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The Monks of New Norcia

IF TOURIST brochures suggest staying at Margaret River you can bet hubby will want to book at Yallingup, a stone’s throw up the road.

Doing the tourist thing or mingling with crowds is not his idea of a relaxing holiday so when we visited the south-west corner of Western Australia recently, he went to great lengths to find out-of-the-way places to stay.

There was one he missed, however. New Norcia. When I discovered the ultimate retreat  – a Spanish monastery – was just a mere 132km north-east of Perth, he couldn’t argue that it was the perfect place to stay … peaceful and charming with a fascinating history and unique architecture.

Just because Australia was leading in the fourth-day’s play of the second Test with Sri Lanka and the monastery guesthouse was void of radio and television, it wasn’t reason enough (for me) to pass up the opportunity to spend our last night of holidays experiencing the lifestyle of Benedictine monks.

New Norcia

The bells of Abbey Church toll throughout the day.

Besides, hubby could always slip outside to hear the latest scores on our hired car’s radio or hike up the hill to the New Norcia Hotel – a former palace built in 1927 for Queen Isabella of Spain, who never made the intended trip because it was too far.

Dom Christopher Power, head of Friends of New Norcia, said the tiny town was established in 1846 by Spanish monks who came to work with the Aboriginal people.

“With its large extravagant buildings, olive trees and church bells, the town is like a piece of old Spain in the middle of the Australian bush,” he said.

“In addition to 65 buildings, the town also houses a large art and artefact collection, a library of 75,000 books and a comprehensive archive dating back to the monastery’s foundation.

“The current community of 11 monks live a simple, prayerful life following the Rule of St Benedict and make hospitality their special care.”

After booking by phone, checking into the guesthouse was refreshingly easy. No swipe of our credit card, no request for photo identification or car registration details, just a warm welcome from a charming gentleman who showed us where to tick off our name in the register book and took us to our room.

According to hearsay, the rooms were supposed to be “sparse” but we found our twinshare room with ensuite (no doubles available) to be just as comfortable as any average motel room (minus television and radio) and akin to a bed and breakfast with a shared kitchen, dining room, lounge and reading room.

As for security, our host simply said “This is a monastery and we’re in the country”.

Guests of all faiths were welcome and the $75 per person “donation” for the night included three home-style meals including an impressive banquet lunch the next day which unfortunately we had to pass up as our plans meant being back in Perth by 2pm.

While under instructions not to speak to unless spoken to, the monks wandered freely through the dining room and kitchen as we soaked up the home-style atmosphere, clearing our tables and washing the dishes after dinner.

Among the 12 guests were a “contemporary Spanish artist” who was looking for inspiration and a university lecturer from Perth who was on her fifth stay.

Every second month the lecturer leaves her family behind to escape the “rat race” and indulge in the peace and tranquility of New Norcia. On previous visits, she used the time to write her PhD. Without mobile phone coverate in the area she could not be conacted except for emergencies.

Guests were invited to meet a monk at 10.30am but again our schedule didn’t allow it.

For a spiritual experience guests were also welcome to join the monks for the daily celebration of Mass in the Abbey Church and prayers in the Monastery Chapel.

Only men can eat with the monks but they shouldn’t expect any conversation, other than prayer reading. Hubby passed on that opportunity.

Checking out of the guesthouse was easier than our arrival. After making our beds with freshly supplied linen, we picked up an envelope from the reception desk to seal our cash donation and place in a box.

Dom Power said the Friends of New Norcia received no regular funding from the Catholic Chuch or state and federal governments but with the help of guesthouse donations, in 2003, the 19th Century reading room was restored and furnished for monastery guests.

In 2004 the town’s education centre was refurbished and the following year, the roofs and ceilings of the old St Ildephonsus classroom were replaced to provide space for the expanding library.

Last year, donations contributed to the Aboriginal Mission Cottages Project, which includes the restoration of the last remaining mission cottage on the site.

Our stay at the monastery in Australia’s only monastic town was a wonderfully unique experience … and the other half didn’t feel too disadvantaged by reading books instead of watching cricket on TV. Australia was as good as home and dry anyway.
New Norcia Blog Collage

Mead’s the buzz at Margaret River

blackwood meaderyFriar Tuck was on to a good thing and he knew it. Overindulgent perhaps but the taste of his favourite beverage, mead, is one I could easily get used to.

While driving though the Margaret River region of Western Australia, hubby and I were faced with the difficult task of choosing which of the 100 or so wineries we would visit. Decisions, decisions!

Around almost every corner another winery beckoned but we couldn’t visit them all. The long list of unfamiliar names on a tourist brochure offered no clues as to the best; however one name, being a meadery rather than winery, stood out from the rest.

“What’s a meadery?” I asked. Hubby was more informed. He recalled a black and white television series from the mid-1960s called Robin Hood, in which a good friar indulged heavily in the honey wine. Not a bad pick up for a lad of about 10 years of age.

Blackwood Meadery, located in Karridale 25km south of Margaret River, was modest in size compared to surrounding wineries but very welcoming with sweet aromas drifting from the gardens.

For just $2 each we could taste a variety of dry to sweet meads, as the host filled in the blank details on the beverage.

Mead is wine made from honey rather than grapes and can be traced back at least 5000 years to Nordic legends. During these times the bee was held in high regard as honey was considered the giver of life, courage, strength and wisdom.

One legend claims that mead was the reason behind the word “honeymoon”. Supposedly, a Northern European tradition says a bride and groom were to drink mead every day for one month after their wedding, which was intended to increase virility and fertility.

Moving on to Hamelin Bay Wines and Briarose Estate we found a convenient way to stock the wine racks at home with Margaret River wines and meads was to buy cartons of 12 bottles, which were usually discounted and free of freight charges for bulk purchases.

For extra variety, we could also buy one bottle at each of 12 different wineries and ask the final winery of our choice to freight the carton home to Maryborough, Qld … where a bottle of 2005 Blackwood Mead is waiting to be opened on Christmas Day.
Margaret River blog collage

Exploring Wave Rock

Wave Rock 4

Boulders on top of Wave Rock.

By Jocelyn Watts

Climbing Wave Rock during a fly plague and with the mercury hitting 41 degrees wasn’t the best decision we made on our trip to Western Australia.

In hindsight, visiting the spectacular granite cliff at Hyden, 340km east of Perth, would have been better in the cool of winter or during spring when wildflowers produce carpets of colour over the surrounding landscape.

Instead, with the grey nomad lifestyle still some years away and only a short timeframe now in which to see the south-west corner of the state, hubby and I high-tailed it for Wave Rock soon after our flight touched down in Perth.

Arriving at Hyden about 4pm, we checked into our caravan park cabin and headed straight for the rock, a mere 150 metres from the door.

Hikers descending from Wave Rock swatting flies and wiping sweat from their brows didn’t faze us but, after our trek to the top, hubby joked that he wouldn’t be needing dinner … he’d already swallowed enough flies.

A repeat run at dawn, before the flies had risen for another day of torment, was more enjoyable and gave us time to appreciate the unique foundation.

Wave Rock is 15 metres high, 110 metres long and its shape has been caused by weathering and water erosion, which has undercut the base and left a rounded overhang. In 1960, crystals from the rock were dated as being 2700 million years old, among the oldest in the Australia.

Wave Rock 3

Hippos Yawn.

About 1.5km from Wave Rock is another unusually shaped outcrop known as Hippos Yawn, the second most visited site in the area.

Nearby, stones used by Aborigines have been found at early campsites and painted hand marks could still be seen on rocks at the Humps.

A short walk from Wave Rock, a museum housed items dating from the 1870s. Tabacco tins, cigars and a bottle collection gave fascinating insights into early life in the outback.

The Lace Place took us back in time with its exquisite wedding dress collection, gramophone display, vintage cars and a buggy.

A wildlife park introduced visitors to kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. Meals were available at the kiosk and country kitchen.

Visiting Wave Rock was worth the near 700km round drive from Perth, but like most things in life, timing was everything.

Wave Rock 2

View of salt lakes from the top of Wave Rock.