Geraldton - Gateway to the Mid West
The city of Geraldton is located 424 km (263 miles) north of Perth, Western Australia, in the Mid West region of the state. It is an important city and port for the region and a centre for agriculture (in particular wheat and sheep), mining, fishing and tourism. While it was once a coastal country town Geraldton has now come of age and has a new sophistication while retaining its relaxed, family atmosphere. This thriving metropolis has a range of accommodation and attractions for the tourist.
Sixty kilometres west of Geraldton lay the Houtman Abrolhos islands which have accounted for many wrecks amongst early maritime explorers. There is no evidence of early sea-farers landing near the present townsite. George Grey explored the area by land in 1839 followed by Augustus Gregory in about 1849. After discovering lead on the Murchison River, Gregory named the area Geraldine after Governor Charles Fitzgerald. The town was gazetted in 1850.
Geraldton has a number of significant constructions. The St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral was designed by Monsignor John Hawes. The cathedral was commenced in 1916 but not completed until 1938. This imposing building has a striking orange and grey striped interior. Apparently Hawes believed the stripes imparted a feeling of spaciousness and drew attention to the centre of the building. Besides being a qualified architect, Hawes was a sculptor and painter. Originally an Anglican minister, he became a Catholic priest and built 14 churches in the Mid West. The underground crypt is based on the catacombs of Rome and contains relics from three saints.
The Western Australian Museum, Geraldton, celebrated its tenth birthday this year (2011). The Shipwrecks Gallery has the history of four famous Dutch shipwrecks. Dutch seamen were the first to explore the western coast of this Great South Land.
Centre stage in the museum is the original stone portico that was part of the cargo of the most famous of the wrecks, the Batavia. The portico was recovered from the Abrolhos and reassembled.
But the most striking of Geraldton's attractions is the memorial for the World War II cruiser HMAS Sydney. The five elements of the memorial are located on the summit of Mount Scott.
The Sydney was returning home from the Sunda Straits in November 1941 when it was attacked by the German ship HSK Kormoran. The loss of the Sydney and the entire complement of 645 crew and military personnel was the single most tragic loss of life in World War II. The Kormoran was also sunk with the loss of over 80 lives.
For decades the true story of what happened remained shrouded in mystery. How did the Sydney come to be lost with all hands while most of the crew of the Kormoran survived? There was talk of illegal ruses used by the Germans, talk of the involvement of a Japanese submarine and a cover up. When the Sydney failed to reach Fremantle on 20 November there was little concern but by 23 November, she was ordered to break radio silence and report in. On 24 November, a raft of German survivors was picked up by a British tanker. An air and sea search picked up 318 of the Kormoran's 399 crew but only a carley float and a lifebelt from the Sydney.
The loss of the ship was officially announced on 30 November. Thirty-five percent of the RAN (Royal Australian Navy) wartime casualties were made up of the men from HMAS Sydney. Interrogation of German survivors was hampered by inconsistencies in the information given by the prisoners of war.
Over the years several searches were carried out and innumerable guesses made as to the whereabouts of the two ships. Then in 2008, the wrecks were discovered 22 km apart and 290 km off the coast. The Sydney was in waters almost 2.5 km deep.
A temporary memorial was installed in November 1998, consisting of a large boulder, a flagpole and bronze plaque. During the playing of the Last Post, a large flock of seagulls swooped over the assembly and flew in formation out to sea. This 'fly past' by the seagulls made those present come out in goosebumps. Although seagulls were common in the seaside town, there had never been a 'display' such as the one seen at the memorial service.
Such was the power of this event that when the permanent memorial was built, one of the five elements was the Sanctuary, also known as the 'dome of souls' which consists of 645 stainless steel seagulls welded into a dome and supported by seven pillars.
Also on the site is a stele the size and shape of the prow of the Sydney.
The Wall of Remembrance comprises a semi-circular wall faced with black granite. Beneath a single undulating line which represents the sea, the 645 names of the ship's company are listed. As there is no rank in death, so the names are listed in alphabetical order. Scanning so many names, complete with professions, is a sobering experience even without a personal interest in the crew.
The life-size bronze entitled 'Waiting Woman' is a poignant reminder of those who are left behind. The woman faces the sea and stares vainly, clutching her hat against a stiff sea breeze, a wedding ring adorning her left hand, forever waiting for signs of her loved one.
A fifth element, still under construction, is the Pool of Remembrance and comprises a granite well with 644 seagulls etched into the base and the 645th bird emerging from the water as a 2 metre sculpture. The bird points to the exact resting place of the ship.
These elements are powerful in their symbolism and a sombre reminder of the price paid by those who answer the call to defend their country or their allies. The memorial as a whole is recognised by the Australian government as being of national significance.
On Saturday, 19 November 2011, the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Sydney will be recognised at the memorial on Mount Scott. The Pool of Remembrance will be unveiled at the commemorative service, bringing to completion the components of the memorial.