and some troops and convicts. It had been decided some years earlier, partly to protect Australia against possible French settlement and partly because the British Government wanted to close the penal colony at Port Macquarie and open the surrounding area to free settlers, to establish Western Australia's first penal colony. Lockyer chose the site of present day Albany (a small stream ran into Princess Royal Harbour near where the replica of the Amity now stands) and it was officially proclaimed on 21 January 1827. At the time it was named Fredericks Town after Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, the second son of King George III.

Lockyer reported on the town site in April 1827. He made the observation that it was extremely difficult to sail from Sydney to Albany. He did however point out that, being the only deep water harbour on the south western coast it was very important strategically. Events overtook these limitations when, in 1829, a colony was established on the Swan River and its location, being superior to that of Albany, ensured its continuing existence and growing prosperity.

Albany' never did become a penal colony . It remained nothing more than a military outpost of New South Wales until on 7 March 1831 it was proclaimed as part of the Swan River Colony (the previous year a small group of explorers had travelled overland from Perth to Albany) and later that year the town was surveyed and blocks of land were sold to free settlers. Any prisoners who had not completed their sentences were returned to New South Wales. The following year the name was changed to Albany. By 1836 maps of the town showed York Street running down to the harbour and Stirling Terrace sweeping along the harbour foreshore.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all Albany's early visitors was Edward John Eyre who, with his Aboriginal companion Wylie, arrived in the town on 7 July 1841 and stayed for a week at Skerrats Family Hotel on the corner of Stirling Terrace and York Street. There can be few more potent historical experiences than to stand on the corner and imagine Eyre, having just walked from South Australia across the Nullarbor Plain, standing on the corner of the tiny town 150 years ago.

Eyre was hugely impressed by the warmth of greeting which the friends and relatives of Wylie gave the Aboriginal guide upon his arrival in Albany.

Things to see

The Heritage Trails
It is reasonable to suggest that a visitor wanting to see all the attractions of Albany should really spend a minimum of two days (and possibly a week) in the town. There are numerous guides to the sights but the best is the First Settlement Heritage Trail: Settlement and Development of the Albany District. A Bicentennial Heritage Trail brochure which is 55 pages long and divides the town and environs in five separate Heritage Trails.

1. Albany Historic Town Trail
The major walks (there are two of them) are the Albany Historic Town Trails which recognise 39 places of significant historical interest within a 2 km radius of central business district.

The first walk starts at the Old Gaol which was built in the 1850s as a convict hiring depot. Although Albany was not a penal colony at this time it continued to accept convicts as farm labourers and hired hands until 1868. In 1872 the hiring depot became the local gaol with separate sections for white men, white women and Aborigines. Today it is the town's main museum with extensive historic presentations of the local area including maps, photographs, interesting Aboriginal artifacts, and relics from the penal colony. It is open from 10.30 am - 4.30 pm daily.

Nearby is the charming Residency Museum which was originally built as a store in the 1850s but converted into the Government Residency from 1873-1953. It was near this point that Major Lockyer landed and decided to site Albany. The Museum is open from 10.00 am - 5.00 pm from Monday to Saturday and 2.00 pm - 5.00 pm on Sundays. Among the museum's extensive displays are the jaws of a white pointer shark and the huge rotating lens from the old Eclipse Lighthouse.

Across the beautiful green lawns which now surround the Residency is the remarkable replica of the Amity which is open for inspection from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm daily.

The walk then moves up the hill past some interesting old cottages to the Victoria Arts Centre (formerly the Old Albany Hospital built in 1885) and beyond to inspect some delightful late nineteenth century houses (all privately owned and not open to the public) in Grey Street West. The residence at 198 Grey Street West is reputed to be on the site where Wylie was buried and the house at 184 Grey Street West was built in the mid-1880s by Albany's first Mayor.

At 5 Hotchin Street is Melville House which was built around 1871 by J. F. T. Hassell (see Kendenup for more details). Members of the Hassell family continued to live in the house until it was sold in the 1950s.

The walk then moves across to York Street with its late Victorian, Classical Revival Town Hall (1886), Scots Presbyterian Church (1891) and delightful church complex of Church of St John the Evangelist (1848), which includes the Hall (1889), and the Rectory (1849). The church, which can claim to be the first consecrated church in Western Australia, is a fine example of the severe, square Anglo Saxon style which is commonplace in rural England.

In Duke Street the Wesley Church (1863) stands next to the elaborate and ornate manse which was given to the church by a local merchant in 1903. Further down Duke Street is Patrick Taylor's Cottage one of the few buildings in Albany which dates from the town's penal colony days. A wattle and daub cottage it was probably built as early as 1832. Certainly it was sold to Patrick Taylor for $200 in 1834 and he lived in it until his death in 1877. It is now used as a folk museum by the Albany Historical Society and is open from 2.00 pm - 4.30 pm daily.

2. Town Walk Heritage Trail
The second town walk starts in Stirling Terrace, that remarkable, almost other-worldly street which runs from the Museums along to Old Post Office. The graciousness and old world charm of this area of town can be directly attributed to the goldrushes of the 1890s which saw thousands of prospectors pouring into Western Australia through Albany and making their way north and west to the rich fields of the Kalgoorlie region. There was a time when miners sailed to Albany, caught the coach to York and then the train to the goldfields. Albany was used as an entry point because Fremantle lacked good deep water port facilities. The result of the goldrushes was that Albany prospered and most of the elegant buildings in Stirling Terrace were constructed.

The highlight of Stirling Terrace is undoubtedly the Penny Post Restaurant and the Old Post Office. Construction of this historic post office building commenced in 1869 and it was opened in 1870. It is recognised as the oldest Post Office in Western Australia. At the time of construction it housed a number of colonial authorities including the District Customs, the Mail Room, the Customs Office and the Bond Store. It was substantially altered in 1895 with the turrets and towers being added. The best view of the building can be had from the harbour. It is huge and gracious. Inside it has an impressive geometric bluestone stairway.

Apart from the Post Office Building, with its distinctive 25 m shingled clock tower, Stirling Terrace also has the old Albany Courthouse (1895-96) with stone arches and an unusual asymmetrical flared arch, the London Hotel (1909), Albany House (the old Union Bank building it was completed in 1878), the Empire Buildings at 146-152 Stirling Terrace which date from 1912, the Western Australian Bank (1885), Dylan's Restaurant (1880s), the Royal George Hotel (1885) and the Argyle Buildings (1890s).

3. The Mount Clarence Trails
The Mount Clarence Trail, the third of the Heritage trails, is a walk from the War Memorial at the end of Apex Drive around the edges of Mount Clarence. The walk offers superb views of the harbour and the town and is an ideal way of familiarising yourself with the geography of Albany and its surrounds.

The Desert Mounted Corps War Memorial has an extraordinary history. It was originally located at Port Said and was unveiled by W. M.'Billy' Hughes in 1932. Desecrated during the Suez crisis of 1956 it was shipped back to Australia in 1959. It could not be rebuilt so a sculptor was commissioned to remodel the statue which depicted an Australian soldier going to the aid of a New Zealander. Two models were made. One is in Canberra and the other was unveiled by R. G. Menzies in 1964. The 9 metre high statue depicts two mounted horsemen confronted by a bursting shell. The views from the War Memorial are quite magnificent. It is worth recalling that during World War I Albany was a major departure point for many of the soldiers of the AIF who fought and died in the Middle East. For many of those soldiers Albany was their last sight of the Australian coastline.

4. Mount Adelaide Heritage Trails
The fourth Heritage Trail is a two hour walk around Mount Adelaide and combines a nature trail with excellent views over the harbour.

5. Princess Royal Fortress Trail
The fifth Heritage Trail is known as the Princess Royal Fortress Trail and is an opportunity to inspect the Princess Royal Fortress which was completed in 1893 and designed to protect Albany (which is the only major port between Perth and Port Lincoln) against the unlikely occurrence of invasion. The fort was continuously manned from 1893-1945. A small staff continued until it was closed down in 1956. Today visitors can inspect the various buildings which make up the fortress. There is the Guard House, the Canteen, the Officer Commanding's Residence, the stables, barracks and married quarters, and the various guns and artillery storage points. The excellent restoration of the old buildings, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, has returned this unique piece of Australian history to its original condition.

6. Quaranup-Point Possession Trail
The last of the walks is the Quaranup / Point Possession Trail, a 1.6 km walk from Albany's old Quarantine Station to Point Possession where George Vancouver claimed the whole of Western Australia for Great Britain. It is located on the far side of Princess Royal Harbour on the way out to Torndirrup National Park with its dramatic coastal formations.

The inability to control infectious diseases during the nineteenth century meant that it was not uncommon for a ship, particularly one which had passed through the Orient, to arrive in Australia carrying passengers who had been struck down by such killer diseases as yellow fever, smallpox, or scarlet fever.

In 1874 work on the Quarantine Station began and by 1880 the original hospital and caretaker's quarters had been expanded to include a doctor's quarters, servant's quarters, isolation wards, a morgue, laundry, wash house, store, dining room and (a wonderful remnant of the nineteenth century) a special area for the first class passengers. The heritage trail starts at the Car Park and passes the morgue, nurse's quarters and graves to continue onto the isthmus and pass across to the outcrop where George Vancouver took possession of the whole region.

Torndirrup National Park
No visit to Albany could ever be complete without some hours spent in the Torndirrup National Park gazing in awe at the Natural Bridge, The Gap, the Blowholes, the Gorge, and Newles Inlet and visiting Whale World.

CALM's outstanding publication, Rugged Mountains, Jewelled Sea: The South Coast Heritage Trail Network by Libby Sandiford notes of the area: 'Flanking the south-western side of King George Sound, Torndirrup National Park (named after one of the local Aboriginal tribal divisions) provides not only breathtaking coastal scenery ranging from rugged granite cliffs to sandy beaches, but excellent views of both the southern ocean and hinterland. From the prominent hills it is easy to see why the harbour was favoured by sailing ships, and to contemplate the changes made since European settlement. In winter there is the added excitement of sighting albatrosses and whales.

'Torndirrup National Park is renowned for its rugged coastal features such as the Gap and Natural Bridge. For the more adventurous a greater appreciation of this coastal region can be gained by walking out towards Bald Head. This medium grade 10 km return walk take you along the crest of Flinders Peninsula to Bald Head, the landmark that guided explorers into King George Sound, and past the 'coral beds' that so intrigued the early explorers. Captain Vancouver noted in 1791: 'coral was entirely in its original state, particularly in one level spot...white sand occupied the space, through which the branches of coral protruded.' This 'coral', however, has no marine origins. The calcetrations have solidified around what were once tree and shrub roots. Subsequent erosion has exposed their many shapes.'

CALM have also produced a handy brochure Albany-Denmark Coast National Parks which has a map of the major roads through the area and all the sites clearly identified. There is no doubt that the whole park is a wonderland. The Gap is sheer and dramatic, the Natural Bridge is fascinating, the views along the coast from the Natural Bridge are extraordinarily pretty and the view across Cable Beach (to the east of the Gap) is dramatic. The walk to the Blowholes can be disappointing if the sea is not running however the views from the coast are well worth the walk.

Jimmy Newell's Harbour
Nearby is Jimmy Newell's Harbour, a quiet little inlet which was named after a local fisherman who, caught by a sudden storm, was driven into the harbour where he found protection and safety.

Whaleworld
Near Torndirrup is the interesting Whaleworld an outstanding museum of whaling history. Located where one of Australia's last whaling stations, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, operated it includes tearooms and provides a comprehensive history of whaling in the southern ocean. There is an excellent video on the history of whaling as well as interesting displays including harpoon guns and a restored whale chaser, the Cheynes IV.

The Old Farm
Hidden away in Albany's suburbia is The Old Farm at Strawberry Hill. It is thought that the cottage may be the oldest building in Western Australia. Listed as part of the National Estate it is regarded as one of the most important buildings in the State. The National Estate's extensive entry on 'The Old Farm' records it as 'a fine early example of a country gentleman's residence and estate, comprising a main residence and associated ancillary buildings...The Old Farm dates from 1827, when the site was used as a vegetable garden and to cultivate maize to supply the small military detachment established at King George Sound...In 1831, Dr Alexander Collie, the first Government Resident, built a 'comparatively comfortable little dwelling house' close to the government gardens. This estate and the adjoining 43 hectares were purchased from the government in 1833 by Sir Richard Spencer...Wattle and daub additions were made to the original dwelling house c. 1834, and sheds and stables were also erected in this period. The larger two-storey residence, built by William Diprose for Spencer in 1836, was joined to the earlier wattle and daub structure. At that time a stone barn was also built by Diprose nearby. Spencer's estate was the centre of social activity for the small community until Lady Spencer left for England a few years after her husband's death in 1839.

'In 1870 the original wattle and daub home was destroyed by fire and the house and farm gradually began to deteriorate.

'In 1889 Francis Bird, a successful architect, purchased 'Strawberry Hill' and extensive renovations were carried out. It was renamed 'The Old Farm' in 1890 in memory of the pioneers who founded it, and again became an important venue for social functions of the time.

'In 1956 the Western Australian Government purchased the farm and it was gazetted as an historical monument...There is some dispute as to whether 'The Old Farm' is the oldest house in Western Australia. It is certainly the finest surviving, however, and played a significant role in the settlement of the region. It stands today amid gardens which include plants and trees grown from the seeds brought out from England by Sir Richard Spencer.'

The Heritage Trails
There are a number of excellent books on Albany including Donald Garden's Albany: A Panorama of the Sound from 1827 and Les Johnson's Love Thy Land. The Western Australia RAC has a very useful Albany Region map available for people wishing to explore the surrounding area.

Tourist Information

Albany Tourist Information Centre
Old Railway Station Proudlove Pde
Albany WA 6330
Telephone: (08) 9841 1088
Facsimile: (08) 9842 1490
Email: http://worf.albanyis.com.au/aol/

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