First landing

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I am in thrall to the sand, salt and sun ratio that the powdery fringes of our world promise, toes scrinching in the cool damp of buried seawater, the sluice of surf over the break, and a horizon that sidles up to the sky. And while I have a deep appreciation for the finest beaches in the world – mirror-clear waters in the Maldives, the raw savagery of Fraser Island’s ragged coast and the scented chic of the Côte d’Azur – it is the schleppy beaches of the world I cherish.

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A sorry excuse for a strip of sand, Power Station Beach frills its way along the edge of Lamma Island, itself an outlying island of Hong Kong. It was once my home, literally. I slept in a teepee above the tideline and woke each morning to the belch and squeal of hot air rising in monolithic cement chambers, and the warble of red-throated loons as they paddled off-shore. There was a smear of sulphur in the air sometimes, which collided gracefully with saltwater and early morning char siu bao.

Yarra Beach, which skims the edge of one of Sydney’s least known and smallest suburbs, Phillip Bay – La Perouse’s jerry-built neighbour – also fits the bill faultlessly. It features a container terminal squat at one end, sand that may contain dead bodies and a distinct case of multiple personality disorder.

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It’s our favourite place – me, the Tin Lid and the Kelpie – even on a wintry day that scours vapourised breath from chapped lips. It stretches away from the eye in a leisurely curl, deep anchorage in its embrace. At one end, Port Botany Transfer Station and container terminal hulk-in, heavy; towering stands of metal boxes await the colossal grip of the lifting crane, and tiny stevedores scurry like ants from a height, busy in their endeavours.

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Sydney Ports Corporation

Peering in close, to get a good view of the action, blighted headstones line the ridge, the residents of the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park taking best advantage of this ‘forever’ spot.

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At the other end is the splintered timber and plastic veneer of the sailing club, blinking with pokies and bickered at by bookies.

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I think that might be part of the attraction, the hustle of activity on a stretch of sand that stands sentinel to time. Ocean leviathans steam into port honking and wallowing, their steel guts either laden or set to gorge on the gargantuan consumerist container picnic that awaits them. The dead on their last journey, as they shift and sift through the sand; yachties riding their charges over trough and peak and returning, sodden, to the sailing club for a cold schooner and hot chips; the burning rumble of the jets as they land and soar from Kingston Smith; and local dogs who howl and splash in joy, catching life in salty draughts on lagging tongues.

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Defined by Yarra Point and Bomborah Point, the Bay is a series of south-westerly swoops, unique in this east-facing city. At the height of summer, we head to the shade of some scrub at the southern tip; in winter, we get to luxuriate in its length, right up to the otherwise sun-baked perimeter, a concrete seawall beneath the steely gaze of Port Botany, its industrial choker.

The Tin Lid is agog at the plastic-bottle whirlpool churning in the eddies, and the Kelpie insists on dragging a tree wherever she goes. Ring-ins for the day include a bestie and her bottom-waggling charge, who hurl themselves into dune climbing with verve:

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Beyond the bend is Frenchman’s Bay (and La Perouse on the spit), considered culturally significant as the site of some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Indigenous Australians, and it remains significant thanks to the survival of the archaeological remains of a nineteenth century Indigenous encampment and mission, the continued presence of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community and the oral tradition and social identity associated with this history of occupation.

But that is another story.

Today, we are here, ensconced in a world of salt spray and cool sand, a blustery wind bemoaning our intransigence.

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This was where Governor Phillip first strode ashore; here on 18th January 1788, the Indigenous population of Yarra directed the be-hatted Arthur to a fresh water source, Bunnerong Creek, which flows between Frenchman’s and the Bay.

sydneylivingmuseums.com.au

sydneylivingmuseums.com.au

It is believed that Yarra means flowing, originating from this water source. With resoundingly narcissistic flair, Admiral Arthur quickly renamed the place Phillip Bay, despite the lack of ‘lush meadows’ promised by Joseph Banks. In fact, he was quick to decree that Yarra was ‘unsuitable for habitation’. And the meadows, it turns out, were round the corner at Port Jackson, which is where they headed, more demand for the HMS Supply…

No-one knows why Phillip’s name was kept for the suburb but dropped for the Bay, but Yarra will always be Yarra to us, as I suspect it is for the Aboriginal community here, who have successfully claimed Native Title for the Yarra Bay headland and Yarra House. But that’s part of that other story…

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As the shadows stretch we head away from the Bay, promising ourselves a longer adventure next time. The Tin Lid is intrigued by Serious Stuff, complete with it’s half-drunk bottle of claret, and the bottom-waggler is intent on discarded hot chips, to his mother and the local gull’s dismay.

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The Kelpie yelps at the prospect of leaving, but she is soon snoring, dreaming of slung sticks and foamy surf that she snaps at in her sleep.

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That other story, with its 16′ skiffs, haunted homes and secret coves, awaits our return.

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Date night

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Once upon a time, a trance-party princess skittered gleefully through the just lightening streets of London, tangles of lasciviousness and spilt beer sticky in her wake. Dawn had heralded ejection from the womb-warm pulse of an underground club and goddammit she needed a coffee. Bar Italia was a welcome embrace, breathing the rich scent of peppery coffee, spilt sugar, woodbines and raucous laughter into her life.

Described as a “Soho grotto, which keeps safe the city’s sacred heart… an idyll in a concrete jungle corroded by a vacuous modernity” (Huffington Post), Bar Italia is proudly family owned – since 1949 – and is a mecca for the tired, the wired, the thirsty and the dispossessed, a blazing beacon of London’s nighttime economy.

Perhaps Bar Italia is code for cool, but it turns out that The Cowboy has been taking his dates to Norton Street’s Bar Italia for countless years. And while this dogged diner is no late-night London hero, it is as loved by the masses.

It’s also worth pointing out that I was the final date and will remain so (if he values his mascarpone)…

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These days, hot dates include the Tin Lid, who has come prepared with gelato-destroying ninja positions,

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A cash-only, chipped-paint, crazy-paving lino’ed institution amidst the chrome and Chinotto of Leichhardt, Bar Italia is set like a derelict molar in a snicker of shiny teeth. But that is what makes it so irresistible – like meat cooked in wine and cream, hot whisky, cold soup and wagon wheels – nostalgia seeping from the cracks in the walls, the past staunchly refusing to pass.

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A sign reads No Soy Light or Skim Milk; another spells out the specials, complete with pink sauce:

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The queue we join snakes in agitation from the till, the Bar already full of just-courting couples and old flames, Italian mobsters, sequinned queens, families with frills of kids who chirp and bicker, and a bag lady, complete with bags. Long-uncool agitprop, free postcards and Jimmy Cliff posters peer down on heads bent over steaming bowls of pasta, chatter streaming from smiling lips, the air fugged with garlicky steam.

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First opened in 1952, when life was simpler, Bar Italia caters to a loyal crowd that demands nothing more than no nonsense trattoria fare.

We ordered the same as always, the spicy salty-sweet tang of puttanesca for her, creamy green al frumuto for him, with a tumble of hot chips for the kiddo. There is much debate about the avocado dish the Cowboy demands, stripped as it has been from the menu. Did it ever exist? Has he lost his mind? The barista calmly writes down what can be remembered and shushes us to our seats.

Utilitarian school dinner-esque meals arrive in minutes, as if by ESP, with seemingly no identification where the diner is seated required by harried damp-haired staff.

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Slouched against landscaped stucco, an acre of badly written braille, brandishing all the implements you could need, we are silenced.

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A print of The Last Supper looks down benignly from one wall, a flatscreen howls on mute from the other; both are ignored. Diners are turned over like cheap steak, a steady thrum through a squeaking door. Turbulents of air bully for space, the cold front from the street at war with the hot and sultry steam from the kitchen.

A squabble of council workers in high vis head for the garden out the back. In summer it is a foodies romp, lush with plants and lingering smoke, the clatter of catering hushed by soft warm air. Tonight, it is wind riven and bleak, though the crowds are here too, clustered behind the plastic curtains:

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A lady glides by in blunnies, thick socks and a gypsy skirt: she knows what she wants, a bowl of melanzane alla parmigiana and to be left alone. A curt ‘grazie’ is all she utters – the rest is already understood.

The Cowboy becomes agitated towards the end of his tagliatelle, a thought clearly forming in his mind. It is the Tiramisu Thought, widely acknowledged as being largely stultifying until dealt with. And it goes like this:

I wonder if there’s enough tiramisu? I mean, the place is packed… what if it’s run out? I ate quickly: I got here early: surely they have to have enough? Right? Anyone? The queue is getting longer…

His attention is drawn to the softly spoken melee at the till: an old fella with a determined gaze is asking for a profiterole:

Hey, mate, you want this one? It’s the best one, it’s got tiramisu all over it! You get two dessert for the price of one eh?!… You don’t want that one? That special one? You no want tiramisu? What you mean?

OK, OK, now just a coffee, no worries mate, I can do.

(silence)

What, you want me to guess what sorta coffee you want too?

(insert vociferous Italian cursing and the sort of gesticulation that would put a flaming orangutan to shame)

The Cowboy springs into action and trots up to the discarded tiramisu, retrieving it and cradling it lovingly in his arms until it is polite to devour it. The Tin Lid insists on gelato. Tiramisu gelato…

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And I am content to wander through the guts of the place, and breathe in the last sixty-three years. Garlic, Vittoria, Napoli, biscotti, and burnt sugar, it is the scent of a loud, passionate and provincial dedication to rustic Italian cooking, and it is smeared generously through the air.

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And having waged war with the gelato and won, the Tin Lid executes a series of winning ninja moves before we head home in the cold, bellies brimming.

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Olympia Milk Bar

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My beautician – a woman with deep reserves of beauty and guile, an abiding love of cherry red Mixmasters and the proclivity to whip up a salted caramel body butter at the merest hint of dry skin – suggests we meet at The Olympia.

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Through concertina doors we spill into the gloom, the Tin Lid’s chatter silenced briefly, replaced by his breathing, suddenly audible and rapid.

Lodged in the gullet of Parramatta Road, Stanmore, the Olympia Milk Bar is the stuff of legend. It is papered in memory, glued together by nostalgia and flapping tape, and within seconds I can sense the layers of story and tale, myth legend and rumour rife. The Beautician lays a perfectly moisturised hand on the formica table and asks what we’re having? The Tin Lid needs no further encouragement and quickly finds his voice, stumbling over itself to order a caramel milkshake. I order tea…

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She has been coming here for years, since solo Sunday dates to the Stanmore Twin to watch the $10-double screening at the age of 15. That was in 1991, and in those days the Olympia was fully lit, with chocolate in the display boxes that now lie barren, flapping disconsolately in time with the tape. The owner was moribund then, she reckons, watching warily from behind the counter…

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I dig deeper, curious about this curiosity, scratching a surface rich in supposition, like the skin on gold-top milk, taut with creamy expectation. A social media swoop offers up the Olympia Milk Bar Fan Club on Facebook, complete with over 2000 members. Woven into the threads are warnings to show respect to the proprietor, a Mr Fotiou, who has often asked no photos be taken of the place.

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The Beautician says she can see the old fella, over the Tin Lid’s shoulder. He can see my interest, and watches as I capture this shadowy world on ‘film’: on this occasion, he seems to take no offence.

I mean no disrespect Mr Fotiou – this space, your space, is an arrhythmia, a staccato beat within the daily drone. It is a thing of quiet, faded beauty, patterns repeated until the lino wears so thin it shines.

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And in this space is the rubble of a life picked through by time. I know as little as everyone else about Mr Fotiou’s story, and he remains tightlipped, serving the added-on ham and cheese sandwich to the table in mute fashion. The notes he returns with, to balance the red twenty I hand him, are cool and folded, from deep within his apron.

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Originally a billiard room – part of the skating rink that once stood next door, the previous incarnation of the cinema, now, too, ripped out at the roots – the Olympia Milk Bar opened in 1939 in association with the Olympia Picture Theatre, which replaced the skating rink. It was, in turn, replaced by the Stanmore Twin, upon which site now squats cookie-cutter apartments that jar against the history of this place.

Courtesy of f8 Group

Courtesy of f8 Group

Upstairs was once a hair parlour, known as the Olympia Salon, and reportedly run by Mr Fotiou’s wife and sister-in-law. Because Mr Fotiou has not always been the sole proprietor, alone in his workplace in the dark. He had a brother…

According to Janice Rowe, who skated at the rink in the ’60s, the Fotiou brothers who ran the Olympia – John and Nick – knocked through the walls so the skaters could slide up to the counter without having to leave the rink. Turns out it didn’t work out so well, with plenty of spilt milk and bruised pins, so the wall was reinstated, the skaters forced to remove their skates before ordering a milkshake.

There were glory years for a while, the Olympia packed with milkshaken teens and bursting with light, laughter and sound, crowded with late supper-eaters and smelling of steak.Those times didn’t last, though. they rarely do.

Legend has it that one of the brothers made a promise to the other on his deathbed, to never change anything of the milk bar that they once ran together. Which explains the vault of faded history on display, and why no-one knows if Mr Fotiou is Nick or John…

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Some people consider the Olympia a glitch in the matrix, a haunted spectre of a long-dead age.  And they may have a point: George Poulos – known as The General – was the proprietor of the Olympia’s sister milk bar in Summer Hill, The Rio. He recently tumbled from this mortal coil, aged in his 90s and his death marks the steadfast passing of an era, finite resources from the past sifting away on the winds of time.

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But to those of us who treasure the dank dark corners of the past, who relish a boarded-up beauty and the quiet solitude of a man who knows not only many ages but the bus timetables for Parramatta Road, the Olympia is a haven. Long may she last.

 

 

Nelson’s legacy

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The Sports Desk cannot confirm that the crumbly corners of Nelson Lodge had anything whatsoever to do with the Lord Vice Admiral himself and more is the pity. However, its stoic bulk, lodged like fat in an artery on the brim of Unwins Bridge Road in Tempe, certainly lends itself to the comparison. With its bits tucked into well-made sleeves, proud demeanour, and wearing unconventionality with precocious flair, it is a handsome place.

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It is detailed in countless real estate ads as having “hallmark period details and original colour palette, traditionally large rooms featuring soaring ceilings, four self-contained dwellings, huge rustic kitchen, functioning bathrooms, vast storage area/cellar, ante-rooms, versatile outbuildings, carriage shed, leafy established gardens and ample off street parking”.

Nowhere does it mention stone flags worn smooth and cursive by centuries of feet, the green-gold speckle of patina’d age, a ripple of cobbles beneath ancient tread, verdant forests or an abiding sense of soul.

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Born in an era of bushrangers and boatmen, clay quarries and iron gangs, Nelson Lodge was built in 1858 by the owner of the Lord Nelson pub. Next to its salacious sister The Hero of Waterloo, known for its rum smuggling and shanghai-ing (the forced indenture of unwary drinkers into the Australian Navy, their bloodshot eyes missing the coin dropped into the foam of their ale, the mark of the newly recruited sailor), the Lord Nelson is positively pious, Sydney’s oldest continuously licensed hotel.

I wonder if the Lodge is as pious…

Built as a travellers’ resting place – a highway lodge – the sandstone skeleton resembles a motel – all beds and baths and connecting hallways. There is no cosy hearth in the heart of the building, no shared space or communal living, save for the kitchen, sheathed as it is in cobwebbed curiosity. Dust bunnies with the fortitude of enraged wildebeest inhabit the cracks, the paint is intent on furtive escape and the central hallway, with its soaring ceilings and scalded-skin-tone palette, channels a fearsome breeze.

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Today, an age from then, smooth-as-skin cedar boards echo footprints and laughter, smoke from a brazier tangles in the air and cool respite from an intense summer sun slinks in darkened corners, an invitation so seductive the gathering of people I am here with shifts and sighs within the space like a restless wind, from cool corner to burning bright and back again.

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This was no gentleman’s home, no free-settler’s landed pile or exclamation of standing. Neither was it bawdily designed to slake the thirst of the road, with ale, smoke and grease the domain of the kitchen. The Lodge was akin to a colonial motel or staging post, to offer succour from the jarring of the road, where horses could be stabled and travellers revive their delicate sensibilities in “one of four separate suites, six bedrooms and seven bathrooms”.

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But that’s not to say there wasn’t a good time to be had – these bones have jangled in joy, broad balconies brimming with revellry, glasses clinking, meat roasting and voices threading through the air… And as then, so today, chatter fills the spaces that time has germinated, a rich song of words and laughter that brings the Lodge to life once more.

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Caught as it is in the cradle of a protective garden, softly cushioned from the present, Horatio himself would have liked it here, a final Trafalgar heady with comfort and peace.

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River Queens

Forever in debt to the rapacious canine demands of The Kelpie, the newest member of the mob, I find myself in the weedy gutters of anonymous backstreets being tugged towards the park – any park. With noses snuffling, ears twitching and eyes bright with the expectation of rotting treasure, she and I explore our daily date with dedication…

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On a lip of land that juts above a sulky river was once a castellated Victorian Gothic mansion, a queen sporting a regal demeanour over her 130-acre domain. The Warren, so called for the tumbling colonies of rabbits bred on the estate to be hunted, was home to wool merchant and politician Thomas Holt in 1864; a prestigiously leafy estate overlooking the Cooks River, she wore her grandeur as freshly-combed ermine.

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Thirty bedrooms, a dining room to seat 50, art gallery, bathing sheds and Turkish baths, and located in the heart of riverside Marrickville, The Warren was a real-estate’s wet dream. Today, little remains, though there is a distinct sense of propriety, of sweeping capes and walking canes, of parasols and rum at dusk, as the bats flit silently by.

The Warren may be long gone, but it still exerts a powerful fascination. Residents, both old and new, often refer to their locality as The Warren, and its presence can be sensed in many ways.

Ferncourt School is built from the stone of The Warren’s demolished stables. On the banks of Cooks River, hidden behind concrete, are the remains of The Warren’s burial vaults, and a large amount of sandstone… has been recycled into retaining walls and kerbs and gutters throughout the suburb.

                                                               dictionaryofsydney.org

Two towers, originally piers from the back of the building, stand sentinel on Richardson’s Lookout in Holt’s Crescent in South Marrickville, a spindly curve of street that follows the swell of the river. Cobblestones rumble beneath ancient figs, a memory of a driveway perhaps, and the ghosts of garden paths linger, lined with sandstone flags worn soft with time.

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Gazing into the distance you can imagine languid lunches on the lawns, the clip of a sulky bearing well-dressed guests and the breezy air of entitlement.

And while the castle was demolished in 1919 (after hosting an order of Carmelite nuns and an artillery training camp during the First World War), the estate remains closely guarded by its feudal community. Despite the glaring absence of the original mansion, a hollow lost to time, the glory of Holt’s domain is steeped in a run of ageing river queens moored to the sludgy banks of the Cooks River.

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With their toes in the damp, mottled faces staring resolutely uphill, the grand dames of Thornley Street would once have been landscaped gardens. In a later incarnations, they were the boom-time beauties, Edwardian weatherboarders and Californian bungalows of the late 1800s, turn of the century and ’20s respectively, sought after seclusion perched high above the banks.

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These landlubbers have time sequestered in their dappled flanks, weary memories surging like tidemarks in the rising damp. Paint peels like sunburnt skin, raw patches peeking out from beneath, fly-screened verandahs scratch in the heat, and pastel fibro fades in the glare.

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Their captains are invariably polite yet reserved, wary of too much attention. Lola and Luigi, deep in conversation over the fly spray, are happy to pose for a shot, asking; “why you want love? You like us old peoples?” Well, yes. I do. What with your stories and insight, life mapped on your faces like sea charts speckled with salt. Further along, an old fella caresses the tarp tied taut around his late ’80s Mazda; “Got a few of ’em love, great motors. Bloke next door hates ’em, says they is an eyesore. But his whole place is a bit on the nose if y’ask me…”

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The bush thrives here, in this slice of suburbia; the river breeds it in swathes along her banks; mangrove roots thick with mud, sandstone cliffs that create shadows of cool, banksia, acacia and mulga ferns, speargrass, she oaks and prickly-leaved paperbarks that line walkways yipping with dogs on leads and kids wobbly on their wheels.

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Between the faded faces and gentrified glitz of Thornley Street are cool diving driveways that strip down to the water hundreds of metres below, asbestos afterthoughts – home to tarped cars and garden tools – clinging to them like carbuncles.

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It is like looking down an old woman’s gullet, a vaudeville trick that vilifies. Beyond the tidy-town streetscape, straggly ends trail to crippled Colourbond fences that lounge near the water’s muddy flanks, bereft of bilges. Flood marks are a permanent stain, and veggie patches are overrun with natives.

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Like decaying paddleboats hauled high on their hitches, the river queens slump slowly into their watery graves, an expression of resigned implacability on their tired faces.

Yet while the river continues to inveigle her prey, inch by sodden inch, The Warren Estate persists with its page-one status in the brochures of local real estates. It is the ever-enduring wet-dream…

The Kelpie and I walk on, the river warbling her sordid siren song…

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A timeless endeavour

It’s mid-January-duco-stripping-red-raw-trucker’s-tan-Holden-seats-that-peel-thighs-as-an-ape-undoes-a-banana-HOT. The tar ripples, snaking into the distance like a strap of liquorice that writhes indecently in the sun, and while I cope admirably with such adversity (a packet of frozen peas between now steaming knees), cold water is called for.

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In this wasted fringe of the city, once the site of fellmongers yards and slaughter works and still shrouded in heavy industry – its legacy of contamination worn like a muzzle –wharfies and stevedores rumble in gangs in fluoro, a fine mist of av-gas sprinkles burning shoulders and the sun bakes an oily blackness deeper into the earth. And while Foreshore Beach is just moments away from the wreckers I am hunting through for hot-to-the-touch Kingswood parts, its sand/ sea/ sun = beach classification got cancelled a while back.

The grease monkey points west: “Best get up there doll, it’s cool and wet”. Not entirely sure I understand what he is talking about I enquire further – he goes on to describe a fertile sanctuary: “Honest love, we all get up there after a coldie at the end of the day…”

Almost louche in its reclining glory, the Botany Aquatic Centre lounges amid a sea of city green, hidden from the horror of the stained industry at the bay’s edge. With a Soviet-style entrance and solid concrete floor the centre is a throwback to a simpler time, and a paean to 70s swimming culture.

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It inadvertently celebrates the halcyon days of summers past, with sole-burning bricks that steam as the drips dry, concrete fissures that sprout lurid life, springy grass sprinkled with bindis, a Peters-ice-cream-blue kiosk doing a roaring trade in schitzies and hot chips, drumsticks and zoopa doopas – all drizzled in utilitarian institutionalisation for good measure. Can’t be getting out of hand now.

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This is a world steeped in blue and green, the surf and turf of the colour palette, with flecks of neon and soda adorning skin from chocolate to Pepto-Bismol pink in delicious contrast. Pools are lapped by grass while ancient paperbarks dip their toes in the damp, and shady groves curl out tendrils of cool, home to sprawls of families their boundaries littered with picnics, floaties and striped towels that flak and flutter in the breeze.

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I follow the trawl of tip turkeys that sidle and stalk for Jatz and hot chips, red sauce like blood on their beaks. They lead me to my plastic moulded nirvana, a place that is maudlin in its search for a frosted glass of tequila sunrise…

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Umbrellas crowd excitedly, splashes of tango, turquoise and out-of-fashion blue. They are the stars of the show, selflessly casting pockets of shade onto passing birds and their reluctant sidekicks, chained to them to prevent ‘an incident’:

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There is a rowdy scrabble of youth, from goggle-eyed babes to splashing small fry who squeak and giggle, tweens that tumble and preen, and teens closely monitoring the ride of hi-cut swimmers and low-slung boardies. They are hunting. Mostly each other.

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Beads of salty water roll from goosebumped skin and the wet bricks sweat. The kids’ pool is like a chlorinated Lord of the Flies, piggy howling in the shadows and ripe fruit smeared along the edge. A scrawny, wiry woman with a litter of kids still suckling her home-brewed homilies entreats Lozza to “ger outta the water, youse getting wrinkles!” Her age-rippled back reads Live Not to Lose and she is as yet unaware of the rusting hose coiled menacingly behind her…

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Shrouded women lead their lycra’d progeny to the water’s edge but resist the temptation, the sedate demeanour of their darkened attire balanced by a swooping cursive dialect, non-stop chatter and bawdy laughter: Asra and her toes again…

Stained creme caramel coloured brick blocks squat around the largest expanse of water, bleachers climbing high with a ‘competitive edge’. The lane markers are rolled up tight, despite the best machinations of a toddler intent on their release, and the bunting droops – it’s been a busy day.

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Credit: Awol Monk.

 

A lifeguard trundles past on rubbish duty, a message on his back reading; WHERE IS YOUR CHILD?

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I recover quickly, realising he doesn’t mean mine, and that the Tin Lid is safely ensconced in Kindy. He can, however, shed no light on what this is:

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An older woman sporting a natty zebra one-piece, straw hat with a knitted brim band and a jaunty ankle flick wanders through the generations, perusing life. She stops for a chat: Beryl’s a local, been coming here for ‘too many years my dear. But it’s always the same. It’s real and genuine and honest. Now, you enjoy your little slice love. See you next time, I’m off to the waterslide…”

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Unbound palms sprout and seed with abandon at the entrance to the water slide, indicative perhaps of the jungle that awaits. Harassed lifeguards corral the mob in human sale yards that get sprayed with salt each time another cork pops from the pipe, yelling. On and on hot steaming skin is flushed through soupy water in sun-cracked tubes in a febrile ripple of sound, flumes spewing laughter and one-piece bum-wedgies.

Eyes closed, toes exposed, it surges over me, a sluice of a time past yet vividly of the now as cool drips of water sprinkle my exposed skin, courtesy of a cartwheeler as she spins past.

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An oasis is defined as a ‘fertile spot in a desert, where water is found amid the burning desert sands, a watering place’. Beyond the oil-streaked mirage out the back of the wreckers, I was led to my oasis by a grease monkey and an ibis. I just have to work out a way to thank them…

Mt Romance

Kununurra is the opposite of a town drowned, a place that will forever hold a morbid fascination, from the lost city of Atlantis to Jindabyne’s sunken spire. Kununurra, with its clash of consonants and stuttery alliteration – a curdled curse spat from between revolted lips – was built to service the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and is billed as the gateway to the Kimberley. And if these images are anything to go by, it’s one hell of a gate, all curlicues and shrieking valkyries…

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Rising in the red stone ranges of Australia’s rugged north west, the Ord River surges along for more than 600km before spilling into the Timor Sea. The ancestors of the Aboriginal people of the east Kimberley called the country Kununurra, or ‘big water’, and in this continent of climatic extremes the big water flows all year round.                 ABC

The scheme, built in stages during the last century, has Lake Argyle at it’s heart, this hot, dry continent’s largest artificial lake. This vast eddy of trapped water sucks at the watery remains of the famed Argyle Downs Station, once home to the pioneering Durack family.

In 1879, so the story goes, Patsy Durack, pastoral pioneer and all-round good egg, drove 7259 head of cattle and 200 horses from Queensland (over 3000 miles to the east) to stock Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe Station. The journey took three years and it is the longest ever recorded.

Both stations now lie in sodden graves on the bed of the lake, sacrificed for the scheme, though the Argyle homestead was moved, brick by brick, to higher ground:

kimberley-rose.blogspot.com.au/

kimberley-rose.blogspot.com.au/

kimberley-rose.blogspot.com.au/

kimberley-rose.blogspot.com.au/

Irrigation on this vast scale was probably Australia’s last great nation building scheme, harnessing the flow of one of the north west’s wildest rivers and creating fertile faming land out of vast grazing country.

The Ord River dams provide water for irrigation to over 117 km² of farmland and there are plans in place to extend the scheme to allow irrigation of 440 km² in the near future. More than 60 different crops are grown in the Ord catchment area, and the main dam generates power for the whole of Kununurra.

So it’s a good thing, right? Lush lawns, tropical verdancy and damp toes?

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Maybe not. While there is a distinct whiff of nature-based tourism, with crags and peaks and dams and lakes aplenty, the heart of this teenage town is drier than a drover’s dog…

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Hand-painted signs look almost comical and give the place a gentle cartoony feel, but the gates, it seems, are less ostentatious and a tad more prosaic in reality.

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And while the facades are cheerier than Wilcannia and Walgett, it’s apparent there is little window shopping in Kununurra, the eyes of the souls boarded, barred and black.

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There are a few boutique eating options, which makes the Tin Lid happy:

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As does the comms tower – he is savvy enough to know this means the phones will bleep back into service. And service means kids’ TV…

But most of the mob in town eat here, where the sign reads Please + Thank you = Welcome:

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And then there’s Valentines, a shrine to romance… and $10 spag bol with a side of GB (I can only assume this is bread of the garlic variety).

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There are promised lands of green – rich cobalt, veridian and jungle vying for supremacy on a canvas of red dirt – but they are sanctioned,cul de sacs of nature’s wealth in suburbs of paucity littered with crippled shopping trolleys. And they are generally located right outside the most expensive accommodation options. In fact, the Kununurra Country Club looks positively strangled with vegetation…

The abandoned buildings circling the central car park hold my attention for longer, straggles of life weeping from shattered orifices, a place in the shade to while away time atop a carpet of crushed cans and crinkled glass.

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We find a toy shop that is barred. Once past the security guard, the Tin Lid finds an orca he cannot live without and we leave, all to aware of the kids who stalk and skitter around the door, just out of reach of the guard. A quick trip back in secures a pod of orcas to share around…

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And while there are big sifting mobs enjoying the shade of broad-brimmed trees – still lives dappled in green – the bottlo is deserted and the streets echo with a strange emptiness. The customary rumble of life is dulled yet impatient. It’s as if we are waiting for something…

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The backpacker’s lodge is greasy with the sort of promise that comes out of the bottom of a pie wrapper. It’s swill time, and the fluoro shirts – the new colour of the outback – are sloping in, bruised men with angry egos and a hard-earned thirst. Bivouacked around rusting SPC peach cans outside dingy dorms they are the face of endeavour, albeit crumpled in defeat after a long day.

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The rooms come with little fanfare, bunks stripped of what little dignity they were born with. The Tin Lid and I, flat out like lizards lounging, are cornered while enjoying the delights of the cement pool by a woman named Mary (her shirt promised this, along with “I’m the f****ing boss, that’s why”);

“Youse stayin’ with us are yas?”

Well, yes. I reply, a steely look in my eye.

“Yeah, well, we’ve had some problems with smoking round the pool – see them? There’s bloody piles of ’em every morning there is, and I don’t bloody like it. So I’m warning youse, no bloody smoking round the pool, right?”

 

I snarl an appropriate response and she storms off, intent on stomping out the base corruption that exists deep within backpacker cartels.

Having sacrificed the Savoy cabbage to the fruit fly quarantine station we feast on smuggled honey, Jatz crackers and contraband beer. Talk turns to the Kimberley’s ancient mountain ranges, savannah plains and sandstone cliffs 300 million years old, of zebra rock, sandalwood plantations and sugarcane rum, of Hidden Valley, Mt Romance and Valentine Creek.

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But when the contraband runs out talk turns, as it inevitably does in Kununurra, to grog. Seeping through the locked gates out the front of the backpacker’s the chatter from the mob goes on late into the night, a barrelling fracas of noise and laughter, of hurled curses, V8 power and scuffles on bitumen. It is the noise of a town camp relocated, parked up in the bottlo carpark.

As part of the Eastern Kimberley Liquor Accord, purchasing alcohol in Kununurra is restricted to certain hours (hence the empty streets and edgy feel to the town), one transaction per day, and limitations within that transaction of:

  • 2 x slabs of beer     or
  • 6 x bottles of wine    or
  • 1 x bottle of spirits     or
  • 1 x slab + 3 x bottles of wine
  • No flagons

No flagons? I head over to the bottlo to investigate. Not one flagon breeds here, though RSA rules and restrictions are plastered across the hurricane fencing and slatted concertina doors, each with a bouncer on duty. Surly recrimination crests the counter, as Paula, harried beyond measure, metes out a well-travelled line:

“I said get out mate! Lance I mean it. This is like the fourth time today. Youse know the bloody rules I can’t serve ya. Go on, git.”

Lance stumbles off, past the supermarket with its rash of security, where matches and lighters are kept behind the counter, back out to the party in the car park in search of a sly grogger and the desperate release his money can’t buy inside. A fight duly erupts. The mags squeal and the women scream as two fellas are dragged away attached to the car. Security looks on glassy-eyed.

At eight on the dot, beneath charcoal skies, the bottlo slams shut, chains on the gate in seconds. The complex sighs and blinks out, but the carparkers rage on late into the night. Behind sturdy compound walls and a sky-high solid steel gate that wears its tags like gang tattoos, we are left to ponder how a place of such beauty can inhabit such pain.

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