Seeking the Giants of Mandurah

by Joyce Yang
24 Feb 2023

For the first time in Australia, Thomas Dambo’s whimsical, larger-than-life wooden sculptures are located in five secret locations throughout Mandurah and the wider Peel region.

I can’t be the only one who sees Gulliver’s Travels in the Giants of Mandurah. Specifically, when Gulliver was captured by the tiny Lilliputians who feared his size. Real life is no fantasy novel, but if you’re looking to feel small and awed, Thomas Dambo’s latest work on these giant installations comes close.

Thomas Dambo, photo by Duncan Wright, courtesy of FORM Building a State of Creativity

Unlike in the 1726 classic, giants have been set free by Copenhagen-based recycle art activist Thomas Dambo. Drawing inspiration from fairy tales and folklore, he made and scattered over a hundred wooden sculptures across the world. They go by ‘trolls’ in Denmark and ‘explorers’ in Singapore, but in Western Australia, they’re known as giants.

(Related: Where to stay and what to do for your next Australian summer)


The Search for Trolls

No two giants are alike, but every single one is shrouded in secrecy. They hide in forests and the bush; by rivers and the ocean, awaiting intrepid explorers who don’t mind a little rough and tumble. Four such giants have made their way to Mandurah, a coastal city 30 minutes from Perth. It has neither the buzz of Byron Bay nor the concrete of Gold Coast, but is laid back in its own right. Like one gigantic holiday village for the city to get away to.

The Travellers’ Companion, available at the Mandurah Visitor Centre, gives you an idea of the giants’ whereabouts and how easy they are to find. Nothing goes above Grade 3 on the Australian Walking Track Grading System but, understandably, some choose to seek them on a bike or boat trip. Of course, you can always look them up on Google Maps, but no one likes a cheater bug. Besides, the hunt is half the experience and the perfect excuse to spend a weekend in Mandurah.

Little Lui, Giants of Mandurah by Thomas Dambo, photo by Duncan Wright

That you can’t see all the giants without first passing through the Australian outback is by design. What better way to lure city dwellers into the great outdoors? Our two-day self-guided expedition began at Marlee Reserve, where a bush walk led us to our first giant — Little Lui. What looked like a serious case of a bed head is, in fact, a mass of branches and twigs intentionally left for birds to nest in. After all, the giants will be here for the next year and may as well coexist with their neighboring flora and fauna.

Each giant represents a stage of the water cycle – a homage to Mandurah’s waterways. Later that afternoon, we shelved our search to kayak down the Serpentine River. This is not just any kayak, but the superior ones fitted with foot pedals, rudders, and steering handles courtesy of Bush and Eco Tours. They kept us hands-free to see the migratory birds in action and, every so often, make an unsuccessful attempt at catching them on camera.


Exploring Mandurah

There’s something to be said about the Australians’ reverence for their land. Because the settlement belonged to the aboriginals Australians, we were told it’s customary to grab a handful of earth, make our intentions known, and throw it into the river before entering. Our guide knew the river’s inhabitants like old friends, at one point noting how much a bird had grown since he last saw it. I only remember the Australian white ibis, or “bin chickens”. It’s a derogatory term in the bird world, but one the dumpster divers deserve.

Only in Mandurah can three hours of pedalling pass off as a therapeutic activity, but we worked up an appetite all the same. You’d want to save a sliver of the sunset for Boundary Island Brewery, right by an estuary twice the size of Sydney Harbour. It felt like everyone in the city was there; some for the extraordinary portions and others for the booze. The garlic bread, however, deserves an honorary mention. It’s homemade, stone-baked, and may have ruined the starter for me forever.

Santi Ikto, Giants of Mandurah by Thomas Dambo, photo by Duncan Wright

Our search resumed the next morning, and I continued to be spoiled by sports equipment that makes me feel more fit than I really am. An electric bicycle did all the work this time and we cruised on coastal paths and steep slopes to our second giant — Santi Ikto. The beardy man is one lucky fellow; perched on a hilltop with an unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean. No wonder he has his hands up in the air.


Awakening the Giants

Seba's Song, Giants of Mandurah by Thomas Dambo, photo by Duncan Wright

Given their seemingly arbitrary locations, the giants are an enigma to passers-by who never set out to look for them. What is this? Why is it here? How did it get here? Dambo wanted to create the impression that they were conjured out of thin air overnight. This, of course, belies the 750 hours he poured into them. It all started when he first noticed wooden pallets go to waste in a back alley, and the artist has been unstoppable since. To this day, he continues to build the giants’ heads and limbs in Copenhagen. Their bodies, on the other hand, are made by local communities with recycled materials on their home grounds. Among these are students, whose artwork forms a bunting around Santi Ikto.

By the time we arrived at our last two giants, it became clear that the quartet had captivated everyone. From adults to children, tourists to locals, blazer-clad folks to skateboarding teenagers, everyone becomes a kid again at their feet. Some climbed all over Vivi Cirkelstone with reckless abandon, striking a “muscle man” at the top, and others went on cruises to catch Seba’s Song from another vantage point (he faces the sea, and we could only see his side profile on land). Talk of the giants was always within earshot in Mandurah, but everybody observed the unspoken rule: No giving away the fifth giant’s location.

You can only unlock the final giant with clues from the first four. Jyttes Hytte has wandered far from the rest, but she (we have it on good authority that this one is female) is well worth the journey. We won’t give away anything, other than that she’s a bona fide tree hugger. According to Dambo, they were surrounded by curious kangaroos and a wild emu while working on her. A Disney moment isn’t guaranteed, but what a magical grand finale it would make. 

In Gulliver’s Travels, the giant was the bigger person, helping the Lilliputians douse a fire despite their hostility. Unfortunately, the places were switched for one giant in Mandurah.


Vivi Cirklestone, Giants of Mandurah by Thomas Dambo, photo by Duncan Wright

A week after we left, the news reported that an arsonist had burnt Vivi Cirkelstone to ashes. The giants are as much Dambo’s as they are his team’s, and I can’t imagine what the volunteers, aboriginal elders, and schoolchildren must feel. Uncannily enough, when I phoned Dambo a day before the mishap, we spoke briefly of the giant’s fragility in the wild.

"When I built them, I set them free and left them alone in the world,” he said. “I have to just trust in the good of the world that people will take care of them, and they will survive. Ultimately, if something happens, that's a part of life. It's part of nature that things break, and maybe they're not meant to last forever."

Perhaps those who made or met Vivi Cirkelstone can take heart in this, and those who have not might see the remaining Giants of Mandurah in a new light.