Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Western Australia III: Shark Bay Days

AS we drove north into bush we passed several place names on the map - isolated and tiny communities tucked away and unsighted from the highway - that contain only a handful of people. Some of these communities were abandoned, others apparently only in existence because of long-distance haulage railways. Some communities were aboriginal and as such, secretive to this English outsider. I began to wonder what kind of people lived out here, what characters could survive - both now and in the past. Where do they get their food from? How do they endure such isolation? And how or why were these settlements founded?

The following excerpt from Shark Bay Days, by a local author, provides no answers whatsoever to the above questions, but it did make me laugh. Though my query refers mainly to inland settlements, the Shark Bay area, now a World Heritage Site, is far from major towns and facilities, and in the 1950s would have been a remote and self-contained pocket of people. Pearling, fishing and mining of solidified blocks of cockle shells were the primary trades of a hard-working and hardy population; the area also contained an important landing point for cargo vessels collecting wool from nearby stations to be transported back to Perth. Today only 1,000 people live in the Shark Bay area, taking up only 1% of an area of coastline 1,500 km. The land and seas are unforgiving, though a beautiful location to visit. The population was inevitably much smaller at the time in which the book is set, and indeed in 1919, when the author arrived there, only 20 students attended the tiny school. With no roads, only sailing boats and horse carts, one can scarcely imagine how they survived out there. But survive they did.

"During the 1950's John Woodward bought a little boat from a chap in Denham and went off fishing on his own. We didn't expect him to come back from his first trip. He was one of those happy chaps, always full of fun, who would always say "she'll be right" and never worried about anything. He used to go down to the lighthouse on Dirk Hartog Island, where all the big boats worked. He made a lot of trips and always seemed to get a few fish and get them safely back to Denham. He was fishing there on one of his trips and was anchored off the Island lighthouse. He turned in to sleep after dark and when he woke in the morning he was about five miles out on the west side of Dirk Hartog Island, and still drifting. The anchor had come off the bottom. He went to start his motor but the battery was flat, so he drifted all day, further and further out to sea and the land of no return. He thought that was the end for him as he had no way of getting back to land. When he had just about given up hope he looked around in case there might be a ship coming from north or south, thinking he might be able to put something up for them to see, when he spotted something sticking out of the water. It looked like a big shark fin and gave him quite a fright. All of a sudden it came to the surface. It was an American submarine going from Singapore to Freemantle. It came alongside him and wanted to know what he was doing so far out in a small boat. They gave him a new battery, food and cigarettes, and towed him to Dirk Hartog Island. In return he gave them the fish in his ice box, about 100 lbs. of good big schnapper. He wouldn't forget that trip. When he offered me a Lucky Strike, I couldn't believe it when he said they'd come from a Yank submarine. We couldn't really believe him, as he always had a story to tell, until we saw a photo of his boat alongside the submarine. Pommie John didn't take much notice of what had happened. Later on he shifted to Geraldton, taking his little boat with him. I think he was fishing at the islands off Geraldton when his boat was caught and sunk in a breaker and he swam ashore. I met his parents at the Victoria Hotel in Geraldton when they came out from England and persuaded him to go back with them."

Pommie John & The Submarine from Shark Bay Days by G.W. Fry, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA/L. Price, Moonyoonooka, WA; 1988/1995

Rachel and I went to Shark Bay, its main town Denham as well as Monkey Mia and Hamelin Pool, on our way back down the coast. There is much to tell about it - but for now, we shall keep heading north.


Anonymous said...

hi, the "chap" you mention whom John bought the Bimbo from was my day, Ron Klopper.

Simon said...

that's exciting! I bet you have lots of other stories from shark bay?