Over our evening meal, Dad told us one of his workmates had said we were all welcome to spend our Christmas holidays in his friend’s old house at Corny Point. I think it was 1958, and the year before we had been on Kangaroo Island, one of the almost mythical memories of my boyhood. I caught my first fish there, on a green string line, followed improbably by a small shark. It still rankles that my school friends said I was bull-shitting with that story, when I thought I’d been the star of ‘what I did in the holidays’ morning talks. Not for the last time, my tendency to exaggerate had cost me an authentic opportunity for glory.
Dad said Corny Point was going to be even better, with a great ocean beach, lots of fish to catch, and swimming and snorkelling opportunities galore. All of us were going; even my older brother Hamish, who at 16 was starting to rebel against most involvement with the family. He only agreed to come when Dad allowed him to buy a spear-gun. We bought fishing reels, lines, hooks and sinkers, our first ‘Esky’ for keeping Dad’s Coopers Ale and Mum’s Seppelts Dry Sherry cold, and set about packing our brand-new Holden Station Wagon (with the bigger, faster 179 motor for the aficionados) to the hilt. That car had the full plastic seat-covers so popular at the time, which were excruciatingly uncomfortable in the heatwave conditions. ‘To keep the seats like new for when you come to sell the car.’ was the refrain. Of course the next owners kept them on too, so generations of drivers and passengers endured sweaty legs and backs, while they slipped around on the bench seats at every corner.
The trip took nearly four hours, without air-conditioning, and we had to stop several times to get cool drinks and Icy Poles. The radio was a slight distraction, but Mum and Dad preferred the ABC so it was all news, earnest discussions and classical music rather than the rock and roll that Hamish kept asking for. He was deeply into Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the soon-to-be dead Buddy Holly, and spent most of his money on the 45 EPs that brought new music within budget reach of teenagers. Singers such as those cut no ice with the ABC in those days—Triple J was 30 years away.
The last hour was on a very rough, corrugated dirt road, the car throwing up clouds of dust across the yellow-beige barley fields. Huge flocks of galahs rose from the ground when we came near. Predictably, when an occasional car came the other way, we got their dust through every loose seal and vent; it got into our mouths, our eyes and of course all our gear packed in the rear. With the temperature hovering near 40c, five tired and very grumpy people eventually pulled up beside the Corny Point General Store, with its one hand operated petrol pump. The older man who came out to serve us wore thick wool trousers held up by braces, and big leather boots. We three boys, in t-shirts, shorts and thongs, couldn’t understand anyone being that stupid in this heat.
After getting detailed directions from him, we found our spot. It was love at first sight for all of us. The house had been empty for a decade or more, the family having moved a few hundred metres to a new place with such wonders as electricity, running water and an inside toilet. Built in stages between 1850 and 1880, the walls and floors of the old house consisted of huge limestone blocks, cut from the ground around it, with doors and window frames rough-hewn from trees nearby. I’m not sure how they did the original roof, but by the 1870’s corrugated iron was coming from England and Europe, used as ballast in the magnificent sailing clippers that then loaded wheat and barley for the return trip. In the kitchen, a handmade table with benches sat beside a woodstove that became the focal point of many happy nights to come. From the front doorstep, just across a barley paddock, the sea beckoned.
As we began unpacking, an old Chevrolet (1938, I think) approached from the direction of the new house. The car was so dirty and dusty it was almost perfectly camouflaged on its home ground. The door creaked open and out got the owner of the property, Jack Barclay. Again, the thick pants and braces, a khaki shirt, but this time topped with a weathered wide-brimmed hat. We found out later that Jack was 78, and had been born in the house we were going to use. After saying hello, he invited Dad, just Dad, to come back to his place for a cold beer. Dad getting drunk with Jack became a several-times-weekly occurrence. None of us liked this, because Dad would return in an unhelpful and sometimes surly state. He would be dropped off by Jack from his car, which he was driving almost dead-drunk, but on his own land and so within the law, if not common sense. One day he misjudged the approach and stopped by running into a stone shed outside our gate. When we went to investigate, Jack was asleep at the wheel.
But we boys, if not so much Mum, were in paradise. We found the ‘drop toilet’—a hole in the ground about three metres deep, in which we could see red-back spider webs. Great for speeding up the process and so daring. It became a little too exciting when one of us—I think it was Hamish- sat down and closed the door, to find a brown snake curled up behind it. He did the only thing he could, waiting in fear until it slowly disappeared under the door and back to the paddocks.
We explored the adjoining workshop, which was completely equipped up to pre-WW11 standards, with no electricity. Millstone sharpeners, adzes, a forge, bellows, and endless small tools like augers and hand-saws. We happily sharpened knives, lit the forge and made steel glow red, and bored holes in pieces of wood. In our enthusiasm, we didn’t put things back where we found them, and Jack came over a couple of days later to fit a big padlock to the workshop. It would be twenty years or more before I properly understood his point of view.
On day two, we went as directed to West Beach (or Berry Bay on some maps) to look for ‘Pearl’s pool’. Pearl was Jack’s wife, still at home at that time, but with early signs of the dementia that would see her in a nursing home within a year or two. ‘Pearl’s pool’ was so named because Pearl used to go swimming there, in the nude, with all farm hands under strict instructions to keep away from the beach. We parked the car, and walked up through sand hills, emerging to a view that has stopped me in my tracks ever since. I feel a rush of nostalgia as I write this, hearing the crash of the waves, and seeing the huge sweep of the bay and the ocean. It was and still remains one of those places and moments when you are blissfully insignificant in the face of endless beauty. Below us, surrounded but completely protected from a tremendous surf, Pearl’s pool twinkled, emerald green laced with white water from waves splashing high from the rocks.
The pool was about 50 metres by 30, and a couple of metres deep in the centre. We soon found that by daring to sit on the seaward rocks, we could be lifted bodily by the spray of a big wave; thrown into the air and into the pool. It was dangerous of course; slip, and the rocks were very sharp on the legs and back, as our more tentative guests found out over the years. In the pool, schools of mainly small fished cruised around us, and abalone beckoned from the underside of the rocks. We learnt how to remove them with a sharp knife, and how to tenderise them before cooking. The meat is delicious, and the cleaned shells are great ornaments. I re-experienced those days last week when I found a small abalone shell by a local beach. Actually it was the moment that decided me to write this.
At one side of the pool, there was a rock platform where we could throw a line into the surf. It was a dicey spot, with the biggest waves swirling around our ankles. It takes nerve to watch a three-metre or more monster wave loom up to crash against the reef just five metres in front of you, hoping this one won’t be a freak that knocks you off the rocks. But the fishing was so good we couldn’t resist. Sometimes we needed more bait, and the limpets on the rocks exposed between waves were perfect. That was a wild scamper, but every risky escapade resulted in a big meal of fish for all of us that night.
To add to the appeal, Hamish found a place nearby where he could go skin-diving for bigger fish, with his new and ultra-cool spear-gun. I think he only ever got one –it was a kingfish—but he was happily occupied trying for hours. During all this, Mum lay on the beach, reading heavy stuff like Patrick White and Vladimir Nabokov, occasionally going for a lazy swim in the pool. I never saw her happier.
Nearer the house, the sea was calm and shallow. At low tide we could walk out to the weed line—about 500 metres. As the tide rose, fish and sting-rays came with it, along with squid and crabs. With a torch and a net, more sweet seafood evening meals were guaranteed whenever we felt the urge. Later on, we had various boats to access or own, opening up the whiting grounds just off-shore. King George Whiting is a South Australian speciality, currently selling for $70 a kilo or more in fish-shops. Off Corny Point, we regularly caught specimens 55cm or longer, which give up thick fillets of intense flavour needing only a splash of lemon after a couple of minutes in a frypan or on the barbeque.
For the next ten or so years, we spent at least one family holiday a year in that house at Corny Point. We added surfing for a couple of years, until the regular shark sightings put the wind up all of us. South-West Australia is just about the capital of white pointers in the world, and one sight of a shadow near you on a surfboard in these waters is enough. But Pearl’s Pool, the spearfishing, the whiting, the long beach walks, and the other equally lovely beaches and swimming opportunities within a short drive have been more than enough to keep me coming back ever since. Not nearly so often these days, partly because the farm-house has succumbed almost completely to wind and rain. The toilet has dropped in on itself, the top of the underground tank, where Dad found he could keep beer and white wine cool, has collapsed, and last time I was there, a King Brown snake, at least two metres long and appallingly lethal if it got the chance, was by the kitchen door. I took it as a sign to leave quietly and for ever.
Pearl, Jack, and my Mum and Dad are all long gone, while we three boys are all over 70 now. I’ve helped to introduce new generations of people in my life to Corny Point. Now we rent shacks near the beach, where my children and grand-children make their own memories. I think my new life-partner loves it as much as I do, and I’m sure we will go there again sometime soon. For me, the weight of the years since those boyish, careless adventures can trigger a few sad moments, but every visit lays down more than enough new magic to dispel them.