Memory Lane: Albany

In the silence of dawn, surrounded by rolling green ranges and flat navy ocean, 30,000 men on 38 troopships sailed away from the tiny town of Albany on Western Australia’s southern coast.

It was Sunday, November 1, 1914, and the sun-kissed soldiers - two thirds Australian and the remainder New Zealanders - were bound for Egypt and Europe, before reaching the war fields of Gallipoli. It took four hours for the massive fleet, carrying teens and 20-somethings, to leave the bay. For many, that glimpse of King George Sound at 5.45am was the last piece of Australia they’d ever see.

It’s a devastating truth and one that’ll be commemorated in Albany this year, 100 years on from the time when two massive convoys departed its remote shores for WWI. Dozens of events are planned in the region (one hour’s flight south of Perth), but perhaps the most moving will be the symbolic re-enactment of those ships leaving the harbour on November 1.

“This is where the Anzac story started,” says Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington, who’s been working on the centenary events and its $22 million budget for the past three years. “We’ve got six warships lined up to come; there may be up to 10.”

Wellington says the town’s connection to the Anzacs is as strong now as it was on the day the boats left. Albany was the first European settlement in WA and, at that time, locals numbered only 4800. Today, the town’s population has climbed to about 35,000. Many of its historic buildings are still standing, lining the wide main street and the pretty waterfront, and the glorious views over King George Sound haven’t changed a bit.

The most captivating outlook of Albany’s peak-rimmed harbour is from the top of Mt Adelaide, where a new Anzac Interpretive Centre is being built. Moving stories of numerous men and women will be detailed within its walls, granting viewers an insight into the fervour surrounding the war effort and the horror of its reality. The centre is due to open during the town’s commemorative events. Fittingly, it’ll be housed within the Princess Royal Fortress, now a military museum, which was constructed in 1893 as a key defence spot to what was seen, even then, as a strategic entry point to Australia.

A nod of respect

Helpfully for visitors, all of Albany’s Anzac memorials are walking distance apart. Mt Clarence sits beside Mt Adelaide, and is home to the Desert Mounted Corps Memorial, a recast of the original memorial statue erected in Suez, Egypt, in 1932 (since destroyed by rioters). Diggers sit atop rearing horses, held up by granite blocks taken from Suez — bullet marks can still be seen on them. Meanwhile, the Anzac Peace Park is found at the tail of the main street on the town’s placid foreshore. It pays tribute to all who served in WWI, with engraved panels along the park’s Pier of Remembrance representing the ships that left Albany’s waters. Another memento is found along Ellen Cove boardwalk, a scenic three-kilometre stretch that traces the harbour east to Middleton Beach. There stands a life-size statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a military officer who helped win the battle of Gallipoli against the Anzacs and later became the first president of Turkey. Despite being on the opposing side, Atatürk later described the Diggers as “heroes” who could rest in peace in the soil of a “friendly country”. The respect he showed for the Anzacs was pivotal in bringing the post-war nations closer.

The contemplative mood changes as you head up Albany’s historic streets. Facing the harbour is bar-bistro Liberté at the London, a deep den straight out of Louis XIV-era France. It’s not until you pass the front bar and huge print of Delacroix’s French Revolution canvas Liberty Leading the People that you discover a room layered with velvet couches, gilded mirrors and scarlet curtains. In the back rooms, people sip champagne and slide down local oysters in a scene you’d never expect to find in a rural town.

Perhaps more typical are the Saturday farmers markets, which have achieved somewhat of a cult status in the region. People swarm under coloured marquees, sniffing and turning goods in their hands, nodding and smiling to each other as they shuffle from one heavily laden table to another. Everything from raspberries, leek, yabbies, avocados and honey is grown locally.

It’s the sort of fresh produce found at Oranje Tractor Wines, a low-food-miles-focused winery about 13 kilometres out of town. Run by a nutritionist-turned-winemaker and her husband, the rustic cellar door is engulfed by a well-nurtured garden, which supplies the kitchen with the majority of its food needs. Artfully constructed, seasonal platters are the must-order item, along with a glass of the organic certified red, white or rosé wine.

Natural wonders

Many century-old photos of the Albany fleet show soldiers clutching wildflowers as they head out to sea. Confetti-like blooms dot the countryside from September to November, tracing Albany’s countless natural beauty spots. To the south - via WA’s only single malt whisky distillery,  the Great Southern Distilling Company - The Gap reveals an impressive 24-metre drop to the sea, while Natural Bridge is a mottled overhang of thick granite that defies gravity. Heading west, about 30 kilometres out of Albany, is West Cape Howe National Park, granting yet more sweeping ocean views - occasionally dotted with migrating whales - from the scrub- and sand-lined coast. Staying at Cape Howe Cottages makes the sight easily accessible. To the east, a 40-minute drive out of town, boulder-edged Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve is a local favourite, treasured for its turquoise waters. For UK-born local Ian Haines, it’s places such as these that strengthen Albany’s appeal. A well-known character who runs the Collie St Saturday farmers market, Haines loves the country town’s mix of living history and nature’s bounty, its sense of community and laid-back vibe. But he’s also a fan of its city sensibilities. “I’ve always felt totally in tune with the whole environment of Albany,” he says. “Whether it be the landscape, the weather, the people, the food or the coastline. For me, it’s been as natural a fit as a hand in a glove.”

Haines says the town has changed dramatically in the 30 years he’s been living there - so much so the Diggers may not have wanted to leave if they had been passing through today. “It’s now firmly established as a tourist destination, with lots to do,” he says. “The wineries and restaurants weren’t in abundance back then - we now have a thriving cafe culture and small-bar scene. There are even tables out on the pavement.”

One of the heartening things about Albany is that many Anzacs did return via the beautiful coastal town. Albany may have been their last glimpse of Australia, but it was also their first sight of home.

Wine mecca

WA’s Great Southern could be Australia’s best wine region you’ve never heard of. 

Vast — that’s one way to describe it. At about eight times the size of Margaret River, the rugged and diverse Great Southern in WA is our largest wine region. It’s also one of the lesser known, but by no means without street cred.

Characterised by typical Mediterranean weather (warm days and cold nights), this cool-climate wine-growing district is made up of five distinct regions: Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker and Porongurup. While anything goes, it’s a great spot for riesling, chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.

The ‘godfather’ of the Great Southern region is Plantagenet Wines. While it has serious nous these days - it celebrated its 40th-anniversary vintage last year, and snagged a swag of awards over the years - founder Tony Smith says that, in the beginning, it was all just trial and error. “Back then we picked the grapes when they tasted a bit all right,” he says.

The sophistication of the region has increased. Larry Cherubino’s Cherubino, The Yard and Ad Hoc labels at Frankland River are highly regarded, while the Block series at the region’s oldest vineyard, Forest Hill, is worth a detour. Two other Denmark standouts include Harewood Estate Wines and Howard Park Wines.

Words by Fleur Bainger - Published in Voyeur March 2014
Quick Facts 
Population 36000
Area 4,280 sq km
Time Zone GMT + 8
Languages English
Currency Australian dollar ($)
Electricity 220-240v 50Hz
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