Thirteen Jetties and a Man on a Hill

This non fiction piece was first published in Meanjin Spring 2019 issue.

The end of a jetty is a nowhere place; no longer on land but not quite at sea. With a glance in the right direction, even time vanishes. Is that a ship on the horizon? White sails catching the winds. Matthew Flinders on deck, scanning distant land. There’s a whiff of smoke blending with the aroma of salty air. Looking back towards the shore, shadowy figures cook fish in coals, while children search rock pools for mussels. Imagination runs wild in nowhere places.

Leaving Ceduna last October, after a month as a writer in residence, I decided to take the slow road home—and walk as many jetties as I could find.

The first was at Denial Bay, which I’d walked the day before I left Ceduna. I’d driven over with a boot-load of books, discounted stock from my gone-broke shop, to set up my wobbly camping table at the Denial Bay market. After a morning of sales more dismal than my bookshop days, I packed up hope once more and headed to the jetty. Standing at the end of it, I saw the outline of Ceduna on the shores of Murat Bay, and Thevenard a bit further along. Beyond was the Great Australian Bight. I imagined the Dutch, English, French and American vessels that sailed into this inlet from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. Shifting my gaze to the dunes and vegetation edging this bay, I imagined Wirangu living here for tens of thousands of years. Still here—always will be.

At the land-end of Denial Bay jetty there are two metal signs that, to me, symbolise Australia’s eternal state of denial. These signs informed me of François Thijssen’s rediscovery of this inlet in 1627, aboard the Dutch vessel ’t Gulden Zeepaert. Thijssen renamed the wider area Nuyts Archipelago. In 1802, Captain Matthew Flinders, commander of HMS Investigator, also rediscovered this bay, and renamed it Denial Bay on account of the impenetrable vegetation. Shortly after, French explorer Nicolas Baudin renamed the inlet Baie des Saints. Two Frenchmen, on board the Géographe with him, quickly renamed it Baie Murat. John Eyre visited Denial Bay during a land exploration but he didn’t rename it. It was next renamed when William McKenzie cleared the Mallee scrublands and established the first white settlement in the region. The area was gazetted as McKenzie Town, but townsfolk didn’t agree, so it reverted to Denial Bay. This coastal hamlet is still known as Denial Bay, but the wider inlet is Murat Bay.

Tales of Europeans discovering and naming places that had been discovered and named by other Europeans feature on historical signage throughout Australia. And, like the two signs at Denial Bay jetty, there are usually vital pieces of information missing. Those explorers weren’t the first to discover or name any of those places. Along with surveyor pegs, European explorers and settlers hammered their stories into First Peoples’ lands. Tourist signage, public art and monuments that tell half-truths of colonisation, settlement and dispossession are too common. While walking jetties on Eyre Peninsula, those untold stories of place were evident.

I often notice the story of places, and objects. While in Ceduna, I took residence in a converted Masonic Lodge in the main street. It was like sleeping in a museum. The owner has preserved Freemason memorabilia, regalia and documents, and encased them in glass cabinets or placed them throughout the hall. The temple dedication stone sits on a small altar-like table. An eclectic mix of old glassware and furniture, from various eras, sit alongside paintings and basketry made by local Aboriginal artists. With resident ghosts for company, it was a perfect hideout for a writer with a bent for history.

Reluctantly, I handed over the keys to the Lodge. Before leaving town, I drove past the local jetty, and decided to walk as many jetties as I could.

• • •

The next jetty was at Smoky Bay. Two signs stood at the entrance, proclaiming glories of settler history and erasing people who had known this bay eons before Europeans arrived. Flinders renamed this area Smoky Bay, after sighting thick smoke from Wirangu family campfires. Before the town of Smoky Bay was built, European and American whalers frequented these waters. Dismembering and boiling up majestic sea giants on the beaches. There was no smoke or whales the day I walked that jetty, but there was an abundance of seabirds, including some friendly pelicans.

Next stop was Streaky Bay, renamed by Flinders after he noticed streaks of discoloured water in the bay. Driving there, I recalled a family camping trip in the 1970s, or perhaps earlier. I remembered playing on the jetty with some of my siblings, and one of my older brothers accidently ran over my toes with the heavy jetty-cart. Wailing, I was escorted up the hill to the caravan park, where our mother washed off the blood in the laundry trough. When I get to the jetty, I’m confused. There are no rail tracks. Did I mistakenly imagine that event? What about the windy night we cooked freshly caught fish on a beach campfire? Or was that at Smoky Bay? Time can play havoc with memories.

With a shrug, I set off to walk the jetty. Small sailing boats and wispy white clouds contrasted with grey-blue water. Dotted around the bay, extending beyond the town, are clusters of buildings. This jetty wasn’t a nowhere place but it was a good place to be. Back on land, I noticed a small stretch of old rail tracks leading to a stone wall. I wondered if the nearby concrete steps had replaced the stone steps I’d bled on. This foreshore, this town, felt unfamiliar. Where was the caravan park laundry, where I screamed so loud it attracted gawking strangers? Finding no signs of the town from my childhood memories, I resumed my coastal journey.

In contrast to the abundance of birds at the jetties, I saw no wildlife as I drove along Flinders Highway. Only roadkill. I recalled travelling along another road in 2014, when animals had also been scarce. That time I was in a stranger’s car with my parents, and we were travelling from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong, near the Cambodian–Thailand sea border checkpoint. It was my parents’ first and only overseas trip, but it was not a holiday. We’d travelled there to bring my youngest brother’s ashes home. Used to seeing signs of wildlife back home, I noted the absence on that journey. Nothing, until the elderly monkey. The driver braked. That monkey didn’t budge from the middle of the road, instead it looked wearily at us. Then, with a teeth-exposing snarl, the monkey ambled away. I watched it disappear in the car mirror.

Can one feel the sorrow of a place? When extreme acts of violence become just entries in history books, and new buildings have emerged from the ruins, does sorrow remain? In some places we’d visited, I sensed something among the rubble, something lurking in abandoned colonial-era seaside mansions. From 1968 to 1975, 300,000 people died in the Cambodian Civil War. Millions of people were displaced, many crowding into the capital city. Then came years of genocide, with close to a million citizens murdered during Pol Pot’s regime. Children were stolen by the Khmer Rouge and reared parentless in horrific conditions. Forty years later, it’s evident that people, nature and built environs are still recovering.

In the second week, while in the quiet seaside village of Kep, I had an urge to be home. I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the closest border, and my father accompanied me to the most southern border crossing. There we parted, and I walked into Vietnam the day before Tết commenced. As I made my way to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, I reflected on traces of sorrow I’d sensed in Cambodia. Perhaps it had just been my overactive imagination. Caused by the stress of dealing with my own grief while in an unfamiliar place, or the pressure of faking submission while in the unsettling presence of brusque police. Those extreme encounters aside, what I’d sensed in parts of Cambodia was not unfamiliar.

Many times, in Australia, I’ve had similar unexplainable feelings in unfamiliar places, later learning that a massacre or other colonial violence had occurred in that place. There may not be ruins of large buildings scattered across the southern continent, but there is ruin if one looks close enough. In some places on the Eyre Peninsula, I’d sensed ruin and a lingering sorrow; remnants of colonisers sweeping across the continent. I try to picture what is under the many layers of settlement. What stories the land itself holds, beyond sorrow. It’s comforting to know that deep-time stories are indestructible. With those thoughts in mind, another town sign appeared: Elliston.

• • •

The jetty is before the township. Its remote location has a wild and woolly feel to it. On the beach is a cluster of small caves and ledges. Who sheltered in there? Probably Wirangu. Perhaps also Nauo, Kokatha, Mirning and Barngarla, or visitors from even farther away. Maybe white whalers and smugglers. Although he sailed past here, Flinders didn’t rename either Waterloo Bay or Elliston. He didn’t even record seeing this bay in his log. He did rename the nearby cluster of islands, the largest being Flinders Island. A combination of rough waters and sharp reefs probably kept the earliest European explorers away. At the jetty there is the usual signage, retelling the settlement story. This bay was once used to ship wool and grains, and to bring in supplies. First by sailing vessels and later steamships, if the sea was amiable enough upon arrival.

At the end of the jetty, I felt exhilarated despite the fierce wind. On the horizon, mare mares danced; their watery tails flying upwards as they hit the reefs. And beyond that, too far to see, was the Antarctic. The wildness of wind and water called to me. The nearby township of Elliston looked sleepy but inviting. I decided to stay the night to have more time at the place I was seeking: Waterloo Bay memorial site.

Driving around Elliston, I couldn’t find any signage for the monument. Mobile coverage had dropped out so I couldn’t seek directions online. I noticed a tourist information bay, with the obligatory oversized map. It listed places such as Anxious Bay and Blackfellows Point but not the monument. I sensed a multitude of eyes. Turning, I looked at the murals on the community hall. Colonial women in restrictive clothing. Blue-singleted men with shears in one hand, a sheep in the other. Full-sailed tall ships. Heavy-hooved Clydesdales pulling carts laden with produce. Colonisers. Settlers. Sailors. Farmers. And a glaring absence of First Peoples representation. Realising this information bay lacked the information I sought, I returned to my car. Ask a local? The streets were bare. Shops closed at not yet five on a Monday.

I drove along a cliff top road, disturbing dirt and rocks as I tried to outdrive the setting sun. Finally I found what I’d been seeking. I silently announced my presence before I approached. The wind quietened. I walked towards the cliff edge. Staying well away from the edge, I craned my neck, glimpsing a sliver of beach far below. Sharp rocks. Rough water. So very far below. I reeled in my imagination, and stepped back. Some acts of inhumanity are much too dark to picture.

When the Europeans arrived by boat, more than 500 cultural/language groups already occupied the southern continent. Coexisting nations adapting, surviving, thriving; enhancing their knowledges, sciences and arts for well over 65,000 years. Occasionally trading with seafaring fishermen from nearby countries. More than a million First Peoples simply living their best lives. All that changed when white people arrived. At least 30,000 First Peoples were killed as a direct result of colonial violence in massacres and smaller attacks during the lengthy frontier wars. Countless others died from epidemic diseases the newcomers had spread, or from the ferocity of displacement during the multiple waves of settlement.

One May day in 1849, one of the nation’s largest massacres took place. More than 200 Aboriginal men, women and children were driven off a cliff at Waterloo Bay, South Australia—murdered by a large posse of police and settlers. Other Aboriginal people were shot when this rowdy mob searched for them in nearby bushlands. One small boy survived, hidden in a bush by his mother. As did a girl, too slow to keep up when her family was steered to their death. Settlers tried to cover up accounts of this massacre, but stories were passed down through generations of West Coast Aboriginal people. A national call for truth-telling of that place began in 1970. After much resistance from townsfolk, an incomplete memorial was erected in 2017.

Due to the persistence of Wirangu and growing support from a new generation of locals, the inscription was finally agreed on. Although still disputing the number of deaths, the word ‘massacre’ was reluctantly included. The monument stands on that remote clifftop as a solemn reminder. There’s also an engraved column that recognises the Wirangu, Barngarla, Nauo, Mirning and Kokatha peoples of the West Coast. On the day I visited to pay my respects, I sensed both sorrow and reverence. In the absence of proper justice, ceremony and a shrine might be helping to heal this place. Walking away, I changed my mind about stopping at Elliston for the night. The sun was sinking, so I needed to get to Port Lincoln in time to find accommodation.

Back on the road, I reflected on both the resistance and vandalism of the monument. Not everyone is willing to face the truth, but calls for truth-telling continue to echo through the ages, and throughout the world. As I drove, I recalled volunteering at the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. Fifty years had passed since the Indonesian massacres. Between 1965 and 1968, more than a million people were killed, including 80,000 Balinese. After a failed coup d’état, a mass purge of people accused of being communists or sympathisers occurred, and many more were killed under the Suharto regime. Instead of embracing truth-telling, the Indonesian government censored public discussions and writings of the 50th anniversary. At the festival, some sessions and book launches were cancelled. However, courageous writers and poets will always find a way to be heard.

After a young Indonesian writer had her book launch cancelled, she copied lines from her book onto a T-shirt and wore it to the festival. At a poetry event in a local club, in between white Australians’ tragic tales of lost romance, young Indonesian slam poets channelled 50 years of sorrow and rage into spoken word so powerful that sparks buzzed through the venue. Raw truth-telling to honour the dead. I thought of sorrow and discontent back home, simmering for more than 200 hundred years, and the many poets and writers who speak up. On the last day of the festival, an Indonesian woman spoke of the intergenerational impact of the 1965 massacres. As a volunteer venue manager, I’d been briefed on the government’s censorship. I looked around to see the police’s reaction, but they had left. I wasn’t surprised; after all, this was a panel of women, including that courageous speaker who retold the violence from local women’s perspectives, and who spoke of a generation of stolen children. Laying bare a nation’s sorrow with such clarity that a thoughtful hush enclosed the predominantly white audience.

• • •

There are two jetties in Port Lincoln, a public one and a commercial jetty with grain silos. I walked neither of them. Instead, I wandered along the foreshore, looking for public art and a cup of coffee to start the day. There was a decent blend of representation of explorer (Flinders and his cat Trim), settler (a bronze horse) and Aboriginal artwork. Port Lincoln was renamed by Flinders in honour of the English province of Lincolnshire, where he was born. Baudin sailed past this port but didn’t land. He renamed it Port Champagny. The real name is Galinyala, and it’s on Barngarla Country.

Driving out of town, I stopped at a maritime museum. The old workshop, blacksmith and yard were brimming with old mariner maps, tools and small sea vessels. The office and living quarters were set up as if still occupied. I recognised tools, furniture and domestic goods from my childhood, having grown up in a rented 100-year-old farmhouse on acreage. As this was once the premises of Finnish boat builders, the museum focuses on non-British migrants’ contribution to the region. By the entrance is a blubber pot, a remnant of French whalers that once frequented these waters; Americans farther west.

The next jetty, the eighth in this tale, was North Shields. As it was extremely windy, my walk was brief. In the reserve across the road is a sign that told the story of a prominent pioneer from Scotland. A local story that had no signage was the missionaries’ contributions to colonisation. Between 1849 to 1853, Lutherans operated an Aboriginal mission at North Shields. When that closed, residents were relocated to an Anglican mission in Poonindie. Similar to the children’s homes for the Stolen Generations forcibly removed by government, missions confined First Peoples after removal from their ancestral homes. Stories of capture, institutionalisation and indoctrination are all part of truth-telling.

• • •

Next stop was Tumby Bay. Flinders renamed it Tumby after a village in Lincolnshire. Governor Gawler renamed it Harvey’s Bay and Governor Tennyson changed it to Tumby Bay. Walking this jetty, I saw thick seagrasses, a stretch of stunning turquoise-green water, then lots of azure. The jetty’s entrance sign was about local dragons. Leafy seadragons are the state’s marine emblem. The name Tumby Bay was familiar; I’d probably visited as a child. Perhaps when travelling to Western Australia in an overcrowded Rambler station wagon: two parents, six children, a smelly Labrador and a hitchhiking priest. I thought maybe this was where my toes had been run over, as there was a caravan park nearby. No, just slippery memories again.

The next stop, Port Neill, had once been known as Carrow, a Nauo word for water soak. Across the Spencer Gulf, farther than I could see, was the Yorke Peninsula. There are ship graveyards nearby. Next to the jetty, the shipwrecked Lady Kinnard’s anchor is displayed. Where I stopped next was once renamed Salt Creek Cove. And then it was Bligh. The local settlers weren’t keen on Captain William Bligh, so they renamed it Arno Bay. Arno is what Barngarla call a nearby sandhill well.

Cowell, situated in Franklin Harbour, was renamed by Governor Drummond. Flinders never visited; mistaking this natural harbour for a large lagoon, he’d sailed by. My mother phoned while I was viewing an art gallery situated inside the public toilets. I asked her if my toes had been run over at the Streaky Bay jetty. She had a vague memory of cleaning up blood, but nothing else. I drove down to the foreshore, and noticed a mangrove walk near the boat launch, and decided to stay for the night. Accommodation was scarce but I found a motel on the edge of town owned by a family of jade jewellers. After putting on extra layers of clothing, I set off on my sunset walk. The spectacular views at the end of the mangrove trail included the vast harbour, and a setting sun behind me. The nearby causeway and jetty were very long, so I hurried over there before it got too dark. As I walked, I took note of the mares’ tails. When I was a child, my mother taught me that wispy white clouds, which she calls mares’ tails, means it would rain in a day or two. When it comes to forecasting weather, she is rarely wrong.

As it was my last day in oyster territory, that night I treated myself to a cheap but sumptuous seafood meal at one of the local pubs. Earlier, I’d left the other pub because of a dark vibe. I later read that four Aboriginal men were buried at that site. After being taken to Adelaide for sentencing, they were brought back to Cowell and hanged. Police forced 40 of their kin to witness that maladroit execution, before making them dig the graves. Yet another sorrow place from the frontier wars.

• • •

On day three, there was no jetty-walking as, after a night of unsettling dreams, I’d woken up feeling unwell. Before leaving Eyre Peninsula, I stopped at Whyalla to see how much it had changed. My father had been a salesman and did a lot of regional trips. In the school holidays, he’d sometimes take the older children with him or the whole family would go camping. I remember going with him to Whyalla and spending days alone, happily exploring. There was a dilapidated stone fortress on a hill overlooking the sea, where I had spent hours daydreaming. Driving around Whyalla as an adult, I couldn’t see the castle from my childhood. Maybe it had been replaced by the concrete lookout. My father passed away four years ago; I have no-one to check those hazy memories with.

If jetties are nowhere places, then hills are places of possibilities. Vantage points to see the bigger picture. To daydream about what and who might be out there; what possibilities may lay ahead. Leaving Whyalla, I recall a man who stood on a hill about 100 kilometres away, as the crow flies. A month earlier, travelling the Eyre Highway to Ceduna, I’d stopped for petrol in Kimba. This halfway point between the east and west coastlines of Australia has a lot of tourist signage, public art and kitsch Australiana (hello gigantic galah). I’d driven up to White’s Knob, to eat petrol-station takeaway in the company of giants. There, I noticed a dirt track leading down the steep hill. Following the track, I came across a cluster of small caves in the ironstone formation. A sign mentioned settlers’ children having school picnics here, occasionally camping overnight in the caves.

The sign didn’t mention if other people had taken shelter from the strong winds here, before white settlement. With this vantage point, and ironstone for tools and trade, it was probably well frequented. Unless something else lurked within. Walking back up the hill along the horseshoe-shaped path, the metal giants appeared even larger. They looked out across the vast plain before them, as if full of anticipation of what lay ahead. One of the metal statues depicts Edward Eyre with a compass in his hand. Slightly behind him is a representation of an unnamed Aboriginal guide.

After mapping this area, Eyre had a pre-arranged meeting on the coast with three young Aboriginal guides and his overseer John Baxter, an ex-convict. One of the men was Wylie, who was from the Albany region in Western Australia. He had accompanied Eyre on a previous expedition. Wylie was the inspiration for the unnamed guide on White’s Knob, but he never visited there. Wylie joined the expedition farther west, sailing to Fowler’s Bay at Eyre’s instructions. Eyre had previously met Yarri and Joey in New South Wales, and later ordered them to join the second part of the western expedition.

A few times the party ran out of water as they travelled towards the west coast of Australia, but they were saved after being shown water by Aboriginal people they encountered. It was a difficult journey, and the five travellers were not a harmonious group. Baxter was killed; with Eyre later pointing the finger at Yarri and Joey, who’d apparently disappeared with rifles and provisions. Eyre and Wylie continued on towards Albany; only surviving the journey after a chance encounter at Esperance with a French whaling ship, which had an English captain.

A story that was passed down orally was that Eyre had killed Baxter in a fit of rage, and then shot Yarri and Joey because provisions were scarce. Written accounts are that Joey was killed, or even both Yarri and Joey, by Eyre in retribution for Baxter’s death. And then there is the tale of how Yarri returned to the east coast and later saved 49 settlers in the Gundagai flood of 1852. That Yarri was lauded as a hero and presented with a bronze breastplate. As for Eyre, many years later, as acting governor of British-colonised Jamaica, he declared martial law during the Morant Bay slave rebellion. Under Eyre’s authority, armed forces burnt down houses and murdered 600 transported slaves and Jamaicans. Ordered back to England, Eyre was taken to court a few times over his actions in Jamaica, but never convicted. He died alone, so perhaps justice was served.

• • •

With no more jetties to walk, I left Eyre Peninsula and drove across the top of Yorke Peninsula, towards Adelaide. On the other side of greater Adelaide, I reached the beginning of the Fleurieu Peninsula. There I came to the 13th, and last, jetty. I didn’t walk that one. Two jetties once existed at Port Willunga, but both the original and replacement were destroyed by storms. All that is left is a cluster of rotting wooden poles. After 32 days as a writer-at-large, I’d arrived home.

Driving to Ceduna and back, I didn’t cross any state lines but I crossed many borders. Kokatha, Nauo, Mirning, Barngarla, Wirangu, Nukunu, Ngadjuri, Narungga and Kaurna Country. Like Thijssen, Flinders, Baudin and Eyre, I am a foreigner to those places. I’ve always lived south of Adelaide, but my Grandmother’s Country (Martu) is in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I am part of the on-continent diasporas that were caused by British invasion and colonisation. I also have settler ancestors, perhaps even colonists, but I don’t really know their stories; and there’s no-one to ask.

My Grandmother’s language, Martu Wangka, is part of the Western Desert dialect cluster, as are some of the South Australian West Coast languages. Words connect people of Eyre Peninsula to people in the Pilbara. From the end of jetties, I had beheld the Great Australian Bight. This large oceanic open bay is also what I see from my local beaches. Standing on jetties last spring, I was linked across land to my Grandmother’s Country through words, and linked to the place I live by water. There’s both sorrow and acceptance within that declaration.

Linkages are everywhere, if one takes the time to see them. From hills and jetties, the view is free of obstructions. Creatives and other dreamers not only see links but also imagine how they can be utilised. If I intertwined coloniser and colonised stories with my own, could I tell stories to help others see truth? Maybe. If I made more time to walk jetties. In those nowhere places, where time does not exist, imagination and truth connect to croon bitter-sweet duets.

Karen Wyld is a freelance writer and is undertaking a Masters of Creative Arts (Research). Her month of writing in Ceduna, during October 2018, was part of Writers SA’s Writers and Readers in Residence Project, funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.