Have you ever spent a day or a week acting as a tourist in the place you live? I’d say most of us haven’t, and it’s a shame. Personally, I’ve lived in Perth, Western Australia for nearly three years now but still hadn’t seen most of the big attractions in the state. When my best friend came to visit from Ireland, it was time to look at Tripadvisor and see just what my new (ish) home had to offer.
One of the most popular attractions in Western Australia is the Pinnacles desert. Until this adventure, I’d actually never been to a true desert in Australia. Tales of car breakdowns and hundreds of kilometers of wilderness scared me off. The closest I’ve come is seeing it from the window of a plane.
However, since it was my friend’s first time in Australia, we felt that some kind of desert was a must-see. Most tourists from outside Australia associate the continent with desert…sand…and kangaroos! And it’s a fair assumption – 1,371,000 square kilometres of the place are made up of officially recognized deserts while a total of 35% is so dry that it’s a desert for all intents and purposes even without being named as such.
Why Take a Pinnacles Tour?
Since we didn’t want to drive the whole way ourselves (it’s around 200km from Perth and we have a city car), we decided to take a day tour. ADAMS Pinnacle Tours came up as the top recommended option on Tripadvisor. I don’t want to admit that Tripadvisor has that much power over me but honestly I go with their recommendations 99% of the time when I’m traveling and haven’t had a bad experience yet.
ADAMS offered a Pinnacles tour with the added bonus of a visit to the monastery town of New Norcia and a wildflower farm, both of which really appealed to me so we decided to go for that one.
Since it was a really long day tour, I’m going to write about it in two parts. The first will cover New Norcia and the next will be about the Western Wildflower Farm and the Pinnacles Desert itself.
Driving to New Norcia
I will be honest with you, I slept the entire bus ride to New Norcia. Our lovely guide Rene gave us a lot of background about the places we passed through, including some of her own personal stories. However, once she quietened down, I was out cold. It’s around 2 hours from Perth to New Norcia so it could be rather boring if you didn’t sleep.
I recommend bringing one of those travel neck pillows for this tour as there is a lot of driving and if you’re sleeping in an awkward position you will end up with a neck cramp.
New Norcia Tour with a Local Guide
I was feeling refreshed when we arrived and ready to get started on the New Norcia tour. We were joined by a local guide who gave us a quick tour of the most important buildings.
There’s a decent amount of distance between the different tourist spots. Definitely walkable but given the heat, we were glad to be driven between each building in the air conditioned tour bus!
To be honest, I could have spent all day in this town. It was unlike anything I’d seen in Western Australia so far. The details are a bit blurry because it was a short tour but it seems like it was originally an Aboriginal settlement which was converted by Spanish missionaries. I would love to know more about this as I can’t imagine that it was as pleasant a…takeover…as it’s made out to be. Not being Australian myself, I’m not familiar with the full extent of the controversy around these things but I would love to learn more. Unfortunately details are scant online and I couldn’t even find any books on the topic.
There are two buildings which are former boarding schools but the guide told us that there is no longer an active school in the town. It seems like the only people living here now are connected with the tourism industry or the monks themselves. It’s extremely quiet and had an almost eerie vibe.
A friend told me that one of these buildings is used as accommodation for groups of schoolchildren touring the area. Personally, as a kid I would have found it a little spooky but it must be a memorable experience for those growing up in Western Australia.
We visited the Benedictine Abbey Church which was founded in 1846. Coming from Europe, it’s ordinary to see these types of old buildings everywhere, in fact, we usually pass them by without even noticing. However, to find one in Australia was quite a pleasant surprise. It’s still an active church and contains an organ which was imported from Germany in the 1920s. An impressive distance for this musical instrument to travel!
Museum & Art Gallery
Next we visited the New Norcia Museum & Art Gallery. Another pleasant surprise! It was quite large (three floors) and packed with religious art and relics from the early days of the settlement. We had the place almost to ourselves, as I mentioned before, this place is quiet.
There is also a gift shop where you can buy religious souvenirs such as books and pretty hand painted crosses. Also available is the traditional fruitcake associated with the town.
Lunch at the New Norcia Hotel
Finally we stopped for lunch at the New Norcia hotel. This place really has an old school vibe. Even the room in which we were served lunch had a religious painting looking down at us. Having gone to Catholic school myself, it wasn’t so unusual but for atheists and those of other religions, this may be an interesting experience!
The food exceeded my expectations – we had the fish and chips. We stopped there before noon so my appetite wasn’t at its peak but I recommend trying to fill up as unless you’ve brought snacks, it will be the last real food stop before getting back to Perth around 7.30pm
Overall, I really enjoyed the New Norcia tour and would recommended to any visitors to Western Australia from other states or overseas. The area feels like it hasn’t been touched from the time of the original mission settlement and it gave me a good insight into the history of the region.
Stay tuned for part II where I’ll share our trip to the Western Wildflower Farm and the Pinnacles desert.