Fine Weather at South HeadPosted: November 19, 2014
In 1906 Miss Bury of Leichhardt received a postcard from her frequent correspondent H.A.B. It was a black and white illustration of South Reef at Sydney Heads, the full moon shining across the sea. “Hope you are taking advantage of fine weather” H.A.B had written underneath. Miss Bury had already received a card of waves crashing onto rocks at Coogee with a similar message: “If fine, why not take a run out to this place?”
The postcards arrived at Miss Bury’s house in Leichhardt and brought with them the ocean and the full moon, clear nights and the sound of the waves. Their inscriptions, to someone reading them more than 100 years later, are enigmatic. They are easy to read as romantic suggestions, but are not necessarily so. Whatever innuendo they contain is a mystery.
To take advantage of fine weather and visit the sea Miss Bury would first have to catch the tram along Parramatta Road into the city, where she would change for another tram to the coast. Sydney in 1906 was the Victorian city of awnings and railings, horses and carts, everyone wearing a hat, the streets busy. It was a new century and Australia had been declared a federation only a few years earlier. The city was constantly changing. Central station, with its grand concourse, had just opened. This video of Sydney in 1906, filmed from a tram moving along George Street, shows the criss-cross paths of pedestrians – men in suits, women in long dresses – as they make their way in between the trams (I particularly like the cyclist).
To get to South Head involved a long tram trip to Watson’s Bay along New South Head Road, following the inner edge of the headland. It was a sightseeing journey with views of the harbour and grand houses, past Barracluff’s ostrich farm at Diamond Bay and then ending at the ocean cliffs. Nearby day-trip attractions had sprung up, tea rooms and the octagonal building which housed a camera obscura in Gap Park (to be closed down in 1914 for fears that spies would use it to examine the military fortifications of South Head).
People travelled here for a sense of distance from the city. Here they could turn their backs on it and look out across the endless ocean. This was the point where most of them or their ancestors had arrived in Sydney. Of the two promontories known as the Heads, South Head is further inside the harbour. Ships travelling into Sydney would have rounded south head first, as they arrived from the south. Until passenger flights became commonplace in the 1950s the Heads were the symbolic, as well as the physical, entrance to Sydney. This, and the element of the sublime in the rough cliffs and ocean outlook, made them a common postcard feature in the 19th century.
It is a sunny November day. The streets look fresh with the pale green of spring leaves and the mauve heads of jacaranda trees. Though it is more than a century after H.A.B’s message, taking advantage of fine weather is still a good suggestion. This Miss Berry, following Miss Bury, decides she will take advantage with a run out to South Head. I set out in the car, following the hills and curves through Double Bay and Rose Bay until I reach Watson’s Bay at the end of the road.
The path that leads to South Reef begins at Camp Cove. Near the beach there is a lengthy information panel with a timeline of the area, beginning 220 million years ago in the Triassic period when layers of sediment accumulated to make the sandstone which forms the Sydney basin. 220 million years ago the earth’s landmass was one supercontinent, its giant fern forests roamed by dinosaurs. As I ponder this people stroll past, guys with an esky and a tambourine, towels draped over their shoulders, on their way to the beach. Cars crawl along Cliff Street, in search of parking spots. The wooden cottage on the corner, its white paint peeling, has a garden planted with mother-in-law’s-tongue and a gnarled frangipani tree.
A more neighbourly 6000 years ago the Birrabirragal people lived here, fishing in the waters of what was to be named Camp Cove. Their life here continued without rupture until the first fixed date on the timeline: 21st January 1788. After this day, time and the land becomes increasingly divided up. The timeline goes on to list the headland’s many uses, by whalers and the military, the construction of a marine biology station, a lighthouse. Then the tourist age: cottages, a swimming hole, tea rooms, trams. The tourist era continues. People are at the beach writing postcards and sunbaking, or walking the headland path, pausing to look at the view and take photos at the cliff edge.
The path begins at the end of the beach and follows the shape of the headland. On either side are thickets of lantana and morning glory with desire paths cut through them leading to the cliff. There are danger signs, a cartoon figure slipping off the crumbling edge, but these often go unheeded. A group of girls in bikinis and towels squeeze past one large danger sign and its warning of serious injury, in search of an uninterrupted view.
Between the huge sandstone boulders on the other side of the path is a stone wall with gaps in the bricks for rifles. Nearby is a shiny black cannon mounted in a concrete well, pointing in the direction of the harbour and the city beyond. From here the city looks small, a tracing of vertical shapes against the sky. I think of the most recent of Tony Abbott’s stupid statements, this one delivered to David Cameron in celebration of Sydney’s English heritage. “As we look around this glorious city…it’s hard to think that back in 1788 it was nothing but bush”. Looking at it from the gun’s point of view, the city looks tenuous and its the wide stretch of harbour water and the zigzag shoreline of the bays and headlands that are the glorious thing. Sandstone boulders rise up like whales from the grass. Wrens hop between the branches of the lantana.
After 1788 the vegetation was cleared from the headland and for a long time it had a bald look, traced with fortifications. In the early days of the colony it was from this headland that people would stare hopefully out to sea, looking for boats that might bring food or news from the rest of the world. They were looking out for invaders, too, and over time the headland became pock-marked with gun emplacements, circular concrete wells sunk into the sandstone. The natural sandstone and the concrete blocks of the fortifications meld into a patchwork.
The track continues, past Lady Bay below. For decades this has been a nudist beach and was officially declared so by Neville Wran in 1976. The beach is visible from the path above; an English family make jokes about averting their eyes as they peer downwards. Men are stretched out on the rocks alongside the beach, sunbaking and chatting and smoking. On the other side of the path is the naval base and here is another group of men sitting smoking, although these ones have their clothes on, and are turned away from the water to face the utilitarian buildings of the base.
The path emerges from the shrubs at the lighthousekeeper’s cottage. Around from it is the red and white striped lighthouse, built after the wreck of the Dunbar in 1857. Everyone on the Dunbar perished, most of them wealthy Sydney residents returning home after a trip to London, apart from one deckhand, James Johnson. He spent three days on a rock ledge, with the debris and bodies from the wreck washed up on the rocks below. For days after the wreck, “hats, bonnets, boots, hams and drums of figs floated in the waves”. Eventually Johnson was rescued by an Icelandic man who was lowered down from the cliffs above by a rope.
James Johnson, after recovery from his ordeal, became the first lighthousekeeper. The lighthouse, painted red and white like a candy-cane, is a cheerful structure. It has long been sealed up as the light operates automatically, but I climb up its external stairs and look out to seafrom the top of them. I can see the view from H.A.B.’s postcard, the rocks of the reef with the waves crashing against them and North Head in the distance, stretching into the ocean. In between the heads a few sailboats are out, catching the wind. It’s a strong wind straight off the sea and it whips my hair around my face and flutters the pages of the notebook a woman, lying on the grass below, is writing in.
I return to the track and cut through one of the desire paths through the brambles and lantana. It’s just wide enough to avoid scratching my legs and I step through it carefully. At the end is a big flat rock above the reef and I sit here watching the men fishing down below and the family standing on the rock platform taking a photo with the ocean behind them. The edge is irresistable and for all its dangers, people have an urge to get as close as they can to the place where the elements switch and the land turns to ocean. Near me, at the very edge of the cliff a metal ring sunk into a section of concrete has a cluster of engraved padlocks attached to it. I strain to read the inscriptions: “Steph, you have made me the happiest man on earth. Will you marry me?”
H.A.B., whoever they were to Miss Bury, did not end up as her husband. She married an A.N.W. in 1917. But I like to think that on a fine day Miss Bury and H.A.B. might have caught the tram to Watson’s Bay and looked out over the ocean together. The closest they would have got was The Gap lookout, rather than the reef pictured on the postcard. In 1906 this headland was a fortification, a military area with guns at regular intervals along the clifftop.
The pits and tunnels of the concrete emplacements remain, now places to clamber into and scratch messages into the cement. Most of the tunnels end in bricked-up walls or gaps too narrow to pass through, although beyond them is a network of tunnels, rooms and bunkers which connect up with the naval base. The entrances have mostly been closed off, but I find one door with a view into a gloomy series of rooms. Like the concrete of the gun emplacement above, there are names and sets of initials scratched into them. Alert for coincidence, I look for a H.A.B., but there is no match.
The track loops around and I return to Camp Cove. As I pass by the kiosk a man is asking if they sell bananas. The woman in the kiosk looks at him, unable to decode his softly spoken request, and asks “Panadol?” I totter my way over the sand until I find a place in the shade at the other end of the beach to leave my bag while I go for a swim. Unlike Miss Bury, I can go swimming wearing whatever kind of bathing suit I like (in this case, a purple one piece). I fold my t-shirt and skirt and leave them on a rock as I make for the water.
The propriety of bathing suits was a topic of great debate in the 1900s. In 1903, a law that had prohibited “daylight bathing” at Sydney beaches since 1833 was repealed. With this came arguments over appropriate swimwear. A suggested mandatory skirt for men’s costumes led to the 1907 bathing costume protests, where men wearing women’s underwear, curtains and tablecloths marched on Bondi Beach. Men didn’t want to wear a skirt to swim, but neither did women. The baggy dress and pantaloons that were acceptable 19th century women’s bathing attire made it impossible to do anything but wade. Annette Kellerman designed the first one piece swimsuit with this in mind, and following her lead by the end of the decade women were wearing the close fitting costumes known as “Kellermans”.
After swimming I sit watching the beach. Near me a group of girls in bikinis are eating strawberries. I look beyond them to a man and a woman at the water’s edge. The woman holds a stick and is using it to trace out something. The man tries to snap a photo of what she has written but she’s too close to the tide line and a wave dissolves the letters. I had seen it, though, before the water erased it, the tracing of initials into the sand.
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Further correspondence from H.A.B. to Miss Bury: see card 57.