On a night walking tour, Fleur Bainger discovers that the streets of her adopted city are entirely free of rolling tumbleweed.
“What’s the city of Perth known as?” our guide Gary Twomey asks the group.
“Dullsville,” I blurt without thinking. Whoops.
“No!” he exclaims, looking dismayed. Not too shocked, though. I think he’s heard that one before.
It’s 6.30pm and we’re standing on the esplanade of the Western capital, a skyline of skyscrapers illuminating our faces and the lightly lapping Swan River at our backs. Just half an hour into Two Feet and a Heartbeat’s Perth Urban Adventure tour, which weaves through the city’s streets, and already I realise the Dullsville tag is something the world’s most isolated city has left well behind. As we walk, Gary’s doing an excellent job of not only sharing little-known facts of Perth’s past, but also peppering his commentary with tips on where the city’s headed – and it’s exciting.
I made the westward journey six years ago, a time when the unfortunate and persistent moniker was well justified. Food was B-grade, getting a decent coffee was near impossible and culture was in short supply. But Perth has been getting its groove on these past few years, its massive wealth finally peeling off to sectors other than the colossal mining industry that drives it. As Gary informs us, Perth is going through a renaissance of sorts, with a mass of small bars squeezing into laneways, edgy street art and hip light installations coating the urban surfaces, and the sort of horrifically expensive restaurants and boutiques that you’d be proud to take your Melbourne mates to.
He points out some of my favourite hidden venues as we stroll: Andaluz, Helvetica, Greenhouse and, later on, Wolfe Lane. These days, there are people on the streets after dark, the grumbling about there being “nothing to do” has stopped, and the buzz is palpable.
“The City of Lights,” Gary says.
“The City of Lights, that’s what Perth is known as.”
Oh. This is news to me, and Gary gleefully takes us back to 1962, when an American man first orbited the earth, and Perth residents got together to make the then tiny city glow with every light bulb at their disposal so it could be glimpsed from space. Their efforts gained worldwide attention.
Gary, 32, is a self-professed history buff with an astonishing amount of inside knowledge on the future of the city. It feels strange to be told about my adopted city by someone with an Irish accent, but I discover our wily guide has lived here far longer than I, arriving when he was nine. His passion for the city is obvious, and now I know why other locals – as well as tourists – have been raving about these tours.
Gary walks us past Perth’s original Courthouse, the oldest building still standing in the CBD – and one I’ve never noticed before – and launches into Perth’s penchant for construction at the expense of conservation. The picture he paints of bygone days is one I can barely imagine: grand public baths and tennis courts on the now grass-carpeted esplanade, a thriving nightlife along what’s become suit central, St Georges Terrace, and buildings more than 30 years old. Fortunately, the mindset changed before absolutely everything was demolished. We arrive at the foot of Bank West’s shiny, looming tower, and Gary focuses our attention on the building hugging its ankles.
“This was once the Palace Hotel, and in its time it was considered to be the grandest hotel in Australia,” he says. “In the early ’80s, people got fed up of seeing old buildings knocked down, so when they were building, they decided to keep this one.”
There are countless other surprises along the more-than-two-hour night walk – from underground tunnels to a billionaire’s relatives and the rivalry between mining companies. Far too much to tell you about here – you’ll just have to get along, and I recommend you do.
THE AT Verdict
Fleur Bainger, who paid her own way and visited anonymously, says:
I loved seeing and hearing about Perth’s evolution, and the rate of change is astounding. This tour is equally fascinating for locals as it is for visitors, and that’s impressive.
Perth CBD, leaving from Perth Town Hall, finishing at Rosy O’Grady’s in Northbridge.
Two Feet and a Heartbeat’s Perth Urban Adventure costs $40 per person, or $20 on “Tight-arse Tuesday”. The two-hour tour runs seven nights a week, departing at 6pm, and you can book on its website.