Notes of an Adventure in Container City

By David Smyth

In this piece David channels his inner Bowie while trawling container city on the north side of the inner harbour in the dead of two nights, one dry, one wet.


I’ve been fascinated – and sometimes a little intimidated – whenever I’ve driven by the towering stacks of shipping containers on Fremantle’s North Quay.

The huge imposing geometrical skyline, the metal “buildings” overpowering the people, and the machinery scurrying around below.

An ever-changing and seemingly incomprehensible landscape of angles and lines, colour, light and shade.

I felt privileged to pass through as a member of the public, on the way to ship-spotting at Rous Head.

A busy trucking area during the day, I’ve wondered what the area might look like after dark, with lighting, and perhaps a slower operational pace?

A winter weekend offered two evenings to explore.

The Dry Season

There is something welcoming about the area that speaks to me, a recognisably human dimension within a stark industrial setting. On arriving I hear the opening lines of David Bowie’s tenderly dystopian “Sweet Thing”:
It’s safe in the city
To love in a doorway
To wrangle some screams from the dawn

I drive slowly around unfamiliar territory, looking for places to make impromptu stops off the main road, safely out of the way of the few trucks going past. No footpaths as such, but thankfully some wide verges to walk on. I find back circuits, dead-ends, streets ending at a closed gate, fences framing intriguing vistas.

No lights are on at any buildings that I could see, and no other pedestrians. I feel somewhat like an intruder, even on these empty and quiet public streets.

A rare car goes by. Security? Hopefully they will see a tripod and think – just someone taking photos, nothing to stop and worry about. (Mind you, someone up to no good would say that, wouldn’t they?)

I hear the faint murmur of the cranes and other machinery on the Quay side. A moment to think of all those working there this evening, as every other, keeping this busy port moving and our isolated State connected with the wider world.

I have a brief image of the many lively Saturday night venues just “over the water” in Fremantle but I have unique attractions in Container City – as Bowie continues:
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street
There’s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friend

The lighting is unexpectedly dim in places: a few large floodlights are not illuminated, and I muse that I’d happily give a few dollars to anyone passing by who could flip them on for me. The many shadows add extra atmosphere and contrast.

An enjoyable evening of exploration and learning.

The Wet Season

Next evening – a very different “season” – storm, rain, wind, the temperature surprisingly mild. The sky a diffuse glow above the port lighting. A wonderful setting.

It’s like a different geography to the previous evening. A bigger challenge to find safe places to stop in the reduced visibility, and I’m accidentally finding dark puddles everywhere I get out to walk.

A good call to wear my best weatherproof walking shoes and quick-dry clothes, and to bring a torch (note to self: next time take a head-torch.)

Feeling a heightened sense of isolation in the rain. I love it. Some concentration is required to attempt to keep camera and self dry-ish. (Why don’t cameras come with windscreen wipers?)

Almost a shock to see and feel a loaded container truck shudder past on the road – this felt like “my” place in the dark and rain.

I catch sight of the blurred lights of many ships at anchor out in the Gage Roads shipping channel. A long slow moment of gratitude for the crews on-board who have been riding out this storm, bringing the goods that support me while I’ve been on the safety of land. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A car slows briefly then continues – is the occupant concerned about me, or checking me out for their safety? I’m all good thanks – hiding under an umbrella in the middle of a roundabout in near-horizontal rain is my idea of fun on a Sunday evening.

Getting a bit tired now, and despite the heroic efforts of a Bunnings umbrella there’s not much of me still dry.

My inner Bowie soundtrack reaches its impassioned climax:
Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?
Do you think that your face looks the same?

I’d like to think so, but I know my clothes don’t – they’re sodden.

Time to go. I turn a corner and am jolted back to a more familiar City.

Until next time.

* This article was written by David Smyth, and he took the photographs too.