Fire and water fieldwork in Western Australia

In May 2019, under the broad theme of ‘fire and water’, final year geography students embarked on a new human geography field course to southwest Western Australia.

The trip staff team Alan Smith, Mark Holton and Jamie Quinn coordinated and delivered an academic programme consisting a number of themes including colonial geographies, rural restructuring, environmental degradation, landscape interaction and dark tourism. The trip culminated with students working on independent research projects which included themes on renewable energy, vineyard marketing and the rural economy and museum geographies. 

The journey through Western Australia

Centred in and around Perth, the two-week itinerary followed a 1,200 mile route to the Pinnacles Desert (Nambung National Park), the rural Australian wheatbelt, Margaret River and Albany.

Perth – Hydropolis City

The trip begins in Perth, a rapidly growing, highly suburbanized metropolitan region with the population estimated to reach 3.5 million by 2050, up from 1.7 million according to the 2011 Census.

With wetland areas covering approximately one quarter of the wider region, Perth can be considered a hydropolis (or a city of wetlands). Wetlands are important transitional ecosystems between land and water that support biodiversity as well as providing services such as groundwater recharge, flood protection and detoxification.

These habitats are under increasing threat and two-thirds of Perth’s wetland areas have been lost over the last 150 years through agriculture and urbanisation.

One of the most important of Perth’s wetland sites is the Brixton Street Wetlands (BSW). Located within a nature reserve 14km southwest of Perth’s central business district, BSW is a seasonal wetland that is home to over 300 species of flora and fauna – some of which are rare and endangered.

With increasing threats from urban creep and land reclamation, local community activism groups have become increasingly mobilised to support environments like BSW. One such notable group is the ‘Friends of Brixton Street Wetlands’. Formed in 1989, the Friends of BSW first lobbied Perth’s authorities against the conversion of BSW into a medium-density residential complex.

These types of grass-roots organisations are vitally important in providing connections between the state, local authorities, NGOs, communities and other stakeholders and promote environmental citizenship.

<p>Perth CBD and Elizabeth Quay</p>
Perth CBD and Elizabeth Quay
<p>Herons on the Swan River<br></p>
Herons on the Swan River
<p>Group photo in Perth.</p>
Group photo in Perth

Environmental citizenship can be defined as:

A personal commitment to learning more about the environment and to taking responsible environmental action. Environmental citizenship encourages individuals, communities and organizations to think about the environmental rights and responsibilities we all have as residents of planet Earth.” (MacGregor and Szerszynski)

The iconic landscape of the Pinnacles Desert

Located within Nambung National Park, around 125 miles northwest of Perth, the group then traveled to the Pinnacles Desert. This other-worldly landscape is made up of 'pinnacles' - limestone pillars (up to 3.5 m tall) formed of marine deposits. These pinnacles were not widely known (even to many Australians) up until the 1960s when they were designated as a reserve and then later a national park. 

Today over 150,000 people visit the Pinnacles Desert per year, making it an interesting site not only for its geographical processes but also due to the impact of tourism on this environment.


The Pinnacles Desert

Fremantle Prison

Dark tourism at Fremantle Prison

On the outskirts of Perth lies Fremantle Prison. Penal transportation – the movement of convicts from English prisons to Australia – came quite late to this part of Australia, and Fremantle only began receiving convicts in 1850, twenty-one years after the settlement of the first eastern and Tasmanian colonies. 

While the arrival of convicts provided a cheap labour force for the Fremantle area, it also constituted a significant ‘Law and Order’ problem, resulting in plans for a one thousand-bed prison to be built using convict labour. Shortly after its closure, Fremantle Prison began operating as a prison museum that today attracts between 150,000 and 190,000 visitors per year, making it one of Australia’s Top Ten visitor attractions.

Koala conservation area at Yanchep National Park

Koala and kangaroo conservation

The next destination was Yanchep National Park, an area of native bush and wetland landscapes, 42 kilometres north of Perth. Home to a diverse range of wildlife, here the students explored themes of environmental management and conservation. 

The park is noted for its koala colonies (although these are not native to Western Australia) and provides habit for other native mammals such as the western grey kangaroo. Today, a joint education programme is offered in partnership with the local Nyoongar aboriginal people.


The Western Australian wheatbelt

The wheatbelt is the name of an administrative region in Western Australia but is also used to describe a vast agricultural region that was converted to crop production during colonisation. Brookton is located within the wheatbelt approximately 90 miles from Perth and has a population of 975 (2016 Census). 

After first being settled in 1846, Brookton became an original station on the Great Southern Railway in 1889. The railway became the catalyst for wheat exports to Perth and the shipping port and as a consequence, this region has been driven by extreme economic and ecosystem change over the last 150 years.

Dr Alan Smith teaching at Brookton

<p>Smooth stingray</p>
Smooth stingray (the world’s largest stingray) at Hamelin Bay
<p>Windfarm in Albany</p>
Windfarm in Albany
<p>Kangaroo in Yanchep National Park</p>
Kangaroo in Yanchep National Park
<p>Tree in the wheatbelt</p>
Tree in the wheatbelt
<p>The meeting of the oceans</p>
The meeting of the oceans

A Qantas 787 Dreamliner

Reducing environmental impact

Running this field trip as part of a geographic studies, the team were cautious of the ongoing environmental impact and made a number adjustments which included the removal of the use of single-use plastic drinking bottles. 

The new non-stop Dreamliner Qantas flight also connects London to Perth, the ‘world’s most isolated capital city’, in 17 hours (reduced from up to 24 hours previously). This aircraft reduces noise pollution, fuel burn by removing an additional stopover take-off and is 20% more fuel efficient in flight than previous equivalent aircraft.

Geography explores the relationships between people, places and the environment.

Our geography degrees make the most of geography’s strengths in tackling head on the biggest global challenges we face. You learn from expert, accessible, supportive staff who are skilled researchers in their field. Plymouth is the ideal setting as a vibrant urban environment surrounded by iconic rural and coastal landscapes.

Discover our range of geography courses