|ABOVE: The view, looking west from the bottom of Fremlin Street, Botany, 1956
BELOW: Approximately the same view today, 2015, City of Botany Bay
On windy days clouds would scud across the sky over the Bay, while out in deeper waters or on the far side of the Bay, white sails carried skippers and their crews in sailing races. Often on hot and muggy days southerly busters would bring relief, and warn of their approach with a black shadow over the Bay followed by white horses on the water.
At evening, endless flights of birds made their way home to their rookeries or nests from the East in the direction of the Georges and Cooks Rivers. Just on dusk certain fish, probably mullet, would jump in the bay, like flying fish seeking prey in the sky. The waters of the Bay changed from blue/green to gold as they reflected the rays of the setting sun, then to velvet, and finally to black, as darkness descended.
|Rob Hanna fishing behind his home.
Courtesy of Robert Hanna
The Bay came right up to our back fence. The beach gate, as my father called it, opened up on to the beach, and it was only about twenty feet or so to the water’s edge at high tide. Sometimes a Christmas tide would come up as far as the fence itself. Endless summers were spent in the Bay swimming, and low tide was often not appreciated if you wanted to swim. You had to walk for some distance over the exposed sand flats to reach the shallow waters edge. Low tide had other compensations though. You could dig holes in the wet sand exploring for worms or soldier crabs, or chase prawns in the shallow pools trapped by the receding tide. Tiny fingerlings would also be present, darting in and out of the many gardens of seaweed and kelp that covered that part of the Bay.
On the beach I built sand castles and canals, and made futile attempts at constructing sand levees to keep the incoming tide at bay. As always the Bay prevailed. There was never any evidence the following day of my cities in the sand. You could dig holes in the sand, and not far down you would reach the water table. Attempts at large holes or trenches were foiled as their sides collapsed into the space you had just excavated. Weed and driftwood would often be washed up on the beach. Many a piece of wood with a strange shape was taken home as a play thing and often treasured more than other toys. Only my imagination set a limit to the use of these treasures.
At certain times of year large clumps of seaweed would wash up on the beach, and the bay would be full of weed and kelp. Sometimes the clumps were that thick and large that you could sit and float on them, and you would pretend you were on a raft at sea following a shipwreck from which you were the only survivor.
High tide changed the character of the Bay. Dark patches of weed contrasted with the sandy bottoms which were preferred for swimming. At high tide it seemed that all types of sea creatures would inhabit the weed beds, hiding in the long grass that fluttered in the currents. Blue swimmer crabs could give you a painful nip if caught unawares. We always swam in a clear sandy area we called the Queen’s Patch, which you got to by wading through a bank of seaweed not far from the water’s edge. In the Queen’s Patch we found water between waist and chest deep, and we would swim and frolic for an eternity in the clear water.
|Dennis Muller,c. 1950s
Courtesy of Dennis Muller
Two houses down from our place, in the other direction from Denis’ house, was old Johnny Hall’s place. Johnny Hall was a boat builder. He built his boats in a large shed in his backyard, and he launched them into the Bay by way of two large sliprails that ran into the water. My father often went down to visit Mr Hall, as I called him, and I’d watch him at his craft as he planed away at the hull of a boat. Johnny kept a goat in his yard, which would eat anything. One day he was searching for his straw broom. The last he saw of it was the handle protruding from the goat’s mouth.
|The Long Pier, c. 1930s. Courtesy City of Botany Bay|
With a hand held line with worms or other baits you could catch small bream, sweep, leatherjackets, whiting and the occasional flathead. The more enterprising fishermen were able to catch mullet with a jagged hook arrangement, and the occasional nigger (blackfish) on seaweed. More often than not you caught such unwelcome species as octopus (which no one except European migrants would eat in those days), fortescues, toadfish and jelly fish.
Oysters would grow on the rock wall side of the road leading out to the pier, and at low tide were a source of quick snack if you had an oyster knife or a screwdriver. Mussels were also in plentiful supply around the Pier. My mother was never a great seafood eater, but it was in those early years that I developed my natural love for most varieties of seafood.
The fishermen would sometimes sell some of the catch to locals on the beach. They had their own scales to weigh the fish, and as part of the deal would scale and gut the fish on the beach for their customers. On one occasion a large shark was caught and landed on the beach near the Pier. I recall it was large and grey – a grey nurse perhaps. After the novelty passed of seeing it lying on the sand, the fishermen then proceeded to cut it up and sell it off in large chunks.
In summertime I would often go for a swim in the afternoon when I got home from school. My parents would never allow me to swim unattended in my early years, so my mother would stand at the beach gate and make sure I was safe. I remember one afternoon out in the Queen’s Patch on my own when a fin broke the surface of the water. A fish I thought, and it wasn’t moving all that quickly. So I went after it – fish for dinner was my plan. The fin kept circling, and I kept chasing, until my mother screamed to me to come out of the water immediately. Reluctantly I did as I was beckoned. In retrospect I suspect that the shark of indeterminate size I was sharing the water with may have also planned having me for dinner that evening.
|Rob’s younger brother, Chris.|
My mother often came into the water with us, and it was Mum who taught me and my little brother Chris to swim. My father very rarely went swimming with us, and it was a novelty when he did. Dad wore glasses, and I recall on one occasion he wore them into the water. He lost them when he dived under, and I had to stand on the spot while he went inside, got another pair, came back, and after much searching, found the ones he had lost. He never wore glasses again while swimming.
We would take the prawns, and place them alive in another bucket or in the laundry tubs with fresh water. Mum wasn’t keen on this use of her laundry. In freshwater the prawns would regurgitate the sand and food in their systems, making them better eating. The freshwater also anaesthetised them for their inevitable fate. On the stove would be a saucepan of boiling salt water, into which the live prawns were cast. I was told this was much more merciful than slowly bringing them to the boil. They would go red immediately, and after some five minutes you would empty the saucepan into a colander in the sink, then put the cooked prawns in the fridge for later consumption – either a prawn sandwich, or just on their own.
Despite her aversion to most seafood, my mother would eat prawns, generally in a prawn cocktail. She was not a great fish eater, and it was a labour of love when on the rare occasions I bought fish home that I’d caught in the Bay for Mum to clean and cook. Often Mum would tell me how sad it was for the mothers of the fish I’d caught, for when they would call their young ones home for dinner they would get no response.
Crabbing, or the art of catching crabs, was a little harder than prawning. Denis was always so much better at it than me. Standard equipment was sandshoes, a sugar bag and a spear fashioned from a sharp, thin piece of metal or wire tied to a stick with which one speared the blue swimmer crabs that were plentiful in the Bay at that time. Crabs were treated the same way as prawns for cooking, except that they were more violent in their opposition than prawns when placed in the saucepan of boiling water.
Every Utopia has its baddies, however. Two houses along from Denis’ place lived two boys, Ray and Billy, who it seemed, got into more trouble than anyone else I knew. One of their pastimes was trapping seagulls. They did this by laying baits to wires and traps buried beneath the beach sand. I discovered this accidentally by tripping over a trap one day on the beach, and not knowing what it was, pulling the rest of trap out. I think I saved a seagull or two that day, but I earned their anger by wrecking their trap. I recall being chased home, and making it inside the beach gate before they caught me.
A ritual my father performed regularly, usually on a Sunday evening, was looking out over the back fence and studying the sky, the wind and the Bay. He would, no doubt with his sailing experience, tell us what the weather would be like for the next few days. He was generally on the ball with his forecasts, particularly with storm and rain warnings. He had been born in our house, and had lived a lifetime on the Bay himself. At the time I never realised how much he loved Botany and the Bay.
I recall him telling us stories of wild seas, of fisherman and sailors who had drowned in the Bay, of the collier from Newcastle that had unloaded her cargo at the Pier and sailed out of the Bay into a stormy sea never to be seen again. I learned about Captain Cook landing at Kurnell, and the French navigator La Perouse, who also sailed out of Botany Bay with his two ships never to be seen again. My fatherexplained to me how the Bay had a natural cycle by shifting sand from the Northern to the Southern side, which he said explained why there were sand hills on the far off Southern shore.
This area, around Quibray and Weeney Bays, was largely uninhabited because of its mangrove swamps and tidal mudflats. I was to learn much later that it became a
I still remember the day when my father told us that the Government had decided to reclaim part of the Bay, including our beachfront. I didn’t realise at that time what an impact that would have. The powers that be had decided to reclaim part of the local golf course on the other side of the Pier. The purpose was to build oil storage tanks for Caltex. The golf course was to be compensated for by its extension to the reclaimed area behind us. I was to learn later that this was in the era when Governments arbitrarily made such decisions without consideration of environmental consequences or any thought of compensation for loss of amenity or outlook. In retrospect, I can understand how this saddened my father.
|Erosion of reclamation behind Dent Street, Botany, 1956. Courtesy of the City of Botany Bay|
Some time passed before the enormity of all this change made an impact on me. The golf course and the retaining rock wall further out into the Bay was little solace for what had been lost. To get to the Bay and into the water you had to scramble down a rat-infested motley collection of rocks and boulders. There was no beach to speak of. In the years that followed after I left Sydney, further chaotic changes saw the Airport runway extensions, the Port Botany development and the construction of the Port Botany Foreshore Road, pushing the Bay much further out. Further Port development was planned and implemented by the State Government, which deprived the area of what small amount of beachfront was left in that part of the Bay.
My consolation knows that while the Bay may have receded from the back fence, it has never receded from my memory or my consciousness.