Hidden path to a cove’s history
Story and photographs: Russ Grayson 1987, 2002, updated 2009.
The photographs and story are offered as a memorial to Simon Flynn. Thanks Simon.
APPROACH from the Manly side and you encounter a steep, uphill climb. Alternatively, you can descend the path from the road above. Either way, you are likely to miss the turnoff because it is not signposted and the track looks more like a wombat trail than a walking trail. That may be deliberate.
Visitors to Crater Cove have to be either adventurous, curious or in-the-know to realise that the unmaintained, narrow path through the bush leads them to a deserted settlement.
You take the plunge and head off between walls of shrubs and small trees on a track that can be slippery after rain. You move from side to side because the centre of the trail has been worn into a shallow gully by generations of feet. Enclosed by the bush, you cannot see far ahead, but after ten minutes or so the trail turns into a gully and then, a few metres on, you stand above the flat roofs of the two clifftop huts at the eastern end of the cove. Before you opens a broad view over Sydney Harbour and the open sea beyond the heads. Welcome to Crater Cove, one of Sydney’s hidden heritage gems.
An unwelcome welcome
“Can I help you”, the woman asked. She was in her thirties, solidly built with long, dark brown hair and a friendly but assertive presence. There was something in her manner that did not make me feel welcome and her offer of help was something strange to hear in the bush on the Sydney Harbour foreshore.
“I’m just having a look at the huts… taking photographs… I used to know someone who lived here”, I replied.
We talked for a few minutes. I discovered that the woman was an unofficial ‘caretaker’ of the old huts that line the south-facing, lower slope of Crater Cove. This caretaker group, I learned, is sanctioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and consists of people with some past association with the huts or with an interest in them. They act as unofficial guides, guides for all but the media, it turned out. Somewhere in our brief conversation she learned that I was a journalist. “We have a policy of not speaking to the media”, she said.
Apparently, they thought that any publicity was bad publicity and might bring more people into the cove. It’s a strange attitude for a group not employed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service but operating with the service’s approval and, apparently, making decisions about media policy in a national park. National parks, after all, are supposed to be open to the public, yet here I had encountered a group who would rather keep the existence of the old settlement — what some people regard as a heritage site — a secret and a place that they, but as few others as possible, get to enjoy.
The social history of common people
The social history of Crater Cove settlement came to an abrupt halt in the late 1980s when the NPWS decided that people should not live in the newly-declared park. That decision was made despite a history of prior recreational and, since the 1970s, permanent occupation of the huts.
The residents lost the subsequent court case and had to pack up and leave, despite evidence that they had cared for the Crater Cove environment. National parks were to be places devoid of human life, apart from the temporary presence of visitors. In the case of the Crater Cove huts, evidence of human occupancy was to be obliterated because the huts were to be demolished. After the court case and the eviction of the residents, the parks service boarded up the huts, turning what had been structures made of salvaged materials in the best tradition of the Australian shack-building into ugly, deserted structures.
This attitude, this belief, that national parks should be free of human habitation seems to be a notion that permeates both the national parks service and the environment movement. It certainly did at the time, anyway. Jeff Angel, spokesperson for Sydney’s influential Total Environment Centre, said that the huts should go. Against the combined forces of the NPWS and the green movement, what chance did a bunch of squatters have, even when their squatting was a residency of many year’s duration?
The notion of parks-without-people seems to have been imported into this country from the wilderness movement in the US. It is a historic nonsense — what is called wilderness today was usually someone’s home territory in centuries past, and home to miners and timber-getters since European occupation of the land.
I had hoped for a different attitude from the environment movement, but its decision to oppose the residents had cache within the sandstone walls of state parliament. I was also aware that, whenever the choice has been between nature and people, the green movement has chosen nature.
In opposing the continued occupation of the Crater Cove huts, they were not alone. A few Sydneysiders with no association and probably limited sympathy for the environment movement voiced their outrage in the city’s press at people living with expansive harbour views, rent free, while they paid millions for the privilege. I found it strange that the environment movement should agree with such a sentiment. I also thought it strange they would agree with that demographic until I realised that most environmentlaists come from the saftey and comfort of middle class homes. Those were their people.
A long-term resident
My encounter with the woman of the cove was still quite some years in the future the day I made my way from Manly wharf — I took the long way to make a walk of it — to interview some of the residents facing eviction for a radio current affairs piece.
At the cove, I met Simon Flynn, a man in his early thirties. As I sat on a rock opposite Simon with my tape recorder running, he told me that he was now in his eighteenth year at the cove and was the settlement’s longest-term resident. I was a little incredulous at learning this because it implied that he had moved into the cove in his late teens. But now, his residency was about to end. The court case pitting the residents against the NPWS was in progress and the proposal that they be permitted to stay on in a caretaker role was to gain no sympathy.
Opponents of the residents had warned of damage to the Cove’s natural bushland if they stayed.
I found the opposite to be the truth. When I visited Simon to conduct that first interview, he showed me where the residents had removed plants exotic to the bushland using methods developed by two Sydney women — the Bradley sisters — methods which would later be adopted by the city’s bush regenerators. I also learned that the residents kept a dinghy and had helped in the rescue of fishermen in the Cove’s waters.
Simon occupied a small but comfortable one-room hut. Built of local stone, driftwood and salvaged roofing iron, it was a simple home. In one corned was a bed. Against the opposite wall was a rustic shelf with cooking gear stacked on it. Below a window with one of those million-dollar views over the harbour was a desk and musical instruments. He showed me his hot water system — a long piece of black-painted steel pipe with a shower rose attached to one end. It was placed on the roof where it was heated by the sun. Nearby, poultry wire formed a small enclosure for a few chooks and vegetables grew in a compact, well-maintained garden.
The place was obviously cared for. Looking around, I could see how innovation played a role in providing the few luxuries that elsewhere were taken for granted. Far from the environmental vandals some would depict them as, these people were practical environmentlaists who were improving the place where they lived.
Simon’s hut stood a little above those lining the forsehore and was sheltered by a large flame tree. The large, bright red blossoms provided food for flocks of rainbow-coloured lorikeets.
I visited a secluded hut and its occupant at the western end of the cove that had been cleverly built into an overhang at the base of a cliff. Set back from the foreshore, it was more concealed than were the others. The most spectacularly-sited huts, though, were at the cove’s eastern end. Here, two adjoining structures had been built of local stone right on the edge of the cliff, about ten metres above the cove. The view over the outer harbour and the southern shoreline would be
the envy of property speculators.
I made further visits to Crater Cove a number of times, some in the company of others from the radio station that had broadcast the interview with Simon where we had supported the Cove’s unofficial residents in their confrontation with the national parks bureaucracy.
On my last visit at that time, the court case had finished and the huts were empty. In place of a tiny community that welcomed visitors, the NPWS had given the people of Sydney huts whose doors and windows had been hastily covered with sheets of unsightly galvanised iron.
I felt sad and disappointed to return to the deserted settlement, although on a later visit I felt better in knowing that the NPWS would not demolish the buildings.
Later, I learned that Simon had left for Darwin soon after the evictions. Years later, I was told that he had returned to Sydney.
An Australian past
Occupancy of Crater Cove started around 60 years ago when weekend fishermen built the first of the huts. During the depression of the 1930s, some of the huts may have been occupied full time.
Forty years after construction started at Crater Cove, the huts were again occupied, this time by what were described as ‘hippies’. In reality, they were people inspired by the ideology of the late ’60s and the ’70s to search for a simpler way of living. For a time they found this at the cove, but sooner or later they drifted away. By the start of the ’80s only a few buildings were occupied on a full-time basis.
Years before I visited Crater Cove I had seen a photograph taken through the window of one of the huts. It was taken when the hut was permanently occupied in the 1970s and it appeared in a book about home-made buildings. The photograph showed a grand view over the blue waters of the harbour and out through the heads. What a place to live, I recall thinking, what a great view to see every day. Years later, I remembered that photograph and on one of my visits felt privileged to stand at the same window the photo had been taken through, to look out at a view unchanged and to take a similar photograph myself.
Like the huts at Bonnie Vale, Burning Palms and Era in Royal National Park, the Crater Cove huts were built for recreational purposes, as accommodation for fishermen who visited the place on weekends. The NPWS says that the seven huts scattered along the narrow sandstone shelf between the harbour waters and the steep, scrub-covered slope behind were built between 1923 and 1963. Like all such huts, they were constructed of available materials — rocks and driftwood found on site, fibro sheets and galvanised iron roofing carried in. They were not meant to be permanently occupied, nor was it anticipated they would become of historic interest. That is something that happens only with time.
A better approach needed
I missed the turnoff on my first visit to the Cove and ascended almost to the top of the escarpment before I realised I had passed it. Backtracking, I found the trail and, wondering where it would lead, plunged in.
Now I knew where it led and I had come back, standing on the rock shelf above the green waters, recalling past visits and talking with the woman caretaker of the cove. She expressed her annoyance at people crashing their way straight down the slope from the road above. This, she said, damaged the bush. I’m sure it does, but, without a sign indicating where the track starts and without proper maintenance, can you really blame those who take a direct approach to the huts, most of which are clearly visible from the road?
I’m sure that the caretaker group provides a useful service in maintaining the historic buildings, and I understand their motivation in wishing the preserve the place, but I was a little annoyed at the woman-of-the-cove’s presumption that she could enquire as to the reason for anyone’s presence in a national park that is open to the public. I thought it was too little too late because the settlement had been here more than 60 years and is already known to walkers. Photographs
of the huts are found in books and online, and anyone wanting to visit them can find a fine satellite photo of the cove and the huts on Google Maps. Tying to keep the settlement a secret is futile. It seems a poor subsitute for a proper management policy and the provision of interpretive signage so that all can enjoy the Cove and its huts, so they can come to understand its place in the social history of the Sydney region.
The Crater Cove settlement is an example of the building heritage of ordinary people. It is a reminder of the priorities, the way of life and the simple pleasures of earlier decades. It reminds us of the freer, unregulated access the people of those years had to natural areas and shows that people could occupy a such a place, modify it to suit their modest needs yet not destroy it.
Surely that could be the message were the NPWS to repair and signpost the track into the cove. They could provide a proper interpretive service, perhaps through the voluntary caretakers, that informs the people of Sydney about the huts and their occupants and about the role that unpretentious, seemingly temporary and roughly-built architecture has played in our history.