Roll up for a mystery flight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 12:00am

THE BEATLES should probably take the blame. For even as I was reading out my credit card number to a phone operator and buying a day trip to an unknown destination, I was singing about a magical mystery tour that was going to take me away.

I had been captivated by the idea of going on a 'mystery flight' ever since reading about it in a guidebook for Australia several years ago. The idea of trading certainty for surprise had a definite appeal - as had the thought of a break from Sydney, my home away from Hong Kong. Maybe I'll score a flight to Cairns, I thought wishfully, or Adelaide. Melbourne wouldn't be bad either, or even Hobart. 'One place I really hope we aren't sent to is Perth,' I told my fellow excursionist. 'It would be ridiculous to fly across Australia for a day.'

Our flight to Perth left at 6.15am. On Wednesday, 18 hours before departure, a ticketing officer whom I suspect was grinning on the other side of the phone as she revealed our destination, said, 'check-in begins at 5.30am'. So there we were in a half-empty Boeing 737 flying out of Sydney on a Thursday morning. The trip to and from Perth would take more than eight hours - about as long as a flight back to the SAR. At most we would have seven hours to spend in what's regarded as the most isolated capital city in the world. Taking into account the cost of the return tickets - A$167.20 each (about HK$650) - and a hire car costing A$43 for half a day, it was going to be an expensive and exhausting trip. Was it really worth it?

Somewhere around the Great Australian Bight, I stopped pouting and started planning. Out came the guidebook, pen and note pad. 'How much can we see in a day?' I asked my travel companion as squillions of trees came into view. 'Start the timer.'

8.05am: We land. Double-checking we are due to fly back to Sydney at 3.15pm and mindful of the fact that Perth is two hours behind the Olympic city, we rush off the plane and head for the car rental booths. (One minor detour is to the Qantas counter to ask whether it's possible to return on the last flight to Sydney, which departs just before midnight, returning passengers at dawn the next day. 'Not for A$167 you can't, mate', is the helpful response. Regular return fares ex-Sydney to Perth cost about A$400 more.) With keys to a Toyota Echo, we are on our way. ' 'Ave an avo a day' advises a road sign on the freeway, which, despite my aversion to avocados, reminds me that it's past 10am Sydney time and I still haven't had breakfast (vegetarians and others with individual dietary needs are not catered for on mystery flights because requests for special meals must be made more than 24 hours before departure).

8.55am: Arrive at Kings Park. Not bad considering we made a wrong turn on the highway. Eager to cycle around this breathtaking, four square-kilometre park perched above the Swan River, we make a beeline for the visitor's centre. Unfortunately the volunteers who run this outlet have yet to arrive and the Koala Bicycle Hire shed situated nearby shows no sign of life. So we settle for coffees and a couple of Mrs Mac's pies. A stroll around the verdant gardens reveals striking views of the city and offers close encounters with karri trees, the mammoth hardwoods that grow to 87 metres and are native to southwest Western Australia.

9.30am: Visitor's centre opens. 'The bicycle place is a sore point,' the woman behind the counter says, rolling her eyes. 'We're not really sure what time it opens.' One point she is able to confirm, however, is a recent shark attack at Cottesloe Beach, one of the circled highlights in our brochure. 'We had a mauling there a few months ago,' she intones. 'Can't net the beaches around here because there's too much coast.'

10am: Just as we are about to call it quits, the rollerdoor of Koala Bicycle Hire rattles open. We grab two hybrid bikes (A$5 each for half an hour) and set off down a path lined with gum trees dedicated to war heroes. Lemony scents perfume the air as we whizz through some of the natural bushland for which this park is famous.

11.15am: Berndt Museum of Anthropology, in the grounds of the University of Western Australia. This museum supposedly houses one of Australia's best collections of Aboriginal art and artefacts. We can't confirm this because it is closed. In our haste, we had misread its opening times and days (closed Tuesdays and Thursdays).

With half an hour left on the parking metre, and with the Matilda Bay Tea Rooms on the Swan River shoreline beckoning, we stroll across the university lawns for a cuppa. Under canopies that look like sails, and with water lapping lazily against nearby jetties, this eatery is much like the rest of the city: restful but not quite comatose. 'Why don't we just stay here 'til it's time to go back?' I think.

12.05pm: Pavilion Markets, Subiaco (open Thursday to Sunday). No visit to a city is complete without a ramble through its markets. But they are a disappointment. With scores of outlets under a roof and very little that's hand-made or unique, it lacks atmosphere. Missing, too, is the cheerful bustle of the best bazaars.

The rest of 'Subi', however, shows promise, with trendy cafes lining Rokeby Road and a cosmopolitan air about its shops. But we can't hang around. Time is not on our side and the 'to do' list still contains a few unchecked items.

1pm: Museum of Western Australia, housed in the 'new' Old Perth Gaol. On display here are dinosaurs, vintage cars and a collection of meteorites. But the main draw, as far as I'm concerned, is the Megamouth, one of the world's rarest sharks. This specimen, preserved in an underground tank with a glass top, is definitely worth coming to see, and not just because it is Australia's only confirmed example. Named for its huge maw, which wraps around its head like the Joker's smile, the creature was discovered only 25 years ago, one reason being that it spends most of its days at depths of 200 metres.

1.35pm: Back on the road in the land of the long-winded lights. Traffic beacons notwithstanding, we're due back at the airport in one hour but we still want to swim at Cottesloe Beach and visit Fremantle. We miss the road to the beach but continue driving in the direction of 'Freo', 19km southwest of Perth. I scan the accommodation section in our guidebook, convinced we'll miss our plane home.

2.02pm: Fremantle. Made it! But we don't even have time to step out of the car. We're at the mouth of the Swan River, and check-in is in 28 minutes. It seems as though buses run only once a week in this town of 25,000, but somehow we get stuck behind one. At 2.30pm, no airport signs have come into view and we think we're heading in the wrong direction. But then a KFC road sign declaring 'Popcorn Chicken is back' comes into view. We're in an industrial zone replete with second-hand car yards. We're on the right track.

2.55pm: Arrive at airport, 20 minutes before departure, after an illegal reversing manoeuvre up a highway sliproad to make a missed turn. We leave the car parked ungracefully outside, and race into Departures, clutching bags and tickets. The flight back is estimated to take over three hours, though it can stretch to six hours going in the other direction - not something we would have appreciated today.

9pm: Sydney.

So did we enjoy the show? With better planning we probably could have done more. But we got everything from a mystery flight that we'd bargained for: excitement and anticipation, not to mention stress. As for Perth, to paraphrase Paul McCartney, it was wonderful to be there and certainly a thrill.

'How much can we see in a day? Start the timer...'