Set on Coogee’s northern headland, this is the last of some 30 stories that begin in 1914 when Sid Thompson, a young man from Sydney, embarks on a life changing voyage to Melanesia as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF).
The stories have been influenced by my own journeys into Asia and Melanesia. They present this encounter as one that has both tangible and intangible dimensions. As the Balinese would say, there is Si Kala and Nis Kala, the seen and the unseen.
Sid was familiar with Coogee’s northern headland. It has a long history and for me it’s been through several transformations that make it a special place.
Coogee’s dramatic sandstone cliffs change slowly, seemingly intractable barriers. Such change is almost imperceptible in human terms, rent by relentless abrading of surface, measured in millimeters, yet their very substance is the product of countless transformations beginning in a instant of creation, a point at which both space and time begins, the point at which God made the heaven and the earth.
Standing on the northern headland of Coogee these thoughts preoccupy me. On a human scale it’s 1995 but I’m dwarfed by a sense of eternity and retreat into the tangible domain of geological time. I imagine the end of the long Carboniferous winter, the planet warming slowly through 30 million years of the Permian, glacial ice still clinging to Gondwana’s high ground, then steadily retreating as the warming continues and Permian merges with Triassic, leaving drop stones and marks of glacial gouging in the sediments that remain.
I’m conscious that my feet stand on what were once vast sandy deposits that began accumulating in the Triassic Period consolidating and deepening over another 30 million years in what became the Sydney Basin. I think of the long slow northerly migration, from the continent’s former union with Antarctica, of sea levels rising and falling of the planet warming and cooling.
Looking seaward I picture the edge of the Continental Shelf, our Pleistocene coastline, 50 kilometres east and 150 metres below. What did Aboriginal Australians think when the final slow rising began some 15,000 years ago lapping at a steadily retreating coastal life? How did they respond to the slow transformation and the ultimate emergence of Sydney’s impressive Hawkesbury sandstone cliffs, of its drowned river valleys and bays, of its beaches stacked high with Pleistocene sand drifts in places seamlessly merging off shore islands and mainland.
Headlands can be exposed and lonely places, cut by wind and salt spray. Eyrie like they command excellent views of that most abrupt of transformations, land meeting sea in a zone of turbulence and natural energies. Celtic monks acknowledged their spiritual importance choosing headlands and rocky islands as preferred places of solitude for their beehive shaped clochans. Headlands are inherently vantage points from which one is privileged to experience moments of clarity, moments in which the veil shrouding the profound mystery of creation is apt to lift.
Coogee had long been invested with special meaning. I saw it as a place imbued with spirits of grandparents and family long gone, of a childhood now only partly remembered. Perhaps it was just a case of connectedness with childhood and my maternal ancestor’s graves which lay to the south. It’s often said that one isn’t of a place until it has received their dead. On this day it was my place, yet there was a resonance that I found disquieting.
Here at the northern end of the beach there was something heavy, something outside my understanding, but in the rational post war world of my childhood such feelings were not to be shared. As a young person I simply related them to my own fears of the unknown. Yet I led a life that was largely free of physical boundaries and not overly absorbed with fearful thoughts. Apart from a healthy concern for sharks I swam, surfed and skin dived along the coastline. I roamed freely in the adjoining suburbs.
Further north in Thompson’s Bay and Clovelly there was a less intense resonance, then on the next headland north, adjacent to historic Waverley cemetery the intensity resumed. Working there in Burrows Park as a groundsman in late 1966, the heaviness was quite manifest, the cemetery in particular absorbing much of my attention. I felt acutely uncomfortable being so close by. I’d never had that feeling about a cemetery before in fact I rather enjoyed the cemetery at South Coogee where several of my maternal relatives were buried. As a small child I often wandered there with my mother and grandmother.
The secular rational part of me simply put it down to what I saw as an extravagant waste of prime cliff top land, at the time I was completely unaware of its the heritage value having never dared venture inside. In more introspective moments I understood these feelings as an aspect of my own alienation from much that I saw around me. This was the time when, Ronald Ryan, the last Australian to be executed was hung at Pentridge gaol. The ACTU called on workers to strike that day. I did this willingly, not able to stay in the isolated headland park alone at such a time.
Perhaps my awkward feelings around the northern headlands of Coogee and Clovelly related to my own morbid childlike fears of death. Some of these isolated stretches of coastline were favourite suicide places and sometimes bodies were retrieved from amongst the huge boulders at the base of cliffs. In the end I simply accepted that the energies were dark and inexplicable.
Later, living and working in Indonesia, Bali in particular, I learned that some cultures were inclined to view the world this way. Areas had their own special energies which rendered them more or less suitable for human habitation. Certain areas were inclined to fall under the influences of gods or demons. In Bali this general understanding was expressed through the doctrine of Tri Angkah which imposed set of spiritual planning principles on every village.
In this spiritual scheme higher places towards the mountains and the east were spiritually positive. Lower places towards the sea and the west were spiritually negative. In southern Bali the cremation grounds were always lower than villages and usually to the south and west of the town centre. The tourist precincts of Jimbaran, Kuta, Legian and Seminyak were all at the lowest points in the south of the island, the realm of demons.
Aboriginal tradition, it seems, reserved the northern end of Coogee beach for men’s activities and the southern end for women’s business. Interestingly this practice was adopted in the early days of European sea bathing, the bogey hole under the northern headland reserved for men and the rock platform beyond the southern end of the beach for women. To this day an entrance gate titled ‘Baths’ remains at the head of the stairs leading down to the bogey hole while to the south McIver’s women’s only baths is a Sydney landmark.
In January 2003 local resident, Christine Cherry, reported seeing an apparition that she described as the Virgin. Appearing on a post and rail fence line near the old baths portico, the phenomenon was first noticed just weeks after the headland had been renamed Dolphin’s Point, in recognition of the many people from the area who lost their lives in the Bali Bombings of October 2002.
Visiting the site at the time was quite a remarkable experience. Large and diverse crowds appeared, blending skepticism, faith and curiosity. Amongst them skeptics seemed by far the most vocal. “It’s just light and shadows”, was a common response. Both Roman church and Randwick Council were also skeptical, yet what appeared each afternoon clearly resembled some traditional representations of the Mother of God. Indeed it was light, shadow, post and rail but I puzzled about just what people expected. In my own mind this was enough to mark the importance of the site, apparition or no.
Around this time a plaque was mounted in the old baths portico, it commemorated the 20 residents of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs who died in the bombing. Later on the first anniversary of the bombing a more substantial memorial ‘Reclaiming Spirit’ was unveiled in a prominent place above the portico, one with commanding views of the Tasman Sea, Wedding Cake Island and the entire sweep of Coogee’s beach and waterfront . This striking memorial commemorates the 91 Australian citizens and residents who were among the victims of the bombing.
Shortly after these events some research I’d been conducting into my paternal ancestors revealed an unexpected fact. Great grandfather Edward, his wife Lizzie, mother Hannah and one infant child Francis were all buried in the old Waverley cemetery. Adding to this paternal presence was the discovery that his brother Samuel and a large portion of his family were also there. In a matter of weeks the disquieting concerns I associated with areas to the north of Coogee were replaced with a new sense of reverence and respect.
I still visit the site and under the appropriate conditions of light and shade I often see the phenomenon. Recently I noticed printed sheets pinned along the fence rail next to the post that forms the centre of the apparition. Just informal notes, and complied by someone with little formal training in English, they chronicle more than twenty instances of pilgrims encountering the ‘Virgin Mary’. Whatever the veracity of these claims and the nature of these events, the site has become a place of pilgrimage, for some it’s a sacred site a place of miracles, for others a place for reflection and contemplation. For me it’s no longer simply a confluence of land, sea and sky. Freed of its former heaviness it has become a place of transformed energies, contemplative and sad but above all a place that offers new beginnings.