Geraldton: City with a soul
The Waiting Woman stands in front of the seagull dome at HMAS Sydney II memorial. The stunning memorial is a sombre reminder of the human cost of war.

Mention Geraldton, and the consensus of pretty much everyone you speak to, inside or outside the city, is that it's changed a fair bit in recent times.

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The relocation of Westrail's marshalling yards, the recent upgrade to the Batavian Coast marina, the children's playground and water fun park on the foreshore - they've all combined to bring a new sophisticated feel. It's as if Geraldton has graduated into a city from a coastal bush town, yet "Gero" retains its relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere.

Of course, its aquatic attractions - the surfing and snorkelling, windsurfing and fishing, plus the stunning Abrolhos Islands - are well known to West Australians. Now the world is sitting up and taking notice.


LIVEABLE CITY

Geraldton has been recognised internationally for its quality of life and it has joined two other WA communities (Joondalup and Mandurah) in the running for a most livable community award in a United Nations-backed competition. The winners will be announced late next month in South Korea.

Bevan Orchard, manager at Ocean West Holiday Units where I stay, is a big supporter of the city, as befits a former manager of the Geraldton visitor centre. He waxes enthusiastically about its virtues and tells me how busy things are. Ocean West is family-friendly but the corporates have discovered the benefits of staying in this quiet part of town next to the beach, and I'm lucky to get the last unit available.


CATHEDRAL OF ST FRANCIS XAVIER

On his urgings, I set off to see the city's Catholic cathedral and the WA Museum, Geraldton.

The Cathedral of St Francis Xavier is imposing from the outside and has a striking interior decor featuring orange and grey stripes. Its design is the work of Monsignor John Hawes. Voluntary guide Pat Mills gives us a potted history of the life and times of this qualified architect, sculptor, painter and Anglican minister-turned Catholic priest, who built 14 churches in the Mid West. Apparently he thought the stripes created an air of spaciousness and drew the attention to the centre of the cathedral.

Underground is a crypt, which fortunately was open during my visit. Mgr Hawes based its design on the famous catacombs of Rome, where he studied. Though this crypt is not used for burial purposes, there are some relics from three saints and it is used for the occasional Mass, christening and wedding.


SHIPWRECKS

The Western Australian Museum, Geraldton, last month celebrated its 10th birthday. Unsurprisingly, considering Geraldton's nautical history, its long-term exhibitions include the Shipwrecks Gallery with the history of the four famous Dutch shipwrecks off WA.

Included is the original stone portico that was part of the cargo on the Batavia, the most famous of those wrecks. The portico was recovered from the Abrolhos and has been reassembled at the museum. It makes a stunning centrepiece of the gallery.

The museum is also staging an exhibition entitled Unearthed: mining stories from the Mid West, that illustrates the role mining has played in the region.

It explores the geological, personal, social and industrial aspects and contains some fascinating titbits amidst an overview of this important part of the WA economy.

For example, the first commercial shipload of iron ore out of WA came from the Mid West in 1966 - 28,000 tonnes to Japan; and indigenous Australians were mining ochre approximately 30,000 years ago.

Catherine Belcher, the museum's regional manager, says visitors to the exhibition are surprised by the longevity and diversity of the mining industry in the Mid West. The exhibition has been extended to November 20.

Make your own contribution to the history of mining in the Mid West by visiting the website museum.wa.gov.au/unearthed/ and click on histories.


HMAS SYDNEY

The HMAS Sydney II Memorial, on top of Mt Scott close to Geraldton's centre, is a must-do for every visitor to Geraldton.

Sydney's entire crew was lost when it was attacked by the German ship HSK Kormoran as it was returning home from the Sunda Straits on the night of November 19, 1941. All 645 men aboard the Sydney perished and more than 80 of the Kormoran's crew also died.

Both ships sank after the encounter, and their whereabouts remained a mystery for decades. Indeed, the memorial's Wall of Remembrance notes "No trace was found of HMAS Sydney or her valiant crew", which was indeed the case when the memorial opened in November 2001 (the 60th anniversary of the Sydney's sinking).

So it remained until three years ago, when the wrecks of both vessels were discovered 22km apart, 290km off the WA coast. The Sydney was found in waters almost 2.5km deep.

The stunning memorial constitutes a sombre reminder of the human cost of war and it is impossible to visit without imbibing a sense of the gravity of the Sydney's sinking - the RAN's single most tragic loss of life in World War II.


SYDNEY MEMORIAL

The Wall of Remembrance is one of the five elements of the memorial. It comprises a semi- circular wall faced with black granite, and beneath a single undulating line, representing the waves, are engraved the names of all 645 lost - alphabetically because, as our guide remarked, there is no rank in death.

The list begins with Roderick Abernethy, a petty officer telegraphist from NSW, and concludes with Salvatore Zammit, the canteen manager, also from NSW.

The life-size bronze statue of the Waiting Woman grieving for her menfolk is a second element and it makes for a poignant reminder that emphasises this is a place for contemplation and remembrance.

She faces the sea, her right hand keeping in place her hat against the strong sea breeze, her left hand wearing a wedding ring.

Behind her is the Sanctuary - the element comprising seven pillars supporting a dome made up of 645 stainless-steel seagulls. The structure was inspired by an incident at the memorial site dedication in 1998 when, during the playing of the Last Post in the evening, a flock of seagulls swooped over the audience.

During my visit, work on the final and fifth element - the Pool of Remembrance - was under way with the goal to ensure its completion before the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Sydney. This element will comprise a granite well with 644 seagulls etched into the bottom, the 645th bird emerging in the form of a 2m stainless-steel sculpture from the water and pointing to the exact location of HMAS Sydney's final resting place.

There are guided tours daily at 10.30am, but the memorial is a place worth more than one visit. As a Geraldton resident told me, it's one of those spots that feels different again at sunrise and sunset.

At sunset I head off for dinner and have a meal at the renowned seafood restaurant on the foreshore, Skeetas. (On my second night, I opt for The Provincial, a cafe-wine bar in the city centre which has a real urban feel to it and which serves fine contemporary Australian food.)


CHAPMAN VALLEY

Outside Geraldton the Chapman Valley frames the city to the north, and it is magical in spring. Check out the views from Mills Lookout (it's well signposted) on the Chapman Valley Road.

This is where you'll find gourmet food and other tourist attractions and, though the Lavender farm is closed, I call into the nearby Chapman Valley Wines, just 30km north-east of Geraldton. This is WA's most northerly winery and, against bureaucratic advice, owner Rick Pederick pushed ahead 15 years ago with his dream of planting vines on his 80ha of farmland. Rick and wife Pam now grow seven varieties of grapes on trickle irrigation and they have picked up a swag of bronze medals for their wines.

As I taste some, it occurs to me I could be in Margaret River.

Except this time when I left Perth I turned north, not south.

Mark Irving was assisted by australiascoralcoast.com.

The West Australian

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