“It’s a hard land, but it’s our land,” began the national anthem of the Principality of Hutt River.
It was a hard land to get to for a start, unless you already happened to be in the area. More than 500 kilometres north of Perth, this self-declared (but never officially recognised) independent country had no international airport, no railway line and, due to it being landlocked, no harbour.
In 2005, while travelling along the coast of Western Australia, I read a short guidebook entry about the Hutt River Province, as it was then known. I was staying at a backpacker hostel in the town of Kalbarri, and when I realised I was only an hour’s drive from an actual micronation, I couldn’t resist the chance to visit.
That evening, I discussed going there with a German fellow traveller who’d been following the same coach route as me. He was up for the trip. I also asked two Japanese girls who were staying at the hostel. They too were very enthusiastic. So I made a phone call and next morning took delivery of our hire car: a dark grey Ford saloon that had seen much, much better days. Fingers crossed, I moved the gear stick into drive and we were off.
Leaving the main Kalbarri-Northampton highway, we followed a red dirt road that crossed a landscape of khaki fields punctuated by dark green pockets of scrub. A few remote farms lined the route and two or three vehicles passed us, otherwise nothing.
That was until we reached a gate marking a frontier that was raised as part of one man’s struggle against the system. We met him inside a single-storey red-brick building marked “Government Offices”, its walls and glass cabinets exhibiting world currencies, plus local rocks, minerals and stamps. Prince Leonard. The first.
Back in 1969, he was known simply as Leonard Casley, a farmer. But all that changed following a disagreement with the Western Australian government over wheat quotas. Worried about his livelihood and the possible compulsory acquisition of some of his land by the state, Leonard saw two alternatives: sue the Queen, or form a self-preservation government. On April 21, 1970, he declared independence and bestowed upon himself a royal title.
But despite being a prince, Leonard also undertook less glamorous roles such as immigration official.
“Are you staying in Hutt River, or leaving today?” he asked, examining my passport. When I told him I would be leaving, he stamped a page with entry and exit visas.
He asked if I was Welsh. I said I was English. He moved a rectangular, grey metal object across a double page in my passport. The UV light revealed images of daffodils. “You sure you’re not Welsh?” He found more daffodils. He knew exactly where to find them.
One of the Japanese girls handed over her passport. He said: “There’s only one picture of you here, right?”
She nodded, slightly confused. The prince held the light over the page to reveal a second, secret photo. Leonard then performed similar magic with a German passport, knowing precisely how to spot a genuine document.
Formalities over, I asked the septuagenarian whether he knew of other people who had tried to secede from Australia.
“There was a guy in Sydney who tried it, but he didn’t have the same right as me,” he said. “You can’t declare your bedroom independent.”
That individual was Emperor George (Cruikshank) the Second, whose King’s Cross pad was renamed the Empire of Atlantium. In fact, at the time of my visit there had been more than 20 attempts at secession throughout the country.
An independent Hutt River would not have been the smallest nation on earth. At 75 square kilometres, it was almost 40 times the size of Monaco. Yet you could have easily passed close to its borders without knowing it was there, save for a couple of ambiguous road signs.
Prince Leonard wanted the province to make its mark, though. He said he had plans for a university and a hospital, and he was in the process of drawing up a constitution.
I didn’t have time to explore all of the country, which consisted mainly of rolling farmland scattered with landmarks such as Lake Beginning, Mount Secession, Lake Serenity and Wild Boar Gorge. Under a powerful sun, I took a stroll around the capital, Nain, enjoying the sweet smell of gum trees. There wasn’t much there: a few houses, a campsite, a chapel, a post office and a souvenir shop where I bought some Hutt River Dollar notes. In terms of national monuments, there was an unmissable bust of Prince Leonard and a Secession Stone displaying the date of the declaration of independence.
I joined my travel companions in the shade and took out my rudimentary packed lunch of cheese slices, cheap ham and something the manufacturers could not legally call butter, all of which I’d hastily squeezed between slices of clayey white bread that morning at the hostel.
Back inside the government building I asked the prince if he was looking to take things a step further by applying for membership of supranational bodies like the UN.
“They would want too much in return,” he said. He had, though, not ruled out the possibility of one day entering a team in the Olympics. “We’d need to have at least six clubs here to be able to participate. We could get all the best athletes who haven’t been selected for their countries to compete for us. They’d only need to join a club that’s registered here.”
Some people did more than that to show their allegiance. A few hundred dollars bought you citizenship and a 5-year passport, and it’s claimed that about 14,000 people from around the world took up the offer. There were even ambassadors appointed in places as far away as Africa and the United States.
The principality had only about 30 permanent residents, earning a living from wheat, barley, wildflowers, sheep and tourism. Nevertheless, various government ministries were set up to run the place.
“I’m doing all this for the ordinary person,” Leonard explained. “I don’t try to stir up the Australian government.”
That wasn’t always the case. In 1977, repeated tax demands led Leonard, a veteran of the Borneo campaign of World War II, to send a fax to Canberra declaring war on Australia. After a few days he sent another stating that hostilities were over.
Forty years later, a court ordered Leonard and his son Arthur to pay more than A$3 million in unpaid taxes. The Australian government never recognised the principality’s independence, and perhaps it expected those claims to end when Leonard was no longer on the throne.
Leonard abdicated in 2017 in favour of his son, Prince Graeme, and died two years later, aged 93. In January 2020, the microstate, which changed its name to the Principality of Hutt River in 2006, closed its borders citing dwindling revenue from agriculture and tourism. On August 3, 2020, Graeme formally dissolved the principality, with the property now likely to be sold off to help pay the outstanding tax bill.
My Western Australia trip may have been a blissfully carefree meander between red-rock national parks, coral reefs, waterfalls and golden beaches, but my visit to this unspectacular corner of the outback was one of the most interesting, unusual experiences along the way.
Before leaving Hutt River to head back to Kalbarri, I remembered that the fuel gauge on the car was dangerously low. However, Leonard gave us directions to the nearest petrol station and reassured us we’d probably make it, otherwise we could just knock on the nearest farmhouse door.
Then the woman who’d served me over in the museum’s souvenir shop joined him behind the counter. It turned out she was his wife.
“Right, I’ll leave you in the hands of Princess Shirley,” His Royal Highness said. “I’m off for my lunch.”