A trip to the zoo

My Mum and Dad took us on several trips to the South Perth Zoo in the 6 or so years we lived in Kelmscott. All the trips have strong memories for me and I have often told my children about them in quite a bit of detail. They loved the detail, so I will tell it here as I told it to them. The setting is somewhere between 1957 and 1961.

We used to start for the zoo pretty early in the morning. Mum would have got a picnic lunch and some drinks ready the night before. We would walk from our home in Third Avenue to the station. We had no car – that was to come when we moved to the Harvey area after 1961. Dad, Mum, my eldest sister G and me walking, and little brother J in the wickerwork pram. I well remember walking past a white gum tree, the kind with the curly bark that peeled off, and making little propellers on a small stick and walking along with them spinning in the wind. On the right about halfway up to Railway Avenue was a large sandpit in which we sometimes played, and a few years later I was bitten by a big black dog. But that’s another story…

At the corner of Third Avenue and Railway Avenue on the right was a small pine plantation – though it seemed big then. Mum and Dad called it Spaarbank Bos after a forest in Holland. But we turned left and walked up Railway Avenue towards the station. On the left was a little wooden house behind a large hedge which had an opening in it like an archway. We walked up to the car park next to the railway station. It was gravelled then, and there were always stacks of sleepers there, which we kids loved to play on. Mum wasn’t always pleased with the creosote stains from the ends of the sleepers, though!

The trips to the zoo that I remember were done on diesel trains. They were suburban style trains with the diesel engines mounted underneath the carriage. Instead of a steam whistle they announced their coming and going with a distinctive ‘poong’ sound. At the end of each carriage they had a diagram of the railway system in Perth, with all the stations named. Even at six or seven years old I prided myself in remembering every station on the Armadale line from Armadale to the Wellington Street Station in Perth. I can still remember some of the first few – Armadale, Kelmscott, Seaforth, Maddington … The train ride into Perth was something that I looked forward to and enjoyed. It was a real part of the Zoo experience! One bit that was bit scary to me was crossing the Swan River on the railway bridge. There are of course no guard rails on the railway bridge, and looking out of the window down at the river far below with no guard rail was a bit scary for a boy of six.

Eventually we got to the Wellington Street station, after passing what I think was the gasworks in East Perth, and got off the train.

At the Wellington Street station, Perth. Source: Private collection.

We then walked down Wellington St alongside the Royal Perth Hospital, and turned right into Victoria Avenue. Just down the street it turned into Victoria Square, with the big cathedral in the middle. I remember being very impressed by the cathedral, though now I realise that it is actually incomplete. Down Victoria Avenue, across Hay St to St Georges Terrace, turn right until we came to Barrack St. That’s when the excitement began to rise because we could see the Barrack St Jetty and the ferry in the distance on Perth Water.

The ferry as I remember it was a wooden boat with a wheelhouse up forward. The back of the boat was an open deck with rows of seats, like pews in a church. For us kids those seats were too boring – you couldn’t see the water! Around the back of the boat and up the sides up to the wheelhouse a seat ran which backed onto the side / rear of the boat. That was better! We could lean over the side and look into the water. Which freaked Mum out. Dad just grabbed our ankles and let us look. The churning of the wake, the marker posts going past, the water birds. I still remember looking with wide eyed wonder at jellyfish the size of dinner plates floating past. I had never seen things like that before.

We got off the ferry at the Mends Street Jetty. Walking up Mends Street we crossed over Mill Point Rd and walked up the hill with the zoo on our left. Left turn into Labouchere Rd and a walk of a few hundred yards to the main gate at the zoo. Dad paid the entry and was given a handful of tokens in return. They fitted the turnstiles and at last we were in the zoo!

I don’t remember if the howler monkeys were the first thing you saw as you turned right inside the zoo gate. They were certainly there in later years. Using a sac under their chins as an air reservoir they set up an incredible din that you could hear all the way from Mends Rd. But that whole first section was for different apes and monkeys – though not the smaller Rhesus monkeys, which were in a large cage further around. The apes and the monkeys always made me laugh. They seemed like caricatures of people.

There is real power in lions and tigers. Sleek, slinky power with an inbuilt threat. It always bothered me that they were kept in a quite small cage when they are built to run. It’s good to see that the zoo has improved conditions for the big cats now.

Climbing up the steps to look down on the polar bears in their concrete pit with their concrete house and pool was an exotic thing for me. Mum had told us that the polar bears came from a place on the other side of the world where there was always ice. They were a disappointment to me, though! I wanted to see them move and swim and climb. All they ever did while I was watching was to sleep on the concrete roof of their house. I do remember that at the time there was a story of someone climbing into the polar bear pit. It seems that that roused them enough that he was never able to tell the story – he did not come out alive. But I do not know if the story was true.

Just over from the polar bear pit was another concrete pit which housed a rhinoceros. The pit was recessed into the ground so that when you looked over the rail you were at eyeball level with the rhinoceros. At least a six year old boy was at eyeball level. Adults would have been looking down on them. My reaction was – and still is – wonder at the hugeness of these animals. The sheer strength, and also the thick toughness of the skin. I was familiar enough with large animals – we had our own cow and I was involved in caring for that – but this was just amazing! Even now the thought of one charging across an African savannah at my car is terrifying! Thinking back now, the enclosure they were housed in seems painfully small.

The other animal that really sticks in my memory is the elephant. It was kept in an enclosure which was made up of a series of concrete pillars in a circle. The elephant could roam the – again very small – enclosure. But to make sure it did not get too excited there was a large timber block chained to one of it’s hind legs. As I remember it used to move around it’s cage all the time, dragging it’s ‘ball and chain’. From time to time the zoo would take the elephant out and put a box on its back with seats in it and people could go for a ride. I saw that and really, really wanted to go for the ride … but Mum and Dad couldn’t afford it! 🙁

There were other animals – the snakes asleep in their glass fronted houses, with the bird aviary above them, the monkeys, the giraffes with their looong necks, the zebras. Strangely there were not, as I remember, any Australian animals. I don’t remember kangaroos, koalas, wombats. They were there when I visited in later years, but I don’t remember them in those early visits as a child.

There were heaps of squirrels running all over the zoo, and particularly on the green grass of the oval. Around the oval ran a miniature railway track on which ran a miniature train with open carriages with seats. You could go to a little station and pay sixpence for a ride. My parents could afford this (the elephant ride mentioned above, as I remember, was two shillings each) and we all went. twice around the oval, round the back of the zoo. This was the interesting bit for me because we got to see some of the workings of the zoo. Then on to the oval and past the old steam locomotive on its concrete block, and back to the station.

On the miniature train at South Perth Zoo. Source: Private collection.

Around the oval was a number of timber shelters with tables and seats. That’s where we had our lunch.

Having lunch in the timber shelters around the oval at South Perth Zoo. Source: Private collection.

As soon as lunch was finished we were off! To the old locomotive on its concrete block. Climbing in to the cabin, the coal scuttle, onto the boiler, the side, underneath, exploring everything. Sitting in the driver’s seat imagining … I loved it. Fifty five years later the memory is still strong.

The old locomotive at the South Perth Zoo that was a source of so much enjoyment and imagination. Source: Private collection.

Almost time to go home. Just two things awaited us. On the way out we walked past a merry-go-round. In those days it was, as I remember, steam powered. We were always given a ride on that. I thought it was fine but a bit tame. The train ride was much more interesting! Then Mum and Dad always bought us an ice-cream – one of those little tubs of Peters ice-cream with a little wooden spoon. In the Perth sunshine the ice-cream was soon soft and delicious!

Then the trip home. The tired walk back to the ferry. The ferry ride which was still interesting but lacked the excitement of the morning trip. The walk back to the train. Inevitably we fell asleep on the train and had to be woken for the walk back home. Then home and bed.

A very basic, low cost adventure. The food was basic – just jam and vegemite sandwiches with water to drink (the adults got cold tea!). But very memorable. Adventures don’t have to be fancy. People and experiences make them memorable.

© Copyright Willem Schultink