Friday, January 12, 2018


Image result for images of Limestone Coast
Back on the mainland, I feel somehow freer, less confined which when I reflect on it seems utterly ridiculous. After all, I was  only on Kangaroo Island – not Devil’s Island. But the road beckons and I succumb to its lure.

However, I don't get far. This is because I make a snap decision to turn of the road in the direction of a sign pointing to a place named Victor Harbor. I'd been slowing down anyway because of the scenery acting on my progress like a wind-anchor. But right up until now Victor Harbor had been a total black spot in my consciousness. On the quieter road diverting me closer to the coast, I'm already taking exception to the misspelling of "harbour". (The lame but best explanation later research throws up is that around the time of the settlement's founding, American spelling was making a concerted effort to muscle in on an Australian English just finding its feet.)

Officially its a city but I have a mental block in thinking of towns of this size as cities. As I ride along the dog-legged main street I can feel myself being captivated. Perhaps Aborigines really are on the money when they talk about spirits residing in various places. That may explain where the charm offensive is coming from - the spirit of Victor Harbor. I'll just rest for a bit, have a cup of coffee and then be on my way, I tell myself. After the coffee is drunk, and it being such a beautiful day, I decide to take a short stroll before throwing my leg over the bike.

As usual, I'm drawn to the sea. It fairly glitters in the noonday sun. But what do I see here? It's a long wooden causeway connecting the seaside to what looks like a scrub topped clump of rock. It's named Granite Island, I find out later. Even better, moving along the causeway pulled by two beautiful and beautifully groomed matching draft horses is an open upper deck tram appearing out of the nineteenth century. The horses are Palominos with white faces and tails and wearing impeccable white horsehair boots. Oh, this is just too much, I'm thinking. This is one of those moments when looked back on, it's realised one was happy. Blink and you miss it.


I really should get going, but what's that over there? Closer investigation reveals it is a whaling museum. Victor Harbor, like so many other southern Australian coastal locations rode not on the sheep's back but on the whale's back when whale oil was ocean-going gold. Unlike the whalers prowling the seas - windblown predators - the land-bound hunters such as operated from Victor Harbor took to the sea in flimsy whaleboats, no matter the weather, to row like hell in pursuit of the biggest animal in creation. This was definitely men's work. If it still existed today, it's highly probable that even the most feisty of the "girls can do anything" brigade would draw the line at entering this kind of employment.

As I'm standing for long moments outside the entrance of the museum, looking at my watch trying to decide if I have enough time to check it out, I hear a voice from inside saying, "Are you going to stand there all day or are you coming in?" I enter the cavernous building as though I've been pushed in the back. The owner of the voice turns out to be a young Englishman volunteering at this monument to a (happily) bygone era. He in no way matches the gruffness of the voice and I'm soon being beguiled by his knowledge of and passion for his chosen subject. I have to break away from him if I'm to see the exhibits here. I do, and it's fascinating. Rammed home is the realisation that catching the whale at distinct danger to life and limb was only half the fun. Extracting the oil was the other half. Brown tinted photos show men stripped to the waist, standing on dead whales and wielding what look to be poles with cutlass-like blades forming the business end. With these they would slice long strips of blubber from the whales. I've worked at some very physically demanding jobs myself but I can only imagine how hard this work would have been. 

Several rusting try pots are on display. These were the pots (roughly the size of those used by cannibals to make stew of missionaries in old cartoons) in which the sliced and diced blubber was melted down into the end product.

By the time I finish my journey into the world of whaling and have a parting conversation with the English volunteer it's well into the afternoon. As I rather subconsciously suspected, I'm not riding any further today. This quaint locale is where I would be pitching my tent.

I can't even follow through on my plan to get an early start the next day. A leisurely breakfast in a cafe smelling richly of coffee and croissants is followed by the inclination to have one final look around.

It's almost noon by the time I'm back on the highway that will take me along what is now known as the Limestone Coast, aka the shipwreck coast, an apt name as the area is virtually littered with old shipwrecks, far more than I ever thought possible. That's probably because I'm thinking in terms of modern navigation aids which by comparison, the navigational tools of the wooden sailing ships and even the later steamships were primitive. Some ships were wrecked because their captains believed them to be miles from where they truly were.

I want to make it in one hit to Mount Gambia, a city I have fond memories of, especially the incredible Blue Lake which oddly sits far above the town. This is because it is actually a dead volcano filled with water. It's a decent slog from start to finish and I'm not even sure why I want to cover so much distance. It's perhaps I feel I've been dawdling and need to make up some time, which I don't really because, as the Stones once sung, time is on my side.

Even so, I'm guilty of doing a little more dawdling on some of the areas I pass through, each in their own way every bit as enchanting as Victor Harbor. Unsurprisingly, most of the towns and villages along the coast have rich maritime histories. Wooden boats more than a century old tied up at street-long, grey/blue wooden wharves don't seem to be all that far out of place.

Eventually I come to the city of Kingston SE (South East, added to distinguish it from another Kingston in the state which later became Kingston on the Murray, adding another layer of protection against it being mistaken for the wrong town. Now one would think that development would have allowed the Kingston along whose main road I'm now riding to ditch the SE once it was safe from confusion, but it hasn't) I don't have any problem in thinking of this town as a city as it is spread out and confusing enough to be legitimately thought of as such.

The Big Lobster I can safely avoid without it troubling my conscience but with my passion for Australian history, how can I go past the maritime museum and replica nineteenth century village?
The museum is filled mostly with artifacts retrieved from wrecks, some rusting and decidedly worse for wear, while others appear to be in mint condition. I stand before and old diving helmet and suit and wonder how,with my claustrophobia, I'd like to have my head in such a thing, not to mention the total trust that one would have to have in those above pumping air down through a vulnerable rubber hose. Here is another job I suspect would not be causing women to complain about "male-dominated" professions.

Even while I'm expecting the exhibits I'm peeking through windows at the little re-created village below, eager to get down to it.

OK, it's a bit kitschy but I'm loving it, all the little shops in faithful rendering of a long ago time - the dress shop containing clothes so unlike what women wear today and which would no doubt cause the nineteenth century ladies to positively swoon. There's the blacksmith's, the ships chandler, the tiny newspaper with hand-operated printing press, the pub in the likes of which it would be highly unlikely for responsible service of alcohol regulations to be rigidly adhered to. Those pubs had a singular purpose. They were places in which to get pissed. There's even a quaint tea shop which sells real tea and coffee served by wenches in nineteenth century attire. I'm hoping the scones are not of the same era.

Coffeed and sconed, I continue my meandering. I pop my head into a shed stuffed full of old equipment that I'm tipping is the real deal. Instantly capturing my attention is an old sign on which is written in fading script, "Rocket Crew Practice" below which is a scarred blackboard where dates and times of practice were presumably chalked. To the uninitiated, the term "Rocket Crew" would conjure up an impossibly futuristic image for something supposedly belonging to one and a half centuries ago, but I'm familiar with the concept. I know it has nothing to do with men hurtling through space, notwithstanding the imagination of Jules Verne.

Au contraire, the rocket crews of which I speak operated far from outer space in the more familiar but often even more deadly environment of rocky coasts usually in the midst of howling storms. The mainstay of apparatus used by the crews was invented in 1808 by one of those old fashioned humanitarians who these days appear to be fairly thin on the ground. He was the Englishman, Henry Trengrouse who, appalled at the loss of life on ships smashed on coastal shores, dedicated himself to finding a way of alleviating it. (Lifeboats sent from the shore in violent seas often resulted in an even greater loss of life.)

He determined to improve on the semi-successful existing system of firing a lifeline from a mortar on shore to the doomed ship. The main reason for its limited success was that the instant velocity at which the shell left the mortar often snapped the line. Trengrouse reasoned that a line attached to a rocket which took longer to attain full velocity would solve the problem - and it did. The problem remaining was that a ship any further out from shore than around 500 yards, or about 460 metres, was out of range, the passengers and crew essentially doomed. Even so, an enormous number of ships were being wrecked within that range,

The rocket and tube from which it was fired was the centrepiece of equipment that usually needed a cart to transport - lines, rope, tripods, pulleys, blocks and tackle and breeches buoy which was a life ring forming the rim of a canvas bag with two holes in the bottom for legs to go through. The method comprised firing a rocket attached to a thin line over the stricken ship. In raging storms with wild winds, this was obviously no easy task and the reason regular practice was called for. Once succeeding to get the line aboard it would be used to pull aboard a hawser, or heavy rope which would be secured to the ship. The shore end of the rope would need to be at least initially attached to a higher point than where it was attached to the ship in order that a pulley attached to a line and holding the breech buoy could then be sent out to the ship and used to safely transfer passengers and crew to shore. It must have been the wildest flying fox ride imaginable. When the Sirius (a first fleet ship and workhorse of the early colony) was wrecked on a reef in Sydney Bay on Norfolk Island, a similar system was used to save the human cargo, supplies and much of the food of which the ship was making an emergency delivery.

In LP Harley's novel, The Go Between, the famous opening sentence is "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". Was there ever a truer sentence written?

To be continued

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