Mallacoota Musings

Posted by on Oct 9, 2016 in Comment | 1 comment

Mallacoota, midway between Sydney and Melbourne, is a small remote coastal town on the entrance shore of an extensive inlet. Surrounded by national park, it is simply magnificent.

Utilising images, prose and the 5,7,5 syllable lines of Japanese Haiku – a nod to the bardic E. J. Brady – these musings reflect on Mallacoota, its magic, its minions and its mischief.  They will appear spasmodically, when mood and muse align.  A listing follows with dates of postings.

CINDERELLA                                  posted Oct 9, 2016

IN COMMUNICADO                      posted Oct 9, 2016

AM BASTEIR                                   posted Oct 9, 2016

TALES YOU LOSE                            posted Oct 9, 2016

BULLION                                      posted Nov 16, 2016

MONUMENTAL MUSING              posted Dec 3, 2016

MALLEYCOOTA?                             posted May 5, 2017

MALLACOOTA BURNS                     posted Jan 9, 2020

THE TULLAGERGA TIMES.              posted Apr 3, 2021

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“She was a wild thing. I fell in love with her.”1

Ted Brady wrote this in 1944 of Mallacoota, his Cinderella, thirty five years after “by happy accident,” he “found an Australian Arcadia”2

Brady’s sentiments still resonate for many.

“We made a camp on the shore of the Inlet. Here was al-a-ba-ma; here one could rest, dream, write and live. On the beach, bent like a golden harp between Gabo and Bastion Point, seas of Bass Strait made wild or gentle music – lullaby at night and reveille in the morning.”3

This Mallacoota …

Syllabic Arcadia.

Bastion Bashō.4

Lina Bryans, "Mallacoota Inlet", 1964

Lina Bryans, “Mallacoota Inlet”, 1964

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What a difference between then and now. Today it’s only six or seven hours by car, but on his first visit in 1909 Brady took four days to get to Mallacoota from Sydney:  a day and a half by steamer to Eden; all next day by coach to Genoa, and most of the next by rowboat to Captain Stevenson’s Point.

“They rowed us slowly down the beautiful Genoa River. A fair wind was blowing as the boat entered the broadwater. Virgin forests fringed its indented shores and mantled the low-lying hills that encircled it.

We crossed this quiet sheet of water, entered the narrows, sailed through a mile-long rent in the forested hills and broke out into a wider inlet dotted with little seaward islets. Eastward it was fringed by Howe Ranges; Northward it lost itself in a maze of woodland havens, jungled creeks. and hidden bays.”5

Communications then were no better than the transport; mail took just as long, and although the telephone had arrived at Mallacoota West, few people had a phone. As Henry Lawson wrote:

It is one long ring for Kiah; it is two rings for Green Cape;

It is three for Gabo Island; and to have it all ship shape,

One for Eden. Four rings quicken Mallacoota’s interest;

And a long ring and a short one gives you Mallacoota West.6

Contrast today’s smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram giving instantaneous visual access to a worldwide circle of Friends.

How times change.

Inlet inspired, the

OMG texts echo. A-

cronymic mantra.

"They rowed us slowly down the beautiful Genoa River," E.J. Brady, 1909

“They rowed us slowly down the beautiful Genoa River,” E.J. Brady, 1909

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It was the “far Cuillins”, a splendid mountain range on the Isle of Skye, that were “pullin’ away” the singer (and many a rock climber) in the Scottish ballad “The Road to the Isles.”

The Cuillins cast the same spell and weave the same magic as does Mallacoota. Both, in the words of the song, “are puttin’ love on me.”

Am Basteir (“The Executioner”) is the Celtic name given to one of the Cuillins’ more forbidding peaks. A craggy spine of black gabbro rock, Am Basteir challenges the fainthearted as it looms on the skyline beside its prominent sentinel Tooth.

Am Basteir and tooth

Am Basteir and tooth

It brings to mind the dark rock stack disappearing into the sea at the very tip of Bastion Point – it too with jagged ‘tooth’ close at hand.  From here you look east to Cape Howe – the tooth pointing to Tullaberga Island on which the Monumental City wrecked in 1853 just half a kilometre offshore from where the Riverina was to beach 70 years later – and west to Shipwreck Creek where the old slaver Schah came to grief in 1838.

This coast by Bastion – also an executioner!

Howe to Shipwreck? Creak

Keels on coast cantankerous.

Bastion tooth bites.

Bastion Point

Bastion Point

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Giorgio de Chirico painted The Disquieting Muses in 1918. A landmark of modern art, its metaphysical mystique still intrigues today.

Giorgio de Chirico, "The Disquieting Muses", 1918

Giorgio de Chirico, “The Disquieting Muses”, 1918

It became a cash cow for the artist, earning him ready income when he repainted it time and again. Fifty years later he even made sculptings of it. All this perhaps in response to his latter day critics, or perhaps it was nothing more than sharp business practice.

Giorgio de Chirico, "The Disquieting Muses", 1968

Giorgio de Chirico, “The Disquieting Muses”, 1968

Sharp practice too in “Heads I win, tails you lose”, the con-man’s call that converts the 50-50 chance in a coin toss to certainty – for his pocket.

And so to Mallacoota.

On the breakwater at Bastion Point, a black solitary head-shaped rock, seen best at low tide, brings all this to mind.


The one certainty in the Bastion debate7 was always going to be a lack of consensus, where heads might well roll.

Heads I win, tails you lose …. perhaps. But the tales you lose – tales not tails – are different. Lost tales are inevitably our lot. Loss is our inheritance. Over the long sweep of time, history is defined by dispossession. All the lost tales – of people, places, names, happenings – all retreating into irrelevance: Carl Rasmus and little Peter, the Schah and the Monumental City.

Impermanence shrouds it all – even the muse’s effaced head and the Bastion breakwater. Both will eventually succumb to the erosion of time, to the vagaries of ocean levels, or perhaps to a long long wave sweeping out of the Tasman to wrap around Howe and Gabo at breakneck speed.

By Bastion, head

Rolls. So transient, this rock

Wall monumental.


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No precious metal excites like gold. You don’t hear of ‘silver fever’ or ‘platinum fever’, but ‘gold fever’ is in the vocabulary, it’s contagious and in years past it infected Mallacoota.

Not too badly though. Reference can be found to a Maxwell’s mine on the eastern shore of the lower lake not far from the Narrows, and there is mention of a Holly reef. Better known, on the far eastern shoreline near the old cemetery, the Spotted Dog mine was worked for four years from 1895 and produced 899 ounces of gold.

That’s less than half the weight of each of the two largest single nuggets found in Australia, indeed in the world: the Welcome nugget found at Ballarat in 1858 and the Welcome Stranger unearthed beneath just one inch of soil near Bendigo in 1869.8

Unearthing the Welcome Stranger nugget

Unearthing the Welcome Stranger nugget

The gold in each nugget would be worth almost $4 million at gold prices today – many times that had the nuggets remained intact. A fortune was lying in wait for some lucky digger.

Thomas Niblock was not a lucky digger. Son of an Oxford and Cambridge qualified Doctor of Divinity, early in 1853 he once again sailed to Australia, this time to make his fortune on the goldfields of Victoria. He first arrived aged 18 in 1838 and found, if nothing else, a wife Matilda.


His second visit was of no more material success than the first, than his resettlement to England, or than his failed farming venture to Canada. Leaving wife Matilda, 8 year old son Edward and a newborn infant in Melbourne, Thomas struck out for the Forest Creek diggings at Castlemaine where gold would elude pick and shovel. After but a few short weeks, he returned dispirited and dejected.9

S. T. Gill, "Diggers of high degree: Victorian Gold Fields 1852-3"

S. T. Gill, “Diggers of high degree: Victorian Gold Fields 1852-3”

He wrote to relatives in England “I have begun to sell my treasures, my long cherished old books,”10 and with the proceeds he found steerage passage for his family on the Monumental City departing Melbourne on Friday 13 May bound for Sydney. The steamer fetched up on the rocks off Tullaberga Island barely 36 hours later.

The bodies of the Niblock family were never recovered. They would not have been weighed down by gold, as was rumoured to be a problem for some other passengers.

There may well have been gold on board. Indeed much gold. Chinese miners returning home and other miners bound for distant parts were said to have been in steerage. To add more grist to the rumour mill, a Board of Enquiry into the wreck heard from one survivor that had evacuation of passengers from ship to shore been better executed, he would not have had to leave his bag of 500 sovereigns behind.11

Talk of a treasure reputedly worth as much as  ‎£250,000 persisted. Eventually, in 1919,  a syndicate was formed to salvage the wreck. Divers found the strong room but the door was wide open and the strong room empty.12

Yet gold sovereigns have been found at the site.13

1848 Sovereign

1848 Sovereign

An oral history record from 2003 reveals “there’s been times you’ve swum over it and you’ll see a gold coin shining on the bottom and …. you might just happen to see the little knurled edge of a coin ….”14

This speaker, an abalone diver in Mallacoota from the 1960s, linked abalone with gold mining. “It was very similar to the old gold mining days. The price of abalone started to increase and more and more people wanted to get into it and I said, like the old gold miners, if somebody said ‘I found this new reef that’s very rich in abalone’ everybody would go bonkers, and Mallacoota started to kick on pretty good.”15

Abalone fishing boat returning to Mallacoota wharf, c 1960s-70s. Murrays Views postcard

Abalone fishing boat returning to Mallacoota wharf, c 1960s-70s. Murrays Views postcard

Abalone has indeed proved to be Mallacoota’s enduring gold – with replenishable lode still being mined 60 years on.

Such irony! Thomas Niblock and his family drowned in waters rich in latter day gold.

Sovereigns, spotted dogs:

All that glitters, now’s not old –

Abalone’s gold.

Abalone shell

Abalone shell

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Gabo Island lighthouse and the Washington Monument in Baltimore USA are linked by more than phallic symmetry.

Gabo Island Lighthouse; Washington Monument, Baltimore

Gabo Island Lighthouse; Washington Monument, Baltimore

Baltimore, the largest city in the state of Maryland, sits at the head of Chesapeake Bay 40 miles north-east of Washington DC. Its monument to George Washington, completed in 1829, was the earliest to honour the first US president.

A connection of sorts between the Washington Monument and Australia, if not Gabo Island, is that the land on which it stands was gifted to Baltimore by John Howard. John Eager Howard that is, famed as a hero of the American Revolution against the British – not John Winston Howard famed as named after British hero Winston Churchill.

Baltimore is said to have more public monuments per capita than any other US city. Called the Monumental City, this sobriquet though is less a tribute to its stone masons than to the resilience and fortitude of its people in times of trouble.  In 1827 US president John Quincy Adams called Baltimore a monumental city for this reason, and the term stuck.

However another Adams, Captain William H Adams, is the most tangible link between Gabo and Baltimore. It was he who captained the barque-rigged steamer Monumental City – built in Baltimore in 1850, named after it, and the first steamship to cross the Pacific – when in 1853, with less resilience and fortitude than her namesake city, she was wrecked on rocks off Tullaberga Island with the loss of some three dozen lives.

"Monumental City"

The Monumental City

The tragedy galvanised authorities and a light was built on nearby Gabo Island the following year.

The first Gabo Island Lighthouse

The first Gabo Island Lighthouse

The original wooden structure soon burned down and was replaced in 1860 by the present classical tower constructed from beautiful pink granite mined on the island.

Another link between Gabo and Baltimore is the name Calvert. The 2nd Baron Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, was an absentee landlord par excellence. Appointed in 1632 under Charter of English King Charles I, he became the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland. Although he lived in Yorkshire, England and never visiting his province, today his statue stands proudly a scant half mile from the Washington Monument.

Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

Another Calvert, British born painter and wood engraver Samuel Calvert, lived in Australia from 1848. A few years after the new lighthouse was built, he created a striking image of it, together with a ship not at all unlike the Monumental City passing by in safety. Samuel Calvert’s viewpoint of the Gabo lighthouse would be similar to that of the Cecil Calvert statue looking right to the Washington Monument.

Samuel Calvert, "Gabo Island Lighthouse", 1862

Samuel Calvert, “Gabo Island Lighthouse”, 1863

A favourite son of Baltimore is legendary American baseball hero Babe Ruth. A home run specialist and national inspiration during the Depression years, a team mate said of him “No one hit home runs the way Babe did. They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings then take off for the stands.”  His home town monument is a given.

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Another famed, if somewhat less favoured, Baltimore boy is the curmudgeonly journalist and writer H L Mencken, called the sage of Baltimore, whose acerbic observations remain as relevant today as when written 100 years ago.  It’s hard to trump “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”  Just ask any presidential billionaire.

Baltimore has no monument to Mencken.  When it comes to statues, governors and sports stars beat the literati every time.

Aboard the Monumental City, Captain Adams and his Chief Officer had sailed the Gippsland coast just once – on their way to Melbourne a week earlier – and their charts were not the latest available. As evening approached on 14 May, between them (each blamed the other) they mistakenly thought the approaching headland was Cape Howe, rather than Ram Head 50 kilometres to its west. Each named by Captain Cook, they are not to be confused.

Once abeam Ram Head, the Monumental City changed course and steered NNE towards certain destruction.

It was alleged that Adams and his Chief were warned by passengers who knew the waters that they were too close to land, but sure of their position, they ignored the warnings. They would deny having received them and also deny that the Chief Officer, when earlier bearing off to the East after seeing surf, had said “that’s the way to do it, get into white water and then get out again.”

It all brings to mind another Mencken aphorism: “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.”  Deadingly dulled. Sometimes literally.

Every Babe Ruth home run ended with an inevitable veering of the ball towards terra firma. Nothing goes on forever, gravity gets you in the end.

As with life. What’s important is how well we’re positioned when we start to veer.

1853 –

‘Monumental City’ veers

T’wards Tullaberga.

Tullaberga Island

Tullaberga Island looking south. The Monumental City rode up on the rocks over which the sea is breaking seen 50 meters offshore top left.

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Mallacoota’s link to verse is well known courtesy of E. J. (Ted) Brady with his many books of poetry and his writer’s camp up on Captain Stephenson’s Point. Here he hosted versifiers better known than he – notably Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore.

One poet seldom connected to Mallacoota is Ern Malley. Born in England in 1918, he came to Australia with his mother and sister two years later. He did poorly at school in Sydney and when in 1933 his mother died, he pursued work as a mechanic.  He then worked in Melbourne selling insurance policies, repairing watches and doing other work on the side. He returned to Sydney in 1943 and soon passed away from Graves Disease. Malley’s sole book of verse The Darkening Ecliptic was published posthumously the following year.

However his poems, and indeed his life story, were an elaborate hoax concocted by two somewhat traditional poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley. Their intent was to discredit what they saw as pretentious avant-garde poetry, best exemplified in the pages of Angry Penguins, the little magazine edited by Max Harris of Adelaide, John Reed of Heide in Melbourne and Sidney Nolan, who at that time was still serving in the armed forces from which he would soon go AWL. It was to them McAuley and Stewart sent a letter purportedly penned by Ern’s sister Ethel enclosing some of the dead poet’s verses. They had in fact written the poems themselves, drawing on borrowings from past literary giants including Shakespeare, Mallarmé, Purcell, Blake, T.S. Eliot and  Keats.

Angry Penguins published all Malley poems, and what is still known as the Ern Malley Hoax burst forth across the Australian litscape. More details of the hoax cab be read on this website: Ern Malley: an introduction and Ern Malley: the Hoax and Beyond. The poems remained a potent presence for Sidney Nolan throughout his life.

Sidney Nolan, Portrait of Ern Malley, 1969

Sidney Nolan, Portrait of Ern Malley, 1969

Sidney Nolan, Ern Malley 1973, Art Gallery of South Australia

Sidney Nolan, Ern Malley 1973, Art Gallery of South Australia

The whole affair is still discussed today – including whether the Malley poems were in fact the hoaxers’ best writing? Tonight indeed Adelaide hosts another reprise for the faithful: Ern Malley the poet who never lived … where history and truth collide.

Thus it would seem a main reason why Ern Malley is little known in Mallacoota is because in reality he never existed. Or did he …. just perhaps?

A book Beyond is Anything by one ‘David Malley’ purports to tell the story of a ‘real’ Ern Malley – although Malley was not his real surname – who had a ‘real’ sister Ethel, and who with his ‘real’ wife Lois had a son David who perhaps wrote the book.  The story goes that Ern grew up with Jim McAuley and that the poems published in Angry Penguins were actually written by Ern, who left them with Lois during the war asking her to give them to McAuley to get published.   The poems were originally called Total Eclipse and the hoaxers changed this to Darkening Ecliptic as well as making a few other changes.

On his way from Sydney to Melbourne, Malley allegedly stayed at Mallacoota with Brady and they formed a friendship. Indeed Brady is said to have inscribed a copy of his book Land of the Sun for Malley on a return visit to Mallacoota to view the total solar eclipse occurring across Victoria in December 1936.

“The Land of the Sun” by E. J. Brady, 1924 and his alleged inscription to Ern Malley: “ERN Not a good title today EJB 14 Dec 1936”

Soon after co-curating the exhibition Ern Malley : the Hoax and Beyond at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne in 2009, I received a copy of Beyond is Anything in the mail with a letter from David Malley explaining that this was not his real name and that this art of his was perhaps a lie.  Be that as it may, a copy is in the National Library of Australia where it is available in the Petherick Reading Room and it can be read on this website: Beyond is Anything.

Perhaps the best known Malley poem is the first,  Dürer : Innsbruck, 1495 which Beyond is Anything says was originally called Innsbruck : Mallacoota, 1936 and includes lines such as ” … The colourful spires / And painted roofs, the coast range glimpsed at the back / All reverse in the Mallacoota waters.” Using what has become a well known and quite famous phrase, both versions conclude with reference to a “black swan of trespass on alien waters.”

One of the Malley progenitors was William Blake whose  And did those feet in ancient time is best known today as Jerusalem with its familiar musical setting by Hubert Parry.  The latter day flag waving, chest thumping and football fevering  generated by Jerusalem forgets Blake’s revolutionary intent when writing it 200 years ago. The ‘dark satanic mills’ were real for Blake, as was his vow to not cease from mental fight, nor let sword sleep in his hand: Till he had built Jerusalem, in England’s green & pleasant land. They were also real for Ted Brady whose socialism was evident in his poem The Little Lamp of Lenin  and in his work with the Mallacoota Worker’s Cooperative at the time of the Great Depression.

Let this sentiment and a play on Blake’s introductory words be the theme of this musing’s concluding haiku.

And did Ern’s feet …. walk

Upon ‘Coota’s mountains green?

Black swan of Trespass.


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The fires came on the last day of 2019. 
Early in the afternoon of the day before, a Monday, the sky had begun to change to orange, 
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…. then red
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…. then black
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On Tuesday, the weather station near the airport max-ed out at 8am. The temperature spiked at 50 degrees, wind speed at 100 k per hour.
The burning began. 
Four thousand people had taken refuge – on boats far out on the lake,
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…. on the beach and lake shore, 
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…. in the community hall. 
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From Bastion Point to Betka Road little was spared.
It took but minutes to raze a home ….
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Fire stayed in town all that day and night
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Spotting ahead, it jumped the Narrows, burnt through to the Coast Range.
Four days later it threatened to return.
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Seven days later it still hadn’t.
Thanks mainly to a hundred heroes – the ‘Fireys,’ unpaid volunteer members of the Country Fire Authority – nobody was killed in Mallacoota that day. 
But nothing, nobody, no thing was untouched. 
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Mallacoota burns!
Yet heart, will, soul, spirit – these
Bastions endure.