Convicts and wild things in W. Australia

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FREMANTLE, Australia — You don’t often get to tour a maximum-security prison that captures Australia’s convict history and still housed offenders less than 20 years ago.

Getting up close and personal with the hangman’s noose leaves an indelible impression — fortunately now only in the mind and not on the neck.

The first convicts, originally from England, arrived in 1850 as a labour force to build the infrastructure for the Swan River Colony based in nearby Perth, here in Western Australia.

One of their first projects was the Convict Establishment, later called Fremantle Prison and used as a maximum-security prison until 1991.

Prisoners who attempted to escape were flogged and locked in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water.

There were 12 punishment cells and six windowless "dark" cells. Stays in solitary were between one and six months. After 1886, solitary sentences were restricted to a maximum of 28 days.

Difficult convicts were often sentenced up to 100 lashes. Flogging instruments included the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with nine knotted strands or cords, and the birch, a bundle of long birch twigs bound together by cord. The last flogging with the cat-o’-nine-tails occurred in 1943 when a prisoner received 25 lashes. A prisoner received 12 strokes of the birch in 1962. Corporal punishment and hard labour were finally abolished in 1993, two years after Fremantle Prison shut down.

Tried and convicted for murder, serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was hanged at Fremantle Prison in 1964, the last man to face capital punishment in Western Australia.

The prison is now a popular, award-winning tourist attraction, offering several tours: Doing Time, Great Escapes, Tunnels and Torchlight.

The trap door beneath the hangman’s noose still drops, activated by a lever on the platform nearby.

With a population of only 25,000, historic Fremantle nevertheless has a lively cafe nightlife as well as beaches which, along with others up and down the coast, have had their share of Australia’s shark attacks and fatalities — some occurring close to shore.

However, Australia as a whole averages only one shark fatality a year (usually on par with the U.S.) compared to, in 2005 for example, three deaths from bee stings.

Still, according to the W.A. department of fisheries, "most of the 100 or more shark species that occur in W.A. waters are capable of injuring humans and all species, no matter how small, should be left alone."

W.A. fronts the Indian Ocean and accounts for more than one-third of Australia’s total 34,000-kilometre coastline. It’s closer to Bali in Indonesia than to Australia’s major centres such as Sydney on the east coast.

Perth, a city of 1.7 million (W. A. has 2.3 million), is on the Swan River, a 15-minute drive from a string of sand and surf ocean beaches from Scarborough to Cottesloe, just north of Fremantle. Perth is slower and quieter than its east coast sisters (Sydney has 4.5 million people).

But both the city and the state are enjoying an economic and population boom, thanks to growth in the mining sector with its exports to China.

Wineries also abound, both in the Swan Valley near Perth and in the Margaret River region in the state’s far southwest corner.

I started my visit to Australia’s west coast at the two-bedroom Roselyn Cottage, (www.cattonhall.com.au) on six hectares in the Perth Hills.

Either Trevor Pexton, 69, or his wife Felicity, 65, welcome you with a warm and fragrant loaf of freshly baked bread to go with the plate of cheese, ham, pickles, olives and fruit — and a bottle of champagne.

Music plays softly as you enter the cottage. Dusty the kelpie has already barked a friendly welcome; Possum the black-and-white cat is also nearby in case you are inclined toward felines.

Depending on the season, indoors you find a large vase with king and queen protea picked from the bushes that line the driveway, plus a smaller vase with roses and peonies, plus a sprig of lavender in the bathroom, all from the garden.

You prepare your breakfast in the kitchen when you want it and that will include a fresh loaf of bread baked daily. You won’t go hungry: loose leaf teas, coffee, fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice from the trees outside in season, three kinds of cereal, fruit (fresh or stewed, organic and grown on the property), yogurt, bacon, eggs from the B&B’s own free-range chickens.

The large bathroom features bathrobes and thick towels plus a Jacuzzi bathtub and two-head shower.

There’s a Ferrero Rocher chocolate by the bed, along with a bottle of water.

An electric blanket and gas-fired stove will warm you up if it’s "cold" (as in down to zero, which is cold for here); air conditioning will cool you down if it’s hot — and the temperature can reach the 40s in summer.

The Pextons no longer serve meals the way they did when they ran a farmstay program on their 20-hectare racehorse breeding property, so you can cook for yourself or dine at the award-winning Loose Box restaurant (loosebox.com.au) in nearby Mundaring village. Tasting menu dinners are available Wednesday through Saturday and for lunch on Sunday.

Chef-owner Alan Fabregues flies in the butter and par-baked/ frozen baguettes from France.

The day after I arrived, Felicity asked: "Would you like to join our Happy Wanderers bushwalking group?"

So off we went — most of the folks ranging in age from their 60s to their 80s, yet fitter than many people far younger.

Several walkers had brought along gauze fly nets, but I made do with the Australian salute: regularly waving my hand across the front of my face to scatter the flies, which at least don’t bite.

The flora and fauna were typically Australian: lemon-scented gums (eucalyptus) with their fragrant long, narrow grey-green leaves and scribbly gums with the unusual tracks on their trunks of moth larvae; small and large banksia closely resembling their common bottlebrush name; blackboys (a politically incorrect name so now called native grass) with their tall core stems which turn from white to black as they dry out; the flocks of cockatoos, galahs and other parrots flying and screeching overhead, or feeding in the trees and bushes.

Former Herald money columnist Mike Grenby is now a travel writer who teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Organizations: W.A. department of fisheries, Bond University on Australia

Geographic location: Australia, FREMANTLE, Perth Swan River England Western Australia.One Sydney Western Australia.The U.S. Indian Ocean Bali Indonesia Scarborough Cottesloe Swan Valley Margaret River Mundaring Gold Coast

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