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Violent seas slow cruise to the Perth Mint

This travelogue marks a milestone – our travels have finally reached seven continents. It’s ironic that it comes at a time when scientists have discovered that there is now a Southern Ocean, which we traversed the other year when my wife, Kathy, and I explored our sixth continent, Antarctica.

It also turns into a real numismatic trip for us, because I managed to wrangle a rare floor and photo tour of the Perth Mint in Western Australia.

Kathy and I have been remarkably blessed to have visited about 80 countries where we have been able to pursue our joint interests.

We began in Fair Lawn on Feb. 26 and after 26 hours of travel, we arrived in Sydney on Feb. 28, finding we had lost a day. (We had crossed the international dateline).

Melbourne was to be the first stop for our ship, the Crystal Serenity. Named for a former British prime minister, Melbourne is a city of over three million people and the former capital of this island continent. Like Sydney, it is filled with government buildings of the past. Today it is the capital city of Victoria state (as Sydney is the capital of New South Wales), In 1951 Canberra became the national capital. 

There’s a Treasury building that for many years was the government mint for gold coins. Today, the national mint is in Canberra and circulating gold coins are history.

Melbourne is about 600 nautical miles from Sydney, and so we departed on the two-day journey, trying to outrun the storm that was going to give some drought relief to southeastern Australia, which had had wildfires that had taken over 200 lives in the prior three weeks.

From there, it should be a simple sea day to get to Adelaide. Instead, the captain has cut the ship back from 22 knots to 10, then 5, and the distance has doubled or even tripled in terms of time. It creates a huge problem for the crew as well as the passengers.,

Swells of waves as high as 45 feet were spraying the front of the ship (we watched on the mini-cam), and we found the boat being buffeted with what an experienced traveler called the “washing machine” effect; we tumbled about.

Adelaide itself is a combination of two cultures – the building plan of the 1870s and more modern times. Old sandstone looks splendid today, and in some cases, like Sydney, the facades remain with modern buildings built inside, and up. We came upon the old Treasury Building in Adelaide, as well as other governmental buildings.

The Australian state that Adelaide is located in (South Australia) touches every other Australian state except the island of Tasmania. Yet as the largest state, it is among the least populated.

Port Adelaide is different than Adelaide itself, which is up river.  Nonetheless, the roof of the port entry building had a sign painted on the roof, “Welcome to Port Adelaide,” which I photographed. We got a cook’s tour

Well, it’s Monday, March 9, and we’re finally here in Perth, two days late. This has turned hellish. First there was the weather, then yesterday morning, around breakfast time, I heard the engines throttle back. About an hour later, the captain came on and told us we were one engine down. That restricted us to 16.6 knots, and the mathematics simply wouldn’t work.

Too many miles with too many stops. So as we limped into Perth at 4:30 p.m. local time, it was with the knowledge that Broome, Australia, had been scotched as well as a visit to the Indonesian Island of Komodo, home of the dragons of the same name – a first for Crystal (and us, too).

 Our plans for today are what our plans originally were for Sunday, then Monday – a private tour of the Perth Mint, the state mint of Western Australia that celebrated its centennial in 1999.
Its origin was as a Royal Mint producing gold coin in lieu of having bullion travel from the gold fields of Western Australia to Sydney or Melbourne on the east coast.   Indeed, the front wrought iron gate off Hay Street in Perth has “Royal Mint” woven into the framework.

Crystal Serenity is docked in Freemantle, a port about a half hour’s drive from Perth.

Robert, our driver, picked us up at 9:20 a.m. and drove us to east Perth where the mint is located. It is a limestone building that reminds me of the Carson City Mint, built about 30 years earlier.

Security is the most important thing in any mint. Perth produces gold “coins” in denominated pieces (1/10 ounce, etc.). The mint is surrounded by an antique wrought iron fence that has been strengthened, and much more modern security devices that include sensors of motion, heat, light and sound.

We were greeted at the mint by a member of the mint’s public relations staff, Matthew Holmes, who also arranged for us to be able to take pictures inside, otherwise prohibited. The mint worker greeting 80 tourists or so present for the paid tour (AU$15) that included Matthew, Kathy and I, as well as our driver, Robert, told us that alluvial gold in dry riverbed was the turning point for Perth.

Alluvial gold – some 20 inches wide and weighing upwards of 800 troy ounces or 66 pounds – gave the mint’s origin to the gold rush of 1899, when 40,000 men emigrated to Perth (the number doubled for two consecutive years). The mint had 15 annealing furnaces going then (just one today) as hundreds of thousands of gold sovereigns (each refined to 22 karats, .9167 fine, and weighing .2354 troy ounces) were made first with the portrait of Queen Victoria and successors.

Entry to the mint building itself had two doors, one for “common workmen,” the other for the deputy master’s family. There was no wall between, only a code of honor.

The smelter divided us into two groups, then announced that only Kathy and I could take pictures. The gold is placed in a crucible that is heated to over 1,200 degrees Celsius (almost 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and made molten. It is then poured into an ingot mold, which if not for the demonstration, would not be used again and again.

Inside the Perth Mint there was also a production  facility where gold blanks are made for (among others) the U.S. Mint American Eagle program, and where blanks and finished product of the Perth Mint find their way to the export market. (There is a 10 percent VAT on gold coins, refundable to foreigners who purchase AU$300 or more from any one store.)

Our numismatic purchases fitting this bill, we got refunds when we departed from Perth late Tuesday after a laughable session of Kathy going upstairs to get the goods and me going back to get the credit card we charged it to, American Express. We had to use my card because her card was compromised – AmEx called us at 4 a.m. to tell us the card was canceled.

One of our purchases includes the Australian legal-tender $1 centennial coin commemorating the Australian discovery (1909) of the magnetic south pole in Antarctica (scene of a cruise we took two years ago on the Orion discovery vessel).

The smelting gold pour was unique among the two or three dozen mints that I have visited primarily because of the close proximity to the operation (it’s molten and dangerous). Being able to take the pictures that accompany this column turned out to be neat.

We finished up and headed back to the ship, but first Robert took us on a spectacular tour of Perth viewing the eternal flame that guards the war memorial to the generations lost to wars, starting with 1915 Gallipoli and ranging to the present.

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