Leaving home at 10:28am we encounter the first of several instances of good public transport karma the 400 is at the previous stop when we arrive at Burwood Road. We run up the steps as the train pulls in to Burwood Station, wait a few minutes for the L90 and arrive at Palm Beach at 12:28. I love that Sydney’s public transport system, somewhat faulty as it is, reaches so far and wide.
Once the bus turns off Pittwater Road – which, as an extension of Military Rd is like other Sydney arterials with real estate agents, kebab shops and chemists interspersed with flats and houses — onto Barrenjoey Road, the bus is twisting and climbing from the ocean side then dropping onto the Pittwater side past big and bigger houses built cleverly into the side of the hill. It’s green, green, leafy, subtropical fecundity everywhere; everywhere the houses and roads are not lording over blue waters dotted with expensive, private water craft. It is hard to believe we are still in the same city as Croydon Park or that the Sydney public transport system readily and easily reaches this place.
Currawong Beach is about 54 km/33 m from home including a two kilometre ferry ride.
We’re about 25 minutes early for the next ferry to Currawong Beach so with a little time to kill we figure we won’t get a bad coffee in Palm Beach and head for Barrenjoey House – where for a mere $4 per we have very good short blacks served by vivacious staff.
We find a funny mix of people lingering around the Palm Beach Wharf. Some ferries go from here to Ettalong – so while most folks are the sort of casually well-off found in these parts of the Northern Beaches there are also some black-jean wearing, bearded, blue-tattooed Central Coastians about as well. As we are heading to Currawong, long a summer destination for unionists staying at the NSW Labor Council owned cottages, the sprinkling of working class people amongst the six-figure cars in the lot feels right.
Our ferry to Currawong is a lovely, charming, wooden old thing staffed by an old hand and a young bloke who is still learning the skills of driving the thing. The crossing is a bit choppy with a good wind going but sunny and warm with a smattering of clouds. Mitch stands in the open hatch watching with envy the many sailing boats skimming north, sails full and leaning well into the wind.
I reckon the ferry spends most of its time at the wharves where weekenders load and unload. We spend 10 minutes at The Basin Campground at Ku-Ring-Gai National Park with people loading all their camping gear on the ferry.
I worry a little when we arrive at Currawong and find the jetty sign-posted as ‘private’. But you can’t own below the high-tide mark so the beach is public even if the grounds are not. There aren’t many people about: a couple of teenagers sunning on the pier, some smaller children joining them after the ferry left. Later some kids, maybe the same ones from the pier, are lazily shooting hoops. No one approaches us and we have the beach entirely to ourselves. This is the first time since our visit to beach number seven, Bradleys Beach on Dangar Island (26 April 2010) that we have a beach to ourselves.
Currawong is a narrow beach, maybe a few metres deep, of maize-coloured sand backed by the manicured grounds of a summer camp. Clusters of trees are here and there – if they were palms you’d feel someplace very tropical.
The beach curves slightly and runs maybe 200 metres north of the pier and another 50 metres south. The sand is weirdly soft – each footstep sunk five or more centimetres. Well not each but most. It is like walking on snow with an icy crust – sometimes it holds, sometimes you drop through. Beyond the ends of the beach is bush which wraps toward rising headlands which lightly embrace the shallow bay of the beach.
The water is warm but I don’t go in beyond my calves as changing to my swimmers without shelter will be rather difficult – it’s a rather exposed beach with nowhere to hide.
We picnic – bread, cheese, salami, apples – and lay in the speckled shade listening to the fast beating but very low waves pulsating ashore, the thrum of marine diesel engines, and the surprisingly regular aerial hum of the arrival and departure of the sea plane from Rose Bay.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to separate the old week from the new than a quiet, restful visit to a beach. Oh, and did I mention the cicadas? I didn’t notice them for the first hour or so … so ubiquitous are they this time of year that a decidedly loud chorus of bugs escaped my notice.
We spend some time imagining the Currawong Cottages back in the days when it was a workers retreat of the NSW Labor Council – imaging blue-collar union workers and their families making their way to Palm Beach and across on the ferry. Cutting something of a scythe through the entitled locals, I’m sure. We imagine labourers from war-torn Europe, recently arrived in Australia in the 1950s, finding themselves in this idyllic place. Fricking workers paradise or what?
We have hot, sweet tea and lamington fingers. Take a variety of “20” pictures. Watch departing guests leave on the 2:30 ferry. And do nothing much at all, really, but relax.
When we see the 3:30 ferry making its way from Palm Beach we gather our gear and head to the wharf joining a couple more departing families. The ferry back is already full of weekenders from The Basin but we nab seats at the front. A pair of 11-year old girls are our companions – seated close enough to share i-phone ear buds and watch something on the little screen.
We round the northern headland and into the embrace of Mackerel Beach – million-dollar weekenders are crawling up the hillside and along the stretch of land leading down to the beach. There is a big queue of people on the wharf waiting for the ferry. More people join us on the front. Words that came to my mind are: casually privileged, maybe ignorant of their privilege, but entitled. Something about their clothes which are unnecessarily expensive – a t-shirt is a t-shirt; shorts are shorts – the difference between those purchased at Target and those purchased from a boutique is mostly price, rarely quality, or even the country of origin, or the way the workers are treated, but certainly the perception of ‘prestige’.
Back at Palm Beach we skip the 4:08 bus in favour of a cold beer and some of the best hot chips I’ve ever had.
We get the 4:28; walk right onto a train at Wynard and directly on to a M41 at Burwood and are home by 6:35.
I’ve done a little research on Currawong Beach Cottages. The camp seems to now be in the hands of private owners following some considerable controversy which surrounded their sale by the NSW Labor Council a few years ago.
But here are a few tid-bits about the Cottages history as a resort for unionists, all of this is taken from the NSW Heritage web site on Currawong:
The idea of affordable and improving holidays in natural surrounds took off after the Great War following the lead of camping, bushwalking, amateur fishing and national park movements.
The development of purpose built ‘resorts’ by trade unions increased substantially after World War II.
Changes to labour legislation at this time also contributed. The Labor Government introduced two week’s annual leave in 1944 and a 40-hour week in 1947. James Kenny, assistant secretary of the NSW Labor Council advocated that families should be able to holiday with their families in affordable accommodation and he put to the Labor Council that a holiday camp should be established.
By the mid-1940s the progressive social programs of a number of unions included camps.
Kenny had begun to explore the possibility of providing low-cost holiday accommodation for union members since their two-week paid annual leave was introduced in 1944. After the end of World War II, Kenny negotiated the purchase of the Currawong estate from the Port Jackson & Manly Steamship Co Ltd for ten thousand pounds
Kenny worked tirelessly to develop Currawong, relying on the labour of colleagues, friends and family. Due to the deprivations arising from the war, development of the camp was initially reliant on donated building materials and the volunteer labour of unionists.
Gabrielle Carey included descriptions of Currawong in her novel ‘Puberty Blues’, which she co-authored with Kathy Lette in 1979.
One of the comments representing a widespread sentiment come from Siobhan Bryson whose extended family have been visiting Currawong for over 36 years. She stated: ‘it is a place which is safe for children, far from the usual commercial pressures of holiday resorts, full of bird and animal life, immersed in the ancient spirituality of the original custodians of the land, and strongly connected to the historical struggle for workers rights in NSW’. Marianne Lloyd stated: ‘1950s Australia captured and frozen within this little beach community… Holidays at Currawong are still about families and take you back to a time of firecrackers and a time when you knew all of your neighbours. Where children were safe outside in the evenings and parents had time to listen and be heard’ (Design Plus, 2003).
‘It’s a Currawong ritual. Nightly at the Pittwater holiday retreat, the children take torches, gather on the big lawn by the dilapidated tennis court and play spotlight under the stars. There’s often a sizable gang, aged five to 13, unafraid of the dark, dashing in and out of the trees in this night version of hide and seek.
‘But what makes the spectacle remarkable is the absence of adults. There is no need at Currawong for parents to hover in the role of chaperone. Parents are out of sight, beyond the trees, up the hill, sipping beer on the verandas of fibro cottages as the squeals of delight float up to them. At Currawong, kids rule. Even at night …
‘For those unfamiliar with Currawong, it can best be described by telling you what it doesn’t have – no roads, no cars, no shops, no TV, no cinema, no restaurant, no amenities really at all, except the tennis court, the jetty for fishing, and a squishy golf course of sorts. There are nine fibro cottages (no inside toilet) and a historic homestead.
Unionists get priority, and the rents are reasonable. And as you gaze across Pittwater at the millionaires’ row of Palm Beach, you think Australia is the best country in the world.
‘And for primary school-aged children, whose suburban lives are so circumscribed, it is heaven on a stick. No camping ground we’ve been to, no beachside holiday cottage, has provided the children with the same experience of independence, safety and community.’ (Sydney Morning Herald 8/5/1999, p45)
A former manager at Currawong offered this memory of the place: ‘A very small child once urged my wife and me to “Come and see the gods”. He was very insistent so we accompanied him to the creek that runs through the property. Excitedly he said “Look at them – can you see them”. Floating on the creek were spiky grass balls being gently driven in different directions by the breeze. We rather unconvincingly said “Oh yes we see them”. The little boy who was only about four years old looked disappointed and said “Well they are not really gods – they’re more like symbols of God”. I have never forgotten that moment. Currawong is a very special spiritual kind of place that deserves to be retained for all people.’
I had hoped to find more archival photos of Currawong but this is the only one my search unearthed: The Baker Family at Currawong published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 February 2007.
Currawong is in the local government area of Pittwater; State district of Pittwater(Rob Stokes, Lib) and Federal seat of Mackellar (Bronwyn Bishop, Lib).
Next up will be beach number 21: Dee Why.