Harbourside Dreaming

February, 2018

Twice, as the Manly Ferry approached North Head, the Captain’s voice came through the loud speakers warning of a heavy swell and high winds, urging passengers to be seated and find something to hold onto, and requesting passengers on outside decks to come inside.


Obviously it was time to leave my spot inside the ferry, and go out!

The grand South Steyne, in her day.

The swell was huge indeed, 6 metres by one report, and winds were peaking at 45km/h on the harbour. The boiling dive and roll of the ferry took me back to my childhood when our father would take us on the Manly Ferry if the seas were high, just for the thrill. The South Steyne was our favourite; the grandest of the old ferries, slightly larger than Cook’s Endeavour, and the largest steam ferry in the world. Today I never visit Sydney without a ferry ride, even if it’s just under the Bridge. Ferries, like trains, are marvellously accessible. The deck hands always want to help me up the gang-plank, but my fabulous chair eats it up and I delight in calling out, “I’ll be right!”

We grew up on the harbour’s edge with the Sydney Foreshores National Park (bigger, I’ve heard, than the world famous Yellowstone National Park) as our back yard. Our street was composed almost entirely of boys, and we could leave home in the morning, disappear into the bush and emerge only on mother’s three blasts of a referee’s whistle that sounded tea time. We knew many tracks that looped and laced one sheltered bay to the next. There were cannons from the 1840s to climb on, old fortifications to explore, even an underground dungeon. The dungeon was perpetually flooded, but we probed the inky black with long sticks; carrying the feeble, flickering torches kids had in the 60s (I can hear so clearly that hopeful ‘smack’ a battery torch needed every few minutes), and gingerly poked our way along wobbly planks and fruit boxes into foetid, dripping, airless chambers, scaring ourselves witless. I imagine it’s extremely child proof these days! We caught fish under harbour wharves, sometimes cooking them straight away on small carpet samples that we soaked in methylated spirits.  No matter what type of fish we caught they always tasted, oddly enough, like metho and burned carpet.

And there was the Zoo.  We knew several ways to get in; the preferred one being through the Bison cage which was quite removed from everything else, and was surrounded by thick, round steel posts and rails, and a back wall that we scaled by climbing a tree.  We climbed easily through the rails, and the Bison seemed disinterested in our barely suppressed fear.  (Although I remember this well, it sounds so improbable that I did a search to see if my memory was deceiving me and found a lively exchange in the Sydney Morning Herald: several locals from the 50s and 60s tell exactly the same story!)  Once we caught an echidna that looked a bit sick, so we took it to the zoo. We had to catch it twice and thrice as well, because it was stronger and more cunning than any cage we could make for it. On weekdays the Zoo opened it’s side gate for early, local pedestrians who were heading down to the ferry, and many trips to the city began with the incomparable views, sights and sounds of Taronga Zoo. What a way to grow up!

The Clifton Street Gang, Christmas 1972
Boys, all of us, from one short street. Photographed by my uncle in 1972.

Our home in my teenage years had a panoramic view of Sydney Harbour from South Head to Rose Bay, and on almost to the Opera House. We were keen students of sea craft, not only reading a ship’s name through binoculars but also identifying it’s nationality and other details from its flags.  I swam in the Harbour most days throughout the year, which is a bracing experience, putting it mildly, as the Tasman Sea drops well below 20 deg C in winter. This spartan ritual was imbibed from family culture, in which certain pursuits such as cold water endurance, handling hot plates without oven mitts and drinking strong, black coffee without sugar were highly esteemed. Merit was rewarded with wordless approval from my beloved grandmother and great-aunt; and I yearned for it.


And the Ferries! As children we were sometimes taken below decks by the engineer to look at the shining brass and copper that adorned the massive, white cylinder heads of the great steam engines as they thrummed across the harbour. On your birthday you were allowed to steer the ferry!  Even more implausible than the Bison story, I recall this vividly: the Captain would invite the birthday boy (we were all boys, until one single girl cousin arrived) through the sliding timber door into the small wheelhouse with its wooden stool, brass speaking tube, a boxed compass, the shiny brass throttle, and the giant (to us!) timber ship’s wheel.  We were allowed to sit up on the stool, and while we “had the wheel” the captain would stand right beside us, keeping the general public safe on our birthday. Like the dungeon, this is a tale from a different era … nothing remotely like it happens today I’m sure.

So, while entertaining such rich memories, I made my way to the outside deck. One of the crew held the door open for me, saying, “You’ll get wet out there!”, but he didn’t stop my exploit. There is a particular spot at the top the steps to the bow of the ferry where the handrail turns back on itself making a nicely secure, triangular spot to stand.  Or, in my case, to kneel. All it lacked was a good place to stow my foldable sticks: a dubious asset in such conditions. I had to keep looking back to where I had parked Bugger, (the chair) below me, secured only by it’s brakes, hoping to goodness it wouldn’t roll or tip over …… or worse. If it got as wet as I was getting my electronic breathing machine might well object. Not for the first time I deliberated the fine balance between thrill and irresponsibility, and my hankering to take Bugger where we shouldn’t reasonably go.

An old, old photo, apparently from deck of the venerable of the South Steyne herself. My view from the bow looked something like this.


And the deck hand was quite right, I did get wet out there.  Ridiculously wet.


Exceptionally, memorably, wet.






Always keen to hear from a reader! ………….