Freelance writer specialising in serendipity: the art of finding wonderful things by accident or sagacity. Comments and suggestions always welcome!
Published June 2nd 2013
Walking trails, white swans and a swinging suspension bridge
Every year in early August thousands of people travel to Northam to watch or compete in the Avon Descent. The starting line of this world-famous whitewater race is a wide section of the Avon River known as the Northam River Pool. On race weekend boats jostle for space, spectators line the banks and crowd the river bridges, and the whole town joins in the party. What many people don't realise is that the River Pool is an interesting year-round destination with not one but two attractions that are unique in Australia.
After a recent hectic week I was determined to spend at least part of a beautiful autumn weekend in the country. Our first stop was at Northam, about an hour's drive from the city. The plan was to see the white swans and continue on, but the area around the River Pool turned out to be so pleasant there was no need to go further.
The River Pool and Walking Trails
The Northam Visitor Centre is located on the banks of the Avon River near the Suspension Bridge over the River Pool. Part of the building is being renovated but the Visitor Information Centre is still open. However even if the centre is closed there's ample signage in the area and as it was mid-afternoon when we arrived we decided to explore first.
There are two short walks along the river which can be combined into an hour-long circuit walk. The East walk goes from the Suspension Bridge to the Peel Terrace Bridge and the West walk heads the other way to the Avon Bridge. Along each route there are viewing platforms, lookouts and information about local bird, animal and plant life.
The Visitor Centre and some of the many lookouts
On the afternoon we visited there were family groups enjoying picnics in riverside Bernard Park along with cyclists and walkers taking advantage of the fine weather, and a number of people observing and photographing Northam's famous white swans.
The White Swans When I worked as a tour guide visitors often asked where they could see black swans. I understood this completely as I asked the same thing many years ago when I first came to Australia. White swans have so much mythology around them that the idea of black ones is as fascinating now as it was in the early days of European exploration.
In 1697 Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh sailed along the uncharted coast of "New Holland" in search of an earlier lost vessel. He stopped at an island before venturing up a river where he captured three black swans, birds so unusual that they were thought to be mythical. Mistaking quokkas for large rats, he called the island Rottnest (Dutch for rat's nest). The river he named Zwaanenrivier or Swan River, in honour of the large flocks of the black birds.
Willem de Vlamingh's ships, with black swans, at the entrance to the Swan River, Western Australia, coloured engraving, derived from an earlier drawing (now lost) from the de Vlamingh expeditions of 1696–97 (public domain image)
As later European settlers realised, the native black swan is common throughout southern and eastern Australia. Over time the black swan has become a symbol of the "differentness" of Australia and in fact is the official emblem of Western Australia.
photo by JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons
Though the black swans were beautiful and unusual, to homesick colonists, "proper" swans were white. Attempts were made to introduce them, but unlike the fox, the rabbit, and the sparrow, all of which readily adapted and became widespread pests, the white swans failed to thrive, except for one breeding colony – in the Avon River at Northam.
The Northam swan colony began in 1896 with birds thought to have been introduced by the mayor Oscar Bernard. The flock bred successfully and has continued to do so to this day. The birds are protected and fed daily by local volunteers. Although numbers vary, each year sees new cygnets. Last year one of the young birds was sent to the Melbourne Zoo as breeding stock.
When I saw these swans I remembered how they frightened me as a youngster. These birds are big. They can reach 160 cm from beak to tail (black swans range from 120 cm to 142 cm) and are the largest of the waterfowl. Their size makes them a regally beautiful sight as they glide along the river.
Although they're accustomed to humans, remember that the Northam swans are not tame and care is always needed around them.
The Suspension Bridge
I've taken a bit of poetic licence here. Northam's Suspension Bridge doesn't actually swing, but it definitely does sway and bounce. Depending on your age and sense of balance you may find this exciting or alarming, but it's all part of the experience of crossing what is thought to be Australia's longest pedestrian suspension bridge.
The bridge is suspended from steel cables strung from a tower at either end. The narrow wooden walkway has handrails and secure fencing. Apparently hundreds of people view the Avon Descent from this bridge but given the amount of rocking caused by a dozen or so strollers, I think I'll give it a miss on race day.
From the centre of the bridge there are great views both upriver and downriver, especially of the small islands that support plenty of birdlife. The gentle sway of the bridge adds to the peaceful and pleasant atmosphere which couldn't be more different from the controlled chaos of the Avon Descent.
The Visitor Centre and Rivers Edge Café
Having completed the circuit we finally headed to the Visitor Centre, which was staffed by a friendly local woman who offered plenty of information about the swans and other walks around town.
In the same building is the Rivers Edge Café where we enjoyed a very good coffee and cake. The café is set high above the river and the views from their deck are fabulous.
Avon River and the Suspension Bridge
It was time to head back to the city but we felt we'd had all the benefits of a relaxing day in the country, just an hour's drive from Perth.