The Light


David Whitley heads east of Perth to view one of the world’s great engineering achievements, but finds himself wowed by one of Australia’s natural wonders 

Around 45 minutes east of Perth, there is a dam. A decent-sized, but unremarkable dam, if compared to enormous projects such as the Hoover Dam in the US, or the Aswan Dam in Egypt. But it is the pipes leading from Mundaring Weir that should inspire awe.

Before the 1890s, Western Australia was a bit of a struggling backwater. The Swan River Colony – as it was originally called – was only founded because the Dutch and French were snooping around the continent’s west coast and the British thought they should stick a flag down to stop the competition making a claim.

In 1829, Perth was founded. It’s an older city than Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide, but the other colonies grew a lot quicker than poor, bedraggled and forgotten Western Australia.

But in the 1890s, gold was found way inland at Kalgoorlie. There were fortunes to be made there, but many paid the ultimate price in trying to make them. It was desert, and you can’t drink gold. Many ambitious would-be miners didn’t even make it out there. There were no roads, and over half who attempted the 600km walk over dry bushland from Perth died of thirst.

Enter CY O’Connor, an Irishman with a reputation for handling massive infrastructure projects. He came to a tragic end, committing suicide under pressure from constant media carping about the costs of major achievements such as standardised rail gauges across the state and a new port at Fremantle.

He never got to see the finished version of the pipeline that would be, by any measure, one of the greatest engineering achievements in history. It runs for 560km from Mundaring Weir to the Kalgoorlie goldfields, uphill and through the desert. It required loans of what would now be billions of dollars, and what was then the largest single order of steel in history.

Stood on top of the dam, however, it’s not the engineering achievement that strikes. It’s something that’s hard to convey to anyone who has not visited Australia. It’s a stunning sight – the water of the lake created by the dam is a rich blue, whilst the rocks that make up the banks look gaspingly dry.

But the dazzling scene is made by the light. It’s the thing I missed the most when I returned to Britain after five years in Australia. Even on the sunniest days, Britain only ever gets a muted, hazy light. In Australia, however, the skies seem so much more vast, and the light so much more intense. There’s an invigorating, almost fearsome brightness during the day that turns into an enhancing, hugely flattering illumination at dawn and dusk. It’s only when you leave and lose it that you start to realise just how powerful and energy-giving it is.

On the way back from the weir, we decide to drive up to Kings Park, the giant 404 hectare green lung that overlooks the Swan River and central Perth. The road in – Fraser Avenue – is lined with tall gum trees. They’re striking at the best of times, gloriously pink-tinged white trunks soaring skywards with no branches on the lower levels to sully the majesty. But as the day draws to a close, the fading, marvellously complimentary light gives the honour guard of trees an entrancing, magical appearance.

And no man-made achievements will ever be able to top that.

Disclosure (and recommendation): For a great overview of Perth’s history and future, the two hour Perth Urban Adventure walking tour around the city with Two Feet And A Heartbeat (Twofeet.com.au) is an excellent choice. David did the Two Feet tour as a guest of Tourism Western Australia (Westernaustralia.com).