Brisbane to Sydney by bicycle in 2001: Day 6 – South West Rocks rest day

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Horseshoe Bay, South West Rocks, May 2001

There are few things more magical than a swim first thing in the morning. It is heart balm for the day. I assess the damage and conclude that I have come to no harm as a result of alcohol consumed last night. I am glad I hit the wall at the time I did. After a decent splash I hop out and return to the caravan.

Today is a Thursday. It has no Day number for it has been released from the schedule and set free to wonder where it will. As long as it checks in for parole this afternoon at Trial Bay Gaol.

We do have one piece of housekeeping to attend to today. We need a new house to stay in thanks to tonight’s lockout at this here caravan park. But first breakfast calls. We walk up the hill to the coffee shop on the corner. We sit outside preening in the sunshine and doing good justice to strong coffee and egg and bacon muffins.

A slow stroll back to the park where the superintendent was becoming a bit worried in case we might not be moving out prior to checkout curfew. Indeed there is a glowering cleaning lady armed with her mop waiting fiercely for us outside our van. She is itching to get stuck into repairing our damage as soon as we are packed up. We bid fond farewell to this lovely park (if not its Amazonian maid) and set off in search of the town’s secondary caravan park.

It is not quite on the bay, hidden behind the creek. The view is not as instantly inspiring as the other place but it too has its camouflaged charms. The site of our caravan is directly overlooking the creek and it has an element of relaxation all its own. We would soon have the measure of the place. As we checked in, we told the owner that we had to move out of its competitor’s park. He was the one who told us the first park had an expiry date of eight years before being set free again. He couldn’t help inserting a little bit of malicious glee into his voice as he told us. I couldn’t help but approve of the decision to close it. It was a lovely place to stay but I think it is more important to let it return to a more natural state, a state that does not necessarily have a part for humans in it.

I think of all the magnificent trees I saw in the forests near Bowraville. These fabulous photosynthesisers have done a damn fine job as custodians of the planet’s life. If only we could say the same.

We collapse in our new home and vegetate gently on the veranda with the help of books and today’s paper. An hour passes silently apart from the chortling and chirping of birds and the low murmur of the sea somewhere behind the creek.

Then the first spurt of energy today, Two of us decide on a trip to the mouth of the Macleay. Muddy slip slides away towards his appointment with his masseuse. Grunty and I take the therapy of the bicycle. No panniers on board as we set off over the hill at the back of town and onto the wetlands road to the river. The road meanders a while before it finally arrives at the boathouse on a wide section of the river. The river flows by in regal fashion either side of a big delta island. Pelicans patrol the banks searching for careless fish.

But we cannot see the mouth of the river and we double back towards another turnoff. This is the dirt road to the estuary itself. And at the end of the road, we come to the pier at the rivermouth. It is quite majestic here. The weather has once again kept its promises with us and is delivering another beautiful fine day. The riverbirds are squawking noisily and swapping gossip with their seafaring brethren. We see a small fishing boat cutting the umbilical chord of the Macleay and leaping into the dangerous clash and clatter of the ocean waves as it takes its chances out on the Pacific. It chugs away from the shore in pipe smoking swagger. And probably no little relief for having successfully negotiated the treacherous sandbanks of the seaway.

Back along the beach we see South West Rocks a couple of kilometres away. Wait a minute! That has got to be the most direct way back. There is a creek to cross at the end of the beach but I’m sure that the footbridge I’ve seen can help us out. Did I mention the footbridge? We saw it as we cycled from one caravan park to the other and presumed it links the town with the beach beyond the creek. I didn’t realise it was going to come in so handy. Only problem is we have to haul ourselves and our bicycles down off the high rocky breakwater and then check out if the sand is rideable. I get down gingerly with my machine and test it out. It’s fine, the wheels keep moving. Then I assist Grunty down with his bike and we are away. The first proper beach ride of the trip. Only two kilometres of sand to traverse but it is truly a species of magic. The waves crash in my eardrums, the sun spreads warmth on my back and my eyes bask in the glory of the spray and the sand-dunes.

I speed up to give vent to the pleasures of this god. All too soon I am at the end of the beach staring at the breakwater on the town side of the creek. Grunty arrives in hot pursuit. We have to get off and lift our bikes over the soft sand to find a way off the beach. Soon we are on a walking trail and lo and behold there is the footbridge right ahead of us. A splendid way to get back into town. After all this energy, it is definitely time for a swim.

We cruise back to Horseshoe Bay and have an enjoyable splurge in the waves as the clock ticks inexorably towards lunchtime. I couldn’t help seeing the pub every time I looked up the hill towards town. Glenn joins us on the beach and he is re-invigorated and singing the praises of his massage.

It is time for us to chant the Psalmer’s Arms and we march up the hill to salute the flag. Inside the pub, lunch turns out to be a slow leisurely affair. A couple of hours saunter by in a discussion of South West Rocks’ bread and circuses.

Finally its time to head back to our caravan to collect our energies and take stock of our affairs. It is past three o’ clock so we had better get a move if we were going to perform our one real venture for the day. We hop on our bikes and head towards Arakoon lying 10 kilometres away and home of Trial Bay Gaol. The story of Australian penal institutions has always been a popular one to tell and many Australian towns have turned their old hoosegows into museums so that they can enlighten us with their grim stories. Trial Bay Gaol was founded in 1886 to satisfy two disparate aims. A Mr Moriarty, the local chief engineer, wanted to build a breakwater to provide safe harbour on the Macleay river and a Mr MacLean, a sheriff and prison inspector, wanted to establish a reform prison. Trial Bay Gaol was the answer to Moriarty and MacLean’s separate prayers.

Conditions here were considerably more lenient than in contemporary Australian prisons and the prisoners were convenient cheap labour to build the breakwater. The prison’s first incarnation last until 1903. But it was to have a second life when it reopened in 1915 and for three years it served to assuage local hysteria as a camp for German internees during the First World War. Whatever about its sinister story, we certainly can’t fault the views as we circle in on Arakoon.

Overhanging the bay, the sandstone gaol blends in with the scenery. Above the prison are the cliffs of the headland, while out to sea the Pacific magnificently holds court over all. We dismount the bikes outside the prison and almost immediately a sense of the sadness of history pounced on me. I was barely aware of this as we passed the gate and paid our money to enter.

We are steered upstairs into the old offices which now contains the prison’s museum. We wander through the exhibits and the photographs. From the prison’s first lifetime we see the list of its inmates often with a brief description of their status. Some are denoted as ‘freethinkers’, that peculiar 19th century version of the political prisoner. Others are more contemptuously described as having ‘intelligence nil’ though it is not made abundantly clear whether they are referring to staff or inmates.

We do see the salaries paid out to the staff and its individual variety reflects the complicated hierarchical structure of the prison’s officialdom. There is a list of escapees some of whom were still at large at the time of writing.

Then we move on to the section describing the second phase of the prison’s lifetime. There are pictures of the Germans who called this place home for almost three years. They were shuffled off boats at Jerseyville on the Macleay and forced to walk the 10 kilometres to the prison. Inside its walls were kept some of Australia’s best educated and most brilliant people. Australia’s foremost orthopaedic surgeon of the time, Max Steiner, had the misfortune to be German and Jewish and he was incarcerated here with his family. At least the children of the inmates had the best orthopaedic care in the country.

The photographs from the era are touching. The faces look proud but there is a sense of bewilderment as they wonder what terrible misfortune caused their lives to be uprooted that forced them into a concentration camp. Despite the conditions, there was a great cultural life in the prison, music concerts and great German dramatic productions. The pictures from the theatrical productions showed that they went to extraordinary lengths to create authenticity. The sets, costumes and designs were all first class and lavish despite what must have been the most minimal of supplies. Steiner himself was also an accomplished artist and his sketches of the gaol and the bay adorn the museum as they contribute a sense of memory to the views.

Finally we finished our indoor tour and we emerge to see the rest of the gaol. First the viewing platform. Following one of my obsessions, I simply cannot go past a viewing post. I’ve just got to see the bigger picture. And the canvas is quite broad at this point with an inspiring view sweeping along the bay to South West Rocks.

Back at ground level, I amble past the kitchen complete with its massive stone kiln. The picture from the internee era shows a more vibrant time, the kiln in mid-puff while the kitchen bristles and bakes with bustling activity. The ghostly shadow today gives off its own perforation. Then it’s on to the punishment cells. Suitably dark and black and clanking with the sound of shackles. There is no photo here, it was not part of the advertising arsenal of the facilities.

Onwards to the main cell blocks of the prison. There are two blocks, one was used by convicts, the newer one used by internees. The place was a shopping mall of ghosts each brushing into you and clamouring for attention. I wander around until I can take no more spectral spruiking and when I am back outside the gaol, I shiver involuntarily. Grunty and I are in the mood to cycle up the hill to the monument erected by the Germans in memory of the three internees that died during the prison’s tenure. It is a simple stone monument. Only one of the deaths is described, a man who was ‘carried away at sea’. The monument was blown up in 1919 in an act of postwar anti German sentiment. Though we don’t get an exact date, we get an exact time. It happened at 4:30pm apparently, so we are a half hour late for its anniversary. It remained in rubble until 1960 when 41 years and another war had dimmed the tide of fury so they could be properly re-commemorated. The memorial doesn’t state what the time was when it was re-built.

The setting sun glares at us from below. We fly back down the hill and I catch up with Mudster who has gone his own way to the beach below the gaol for an afternoon swim. I don’t need much of an invitation to join him. Grunt goes his own way in search of an intemet kiosk he saw along the way.

I hop into the calm waters of Trial Bay. At the time, I thought it might be the last swim of the campaign as this is the last overnight beach stop of the trip according to the Book, however we were soon to re-write the rules of the Book and find a more coastal route to Sydney without unduly bothering the Pacific Highway. Such talk is some way ahead of us.

For now, let me bask in the evening waters of Trial Bay. It is a rarity for east coast beaches as it faces west into the setting sun. Glenn and I dry off and cycle back to South West Rocks in the lengthening shadows. Glenn had decided not to change out of his Speedos so he is looking far too much like a triathlete for my liking on the way back. En route we pass the store at the Arakoon caravan park where Grunty is busy scribbling away his tale on their internet PC. I noted that the among the consumables sold by its shop were Deep Fried Mars Bars. I was surprised to see this rare outburst of Glaswegian culture in a Pacific backwater but I pass on the gastronomic experience in any case.

There is not much light left by the time we get back. Back at home base we shower and change and sit around quietly in the growing darkness. After an hour or so, Grunty comes a knocking. We are soon taking the 10 minute walk back to town and the Sea Breeze hotel.

Very little time is wasted before we are all tucking into a plate of the lamb shanks, everyone pigging out on Glenn’s popular choice from last night. The pub is nowhere near as busy tonight as last night. So where are the people from the caravan park’s full house all eating tonight? The mystery is never satisfactorily resolved. Instead the place has totally emptied out by 9:30pm and we are among the last to leave the premises. Thursday is clearly the night when South West Rocks the cradle.

No-one is in a card playing mood tonight. It must be the prospect of a serious cycle tomorrow. We have got a big job ahead of us; 100kms and possibly more. Wauchope (pronounced Waw-hope) is the destination, a little bit inland from Port Macquarie. Wauchope has a railway station and here is where we expect to meet Hugh tomorrow afternoon to complete the Gang of Four. He is taking the early train down from Brisbane tomorrow in order to cycle the second week and join us for whatever set of adventures it will throw at us. And if you think we had a problem telling people we started at Rathdowney (which in any case wasn’t true for Muddy) and therefore settled on Brisbane, then poor old Hugh had no option but to tell everyone in his Northern Irish accent that he cycled from Wauchope. He had no hope.

We are all completely trampled and begin to sleep pondering the trip to Wauchope. We are confident we can do a serious beach ride if what those two English cyclists told us is correct, that is, the beach north of Port Macquarie was okay to ride on. I couldn’t consider this question for much longer. Because by then, two men dressed up as continents crushed me between their tectonic plates. I held my breath for as long as I could and dived underneath. There in a cave of snow, I blew my nose and staggered back as the resulting noise triggered an avalanche. A mustachioed person wearing a spiked helmet popped up from under the carpet and said, “So you now know that a half sun is better than no sun at all”. My nose was still under the pillow when I woke up on Friday morning.

Day 5 adventures === Day 7 adventures

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