Guest Post: Botany Bay/ Paradise Bay

When you think of Botany Bay, does the idea of paradise come into your mind? Your answer is probably no. Rob Hanna would disagree. He grew up in Botany during the 1950s, way before the Port reclaimed much of Botany’s coast. Rob’s home backed straight onto Botany Bay and to him, the Bay was a childhood paradise that will never be surpassed’.
ABOVE: The view, looking west from the bottom of Fremlin Street, Botany, 1956
BELOW: Approximately the same view today, 2015, City of Botany Bay
 We recently rediscovered Rob’s essay while we were researching material for a self-guided tour of Botany’s foreshores. The tour will be available in October via an app on your mobile phone. Until then here is Rob’s essay which recalls life along Botany’s foreshores from the 1950s onwards.
The Bay was always a part of my earliest consciousness, as well as the trams that used to rumble along Botany Road. That wasn’t counting my mother of course. She was always there. There was never a time when she wasn’t.

Botany Bay was not the French Riviera, but to me it was a childhood paradise that will never be surpassed. I recall the many faces of the Bay. The shimmering waters reflecting the bright sunlight and blue sky, the seabirds wheeling in the sky above, the changing colours of the seasons or time of day, the magic sunsets, the squalls and rain of May, the indifference of winter, and the long lazy summers that beckoned us back each year.

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.

My first futile attempts at fishing were made just out the back on the beach. A piece of wood pretending to be a rod, some white string and a bent safety pin with a worm on the end was the limit of my tackle. Disappointingly, I caught nothing, but my mother caught me on camera from behind. The black and white photo is still somewhere in the family home, a testament to this occasion.

As I grew older I became more adventurous, and set off along the beach to discover the world. I would have been five years of age when I met Denis further up the beach. His home also backed on to the Bay some five houses along.  He was with his father, a large man with dark hair. That was all I remembered of Denis’ father.  He died not long after that.

Denis became my first and longest friend. I still see him today and catch up on trips to Botany, some 56 years later. Denis was a natural in the Bay environment. He was better than me at swimming, fishing and crabbing and other pursuits in and out of the water.

Dennis Muller,c. 1950s
Courtesy of Dennis Muller

The Bay was also still a magnet for fisherman. Small cabin boats and dinghies were anchored permanently around our part of the Bay, and were used frequently by their local owners for fishing further out in the Bay. When not in use they served as roosting platforms for the local seagull population, and diving platforms for us at high tide. That’s if you didn’t get warned or chased off by their owners. I always recall the boats covered in white gull droppings, and on hotter days, the blended smell of fish, gull droppings and the painted timbers.

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.

Not far along the beach just past Johnny’s place was the Pier. It was largely derelict in my time, having been built in the early years of the century as a facility for colliers from Newcastle to unload coal for the nearby Bunnerong power station. The Pier consisted of a bitumen road than ran three quarters of the way out to the wooden structure of the wharf area itself, which consisted of two large hopper type structures on either side. I was later to learn that these were the hopper facilities that were used for unloading the coal. On the other side of the Pier was Botany Golf Course.
The Long Pier, c. 1930s. Courtesy City of Botany Bay
The Hanna Family out with family, near the Long Pier, c1950s. Courtesy of Robert Hanna

The wooden structure of the Pier was in a considerable state of disrepair.  Many timbers, including those in the floor, had long disappeared, and one had to crisscross these gaps or fall through into the Bay. The Pier, however, was a great local spot for fishing, and despite my father’s concerns for my safety, Denis and I spent many hours there in pursuit of the local fish population. As always, Denis caught more fish than me.

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.

Fishing also provided a livelihood for some locals in the area. There was cluster of houses about a mile along the beach in the direction of the Airport known as Fishing Town.  Several generations of the same families fished the waters of the Bay for a living, and their dories could be seen out in the bay dragging large nets. Often these nets would be landed on the beach, and their contents disgorged on the sand. All shapes and sizes of fish, crabs, stingrays (Captain Cook had originally called the Bay Stingray Bay), prawns, small sharks and other sea life would appear on the beach, and would act as a magnet for many people in the area.
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.
My father often warned us of sharks in the bay, but said that there had never been any attacks or sightings on our side of the Bay. He used to sail a boat on the bay before he was married, and he said that sharks were more of a problem around the entrances to the Cooks and Georges Rivers. He always said there was a natural sand bar on our side of the Bay that kept large sharks away.

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.

At low tide my father took me prawning with a bucket and a rake. He would use a metal garden rake, and rake the sand flats in shallow water at low tide. This would disturb the occasional prawn buried in the sand, which would scurry a few yards off to rebury itself and hide again. Knowing where it was, you would gently cover its eyes with sand, then grab it from behind and place in a metal bucket about a third full of seawater. We would probably catch about thirty or so prawns – not as many in later years,  when with Denis and others, we used much more ambitious equipment such as dragnets and lanterns for night prawning. These prawns were not large – school prawns we called them – but they were sweet.

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 father explained 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

heritage-listed or protected area because it was a nesting area for migratory seabirds that travelled from Japan and further north to avoid the Northern winter. They lived in Botany Bay for our summer, returning to their Northern homes as our winter approached.

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

The first change we saw was the arrival of the dredge. It anchored directly off our section of the beach, and soon started spewing sand, mud and the whole seashore through a gigantic pipe. An island soon appeared in the Bay, and it got larger and larger. This seemed a novelty at first. We would go out and play on the new mountains of sand that grew out of the Bay. Gradually, our section of beach disappeared altogether. Gone forever were the weed beds, the jumping fish, the Queen’s Patch, the changing tides, the castles and the levees in the sand. No longer could we swim just out the back.

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.

On visits to Sydney I found it difficult to explain to my young children what it used to be like out the back. Their grandparents are dead now, but they also recalled happier times with much sadness. Paradise was taken away from us, and it’s only as I get older I realise how much of a loss it was.

My consolation knows that while the Bay may have receded from the back fence, it has never receded from my memory or my consciousness.

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