I came back.
I have often found myself wondering why. Like most young adults you can’t wait to escape, embark on adventures to seek fortunes and generally find your place in the world – and as a restless soul I was certainly keen to leave my home.
Raised in the suburban areas of the Fleurieu Peninsula, I was never aware this overarching region held its own identity until I returned. I only knew the name of several suburbs, a few country towns and the places I would go fishing. The Fleurieu spans a large area in the southern part of South Australia forming the bottom part of the Gulf of St Vincent. It opposes Yorke Peninsula, with its tip providing a short one hour ferry route across to Kangaroo Island. On the surface it boasts many tourist attractions such as glorious country side, alluring forests, astounding beaches and rivers, rolling lush vineyards producing some of the world’s finest wines and many protected parks and wildlife. The renowned Port Willunga jetty is a crumbling ruin that attracts endless photographers, many wedding parties and thousands of beach goers. At low tide you can catch a glimpse of the shipwreck, The Star of Greece, which tragically sunk in the previous century; providing a wonderland for divers and keen snorkelers. It’s without doubt an eclectic mix of anything you could ever wish to live in.
But it’s not just a pretty place. I’ve now discovered this region emits an underpinning pulse that drives and enriches soul, which can only be tapped into when one takes the time to notice the detail and imprint it to memory. However this is easier said than done. We are all busy. We work longer hours. Our children, and us, are fixed on TV screens, phones and computers every day. It goes without saying I’m not etching this story with a feathered quill or by pounding on a squeaky typewriter. I find our contemporary culture prefers to skim through life as quickly as we can to get to the next place, yet keep complaining every year, ‘I can’t believe how fast this year has gone!’
I’ve deliberately attempted to write this piece without reference or research, but rather from memory of what I’ve heard, seen or merely felt. To embed memory into the fabric of my existence is something I took a while to appreciate, but strongly trust it to be a solid footing to live by. I feel it provides markers in my journey so I can see where I have grown along the way; allowing me to maintain a sense of humility. From what I believe, aboriginal culture value the memory of how their land was created for the purpose of storytelling, maintaining their culture and providing sustenance for future generations – and for forty thousand years this has served them well. I only hope in the same way, I can value my memory of the Fleurieu Peninsula which has helped me become who I am today…although I didn’t know this in the early days.
From the age of four I was raised in this region and called it home for the next seventeen years. Apart from school life, I have only a few memories of life on the Fleurieu. Cricket on the beach, fishing at the iconic Rapid Bay jetty – now condemned, dodging swooping magpies in the park, bike rides along the many trails, and the arrival of the first traffic light among the fields of Seaford which is now drenched in urban sprawl. I remember getting my car license as soon as possible so I could drive myself to catch a few waves, more fishing, or discreetly park along a quiet bend of the Onkaparinga River where I would skim stones on the still waters as I grieve over a broken relationship.
My days traveling to country towns to play football also formed part of this limited memory. I knew some of the towns but never the roads in between. I figure I must’ve simply switched off as a young lad, perhaps dreaming of other places instead of looking at the one that had embraced me. Now I recognize much more. The gnarly trees that line these country roads are hard to forget when you get to know them. Without fail or judgement they will greet you with a consistent welcoming every time you pass. I often find myself stopping on the side of the road just to touch one of these marvels; knowing they have been standing for centuries, providing reliable food, shelter and accommodation for numerous creatures.
My father loved the country life and I knew how much the fresh air meant to him. I believe he wanted the same for my younger sister and me, so apart from the several fishing expeditions, we were lucky enough to go on a school holiday retreat called Wirraway Homestead. For two weeks we rode horses, made campfires with new friends, played games and slept in bunkhouses that overlooked the lush countryside.
My first acknowledgement of detail came when I embarked on an orienteering activity. As I navigated my way across the undulating hills with my compass and sheet of clues, I gawked in wonder at the purple sea of Salvation Jane that covered the paddocks. Although they were poisonous for horses, which I found out later that day, its beauty still remained. To this day I can never go past a field of Jane without stopping to look at this entrancing spectacle.
But like many young boys, you grow into restless teenagers. You no longer stop to smell the flowers because it ain’t cool! You swap your pushbike that could get you into so many nooks and crannies for a cheap rusted Torana that would be limited to the roads – when it didn’t break down or run out of petrol.
I’d had enough of this area and left for the big smoke for the next six years. In this time I travelled overseas, got married, and saw the birth of our two sons. I moved us around to accommodate our growing family of children and pets, but underneath there was a sense of something missing. Each house we rented gradually drew us further back south until we returned to the Fleurieu just months before the birth of our daughter…amongst other things.
So I had returned. We had chosen the piece of land we were to build our house upon, and the school our children would attend all within the one week. It was clear. I felt we were returning somewhere and about to embark on a journey to be remembered, and the land of the Fleurieu Peninsula was about to play a big part.
Although we had moved to a few suburbs within the region, we settled in the historic town of Willunga. Most accounts of the name comes from the Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of trees.’ It was here I began to notice the finer detail this region had to offer.
In my travels as an emerging film maker I decided to interview a couple of local historians about the town. As it was the second place to be founded (after Glenelg) in 1839, there was a lot of history to be told. The stories alone would be a novel in itself. The two rivalling slate quarries, the increasing presence of Cornish workers bringing rise to the establishment of three pubs in the one stretch of road, and the introduction of the women who were sent on boats to assist with population growth. The emerging brothels that bore the nicknames Slap Ass Road and Tickle Belly Lane. The establishment of the longest running festival in the country The Almond Blossom Festival now in its forty fifth year. The local courthouse and police station which as a museum tells countless stories of the olden days, and the previous existence of thousands of Almond trees ripped out to be replaced with a saturation of Vineyards. We were even lucky enough to have rented one of the first cottages to be built in the town. The miniscule doorways, slate floors and two feet thick walls were quite the novelty.
Like many Australian places there is a rich existence of Aboriginal culture to be had. I’ll admit I’ve never been very educated with the stories and declare ignorance to exactly where the Pitjantjara tribe existed but I do remember an interesting fact from one of the historians. They told me that when white settlers first arrived in Willunga, they had peaceful relations with the indigenous folk at the time. I was quite taken aback as all I ever heard was the unimaginable suffering our traditional owners endured for the sake of our Colonisation. I feel this is something you can sense even today when you wander through the streets of Willunga on a Sunday afternoon and visit one of the seven or eight cafes for a light lunch – it’s a place of peace.
One of the most engaging aspects of this town is its sense of community. Many food co-ops, farmer’s markets, biodynamic and sustainable living advocates, along with the multitude of creative artists. The colourful celebration of each season in its solstice and equinox are carefully wrapped in the staging of a delightful festival or fair. The café culture breathes endless conversation over cappuccinos and lattes which I find myself yearning for on a daily basis – with or without the caffeine!
My children were lucky to experience such a place that celebrated culture at the heart and I’ve seen the results in watching these amazing beings grow – with their equally amazing friends. Having been educated in Willunga’s branch of the world renowned Rudolph Steiner School, it was easy to embody this sense of culture and environmental awareness. The school itself is a lot like something out of the Hobbit. Storybook looking classrooms that would appear to house gnomes, biodynamic gardens and a natural water course that winds through the school grounds. Their dedication to installing a natural approach to education is astounding. In addition, their school excursions around the Fleurieu were a privilege to be involved in. Whether it was camping at Deep Creek Conservation Park where the forty minute hike down to a hidden waterfall is nothing short of breathtaking, to the famed Lightning Tree in Kuitpo Forest that beckons children to climb its fallen trunks; exuding moments of wonder when drenched in a sudden butterfly invasion.
It was for this school that I wrote my first musical called ‘Wrong Side of the Tracks’. It’s about a boy who runs away from home because life’s too tough doing chores for his parents, but his search for greener pastures falls sour and he returns home with a greater appreciation for the way things are. I didn’t know it at the time that this was going to reflect my personal journey.
I’ve made many friends in this region who embrace the nature around them to a much greater depth than I could achieve. I admire the extent people will go to in order to live a self-sufficient life; taking great care to reduce their carbon footprint where possible. They’ll find natural ways to heat and cool their home, grow numerous types of fruit and vegetables, recycle water run offs and walk or ride bikes instead of taking the car. One colourful chap will walk a reasonable distance with his wheelbarrow to the Saturday morning market to avoid using bags to carry his weekly produce.
One of my best mates is an exquisite photographer of birds, nudes and landscapes. He too has a deep respect of nature’s beauty. It always amazes me that we could be sitting on his front lawn enjoying an ale, and instead of merely commenting on the pleasure of chirping birds, he would pick the Little Corellas and the Noisy Minors from the New Holland Honeyeaters, just by listening. I find that kind of connection, to take notice of the finer details, creates a much stronger memory of that moment. Perhaps one day with a bit more practice, I too could inspire someone, perhaps a grandchild, by naming a bird merely from the sound it makes.
The beauty of my place, apart from its aesthetic qualities and its natural inhabitants, is its spiritual gift. I’ve embarked on several endeavours over the years in a desire to find some sense of my life and establish identity, but nothing more poignant than the Fleurieu was about to unveil. From meeting with fellow parents at the school, I heard of a healthy men’s movement that existed nearby. It began with a small men’s group that would meet every month to simply talk about things they wouldn’t find comfortable to share in their daily lives. This connection led to my knowledge of an annual men’s retreat on Kangaroo Island, just off the coast from Cape Jervis; the bottom tip of the peninsula.
The objective of the retreat was to do what had been missing in our western culture – the initiation of boys becoming men. The weekend event was held on a two hundred acre property surrounded by untouched national parks, and fathers would bring their fifteen year old sons and experience the transition together. The objective was to leave behind the boyish attitudes one has adopted, and embrace the responsibilities of becoming a strong and nurturing man; thereby enhancing your contribution to society when you returned. Chanting with a group of a dozen men and their sons in a disused limestone quarry, bathed in the radiating light of a full moon is a moment of utmost liberation and nothing short of magnificence. I had the fortune of returning with my second son a couple of years later and the experience was just as powerful. Had I encountered such a thing when I was fifteen, my life would’ve been different. No regrets, just a lot different.
This inspired me to enhance my spiritual journey by embarking on a Vipassana course in Victor Harbour. Another popular tourist town that is home to the well-known Granite Island, the annual return of the Southern Right Whales, and the annual invasion of the infamous ‘Schoolies’. However my trip down there was going to be quite the opposite. Never have I felt so in touch. Nine days of utmost silence and meditation totally awakened the senses. It allowed me to truly inhale the beauty of my surroundings for what they were. I experienced a seamless transition between body and landscape that was surreal, yet felt totally natural and all encompassing. When I returned to the land of the living I saw details with sight, sound and feeling that can’t be described, yet truly remarkable.
Having now spent many years seeing the Fleurieu in a different light, I began to notice those who weren’t. I recall clearly one day I was standing on the edge of a car park overlooking the cliffs of Sellicks beach to the ocean beneath; soaking up the tranquillity. I had just visited the esteemed pebble house; a two storey abode on the esplanade, decorated entirely with a multitude of pebbles from the beach. Even the letterbox is an exact replica of the house. The work is quite amazing.
While enjoying my surroundings I noticed a family had arrived. The mother and father, like me, were also enjoying the view, whereas one of the children leant against the car in total immersion of the record they were trying to break on their phone game. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the next generation are so obsessed with screen based entertainment, and dulling the senses, that they miss the marvels around them. Their head buried so deep in a digital world of make believe angry birds that they fail to see the happy seagull, picking through the remnants of an earlier fisherman’s catch.
This realisation saddens me that thousands of children, even my own, may miss the detail of what surrounds them because it simply doesn’t appeal to the adrenalin fix that can be found at their fingertips. My wife and I would attempt to counteract this emerging culture by taking our children away from the digital babysitters, and go for drives through the country to visit remote little towns. From the antique shop heaven of Strathalbyn to the hidden beachside town of Second Valley, we traversed many kilometres of natural wonder.
One I remember fondly was Prospect Hill, an old gold mining town, tucked away in the back of Kuitpo Forest. The lady in the museum we visited revelled in telling us stories about the area which I found my children riveted to hear. One tale that stuck, back in the early 1900’s, was about a housewife who walked, with a couple of kids, to Adelaide to get supplies from the market and returned the same day. She would leave by sunrise and be back before sunset. By car this is well over an hour. One can only imagine how much detail she would have had to record to memory in order to make the journey and back safely – despite our reputation of extreme weathers. I’m sure her children would have also paid close attention to their surroundings and could’ve easily made the journey themselves without the aid of maps or a GPS system.
Some may look upon that story with sympathy for the hard times our ancestors had to endure for the sake of survival. I don’t feel this way. I get a strong sense they were much more content with life ‘as it is’, than many of us who approach it ‘as we wish it to be.’ They knew their place well, every inch, and perhaps didn’t for the most part experience the anxiety, depression or attention deficit syndromes us and our children so quickly label. Perhaps they found solace in their landscape. Of course without the temptation of technology they knew nothing else.
I too remember having to tag along with my parents on outings which I usually enjoyed, because it involved getting out into nature. When I was about seven or eight they took me to Maslin Beach – the first official nude beach in Australia. We only went as far as the clothed section but they did tell me, tactfully I’m sure, about what lay beyond. I was a little intrigued but still confused – who would want to expose themselves to others?! And this was the limit to my experience until I returned years later.
On my twenty first birthday my girlfriend at the time, (now my wife), took me to the nude section. It felt quite mischievous but relieving that on that cold winter’s day, chances are no-one else was crazy enough to get naked. We found ourselves in one of the rocky caves, stripped off and ran towards the water’s edge. The chilling air and equally cold water were certainly not in the favour of any young man wishing to impress his girlfriend! Despite the feeling that someone could suddenly arrive and see us in all our glory, and the gritty sand in unwelcome places, it was nothing short of total exhilaration. Being that close to nature without any barriers was quite overwhelming. The limestone cliffs that threatened to crumble at any moment remained solid in their protection of our daring exploits.
The local film Maslin Beach was my first major acting role and once again I was inspired by the gorgeous and liberating setting that I even chose to make my first short film there several years later about two cavemen fighting over a stick. Needless to say it was a slap-stick comedy that saw me and a mate running around in seaweed covered G-strings; much to the amusement of a few dog-walkers passing by. Maybe for them it was a titillating reminder of the Nude Olympics they use to hold every year. I’m sure there were many memories for the locals during those events with sights they will never forget and perhaps more detail than they care to remember!
My wife and I with our three young children, even went so far as to venture down there years later with some close family friends and took the plunge to be nude in front of each other. It was certainly a bold step in our friendship and of course the children all giggled with embarrassment. But again it was a fond memory full of rich detail in seeing the human body being immersed in nature, from whence it came and where it will evidently end.
Only recently did I venture back to Maslin for a different experience. The TV mini-series Deadline Gallipoli was filming and I had been doing some acting work as an Australian soldier. The stunning coastline and looming cliff faces had been chosen to represent the beaches of Anzac Cove – signifying the torturous event our diggers endured. As I lay shivering on a stretcher with copious amounts of fake blood oozing from my latex rubber wounds, I couldn’t help wondering if those brave men thought of home as they trembled in the trenches. Perhaps, I would like to think, that the memory of peaceful landscapes, fishing in a nearby river, or even that field of Salvation Jane as it flickered rhythmically in the gentle breeze, helped them get through the shelling, the suffering and the blood they so often swam in. Maybe this was the case for those intrepid explorers who first discovered this region, having travelled for months aboard uncomfortable ships. How often did they think about the intricacies of their homeland, in order to cope with the rocky seas and imminent diseases that wiped out their crew?
This was when it became apparent to me how much I valued the place I’d grown up in, and later explored in more detail. Like everyone, I’ve had my tough times. I’ve felt like I wanted to disappear from everyone and everything to escape the world. However my recollection of the region, in all facets, is an incredible drug to numb the pain. Even the mere thought of the pristine beaches, the lush green grape vines when everything else around them are brown and dry and the visions of those breathtaking slate quarries always provide a subconscious soothing to my anxious soul.
As I write this, I’m currently planning to seek other pastures again. I’ll admit I’m restless by nature, but this time I have so much to carry with me, so many memories, smells, sounds, sights and friendships that have formed part of me. I carry the landscape with me in my dreams, in my writing, in my future challenges. I will leave this pasture for sure, but I can only do so because I have learned to embrace the richness of my surroundings – the landscape forever flowing through my veins. I have so many stories about my peninsula for future generations, but only made possible by the detail I took notice of, and committed to memory. Raising children, embracing community, breathing every drop of this region that although on the surface is continuously changing, remains firmly rooted below.
So yeah I came back, but for what reason? Unconscious magnetic attraction? Perhaps I had so much more to absorb than I did as a child. Maybe like this current generation I too was distracted by other things, but now I wanted more – like standing still long enough to notice that elusive tawny frog mouth, camouflaged, and nestling quietly in the tree above.
As I embark on my customary morning walk before the sun rises, I set out to think about what else I need to add to my story on the Fleurieu. As soon as I leave my front door I’m met at my driveway by the local three legged Border Collie for a friendly pat, a customary ‘good morning’ from a keen jogger and again from a happy dog-walker moments later. When I arrive at the old courthouse, I notice the new erection of an Aboriginal Humpy in front of the museum; having been built for the smoking ceremony held the previous weekend to honour the town’s 175th year anniversary. I sit and enjoy the sound of seven or eight different types of birds greeting the new dawn, even though I could only name one of them. The looming sunrise casting a warm glow over the leaves in the tops of the towering gum trees; whose trunks span a width far greater than my arms can reach. The stirring hum of bees far above in the tree tops contribute to this precious moment as they set to work gathering their morning nectar. All of this occurring within a mere ten minutes. Without doubt this place oozes a unique charm that cannot be replicated anywhere on the planet.
I feel blessed that I returned to bring up my children, and took the time to expose them to as much as possible so they too can appreciate the place around them. Maybe even forming part of their own memories to carry with them on their life’s journey. I’m eternally grateful for this region as it was this past seventeen year experience that unveiled my desire to become a writer. I even make a point to revisit my favourite areas within the Fleurieu as a source of inspiration when I’m writing my next play, film script or novel. It’s honestly the best muse an artist could wish for.
And when I leave this place to experience different cultures and communities, I hope the memory of it will continue to radiate throughout the rest of my life, as it was truly a gift I had almost overlooked.