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The Abalone Divers

From Portland, I drive out to the Cape Nelson Lighthouse.

It was first lit in 1884 and is still operational today. I understand why it is needed – the Southern Ocean violently smashes the cliffs on this cape. In the past, unsuspecting ships arriving from Europe regularly came to grief here. It’s called the Shipwreck Coast, and the weather is notoriously unpredictable. The winds are so intense a wall protects the small door at the lighthouse’s base.

I wasn’t expecting the strange topography. It’s like a lunar landscape consisting of sharp limestone bleached and eroded by saltwater. The waves pounding below compound a sinister uneasy feeling – I don’t feel safe.

I walk along the cliff and come across a solitary cairn erected in memory of Alan William Barr, lost at sea in 1970. No more information is given, just this lonely memorial in this desolate place.

Who was he, and how was he lost at sea, what is his story? It wasn’t easy to find, but an online search eventually reveals, a March 1970 edition of the Canberra Times which sheds some light.

Alan Barr and his mate Paul Hill, two Portland lads, were abalone diving when a giant wave capsized their boat. It took them two hours fighting the high seas to get to a rocky ledge at the bottom of the cliff. Alan was in poor shape, so his mate wedged him in a crevice and piled rocks around him to stop him from being washed away. But the waves kept pounding, and they clung on as night fell. Hours later, at about 11 pm, in the darkness, Alan disappeared into the sea.

The following day, Paul was spotted by a local fisherman and swam 100 meters through the rough to get to the fishing boat.

The story adds to the eeriness; Cape Nelson is an unsettling place.

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Portland runs on interchange ‒ it’s a place of transfer, a port which loads and unloads ‒ empties and fills. Maritime export and import drive this city. Her vistas are hard – logs piled in endless rows and high castles of industrial sand. A distant wind turbine rotates and disrupts the view from the city’s main street. Rusted hulls litter boat yards.

Look too closely, and you will see the ugliness and an underbelly of disadvantage.

Portland is the cracked bitumen in the Woolies car park, barefoot children with sticky mouths sucking on Chupa Chups and lads in utes ‒ their suntanned arms dangling from the window. It’s the cigarette smoke exhaled by the young pregnant woman as she buys a bottle of wine. This is no quaint Doc Martin fishing village.

Yet, down on the foreshore is a mosaicked throne worthy of a mermaid queen. Rolling shell-like curves dance with pattern and call to come and sit a spell.

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The Falls of Halladale

The sea was calm. The sails on the Falls of Halladale were full and billowing, anticipating a speedy last leg of their voyage from New York to Melbourne.

But a heavy mist hung in the air on this day in 1908.

When the peasouper lifted, the Captain’s blood ran cold; the ship was only a few hundred meters from shore and heading for rocks. As she hit, The Falls of Halladale lifted from the water and then fell back down with an almighty thud jamming fast between two reefs.

‘Save your lives,’ yelled the Captain, and two lifeboats swung clear of the ship. These were dangerous waters off Peterborough, on Victoria’s treacherous Shipwreck Coast, and the crew rowed four and a half miles before finding a safe beach on which to land. Mercifully all were saved.

The Falls of Halladale sat for two months jammed between the reefs, becoming an instant attraction, drawing crowds of onlookers. She was impressive, with her even keel, high masts and canvas swelling in the breeze.

Even the dynamite set by the salvage company couldn’t move her. Then finally, in rough seas, she broke apart, spilling her cargo, including a load of kerosine, causing Victoria’s first oil spill.

In 1909, an early diver inspecting the wreck found an iron tank beneath her broken hull. It appeared to be from a different ship and earlier time, perhaps the Skipjack, which went down in 1845.

Speculation abounds; it’s estimated fewer than half the wrecks along the Victorian coast have been found.

I love this photo and the girl who turns toward us ‒ reaching through time, excited to tell us about the wreck of the Falls of Halladale.

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A Tricky Lighthouse

Up Mildura way, a belligerent satellite navigation beam dangerously lures unsuspecting drivers into the desert. Local police often rescue lost travellers from remote dusty tracks.

I thought of this today when I came across this lighthouse at Cape Clear, after trusting my car sat-nav to guide me down to seaside Warrnambool. 

Confused, I thought I was inland, on the other side of Ballarat, but perhaps the Great God of Satellite Navigation directed me to some unknown coastal promontory? 

Cape Clear is a one-horse town with a population of 125, but I would think that’s an overestimate.

The settlement hasn’t got much going for it – there is a general store, a small school and a pub. But the pub, a grand 1930s affair, is now closed. 

Despite its name and lighthouse, Cape Clear is 100 km inland from the coast.

During the gold rush, this was a vibrant place with 25,000 miners arriving to try their luck at prospecting. Many were Irish gold miners who originated from Cape Clear in Ireland.

With the gold dug up, the miners moved on, but the name stuck.

In 2008 the locals wanted to put Cape Clear back on the map. They decided to build a 13-meter-high model lighthouse across the road from the pub. The light actually works ‒ just the thing to confuse an unsuspecting driver passing through.