Memories of my Dad
|There's No Place Like a Rock in the Middle of the Sea
As a kid, my dad always had a strong passion for sailing. This infatuation carried on into his adulthood, even after I was born. I often accompanied him on Wednesday and Thursday twilight yacht races on Swan River, after we moved to Perth from Ballarat, in Victoria. We soon graduated to ocean racing, and deep sea fishing. The night before a fishing trip, we would sail the yacht to Fremantle, so we could be in the middle of the ocean before the sun began to cast eerie yellow lght on the still surface of the water. On occasions, a rhythmic swell would sweep across the ocean, rocking the boat so much that the silence would be disturbed by erratic thumps as the hull of the boat rose and broke against the water.
It was through fishing that we discovered Rottnest Island and trips there soon became a regular occurrence. It wasn't long before every block of school holidays were spent there, and long weekends too. This meant we were frequently there during the winter months when the island was empty with the exception of the people that worked there in Thompson Bay, the only town on the island. Even during winter, Rottnest seldom seemed to experience rain. We would regularly look east and laugh, as although rain bestowed a grey shadow over Perth, we sat happily amidst fine weather.
'There's no place like a rock in the middle of the ocean', Dad would comment with a wry grin.
From Rottnest, the West Australian coastline was only just visible as a faint grey line with Perth's two equally tallest buildings in the city centre the height of a fingernail. On one occasion it actually did rain, and the memory remained implanted vividly in my mind. In this incident, it not only rained but absolutely poured, with what seemed like buckets full of rain pelting like bullets, vertically, from the hollow charcoal sky. Little did we know, out classic jarrah yacht, although waterproof, was not 'rainproof' it seemed and we spent an entire day strategically rotating our limited, cheap, plastic buckets under the various leaks, in between competitive games of Monopoly and Scrabble.
My parents' favourite spot was Parker Point, an exposed bay on the south side of the island. Although Parker Point was unguarded by reefs of cliffs, its location meant that during warm days the transparent turquoise water always lay perfectly calm. This also meant that Parker Point was unceasingly full, with boats attracted to the alluring comfort.
My favourite place was Parakeet Bay. Parakeet Bay was tucked away on the north side of the island; sheltered from the wind by dangerously steep cliffs reaching north-west and protected from the waves by a stretch of reef, alive with sealife, running parallel to the shore. The bay was almost a lagoon, circular and symmetrical, with the mouth leading to the ocean barely fifty metres wide. To enter the bay was a near impossible task which involved weaving through the reef until you were safe enough to sail through the opening. It was only attempted by naive daredevils or, on the other hand, absolute professionals such as my Dad. The beach itelf was secluded from the rest of the island by almost vertical dunes built of white sand. The base of the dunes led to the water's edge at a gentler gradient. The water was completely crystal clear and a brillliant shade of teal. There was not one fragment of seaweed in the complete bay, making it easy to see the sandy, beige ocean floor. There were no morrings for boats to moor on, but we were easily able to anchor off the shore. We anchored as little as fifteen metres from where the ocnea's edge met the land, gently mapping out various wavy patterns on the sand as the tide rose and fell. When we wanted to get ashore, we simpy donned our bathing suits and launched outselves off the stern of the boat, marking our entry into the water with a giant splash, our bodies woven tightly into the shape of a ball. In November, when the water began to warm, we would swim as fast as we could to avoid the stingrays and jellyfish and crawl out of the water to collapse on the hard sand, our arms and legs aching, panting with relief.
Our stay at Rottnest consisted of days spent on the beach, spread out like starfish on the sand, soaking in the warmth of the smiling sun. The only movement would be made by Mum, who at regular intervals would rise to squirt thick white sunscreen into the brown curve of my back, muttering near inaudible warnings about skin cancer.
When we weren't relaxing on the beach, we were in the water, either keeping cool and enjoying the company of family, or admiring the sea-life of the reefs through the murky lenses of snorkelling goggles. Unlike anywhere else around Perth, Rottnest reefs were overpopulated with fish of bright and vibrant colours and symmetrical shapes. Unrecognisable and unusual sea creatures, with obscene numbers of legs and antennae, often appeared out of impossibly narrow crevices and cracks in the reef, to my immense surprise.
As dusk began to creep up on us, enchanting sunsets of deep gold, crimson and magenta would engulf the sky, symbolising fine weather for the following day. At this sign, we simultanously added both layers of clothing and bait to the hooks of our fishing lines. Until I was old enough to safely cast a line, this was my job; I would sit for hours preparing the octopus or prawn bait so it would look as similar and realistic to what I thought a fish would like to eat. The flow of fish throughout the evening was insatiable. Regardless of the time of year, we would reel in at least half a dozen streamlined, creamy yellow sand whiting, our rods bending with the strain of holding fish violently giving a final attempt for freedom. Our success in fishing often promoted Dad to remark,
'There's no place for fishing than off a rock in the middle of the sea!",
For every three whiting, we would always catch at least one blowfish. Rottnest was renowned for the 'blowies', which when threatened, expanded their slimy, green scales to double their normal size, revealing painful spikes. We also set up craypots and squid 'jiggies', which too were always a success.
After fresh seafood for dinner, with stomachs full, we would climb onto the bow of the yacht and lay depicting the various constellations of the stars. The silver stars above Rottnest twinkled brighter than those above Perth, with no lights to haze the sky. Stars barely visible from Perth were clearly seen in the cobolt sky above Rottnest and we often spent hours making up our own constellations. The thousands of lights, in various colours, along Perth's coastline winked erratically, forming patterns and more unusual 'constellations'. Although days on Rottnest were always pleasantly hot, the nights were freezing. However, we lay warm in our sleeping bags, wrapped in extra blankets. We would finally drag ourselves, half asleep, to our dark but welcoming beds below the hull, where the water lapping at the hull of the boat made a hollow but soothing echo, occasionally broken by the dull thud of a bigger wave. Here we were literally rocked to sleep by the gentle rise and fall of the running waves.
Morning consisted of the habitual trip to the bakery in Thompson Bay. Located next to the general store, a hairdressers, a tiny Red Rooster takeaway store (that could barely be described as part of a franchise) and a small surf shop, the shop square of Thompson Bay reflected the exact attitude of a small, humble holiday destination; Rottnest in a nutshell. The bakery was infamous for its delectable pastries, pies and loaves of soft, fluffy bread. We always seemed to arrive at 10 o' clock in the morning when one of the last batches of loaves was coming out of the oven. The bakery was filled with the humid and assorted smell of yeast, melted cheese, and herbs. It was a tradition for me to buy a 'smiley', a circle of shortbread covered in white fondant icing, scattered with hundreds and thousands. A giant chocolate smile and two eyes beamed up at me from the surface, completely unique to Rottnest. While we were at Thompson Bay shop sqaure, we would stock up on goods we had run out of, basically doing the general supply run.
The walk to Thompson Bay was event in itself. The narrow bike paths were lined with woody shubbery and small doubled-over quokkas - the 'mini kangaroos'. The path wove through a popular tourist destination, The Basin, on the north-east corner of the island. The Basin was flanked by an old white-washed lighthouse and the island's only pine trees, which reached twenty metres into the periwinkle blue sky. The name was derived from the feature that made it so popular - the Basin was literally a large hole in the reef which created a swimming pool or 'basin' effect. The beaches were always littered with tall, tanned men and women speaking in various exotic accents and unrecognisable languages.
The small surf shop in Thompson Bay somehow always managed to be ahead of perth trends and it was an unspoken rule that I would 'accidentally-on-purpose' forget to bring any shoes, so I could buy a pair of the latest ones from the shops. The only disadvantage of this scheme meant that I had to walk the four or so kilometres from Parakeet Bay to Thompson bay barefoot. This meant especially in summer, when the bike paths heated so much the musky smell of rubber was evident in the air, I would sprint fifty metre sections at a time in order to stand in the shadows where the ground was inevitably cooler.
Once in Thompson Bay, I would finally emerge from the path red-cheeked from running and with both a grimace and a pair of sore, calloused feet coloured black from the road. But it meant I had the prospect of choosing a brand new pair of thongs to wear and love until our following trip to Rottnest.
When we were feeling lazy, instead of walking to Thompson Bay, we would sail. On these occasions I would beg Dad to sail us around the desolate 'West End', or the back end of Rottnest, the furthest away from Perth. The trip around the West End was thrilling. Treacherous cliff faces looked down threateningly on rough, white-capped waves, which crashed violently against the cliff base. There were no people here, with the sparse exception of a few middle-aged tourists, usually sunburnt Brits, who were brave enough to attempt to cycle around the whole island. Dad would squint with concentration, avoiding perilous rocks that jutted out of the sea at uneasy angles, as I perched on the vinyl seat next to him, rattling off the names of the bays we were sailing past. Water would splash up spontaneously from the aggressive waves, spraying our tanned legs and forearms, staining our dry knees and elbows with salt.
Arriving in the calm, steady and familiar waters of Thompson Bay brought a sense of comfort and relief, the same feeling that immediately washed over me and consumed me, from the moment that we arrived at Rottnest until the second that we left. Looking back, Rottnest was the perfect environment for a child, the perfect place for me to grow into my own person and tentatively test out the idea of independence. Rottnest reflected all the qualities of childhood; the unique simplicity of it all, free from conflict and difficulty. Rottnest was much more than a second home to me; birthdays, Easters, Christmas' and anniversaries were all spent there. But it was the time spent with my family that made Rottnest my favourite place in this world.