Western Australia is Mecca for wildflower lovers. In a good year, almost a million square miles of terrain bloom. But not the year we were there. In fact, farmers had totally given up on the wheat crop and were plowing it under, and flowers were far from abundant. Heading north from Perth, we had to focus on other attractions on our longest travel day. Our destination, 364 miles away, was the Kalbarri Palm Resort.
The Swan River Valley north of Perth is home to many vineyards, the Vines Resort & Country Club, scene of many international golf tournaments, and RAAF Base Pearce, the most important Royal Air Force Base in Western Australia. Gwen told us that one of the Base’s primary units was an anti-terrorist squadron (Australian Special Air Service Regiment).
We passed mandarin orange groves, alpaca ranches, and Alan Bond’s horse farm. Bond is the controversial billionaire who was the subject of Australia’s biggest corporate fraud case. He lost his Monet and went to jail for 4 years in 1997 but emerged, rebuilt another fortune, and returned to the list of the 200 richest people in the country. The landscape was still lush and lovely, and we were told that cattle were being brought here from dry areas for fattening.
North of Bindoon, we stopped at one of the most unusual destinations of the entire trip, New Norcia. As we pulled up to what appeared to be and was a Renaissance-style monastery building, I was trying to talk to vision-impaired, poor Richard, the lost soul among tour passengers. After his wife died recently, Richard’s daughters thought it was a good idea to send dad on a long vacation. Not.
On the Great Northern Highway, New Norcia is a complete monastery town, the only one in Australia. In 1846 a group of Benedictine monks from Spain came to Australia to work with Aboriginals and erect 27 now National Trust buildings. The guiding spirit of this enterprise to “civilize and evangelize” the native population was Bishop Rosendo Salvado, who at least had sympathy for their culture. The monks created 2 schools, St. Joseph’s for Aboriginal girls in 1861 and St Mary’s for the boys, which closed in 1973 after 100 years of operation. St. Joseph’s grew so large that 10 teaching Teresian nuns were brought over from Barcelona.
Over time the monks amassed a collection of European religious art. It and a history museum, where I jotted “a weird collection of old cameras” in my travel log, are in one building. There were also a rather strange homeopathic drug and instrument display.
The art museum part became the scene of one of the largest art crimes in world history in 1986, when thieves cut 26 paintings from their frames in a daytime raid. All but one were recovered, and all had to be painstakingly restored. I didn’t recognize the name of a single painter although the subjects–St. Sebastian, etc.–were numbingly familiar. No one, myself included, lingered.
The monks maintain a guest house, and visitors can join them in prayer in their private chapel. Or they can load up on monastery’s products–olives, honey, claret, port, sauterne, sherry, brandy, etc. Or take a tour of the entire town. Or stay in the highly rated hotel and drink exclusive Abbey Ale in the bar. Or camp behind the Roadhouse. Or take a workshop. Or, according to a brochure, “Do nothing except soak up the peace of it all. Pax!” I guess what I’m trying to say is that New Norcia is what you get when you combine a religious community and a tourist theme park.