Mallacoota, midway between Sydney and Melbourne, is a small remote coastal town on the entrance shore of an extensive inlet. Surrounded by national park, it is simply magnificent.
Utilising images, prose and the 5,7,5 syllable lines of Japanese Haiku – a nod to the bardic E. J. Brady – these musings reflect on Mallacoota, its magic, its minions and its mischief. They will appear spasmodically, when mood and muse align. A listing follows with dates of postings.
CINDERELLA posted Oct 9, 2016
IN COMMUNICADO posted Oct 9, 2016
AM BASTEIR posted Oct 9, 2016
TALES YOU LOSE posted Oct 9, 2016
BULLION posted Nov 16, 2016
MONUMENTAL MUSING posted Dec 3, 2016
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“She was a wild thing. I fell in love with her.”1
Brady’s sentiments still resonate for many.
“We made a camp on the shore of the Inlet. Here was al-a-ba-ma; here one could rest, dream, write and live. On the beach, bent like a golden harp between Gabo and Bastion Point, seas of Bass Strait made wild or gentle music – lullaby at night and reveille in the morning.”3
This Mallacoota …
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What a difference between then and now. Today it’s only six or seven hours by car, but on his first visit in 1909 Brady took four days to get to Mallacoota from Sydney: a day and a half by steamer to Eden; all next day by coach to Genoa, and most of the next by rowboat to Captain Stevenson’s Point.
“They rowed us slowly down the beautiful Genoa River. A fair wind was blowing as the boat entered the broadwater. Virgin forests fringed its indented shores and mantled the low-lying hills that encircled it.
We crossed this quiet sheet of water, entered the narrows, sailed through a mile-long rent in the forested hills and broke out into a wider inlet dotted with little seaward islets. Eastward it was fringed by Howe Ranges; Northward it lost itself in a maze of woodland havens, jungled creeks. and hidden bays.”5
Communications then were no better than the transport; mail took just as long, and although the telephone had arrived at Mallacoota West, few people had a phone. As Henry Lawson wrote:
It is one long ring for Kiah; it is two rings for Green Cape;
It is three for Gabo Island; and to have it all ship shape,
One for Eden. Four rings quicken Mallacoota’s interest;
And a long ring and a short one gives you Mallacoota West.6
Contrast today’s smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram giving instantaneous visual access to a worldwide circle of Friends.
How times change.
Inlet inspired, the
OMG texts echo. A-
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It was the “far Cuillins”, a splendid mountain range on the Isle of Skye, that were “pullin’ away” the singer (and many a rock climber) in the Scottish ballad “The Road to the Isles.”
The Cuillins cast the same spell and weave the same magic as does Mallacoota. Both, in the words of the song, “are puttin’ love on me.”
Am Basteir (“The Executioner”) is the Celtic name given to one of the Cuillins’ more forbidding peaks. A craggy spine of black gabbro rock, Am Basteir challenges the fainthearted as it looms on the skyline beside its prominent sentinel Tooth.
It brings to mind the dark rock stack disappearing into the sea at the very tip of Bastion Point – it too with jagged ‘tooth’ close at hand. From here you look east to Cape Howe – the tooth pointing to Tullaberga Island on which the Monumental City wrecked in 1853 just half a kilometre offshore from where the Riverina was to beach 70 years later – and west to Shipwreck Creek where the old slaver Schah came to grief in 1838.
This coast by Bastion – also an executioner!
Howe to Shipwreck? Creak
Keels on coast cantankerous.
Bastion tooth bites.
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TALES YOU LOSE
Giorgio de Chirico painted The Disquieting Muses in 1918. A landmark of modern art, its metaphysical mystique still intrigues today.
It became a cash cow for the artist, earning him ready income when he repainted it time and again. Fifty years later he even made sculptings of it. All this perhaps in response to his latter day critics, or perhaps it was nothing more than sharp business practice.
Sharp practice too in “Heads I win, tails you lose”, the con-man’s call that converts the 50-50 chance in a coin toss to certainty – for his pocket.
And so to Mallacoota.
On the breakwater at Bastion Point, a black solitary head-shaped rock, seen best at low tide, brings all this to mind.
The one certainty in the Bastion debate7 was always going to be a lack of consensus, where heads might well roll.
Heads I win, tails you lose …. perhaps. But the tales you lose – tales not tails – are different. Lost tales are inevitably our lot. Loss is our inheritance. Over the long sweep of time, history is defined by dispossession. All the lost tales – of people, places, names, happenings – all retreating into irrelevance: Carl Rasmus and little Peter, the Schah and the Monumental City.
Impermanence shrouds it all – even the muse’s effaced head and the Bastion breakwater. Both will eventually succumb to the erosion of time, to the vagaries of ocean levels, or perhaps to a long long wave sweeping out of the Tasman to wrap around Howe and Gabo at breakneck speed.
By Bastion, head
Rolls. So transient, this rock
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No precious metal excites like gold. You don’t hear of ‘silver fever’ or ‘platinum fever’, but ‘gold fever’ is in the vocabulary, it’s contagious and in years past it infected Mallacoota.
Not too badly though. Reference can be found to a Maxwell’s mine on the eastern shore of the lower lake not far from the Narrows, and there is mention of a Holly reef. Better known, on the far eastern shoreline near the old cemetery, the Spotted Dog mine was worked for four years from 1895 and produced 899 ounces of gold.
That’s less than half the weight of each of the two largest single nuggets found in Australia, indeed in the world: the Welcome nugget found at Ballarat in 1858 and the Welcome Stranger unearthed beneath just one inch of soil near Bendigo in 1869.8
The gold in each nugget would be worth almost $4 million at gold prices today – many times that had the nuggets remained intact. A fortune was lying in wait for some lucky digger.
Thomas Niblock was not a lucky digger. Son of an Oxford and Cambridge qualified Doctor of Divinity, early in 1853 he once again sailed to Australia, this time to make his fortune on the goldfields of Victoria. He first arrived aged 18 in 1838 and found, if nothing else, a wife Matilda.
His second visit was of no more material success than the first, than his resettlement to England, or than his failed farming venture to Canada. Leaving wife Matilda, 8 year old son Edward and a newborn infant in Melbourne, Thomas struck out for the Forest Creek diggings at Castlemaine where gold would elude pick and shovel. After but a few short weeks, he returned dispirited and dejected.9
He wrote to relatives in England “I have begun to sell my treasures, my long cherished old books,”10 and with the proceeds he found steerage passage for his family on the Monumental City departing Melbourne on Friday 13 May bound for Sydney. The steamer fetched up on the rocks off Tullaberga Island barely 36 hours later.
The bodies of the Niblock family were never recovered. They would not have been weighed down by gold, as was rumoured to be a problem for some other passengers.
There may well have been gold on board. Indeed much gold. Chinese miners returning home and other miners bound for distant parts were said to have been in steerage. To add more grist to the rumour mill, a Board of Enquiry into the wreck heard from one survivor that had evacuation of passengers from ship to shore been better executed, he would not have had to leave his bag of 500 sovereigns behind.11
Talk of a treasure reputedly worth as much as £250,000 persisted. Eventually, in 1919, a syndicate was formed to salvage the wreck. Divers found the strong room but the door was wide open and the strong room empty.12
Yet gold sovereigns have been found at the site.13
An oral history record from 2003 reveals “there’s been times you’ve swum over it and you’ll see a gold coin shining on the bottom and …. you might just happen to see the little knurled edge of a coin ….”14
This speaker, an abalone diver in Mallacoota from the 1960s, linked abalone with gold mining. “It was very similar to the old gold mining days. The price of abalone started to increase and more and more people wanted to get into it and I said, like the old gold miners, if somebody said ‘I found this new reef that’s very rich in abalone’ everybody would go bonkers, and Mallacoota started to kick on pretty good.”15
Abalone has indeed proved to be Mallacoota’s enduring gold – with replenishable lode still being mined 60 years on.
Such irony! Thomas Niblock and his family drowned in waters rich in latter day gold.
Sovereigns, spotted dogs:
All that glitters, now’s not old –
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Gabo Island lighthouse and the Washington Monument in Baltimore USA are linked by more than phallic symmetry.
Baltimore, the largest city in the state of Maryland, sits at the head of Chesapeake Bay 40 miles north-east of Washington DC. Its monument to George Washington, completed in 1829, was the earliest to honour the first US president.
A connection of sorts between the Washington Monument and Australia, if not Gabo Island, is that the land on which it stands was gifted to Baltimore by John Howard. John Eager Howard that is, famed as a hero of the American Revolution against the British – not John Winston Howard famed as named after British hero Winston Churchill.
Baltimore is said to have more public monuments per capita than any other US city. Called the Monumental City, this sobriquet though is less a tribute to its stone masons than to the resilience and fortitude of its people in times of trouble. In 1827 US president John Quincy Adams called Baltimore a monumental city for this reason, and the term stuck.
However another Adams, Captain William H Adams, is the most tangible link between Gabo and Baltimore. It was he who captained the barque-rigged steamer Monumental City – built in Baltimore in 1850, named after it, and the first steamship to cross the Pacific – when in 1853, with less resilience and fortitude than her namesake city, she was wrecked on rocks off Tullaberga Island with the loss of some three dozen lives.
The tragedy galvanised authorities and a light was built on nearby Gabo Island the following year.
The original wooden structure soon burned down and was replaced in 1860 by the present classical tower constructed from beautiful pink granite mined on the island.
Another link between Gabo and Baltimore is the name Calvert. The 2nd Baron Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, was an absentee landlord par excellence. Appointed in 1632 under Charter of English King Charles I, he became the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland. Although he lived in Yorkshire, England and never visiting his province, today his statue stands proudly a scant half mile from the Washington Monument.
Another Calvert, British born painter and wood engraver Samuel Calvert, lived in Australia from 1848. A few years after the new lighthouse was built, he created a striking image of it, together with a ship not at all unlike the Monumental City passing by in safety. Samuel Calvert’s viewpoint of the Gabo lighthouse would be similar to that of the Cecil Calvert statue looking right to the Washington Monument.
A favourite son of Baltimore is legendary American baseball hero Babe Ruth. A home run specialist and national inspiration during the Depression years, a team mate said of him “No one hit home runs the way Babe did. They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings then take off for the stands.” His home town monument is a given.
Another famed, if somewhat less favoured, Baltimore boy is the curmudgeonly journalist and writer H L Mencken, called the sage of Baltimore, whose acerbic observations remain as relevant today as when written 100 years ago. It’s hard to trump “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Just ask any presidential billionaire.
Baltimore has no monument to Mencken. When it comes to statues, governors and sports stars beat the literati every time.
Aboard the Monumental City, Captain Adams and his Chief Officer had sailed the Gippsland coast just once – on their way to Melbourne a week earlier – and their charts were not the latest available. As evening approached on 14 May, between them (each blamed the other) they mistakenly thought the approaching headland was Cape Howe, rather than Ram Head 50 kilometres to its west. Each named by Captain Cook, they are not to be confused.
Once abeam Ram Head, the Monumental City changed course and steered NNE towards certain destruction.
It was alleged that Adams and his Chief were warned by passengers who knew the waters that they were too close to land, but sure of their position, they ignored the warnings. They would deny having received them and also deny that the Chief Officer, when earlier bearing off to the East after seeing surf, had said “that’s the way to do it, get into white water and then get out again.”
It all brings to mind another Mencken aphorism: “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.” Deadingly dulled. Sometimes literally.
Every Babe Ruth home run ended with an inevitable veering of the ball towards terra firma. Nothing goes on forever, gravity gets you in the end.
As with life. What’s important is how well we’re positioned when we start to veer.
‘Monumental City’ veers
- E. J. Brady, “Cinderella,” in L. Rubinstein and E. J. Brady, Dreams and Realities, York Press, Melbourne, 1944, p. 124.
- ibid., p. 121.
- Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is one of Japan’s best known Haiku writers.
- E. J. Brady, “Cinderella,”op. cit., p. 121.
- Henry Lawson, Mallacoota West, A song of the telephone, 1910.
- Controversy raged as to whether a breakwater/boat ramp/car park complex should be built at the point. A flavour of the passions aroused can be found in these links: Save Bastion Point, Ministerial assessment and Endangered waves. The breakwater was completed a few years ago. A sign now warns of the danger caused by shifting sands which varyingly silt the exit from the new harbour – the sign says the facility should only be used by experienced boat handlers familiar with local conditions.
- For contemporary accounts of the discovery of the Welcome Stranger nugget, see http://members.westnet.com.au/likelyprospects/welcome_stranger_nugget.html.
- David A. Gerber, “Thomas Spencer Niblock: A Dialogue of Respectability and Failure,” in Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century, New York University Press, New York, 2006, p. 230.
- Thomas Spencer Niblock to Edward Thomas Spencer, Melbourne, April 15, 1853, Letters of Thomas Spencer Niblock, MS 396, National Library of Australia.
- Sydney Morning Herald, June 13, 1853, p. 6. First class passenger Gavin McKerrow vented his spleen to the Commissioners in no uncertain terms. As reported in the Herald: “Here some warm words took place between Mr. McKerrow and Captain Adams – the former persisting in asserting that a line might easily have been taken across, and declaring that, could he have found a bag of his, containing 500 sovereigns, he could easily have saved it. The Chairman, however, requested that this altercation might cease, as it was imperative that the inquiry should be conducted with the strictest impartiality, and that temper should be kept on the part of the witnesses.”
- See http://marinelife.org.au/?page_id=543 and The Evening Star, Dunedin, Sep 6, 1919, p. 1, and also http://oceans1.customer.netspace.net.au/gabo-wrecks.html.
- Mark Staniforth, SS Monumental City, First Steamship to cross the Pacific, Victorian Archaeological Survey Occasional Report Series, Number 24, Ministry for Planning & Environment, Melbourne, April 1986, p. 7. Available online at https://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/archaeology/department/publications/staniforth/1986a.pdf.
- John Black, Tales from the Deep, Oral history, 2003, see http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/built-environment/tales-from-the-deep/gold-rush-diving-on-the-monumental-city/.
- John Black, op. cit., see http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/built-environment/tales-from-the-deep/john-black-oral-history-part-2/.