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CRATER COVE: WHERE DID ALL THE PEOPLE GO?

CRATER COVE: WHERE DID ALL THE PEOPLE GO?

Crater Cove

IF SYDNEY HARBOUR and its waterfront homes represent some of the most drooled over and photographed bits of the world, it’s surprising to discover that that there’s one enchanted little cove and its hand-fashioned stone, driftwood and corrugated iron shacks that remains a jealously guarded secret that few know about or ever visit.

Press your face to the window of any of these seven magical lean-tos and it’s a glimpse into a life pared back to its bare essentials. A wooden cot, a gas stove, a rickety writing desk, a chair and tiny window looking out across the harbour through Sydney Heads to a vast Pacific Ocean beyond.  They’re typically locked up and deserted. Who built them? Who lived here? Where have they gone?

It’s like stumbling on some long-forgotten frontier settlement — only you know Sydney’s suburban North Shore is at the top of the ridge above.

Crater Cove

 

It’s like a landlubbers version of the Mary Celeste. The residents seem to have simply vanished without a trace.

Crater Cove

Crater Cove

Crater Cove

A jacket hangs from a rafter as if its owner only slipped it off moments before; a red ensign flaps proudly at the silent settlement’s rocky shoreline; a bag of fresh onions swings from the ceiling in a tiny but well-equipped kitchen; a lovingly tended little patch of garden here; there, a pile of weeds patently only pulled out of the ground by hands unknown only days before.

It’s like a landlubbers version of the Mary Celeste. The residents seem to have simply vanished without a trace.

Which isn’t what happened of course. It wasn’t forces mysterious and unknown that spirited the people of the community at Sydney’s Crater Cove away, it was the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the weight of the law.

For years its seems the owners of the huts at Crater Cove had lived an idyllic Robinson Crusoe existence, right up until the mid 1980s. Plentiful fish could be plucked from the sea, there was room for a small vegie patch and a chook or two, your water needs fell from the sky and any timber needed for running repairs on your home drifted in on the tide.

No rates, no mortgage, no rent, no bills.

And it was this — the freeloading — that ended up being one of the major reasons that saw the small community evicted when the land became part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.

Crater Cove

As property prices pushed ever upward into the millions, Sydney was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to the hardy few living a harbourside lifestyle, stark as it was, for free —  and even if they’d been doing so for years. It was also argued that having full-time residents living at Crater Cove only damaged the environment.

The residents didn’t leave without a fight, arguing in court that there had been permanent occupation in the huts since the 1970s and recreational use since the 1930s – and that they were in fact, by living there, acting as custodians and carers for the cove.

They lost the case and were forced to leave.

One of the long-term residents of the shacks was Simon Flynn. It’s Flynn’s place that now offers one the most idyllic visions of a simple unadorned existence.  Wood panelled, sunlight shafting in, a length of rough rope coiled decorously around the top of the solitary post supporting the ceiling and anchoring the kitchen bench. And on this simplest of wooden kitchen benches, a wok sits on a gas burner ready to cook the evening’s meal. Underneath a few battered old saucepans have patently seen plenty of past use. Alongside is a table setting for one and a tea towel drying from the previous meal.

It’s the sort of pared-back rustic style that people pay a fortune to architects like Peter Stutchbury and Richard Leplastrier to conjure. Sure the number of square metres, the home comforts and the engineered and the immaculately crafted perfection might be superior in the equivalents by the celebrated architect, but the basic spirit is the same.

Crater Cove

The sea’s typically too treacherous to arrive by boat and the bush too dense to beat your own path down to it from the oval and reserve far above.

According to the NPWS the shacks at Crater Cove were knocked up between 1923 and 1963 from available materials by fisherman, who only used them on weekends. In the 1930s it’s likely they were occupied full-time, as they were again from the 1970s until 1984 when the squatters were turfed out forever.

Since 1990 the seven shacks have been repaired and maintained by a group of caretakers under NPWS guidelines. The group is currently 10 strong and predominantly made up family members of the original owners or builders.

On some weekends (there’s no specific program, it’s pot luck if you gain access) the huts are open to the public with a caretaker on hand to show visitors around and answer any questions.

It’s a very special place and a delicate one too. And that’s the paradox. Crater Cove is somewhere lovingly preserved for posterity; a place haunted by the ghosts of less-complicated times and a glimpse into a long lost, unembellished lifestyle.

But it’s very difficult to get to and few can currently enjoy it. The sea’s typically too treacherous to arrive by boat and the bush too dense to beat your own path down to it from the oval and reserve far above.

At the moment for those curious enough to sniff it out, there is a well-worn unmarked access track leading off the Spit Bridge to Manly walk below Grotto Point Reserve. In the past access to the huts hasn’t been publicised or made particularly easy because of the need to “manage them as conservation items,” according to a spokesperson from the NPWS. “They are heritage items and they are fragile and there’s the need for them to be enjoyed and appreciated and the need to keep them safe.”

It’s a difficult balancing act that’s probably erred on keeping the shacks a jealously guarded secret up until now — then again that might be just the reason they’re still around.

 Crater Cove

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JEREMY KAHN

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