Travel Story Geraldton Travel Guide: Remarkable history and dramatic tales

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Geraldton is the proud keeper of some of WA’s most remarkable stories.

Batavia

One of the most dramatic and brutal slices of WA’s nautical history followed the wrecking of the Batavia on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands in 1629. The ship had left Holland for Indonesia under the command of Francisco Pelsaert, and was separated from the rest of the seven- strong fleet after leaving South Africa to cross the Indian Ocean. 

There was no love lost between Pelsaert and captain Adrian Jacobsz, who got on well with merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, the third-most senior man on board. After the ship was wrecked on Morning Reef, 180 survivors made it to Beacon Island, and Pelsaert set out in the ship’s boat to get help from Batavia, as Jakarta was known to the Dutch. 

Cornelisz led a mutiny and 125 people were massacred. When Pelsaert returned from Batavia, justice was doled out, Cornelisz was sent to the gallows. 

Among the Batavia’s cargo were two antiquities belonging to the artist Rubens, being sold to an Indian Mogul ruler, and sandstone blocks for a portico at the entrance of Batavia (Jakarta). The Batavia wreck was found in 1963 and, between 1972 and 1976, the WA Museum recovered items from the seabed, including 97 of the portico blocks, which are reconstructed and on display in the Museum of Geraldton.

 The Batavia story is told through free tours of the museum (for which entry is also free but donations suggested), as are three other remarkable shipwreck stories, of the Gilt Dragon, Zuytdorp and Zeewijk.

See museum.wa.gov.au/museums/museum-of-geraldton.

Hmas Sydney II

The silver dome on Mount Scott dominated Geraldton, and the story behind it is embedded into the fabric of the town. For the dome is part of the HMAS Sydney II Memorial, and is made up of 645 silver gulls — each one representing a life lost in 1941 in Australia’s worst naval tragedy. Everyone on board was lost. 

The Sydney engaged the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, with 318 of the Kormoran’s crew of 390 surviving. The Sydney and Kormoran wrecks were found in 2008, about 100 nautical miles off the coast and in water more than 2km deep. The memorial was designed by Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith and dedicated on November 19, 2001 — 60 years after the tragic loss.

The story is told on tours of the HMAS Sydney Memorial, at 11.30am daily, which are free and led by a member of the excellent Geraldton Voluntary Tour Guides Association.

Today it is David l’Anson, who gives a smooth, informative, personal narrative, explaining the event and the meaning of the memorial.

He suggests we get down to the museum for their 11.30am tour, and there the HMAS Sydney II truly comes to life, through a 3-D underwater film of the wreck. With my 3-D glasses on, I sit through the 12 minute film, transfixed by the deep-water history, living before, and apparently around, me.

Food from sea & land

Geraldton is still the centre of a modern maritime story. Its rock lobster fishers have a reputation that’s spreading. Indeed, on August 15 representatives of the Geraldton industry were on a China Tour, visiting Shanghai, Shenzhen and Quanzhou and even opening a pop-up shop. And Chinese visitors are certainly among those who join tours of the live lobster processing factory at the Fisherman’s Co-op. 

The co-operative was formed in 1950 by a small group keen to take control of their own future. In the 67 years since, the GFC has become the world’s biggest rock lobster exporter and one of Australia’s largest and most successful co-operatives.

Food production is engrained in the fabric of the area.

This agricultural expansion followed the industrial development of Geraldton and the Champion Bay district in the late 1840s, after lead and copper were discovered at the Geraldine Mine in 1848.

Geraldton was once famous for Geraldton tomatoes, which were said to be almost heart shaped. Today it is the cucumber capital of Australia, reportedly with about 85 per cent of Australia’s production.

Geraldton Fisherman’s Co-op tours are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10am, are $10 for adults, $8 for children, and can be booked through Geraldton Visitor Centre. See visitgeraldton.com.au and phone 9956 6670.

Walking history

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, volunteer guides show visitors round the old Victoria District Hospital and Geraldton Jail. Today it’s Karen Yates, with a group of 20, all from other parts of Australia. These buildings were part of the Victoria District Hospital from 1887 to 1966, then a regional prison until 1984. 

Karen tells stories about the early hospital years, when the operating theatre was open air, and patients pushed across the rutted ground on beds for surgery. “Imagine it on the way back!” During the prison years, she says, comptroller general Colin Campbell was committed to education, and night school was held three times a week. 

“He really wanted the men to leave here and be productive.” Six were taken onto local fishing boats and taught to be deckhands. And then Karen leads us into the jail itself, where there are new inmates — for this is now the Old Gaol Craft Centre, with craftspeople working in the cells and other rooms and selling their products. The Geraldton Voluntary Tour Guides’ 40-minute guided tours of the complex start at 2pm. Donations are welcome, and the guides’ voluntary work all over Geraldton is exemplary.

Building inspiration

St Francis Xavier Cathedral is in many ways the centrepiece of Geraldton — not just for its architecture, but for the story behind it. For it is perhaps the most dramatic statement of priest/architect Monsignor John Hawes. 

He had begun his training as an architect in London in 1892, worked in the Bahamas, became a priest in 1915 and was sent to Geraldton. 

His work in designing 24 buildings, including churches and chapels in Morawa, Perenjori, Yalgoo and Northampton, is now recognised in the Monsignor Hawes Heritage Centre. While it has some of his vestments and drawing implements, and original plans, it is the timeline and beautifully displayed overlays of his work that captures me.

The centre is adjacent to the Spanish Mission-style cathedral, which was opened in 1938 and is currently undergoing a major renovation and due to be reopened in November.

Father Robert Cross has been responsible for the $9 million project. The day I am with him, he has just signed the contract for a set of 27 new Geraldton bells, being cast especially. With his archaeologist background, he shows me the spot in the cathedral where the first bishop’s remains have been discovered.

Disclaimer

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Australia’s Coral Coast.

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