My Dad built the shack in 1955, two years after I was born. He was 33, and Mum was 34. He wanted a cheap holiday house by the sea where he could go fishing. Mum wasn’t so keen – she disliked the heat in summer and the sand in your toes all year round. But the kids loved it – the kids being me and my numerous cousins whose grandfather had the shack next door.
Dad built the shack on a sand dune overlooking the sea, a prime position. His was the eighth one to go up along that stretch. Two of the others were modified tram cars. The foreshore was Crown land, so he couldn’t own the land – he rented it, with a lifetime tenancy, for the princely sum of one pound a year, plus council rates.
We spent as many school holidays and long weekends there as we could. I have fond memories of long walks down the gleaming white sands in summer, sweating and turning red in the 40 degree heat. In winter, ocean storms were exciting to walk in, and the piles of washed-up seaweed gave the beach a distinctive smell.
The shack was built of corrugated iron on the outside and hardboard on the inside. Tons of blue metal and stones were laid on top of the ground to stop the dune shifting. There was no insulation, and the place fried in summer. It was originally one long room, with two double bunks at one end, curtained off from the lounge area. A separate bedroom, into which the bunks and a wardrobe were later moved, was added later.
The front, facing the sea, had two windows. The end opposite the bunks had a wood stove and ‘bathroom’ – a curtained-off area with a tap linked to the outside rainwater tank, and a large plastic bowl where we washed ourselves down with facewashers and soap. Hot water was boiled up on the stove. I remember the special atmosphere, if not much light, that came from the Tilley lamps we used before electricity was hooked up.
Dad built a pit toilet out the back (he was a plumber, so he knew about all these things). He added lime to it occasionally, and shifted the whole ‘dunny’ over a fresh hole when the old one filled up. I used to be terrified of going in there at night because, armed with a torch, I often saw big huntsmen spiders who lived there. There were enough to really put you off your business! (This early training had some use, as a couple of years ago I shared a shower in tropical far north Queensland with a large spider and didn’t think much of it. That was the same night a green tree frog jumped from the open window onto me and woke me up.)
Spiders weren’t the only wildlife. More benign were the ‘sleepy lizards’ and seagulls. In the summer, brown snakes slithered around, especially in the sand hills to the north where I played. Dad was a keen fisherman in his little boat, and would often come back with reports of dolphins. I used to go out with him occasionally, especially after spotting one of the regular dolphin visitors to the shore, but I couldn’t stay out for long. I was often seasick from the engine fumes and the rocking motion of the boat. That was the main reason I didn’t go fishing much, except when he went ‘snooking’ – the boat had then to be kept moving so the metal bait would flash and sparkle under the water in the way the snook liked. Then I loved being in the boat with the smell of clean salty air flying past, and the smell of fresh fish. Mum would cook up these fresh fish straight away and, with a little lemon juice, it was the best taste in the world.
We kids spent endless days playing on the beach, on the reef and in the sand dunes. The jetty was the place to swim – the water off the beach was quite shallow and not to be dived into – and to go squidding, though not at the same time. I once got a squid-jig stuck in my leg from a misplaced swing. Swimming was sometimes scary in summer because of swarms of jellyfish – small transparent cubes with four tentacles that stung painfully. You could look down from the jetty and see the whole water transformed literally into jelly.
The township of Balgowan on Yorke Peninsula, where all this happened, had about 40 cottages in those early days. When Dad sold the shack in 1985, there were 140, plus a caravan park and ‘corner store’. He was paying $200 a year rent and about the same in rates. There was a push by the government to remove all foreshore shacks, so the new owners were given a 14-year lease, after which time they had to demolish it or move it back if it was within 50 metres of the high-tide mark. That way the government could build a path to ensure public access to the foreshore.
1999 is when the 14 years are up. So it is quite possible that, even as I write this, all that is left of the shack are my wonderful memories of it.
A happy note and a not-so-happy one: This was written in 1999 for the ‘Keros Family Periodical’, a family history zine run by a relative of mine in South Australia – it won equal first prize in their ‘Memories’ competition! In July 2010 I went back to Balgowan to scatter my father’s ashes – and the shack is still there, albeit in less than pristine shape. The town now has many more streets and the houses look more well-to-do, rather than the classic 1950’s beach shacks, although a few of them survive still. The southern cliffs that were so red and bare now have large beach homes on top of them. I will always be grateful to Dad for the love of the sea and nature that he instilled in me there.