Short Stories – Funny Stories

Roger's Humourous Stories from Australia and the World

MANLY, MACHISMO AND THE MURK

Written By: Roger Crates - Jan• 06•11

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The entrance to Sydney Harbour is flanked by two great sandstone bulwarks that are called somewhat obviously South Head and North Head. South Head is the shorter of the twins and although not as high above the pounding water below is a favourite place for some sad and disturbed folk to hurl themselves off. My particular view of this activity is that it is just overwhelmingly sad that someone, anyone who would do such a thing simply has lost the strength to protect those who love them. Somebody does and that somebody is the one that bears the brunt of the sadness and despair of the suicide.

 

Some of our business in this article is connected with the edifice known as North head. The terrible theme of suicide has also some relevance too. We all do foolish things, me probably more than most, certainly when I was younger which of course encompasses anywhere within the last sixty two years. Having said that it is also it is fair to say, I was not particularly dangerous to myself or others for the first five or six years, unless of course you count very messy faecal episodes or the dangers of projectile vomiting.

 There is a wonderful lagoon at Wattamolla Beach in NSW which is situated south of Sydney in the Royal National Park. The beach itself is typical of an Australian beach and will not be found wanting in golden sands as it sits neatly between two gracious headlands that face stoically east. The lagoon is mostly fed by a creek which eventually empties into the lagoon over a picturesque waterfall. The waterfall has always been a place for daring do as people gird their loins and make the ten or so metre leap into the tannin stained water below.

The beach itself joins the land to the sea at the end of a small inlet. The beach precinct is surrounded by walking trails and boasts a wonderful lagoon, which taken in by the discerning eye might give rise to the images of a film set about castaways and young love amidst idyllic settings. Every few years after the creek dwindles, the marvelous lagoon is cut off from its parent sea by the golden sands of the beach. Mother nature will reunite the lagoon and the sea, by creating higher than normal tides or causing the rainfall to swell the creeks and the brackish water will flow again across the sand at the southern edge of the beach.

 It was not until I was about six when my predisposition for danger was somehow directed to watery places, like lagoons. where I was doing the usual running away from my carers, usually Mum, and giggling fit to beat the band when my Mother was distracted to a particularly strapping young man stretching his bronzed muscles nearby, caught both her eye and her attention. It appears I took this opportunity to run headlong into the lagoon and begin to drown. Mum never did have a particularly large span of attention or the man wandered off someplace and naturally she returned her gaze to her errant baby boy, only problem was, he was in fact nowhere to be seen. “Let’s see he was running toward the water and the young man took off his shirt and Roger is not in sight”, running toward the water was the clue and Mum sprang into action with more speed than seemed possible and raced fully dressed into the briny Wattamolla lagoon.

 She found her little boy still giggling madly as he blundered away under the water with little giggle bubbles shooting out of his mouth. I was also told, on another visit to Wattamolla a few years later that a child was taken by a shark from the same lagoon, little did I know until now that this was my Mum’s way to discourage me from swimming there on a wet blustery day. It was only while researching a fact for this article that I found this was a work of fiction on my mother’s part.

 I did have a curious episode in another lagoon about six years later in Terrigal Lagoon, where I once kissed a lovely girl under an overturned canoe, I was never sure which one of us actually tipped the canoe over but it was a nice first kiss with this particular girl. This is not the curious episode though, that was on another day and another canoe. This time a friend and I, a mate, a soccer team member and definitely not for kissing, were paddling around away from the swimming area and a large shadow moved under the craft. It was a shark a large shark, thankfully for us a large dead shark, but it scared the heck out of us at the time.

 So Wattamolla was my first brush with a watery end. My next one was when my brothers decided to help me to learn to swim on top of the water which unless you are Jacques Cousteau is the recommended method. Up until this time my own personal style was beneath the surface and flailing around with eyes tightly shut. It was very important to sink entirely to the bottom to gain purchase with my feet to push myself skyward and a gulp of reviving air.

 My brothers threw me into thee deep end on the North Sydney Swimming pool in 1954. This coincidentally was the year of the Melbourne Olympic Games, the first ever in Australia, I would have loved to have gone and compete, but my technique and age was against me. My brothers did not allow me out of the deep end of the North Sydney Swimming Pool until I able to convert floundering under water to floundering on the surface. They had figured I wouldn’t be able to sink to the bottom and push off for the surface as it was sixteen feet deep. As it turns out they were right.

 The next time danger raised its head was about a year later when my brothers and I went to a fresh water tributary of the Lane Cove River a creek fed large water hole called The Crystal. I walked, as apparently I do, into danger by wandering over an unseen ledge and promptly got my leg snagged underwater about two and a half metres down. This was not a recommended way to continue breathing as I was about one point two metres tall at the time. Once again I was rescued, this time by my brother Peter.

 The next few episodes were all of my own making, of my own stupidity actually. The last couple of years of high school way back then were also the beginnings of the surfing culture and lots of lads were bleaching their hair and stomping was the latest dance craze. I didn’t bleach but I was a great stomper. On those days when school seemed a poor option a few of us would hitch hike to Long Reef Beach using the golf links shortcut.

 We were all keen body surfers and when Long Reef was on it was truly a wonderful place with both left and right cuts, on long glassy swells. At low tide and with a large wave, it wasn’t that hard to get cut up on the reef and the many rocky shoals if you made the wrong choice of wave to attack. If you get the chance visit Long reef, but don’t do as we did and leave the golfers alone as they wander around following the little white ball.

 On one of these illegal excursions from our beloved high school, a mate, Daffy by nickname and Daffy by nature, and I decided to make the trip to Manly Beach. We changed out of our school uniforms at back of the bus shed, and caught buses to

 Manly. Why we had decided to go to the beach on a wild, wet and wintery day is the subject of a debate about how truly stupid one can be when one is fourteen years old. Is it hormonal, plain stupidity or willful disobedience, I personally lean toward good old fashioned stupidity with a pinch of inexperience.

 Daffy and I were basking in the cold rain as we discovered the beach had been closed due to the bad weather and the huge waves were rolling in at North Steyne beach, which the minds of the paid Beach Inspectors of the day considered far to dangerous for swimming. Naturally Daffy who was also a rather smaller fellow to go along with his general Daffyness, and I must admit, I agreed with him, that we were not run of the mill swimmers but gifted body surfers. Just how we had come to this conclusion and the general delusion has never been explained, but we decided to go in and ‘ride,ride,ride the wild surf as the Jan and Dean sang in those days.

 Interestingly Manly Beach was named by Captain Arthur Phillip who was actually appointed Admiral as he was Governor General of the Colony of NSW, for whatever the reason he is best remembered as Captain Arthur Phillip. While this erstwhile gentleman was scouting the shores of Sydney Harbour, he came across members of the Jay-ye-my clan of the local Guringai people. He was admiring the stature and apparent strength of the men of the group, when one of their number took exception of this pale fellow with the funny hat, and promptly threw a spear at him which sat quivering in Arthur Phillips’s shoulder. Much to his credit the pale one ordered the other pale fellows he was with, their hats were not so funny, not to retaliate. He was so impressed with the Jay-ye-my darker fellows, that we called the place Manly.

 Manly is surrounded on three sides by water, it is in fact a classic isthmus with the narrow neck of land connecting the area known as North Head and the rest of Australia via the northers beaches. So in this wonderful place we have the Tasman Sea on one side and beautiful Sydney Harbour on the other , the third side is, what for many is their first experience of continental Australia, the Sydney Harbour Heads, which is a narrow stretch of water that forms the entrance to the harbour itself .

 The southern end of the beach itself was considered Manly Beach and further north on the same stretch of sand are South Steyne, Mid Steyne and as you may have guessed North Steyne the last name to be given on the northernmost part of the golden granules is known as Queenscliffe.

 For whatever reason, no doubt foolish, we decided to enter the potentially treacherous water at Mid Steyne, the beach was closed and deserted and the surf was pounding, we became separated almost immediately. The hardest part of body surfing is getting beyond the take off zone. The surfer must get past all the broken water to be able to eyeball the next wave or the sets as it forms further out to sea. This allows the body surfer to get to the most promising spot to catch the wave before it crests and use the power of the water along with a few really hard strokes to whiz you down and along the wave. It really is the most exhilarating feeling and I can understand the way many people wax lyrical about the spirituality of it all.

 As for the day Daffy and I took on the Mid Steyn surf. I went as hard as I could and within about fifteen minutes I was ‘out the back’, trouble was I was out the back alone, no Daffy.

 I called and coo-eed and yelled, but no Daffy, I swam in a bit, no Daffy, out a bit, no Daffy and finally went way out to see if I could see him as I lifted myself up on the cresting swells, no Daffy. I was becoming very very concerned, for some reason and, quite incorrectly of course, I felt responsible and as I considered myself a strong swimmer I felt I should find the little guy before something awful happened. While I floundering around looking for Daffy I noticed on the far off shore a crowd of people forming. Some them were pointing out toward the dumping swells and for some reason I felt they were trying to point toward the missing Daffy.

 I swam around calling him between ducking from the large waves. I was now opposite Queenscliffe the northerly aspect of the whole Manly beach. I was becoming very tired and if I didn’t get in soon I would be swept around the headland and who knows where my dead body would be swept up. Incidentally I was with some guys when a body was found jammed in some rocks at freshwater right around that same headland a couple of months before.

 I struggled in and that took at least another ten minutes, the small crowd on the beach seemed to move south with me as I came closer to shore and let the natural wave action wash me in. I expected to be told the worst when I staggered out of the water and people came rushing toward me. At the front of them all was Hmm! you guessed it… Daffy.

 It turns out he decided at the first watery hurdle to go in and watch me as I battled the elements, I wasn’t sure if I should hug him or hit him, but I decided, we should clear off fast before the Police Rescue Squad became involved.

 Daffy told me the Beach Inspector was considering calling them as he wasn’t going to go after the stupid bastard out there. I received a justified telling off although I felt I was in control most of the time at least foolish, foolish boy.

 About a year later when I was approaching fifteen, I had the exquisite pleasure of surfing the Bommy at Queenscliffe. A bommy is the shortened name for a bombora which is a reef generated swell that caused wave action under certain circumstance. The Queenscliffe bombora doesn’t form often and when it does on the rare occasion it does it comes up from the sea floor about a kilometre off the shores of Queenscliffe. The conditions for its activity are generally storms off shore and combined with certain tidal and prevailing wind conditions can throw up the most perfect waves. The bommy throws up huge perfectly formed waves with plenty of power in them to push the surfer, body surfer or board rider thrusting forward back toward the far off shore. The waves are often superbly glassy as they rely on conditions generated from maybe hundreds of miles away.

 It was the summer of ’63’ and I decided to tackle the Queenslcliffe bommy if I ever got the chance. It did come a month or so later and I started swimming out to join the half dozen or so truly expert and experienced surfer dudes who took on the daunting challenge. So out I went once again alone.

 The swim out is fairly ordinary once you are past the normal surfing area. Strangely the bommy when it appears is no guarantee of large swells on shore. It is really like swimming out at sea which I suppose it was. The actual surf break on this day was about four metres over the falls that is the wave height at the time of water cresting. To get past this, which is in fact thousands of tons of churning rushing water it is best to swim around the take off area and approach it from behind.

 To surf the bommy is in fact a commitment from the surfer, to not only get there, it is a kilometre swim plus edging the break area, and there is no use putting in this effort if one doesn’t catch a wave. The sets do not come in all the time so it is quite usual to wait out there treading water for extended periods waiting for the right wave. I hasten to add not the biggest wave as it is no use to get smashed if the wave is unsuitable to ride. So a surfer can wait up to half an hour for the conditions to be right and when they are, heaven on a stick.

 As I approached all the other insane half dozen I noticed they were all considerably older than I was, I was conscious of such things at the time, all had on terry toweling hats and were plastered with zinc cream to stop burning the face during the wait between opportunities. Not for me, I didn’t know better, I was fourteen.

 The next set was upon us as I maneuvered behind them, trouble was they all caught the third or so monster coming across the submerged reef before I could get to the take off zone. I watched in awed dismay as I saw them all slide over the falls and they were lost to my sight as they all zoomed beach ward. It turns out they all knew each other and had decided to go in on the next available wave. Being expert surfers that is exactly what they did.

 Luckily this was before the Steven Spielberg classic movie Jaws. So there I was folks, first time on the bommy, all alone, with a kilometres of seawater between me and safety, all alone, with the bommy pounding as the last of the set went past me to go crashing and swirling toward the shore. Did I mention I was all alone, naturally there was a time delay between sets so I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for the next set with my head under the water looking to see what was down there. Some of my time was spent watching the sets generate to the perfect wave and after an eternity of waiting, here they came. I took the third on offer, I had watched from the beach for half an hour before venturing out and the third wave was usually the best formed.

 All I can say now some forty eight years later was that was the best few moments of watery delight in my life. Sheer exhilaration, sheer beauty and grace, sliding down an almost vertical wall of green glassy heaven, bugger the sharks. The wave allowed me to ride its forward edge as if we were friends, I think I cut back at least twice maybe three times keeping the white foamy leading edge just behind my left shoulder. After what seemed an eternity the wave petered out but not before it allowed me to suck out the marrow of its glory.

 After stopping any forward progress I tumble turned off in my delight and continued the swim for shore, which was now only about 800 yards away. So by my reckoning which is no doubt not accurate I went in about 100 or so yards from going over the falls but the real thrill of such a ride was that I had transversed maybe another hundred yards sideways. Simply wonderful. I was not so foolhardy as to turn around and try it again, all alone.

 The northern end of the Manly isthmus is North Head and although south Head has the reputation for sad ends the Norh Head has its fair share of dangers to life and limb. Quite a number of deaths occur by fishing off the rocks as the waves crash against the sandstone cliffs. The cliffs are over thirty metres high in mostly sheer sandstone walls.

 In places the cliffs appear to stand on tables of sandstone and the waves smash against the forward edge and sweep across the flat surfaces of the sandstone table.

The tables fall off again at water level and are a perfect habitat for the fishy dwellers of these swirling and dangerous depths. At North Head there is one particular spot that offers the sports fisherman the very best chance of catching a whopper and an awful chance of ending his life.

 My elder brother Peter introduced me to this spot which on refection is not a nice place and not worth the bragging rights of catching that same whopper. The place is named ‘The Murk’

 First danger to get past is the climb down which includes a bit of rock hopping, traversing and repelling down a large but well worn rope tied to a rusting stake driven into the rock face. The climb is rather daunting but I was with my brother at the time and naturally the machismo of the moment took over and against my own thoughts of self preservation down I went with half a ton of fishing gear. How on earth one climbs back up with all this gear and a haul of fish is a minor miracle in itself, but bragging rights hold a strong grip on the rock fisherman’s ideology.

 When and if you make it down safely you are now confronted with the raw sea and the power it has to swallow you whole and completely, I can understand how prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared in rough conditions at Cheviot Beach in Victoria in 1967. The next danger to face after leaving your tackle high and dry is to make it to the waters swirling edge across the flat table of rock.

 Not many Sydneysiders know that there is a sewerage facility at the top of the cliff and an outfall tunnel blasted vertically from the top and turning into a horizontal tunnel below sea level. Now we all know the powers that be never, ever, ever allow raw sewerage to go from the citizens home, or wherever it may be introduced into the system to end up in the Pacific Ocean. They would never, ever, ever allow that to happen in the mid seventies and yet on certain days a brown streak can be observed emanating with some degree of suspicion from the cliffs co-incidentally where the outfall of treated perfectly,completely treated ex sewerage enters the sea.

 The brown streak generally follows a thirty degree path on its northward journey to dissipate a few miles off Sydney’s northern beaches. The increase in protein in the water is what makes such large fish inhabit the underwater caves and nooks and crannies, which the sports fisherman craves. I wouldn’t recommend eating the fat fellows though. The increased protein also causes the next danger to be faced, the slime that treacherously coats the rocks. Most rocks are covered with some degree of water weeds and they are often slippery but this is exaggerated by the slime factor of the murk.

 A fisherman must wear climbing cleats on the shoes or boots to ensure some form of, at least surer footing. Every year the bodies of rock fishermen are found floating off the waters around Sydney and they have been washed off rocks because they were not using cleats on their footwear.

 There are also has additional dangers for the rock fisherman at The Murk. Between the cliff face and the waters edge is a channel, through which occasionally rush waves which have hit the cliff wall forty or so metres off to the south. The fisherman must watch the waves in front of him for that ‘rogue bastard’ that seems to come from nowhere and he must hold on for dear life if it decides to sweep over the slimy rocks on which he is standing.

 The channel behind him can fill up with swirling foamy death as it rushes from where the water enters it, forty metres south and hits him from behind as he blithely watches what is happening in fron of him. A dangerous place ‘The Murk”

 Peter and I fished there a few times and we would sit atop the cliff and wait and check out the idiosyncrasies of the sets of waves as they pounded the rocks below. I learned this patience myself from surfing. We often revised our decision to fish the place after watching that ‘rogue bastard’ sweep behind the fishing spot.

 In the late seventies my brother and I had a small business, the actual work of which was carried on outdoors. This allowed us some inclement weather days off and on one of these we found ourselves on the northern beaches of Sydney. There was a hurricane brewing out at sea and Sydney was on the outer edge of the big blow. We decided to watch the sea from the cliffs above ‘The Murk’.

 We parked our car and sat on the edge of the cliffs as the odd gust of windy rain swept over us. The sea so far below us was a churning mass of swirling, smashing, blasting and most noticeably huge waves.

 They talk about the angry sea well this day it was absolutely apoplectic. Naturally being the foolish people we were we decided to have a closer look, why, well who knows but we did.

 The first part of the descent of the cliff is a scrambling few metres down, the next short section is a five metre drop down on a frayed old rope. This terminates on a rock ledge and if you were to ask me how high this was above the churning sea below I would hazard a guess at twenty five or more metres.

 So there we sat both pretending we were not cold although my shivering might have given me away, we were in fact cloaked in our own machismo as we watched the pounding waves from miles out at sea as they crashed over each other in a frenzied attack on the cliffs of Sydney. Every now and then as is normal there would be one super monster who would shoulder the rest aside it its anger to get at the land and crash with unbelievable force against the shore.

 The rain became insignificant as we were being soaked from the sea spray. We sat in awed silence as one behemoth towered above the rest and actually seemed to be on our eye level, the silence was broken between my brother and I as we realised the wave was actually coming at us at the level we were above from the seas below.

 The word tsunami might have been called for but of course it would not be correct. The wave crashed against the cliffs just below our feet and we rushed into the shelter a fallen boulder learning against the rock face, I wedged myself in by the shoulders and my brother selflessly pushed me further into the crevice and wedged his own shoulders in and we hung on for our lives.

 When the water had finished rushing over us and we emerged out of the green doom and could breathe again, we both started to laugh. I am sure there was a sort of hysterical relief in our guffaws. Until we looked seaward again to be stunned with an even bigger monster bearing down on us with what we perceived to be pure malice. This time we were looking up. Again we wedged ourselves into the crevice and held on and prayed to be given the chance to see our families again. We were given that chance as the monstrous wave crashed over us and I swear my hand prints are there as I grasped the rocky sanctuary with all the strength I have.

 What can I say only foolish, foolish boy, and foolish foolish men, as for the sea, I love it.

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2 Comments

  1. Roger Crates says:

    Hi Respiratory Therapist;
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