High School Horror

This tale, repressed for many years, finally surfaces.

It is a true story. Every school teachers nightmare, to the student, incomprehensible.

I am dropped off by my Mother, on her way to work at Holy Cross Primary School Helensburgh, at the Hindu Temple situation on the outskirts of town.

It was 7.26am, the morning mist heavy, parts of the temple and surrounding bushland were cloaked in soft white. At the entrance to the holy site, were numerous pairs of shoes, neatly lined up.

Alone, on the outskirts of town, mist and fog, pairs of shoes without owners, at a temple in Helensburgh, a place so ungodly it was considered ‘ Other’, not part of the South Coast or Sydney. As a Catholic student I was out of my depth. I knew very little about Hinduism and rarely left my beachside residence for a suburb 200 metres above sea level.

Just as my craving for company that morning reached fever pitch, the two buses, containing the entire contents of Year 11 arrived.

The group of 80 plus 16 and 17 year olds entered the temple on mass, lead by Head Teachers and coordinators of Religion. We were here to learn first hand about diversity and devotional practice.

I don’t know about the rest of my class but all I could think about was the paired shoes at the entrance. Who owned them? Why were they left unaccompanied?

I remember sounds from the surrounding shrubbery, the birds songs, the trickle of water from nearby streams, the crunch of the sand beneath feet as we walked around the temple, with its unsealed surface.

I remember a small crowd of students circling a ‘ statue’ which lay face down, seemingly having fallen from its base the night before. Could wind really be that strong to uproot concrete fixtures? Had the temple been vandalised over night?

Students that had been busying themselves at the far corners of the shrine, ogling over points of interests began to flock back to the scene of the fallen ‘ statue’.

Camera flashed, chatter escalated, tears formed, nervous laughter.

The ‘statue’ was a person, a real person, a young women, not much older than my school comrades.

In that moment, lives changed. Our innocence ( if there was any left) shattered, we had witnessed the brutality of life, the hardship, sorrow and levels of desperation and despair.

Teachers ushered us back onto the bus, doing their best to dispel rumours that has begun to circulate ‘ I think I know her?’ , ‘ Did you see her face?’. They made the collective decision to proceed with the itinerary of the day, cathedrals and synagogues. We drove of in the direction of Sydney.

As for me and no doubt others, my mind stayed well and truly in Helensburgh, that day. 22 years later, the imagery of shoes, countless pairs of shoes still haunts me. And the overwhelming sense that morning, as an early drop off excursion goer, of being horribly alone.


The story made the Illawarra Mercury the following day – but in an age before digital print, one must ask themselves, Did the really happen at all?

I kept the letter that my School distributed to our parents / guardians the following day – it makes for an interesting read and some what supports my memories of events ; February 23rd 1995

Ode to Hannah Gadsby

Last Friday night I travelled from Sydney to Wollongong for a night out. A comedy act that I had long admired was in town for one night only. I booked my solo ticket and caught the train South, smiling ear to ear.

A couple of years ago, I would have never have imagined it possible,  that a comedy show, in the Spiegeltent no less, would grace the Coal Coast. Culture, class and top-notch entertainment finally in the ‘Gong, some 15 years after I left…in search of just that.

Upon hearing of the Spiegeltent’s one month seaside residency, I made a pact with myself that I would support the event whole heartedly. I told any one who would listen that the tent was in town, and with reasonably priced tickets for world-class comedy and musical acts, it was a win win situation.

Perhaps in my heart of hearts, the advocacy work I did spruiking the event, was my way of making peace with my 22-year-old self, who had turned her back on the Gong for the UK in 2001, Who, upon return had lasted but a year before another move to Sydney. Always searching, finger on the pulse for the next comedy show, the next musical, the next music act.

But in 2017 – the Gong, Wollongong, proved that good things come to those who wait. Fifteen years of searching behind me, I was happy to be home turf.

It was the best night out. My Father, who had NEVER been to a comedy show in his life decided to join me. Hannah Gadsby was headlining.

It. was. amazing.

Did the show start with Ms Gadsby stating she was retiring from the comedy circuit? For good? I don’t recall when this remark was made, but I knew very early on that this was going to be unlike any comedy show I had seen before. My Dad….he was in for a ride!

Hannah’s voice controlled, measured and her delivery on point. She did not waver from a common theme thread though-out the hour-long performance. She was retiring after 10 years at the top of her game,  no longer prepared to withhold the personal truths erased from all accounts of her comedy shows, no longer willing to shield her audience.

But not last Friday – with conviction she barely stopped to breathe as she recounted story upon story that revealed deep suffering. From the audience, there was little laughter, her decision to retire was final and we would be free to make what we like of her daring, bold, often confronting stories.

Of course Hannah made us laugh, some cried, her brave account, her honestly, her smile and her generous insight was beautifully refreshing, enlightening, moving, above all, raw.

As we left the Speigeltent that night, John Farnham’s classic played loud and clear ‘ You’re the Voice’. Never had Farnsie seemed so fitting –  Hannah had come full circle, to an understanding of the power of voice, an acceptance of story, and a burning desire to for truth and accountability.

I thought about this show for days after, my Dad did too.

‘ Not all comedy shows are like that’ I told him on the car ride home.

But given the importance of what we had witnessed, the bar has now been set so high that Ms Gadsby, I believe it will be the first and only comedy show my Father attends whilst on earth. Perhaps too my search is over for the perfect comedy act. I’ve seen it – it was hard-hitting, it was Hannah Gadsby. It was in Wollongong, 2017.

So thank you Hannah – an ode to you. In your show you mentioned you have a soft spot for Nanna’s. One of my Nan’s favourite sayings, which my Mother recited at her eulogy in 2014 ‘ Thank you for being you’

Hannah Gadsby ‘ Thank you for being you’ – we need people like you to make us stop and think. And then have a nap.

Cafe Culture

As a young girl, growing up on the South Coast of Wollongong, not really into underage drinking, parties or surf culture….there was little to do.

What I did want to do was hang out in cafes, drink coffee and look more adult, head in a book or engaged in high brow conversation with other like-minded folk.

But this was the South Coast circa 1992 and no such place existed. There was Jim’s Fish and Chip Shop ( were $2 brought you a kilo of hot chips) or the Rex Hotel, Thirroul – complete with topless bar maids and $3 schooners.

My life was miserable….

And then it appeared….a cafe….in Thirroul…name of which I cannot remember…but it was a cafe….

A planned was devised.

My friend Clare and I would catch the bus home from school, we would have a milk shake at the cafe for afternoon tea, and then Clare’s Mum would pick us up.

I felt so grown up, like all my Christmas’ had come at once. This could also be due to the fact that my friend Clare was two-year levels above me at school….I just felt so lucky.

The day arrived, the bus from school to Thirroul seemed to take longer than usual – such was the anticipation levels of engaging in cafe culture my ‘Sydney’ teenage peers, a mere 1.5 hours from the South, often took for granted…cafes on every city street, open till midnight….

Alighting the bus, we set out on foot to the cafe on the opposite side of town, smiling ear to ear for we were soon to be wrapped in the sweet aroma of coffee beans, home-made cakes and conversation about art, history and of course, and most importantly, local gossip. I knew the importance of this day, it was to be life changing – somewhere to hang out, to chat, to feel a sense of belonging, in my home town….

And then I saw it….a sign of the cafe door, in bold red letters:

‘ Closed’

Yes, cafe culture in Thirroul locked us out – opening hours was 9am – 3pm daily and clearly not accommodating of high school aged teenagers. A sense of bewilderment overtook us. All hopes dashed, and the cloak of misery and hopelessness hung heavy on my shoulders….

I glanced in the direction of the Rex Hotel, I thought of Jim’s Fish and Chip Shop, 1km away….and just felt sad.

We walked to the public phone box and called Clare’s mother to come and collect us.

Epic fail.


That was 1992 and so much has changed in 25 years. I did leave Thirroul for a 2 year period upon graduating University and drank my first cup of coffee whilst living in the UK in 2001. It was my Spanish friends who introduced me to the art of cafe culture and I am forever thankful.

Returning to the South Coast in 2003 I got a job in one of Thirrouls first cafes. Oscar’s Wild Bookstore, a magical place that served coffee, cakes and conversation for many years.

Fast forward to 2017 and Thirroul has in excess of 10 cafes in this tiny coastal town – all with strong customer followings and opportunities for patrons to sip coffee and converse for 6am – 4pm most days!

This blog entry was inspired by an article that features in the local newspaper, the Illawarra Mercury, on March 4th, documenting cafe culture on the South Coast. An article I wish had appeared many moons earlier but better late than never. And yes, a sense of belonging to this region is well engrained in me now!



There’s no place like home

I was five years old when I played Dorothy from the Wizard of OZ, in the St Michaels Catholic Primary School Christmas play.

I was Dorothy version two – the meaty role was divided between two ‘actresses’. Though I had no more than 5 lines, I still recall the tears that welled in my eyes as I pronounced to a packed audience at the Thirroul R.S.L club ‘ There is no place like home’. I had practiced that line over and over, to be sure that I could click my heals at the same time whilst fixing my gaze on the theatre goers.

I am sure the tears were the result of nerves, staged fright & excitement but now, 32 years later, those words have served me well. For it is true, there is no place like home, the sleepy seaside town of Austinmer, 2515, South Coast, NSW.

And with the click of my heals , I find myself back there, my family home, nestled between the lush green escarpment and crystal clear ocean. The place of my childhood, the place I return to as a grown women, to relax, rejuvenate and unwind .A place where I know I am loved, welcomed and safe.

There is no place like home, there is no place like home.

You grew up where?

My Austinmer

Do I know how lucky I am?

I guess I do…but sometimes I need a little reminder.

I got one of those yesterday, in text form, from a friend travelling South for the Queens Birthday Long Weekend.

Her husband had decided to detour off the Princess Highway, and take the South Coast road. Sure, it would add extra time to their road trip with their young family but throwing caution the to wind, he veered of the multi lane highway into single lane territory.

And what they encountered as they drove along the a road that hugged the coastal escarpment, was a panorama of ocean blue, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a life changing moment, there would be no turning back, life could be divided into two distinct chapters- pre & post South Coast encounter.

My friend had stumbled upon a secret, my secret. That just 1 hour South of Sydney is a true paradise. Lush green bush land, uninhabited beaches and homes with back yards.

‘ Driving through Austinmer — it’s amazing. Scarborough too. I want to live here’

My Austinmer

I laughed and smiled upon reading this. My friend had FINALLY discovered my true home. For the first 22 years of my life ‘ Austi ‘ was my entire world. And even when I did voluntarily leave this safe haven for Europe, upon return, settling in Sydney, I return ‘ home’ often, I am forever in need of a good dose of sand, salt and sea.

Having lived in Sydney for 12 years, when questions about where I grew up have arisen I have all but given up trying to explain my coastal origins.

‘ Have you heard of Stanwell Park?’

‘ No’

‘ Bulli?’

‘ No’

‘ Wollongong?’

‘ Yes, is that near Cronulla?’

‘ No’

‘ Oh….well I grew up in a beachside suburb of Wollongong’

Try as I might to educate folk of benefits of coastal life outside of Sydney’s Northern & Eastern beach strips… I conclude after years of trying, there is no point.
Austinmer stopped being mentioned in conversation. I was the girl from Wollongong.

But change is in the air as that text I received yesterday suggests. The subtle messages I have spread of the joy that is the leisure Coast has had a slow ripple effect.

It is promoting cars to veer of highways and plummet into the boundless beauty of blue, green and gold- forever changing people. What next, cheque books flapping in the breeze, as’ out of towners’ scramble to get into the competitive real estate market? Already happening.

Austinmer was and always will be home. If asked to recall what my childhood was like living there , words such as idyllic, blessed, privileged & charmed come to mind.

What is spoken to Sydney folk is quiet different ‘ I grew up I Wollongong’
But to those who are my long-standing Sydney mates, they are listening and I am ready to share my Austinmer with you.

The Tale of the Bike Light that Melted a Heart & Owen the Guinea Pig

 Last weekend I spent time with a number of special little people : my friends children.

It was only a couple of hours in a park on the South Coast, but the time spent with them provided me with enough joy to survive yet another working week. I was still smiling come Friday 5pm.

 And here is why…..

 Devine Kid Moment Number 1

My friend Sarah’s boy Sam is 6 years old. I see so much of Sarah in Sam. He is cheeky and mischievous, with a heart of gold. He likes to test his Mum, see how far he can push her without getting a reaction.

I watch all this and can’t help but laugh….Sam is just so funny, more so when he is ‘misbehaving’….a future comedian in the making. He is simply the best.

 At the end of our picnic, Sam, who had been proudly carrying around with him all day a small bit of reflector lighting that had once been attached to a bicycle, approached Mae, my friend Jess’ two year old daughter.

 Sam had found this piece of bicycle light prior to arriving and our picnic, it clearly was to him more valuable that gold or chocolate!

 ‘ This is for you Mae’, said Sam, handing over the small piece of orange plastic to the little girl with golden ringlets‘ So that you can remember me’

 My hearted melted.

 ‘ Oh, Sam, that is just beautiful’ I said

 Sam beamed.

 ‘ Well, I was going to give it to Mae for Christmas but it would be too long to wait’

Devine Kid Moment Number Two

 Whilst I was down South last weekend, I had my hair cut at my Sister-in-Law Hairdressing Salon. It was an early morning appointment, 8am sharp.

 Saturdays in hairdressing land are busy. By 8.34am the salon was packed to capacity, hair flying in all directions, being cut, coloured, blow dried and straightened,

 Amongst it all, a 7-year-old boy sat next to me on a booster seat. His Mother had brought him in the have his hair tamed. He had the most beautiful head of hair, thick and healthy…and so much of it. It had a style of its own, I saw no problem with it but his Mother was having trouble getting a comb through it…. a hair cut the only solution.

 The boy sat silently whilst his mane was tamed. It was a compelling sight. This young creature with youth on his side, in room full of women fighting the aging process with hair dye to colour greys!!

My sister-in-law started up a conversation.

 ‘ How is School?’ , ‘ What year are you in?’ ‘ Do you play any sports’

 I joined in…..telling the little boy a tale about my cat, Flora , who I had left alone in Sydney for day.

 This lead to a new conversation starter

 ‘ Do you have any pets?’ my Sister-in-law asked the little boy.

 ‘ I have one guinea pig’

 Curiosity got the better of me and I butted in…..

 ‘ What’s it’s name?’

 Nothing could have prepared me for the response.

 ‘ Owen’

 My Sister in Law and I looked at each other and smiled.

 ‘ That is a beautiful name, how old is Owen?’ I asked

 ‘ He is 1 ½ years old’

 ‘Wow’, I remarked‘ Did you have 1st Birthday party for Owen?’

 ‘ No’ and the little boy smiled

 ‘ That a shame! Maybe when he turns two you can celebrate with him’

 The boy smiled again and nodded his head.

Nothing could top that conversation. I resumed reading the Women’s Weekly magazine, but could not stop thinking about the little boy sitting proudly next to me, sporting the early stages of a stellar new hair cut, eager to get home to show it off to his number one fan, Owen the Guinea Pig.

CUWAM: The fourth Beach of Christmas: Little Austi and a child’s first swim

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The fourth beach of Christmas is a beach in my childhood home, Austinmer. Little Austi Beach, a unpatrolled strip of sand and surf nestled in between two headlands.

A beach which is perfect place for a summer dip, to float and frolic in the clear blue ocean. My Father refers to Little Austi beach as ‘ Tea Bag Beach’, for on hot summer days, as far as the eye can see are people, young and old, bobbing up and down in the water. I rather like this name and think that Dad should put this suggestion to local council.

Ah Little Austi / Tea Bag beach….you are a friend to all. Dogs roam off leash, children collect shells and swim in the rock pools, surfers catch waves that form out past the rock shelves, teenage girls soak up the sun, and in the good old days, when Headlands Hotel served ice-cold beer all summer long, locals and tourists alike sat on the hill, looking out at the sublime view that encompassed both Tea Bag and the Illawarra coastline….

Today my cousin from Victoria, his wife and baby treated us to a post-Christmas visit on their homeward journey. Tea Bag beach had been mentioned as the perfect place for their daughters first ever swim.

With most of the Illawarra beaches still closed due to dangerous surfing conditions, an alternate swimming hole was required. As luck would have it my family have been entrusted to look after a backyard swimming pool till January 2nd. And whilst it seems indulgent to bathe in a home pool with the ocean minutes away,with the beach off-limits today, it was perfect for our 8 month old visitors first ever swim.

My family felt very privileged to watch in wonder and amazement at the joy the water brought to our little guest…The backyard swimming pool was perfect, the water temperature was mild, the swimming conditions mostly calm ( except for the occasional water splash….mandatory pool behaviour!!)

And whilst it had been hoped that Little Austi/ Tea Bag Beach would provide the essential ingredients for an important milestone to be reached today, that of a child’s first swim, the beach was trumped by the humble backyard swimming pool.

Pool or beach, salt water or clorine….a swim is often just a swim, but it is the people who you share it with that add the magic and create lasting memories.

CUWAM- The Fifth beach of Christmas: Port Kembla Beach and seaside pool

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Todays beach venture taught be a valuable lesson….It is best to avoid making assumptions in life.

As a child, growing up in the Northern suburbs of the Illawarra, there was little need to venture past my local beach, Austinmer,  for a swim. Why get in the car and drive miles when you can walk to the ocean in a matter of minutes?

While that philosophy has been in operation almost every time I have returned home to the South Coast,  my 12 Beaches fo Christmas ode, has forced me to travel further afield.This Austinmer local has travelled to beaches South of Wollongong, to destinations better known for it steel works plant, soot and smog.

Christmas catch ups with my London friends Jo and Yo, it town for the silly season, meant that I did not venture South till almost 2pm. Abandoning plans to explore the seaside town of Kiama, I took a left hand turn on the freeway at the  Port Kembla exit and never looked back.

Not certain of the direction I was heading I entered what must have once been the bustling Port Kembla high street. It was all but a ghost town. Shop fronts were boarded up, tumble weeds blew down the streets, business for sale.  I counted 3 pubs on the main drag, on a street deserted of people. I took this as a sign that Port Kembla has once been a  thriving commercial area….The steel works providing hundreds of jobs, pouring money into the local economy, enabling the beer taps to flow…

Times have changed, and with it the town has suffered, it looks sad and tired….but the sea is its saving grace.

Port Kembla Beach and Pool is simply stunning….an oasis in a town that is in need of a bit of cheering up. The Olympic sized pool is newly renovated, and also contains two wading pools for little children. The well manicured lawns are tiered and provide great ledges from which sunbathers can take in views of both the pool and ocean.

I ate well priced fish and chips for the pool’s kiosk and then took a walk to the beach.

Getting back in my car, I continued on to another prime swimming and fishing spot in Port Kembla, Hill 60. The view from the Hill was divine, had the council had not chosen to instil a waste management site nearby, I would give the place a bigger write-up!!

I learnt a valuable lesson today, that making assumptions about places,  means that you miss out on the joy of discovering things for yourself, coming to your own opinion. Port Kembla is not only part of the steel city that is Wollongong, but a breathtakingly beautiful seaside town….I would encourage everyone with a bit of time to discover the suburbs charm for yourself.

CUWAM: The Sixth Beach of Christmas: Coledale Beach and Camp Ground

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Coledale Beach and Camping Reserve

King tides have closed the majority of beaches along the South Coast…For those who have packed up everything from the kitchen sink to the Christmas tree, and unpacked it at Coledale Beach and =Camp Reserve, things are looking pretty bleak.

There must be around 200 people in around 50 tents camping over the Christmas/ New Year period. A picturesque beach side camp ground, it is one of the few spots in the Illawarra that allows you to set up camp a stones throw from the ocean.

At this time of year it is a site to behold….Grumbling about the weather and lack of excitement at the Wollongong Boxing Day sales that I ventured to this morning, my father told me to go ‘cruising’??!! By that he meant, cruising for some beach front inspiration. I had asked my father for guidance as the lack of sunshine and heat was hindering my spirits and ability to tackle the task at hand: the half way mark in my beach odes.

‘Head up to Coledale’, suggested my Dad ‘ It will be packed’

And that is was….. On arrival I entered a temporary village, a make shift town of tents, caravans and campervans. Clothes lines were erected between pine trees, surf boards were being used as card tables, people were walking about, eating left over fruit cake from Christmas lunch,  merrily drinking beer whilst kids sat beach side eating soft serve ice-cream cones.

The place even seemed to have it own code of conduct. It soon became clear that you had to say hello to everyone you walked passed…a genuine hello, you had to say it like you meant it….I kind of liked that!

Despite the jovial mood of the camping reserve, the ocean was not in a good mood. Large waves broke on the shore line, the sea was grey and angry….Life savers sat on the sand watching the fury of the sea, their presence a gentle reminder that the water was a no go zone.

With the water the focal point of any beach outing there was an amazing amount of activity at Coledale this afternoon…but then I guess if you have set up camp and you are in it for the long haul ( ie NYE) you have to make the most of a beach side holiday…regardless of the lack of sun and angry surf.

So I witnessed other seaside pass times this afternoon: photography, sand castle making, ice cream eating, picnicking, gossiping, pondering, beer drinking and general all round relaxing.

And yes, despite my initial hesitation to abandon ship and stay indoors today, I am glad I ventured to Coledale Beach and Camping Reserve…a hive of activity on an otherwise average summer day.

CUWAM: The Seventh Beach of Christmas: McCauleys Beach

This post is dedicated to my beautiful Uncle who passed away yesterday. A  man who had life’s priorities in the right order: family and friends always come first. My Uncle was also a passionate writer, so the written word seems a fitting way to pay tribute to a life well lived.

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Christmas day, you arrived and brought summer with you!! That in itself if the best present one could ask for. A beach Christmas, thank you Santa!!

It is 5pm in the evening and I have had two oceans swims. Whilst I sit a recall my first seaside dip I am contemplating a third in a backyard swimming pool….

Over sparkling Shiraz, Christmas Ham and hot English mustard sandwiches, and the eve of St Nick’s arrival, my childhood friend Steph and I devised a plan to squeeze in an early morning swim the following morning. Steph’s schedule was packed, a brunch, a lunch and then a three course dinner!! Me on the other hand only had a lunch to contend with.

The lucky beach we picked for our Chrissie dip: McCauleys beach Thirroul. My love affair with Mc Cauleys beach has been ongoing since the early 1990’s, when Steph’s parents brought a two bedroom cottage one street away from the beach.

From that point on my summer swims were often at McCauleys, a unpatroled beach just south of the ever popular Thirroul Beach and pool. On hot summer days, Steph, her sister Alison and I would see dense crowds at Thirroul beach from the quiet and calm of McCauleys and feel ever so smug!

At the prearranged time of 8.30am Chirstmas morning, Steph, her Mum and Dad, pooches Carlos and Chelsea and I headed on foot in the direction of the water. On arriving at the beach, we quickly set up camp. Steph and her Dad headed to the water first, whilst Steph’s Mum and I did dog sitting duties. Ten minutes later it was Anna, Steph’s Mum and my turn for some McCauleys action. The water was warm, frothy waves broke over our heads, and we dived and ducked beneath them.

It was a glorious way to start Christmas Day 2011, for that matter, any day….Bathing in the ocean, natures own water park, offering cooling relief, restoring energy, providing clarity.

All too soon the Christmas schedule kicked in, the brunches, lunches and dinners…..But what would Christmas be without them!!

So three cheers for Christmas 2011 and the early morning swim at McCauleys…a swim that took place at a beach rich in family and friendship history. Thank goodness for local knowledge and thank goodness for life long friendships….the perfect ingedients for celebrating.

Merry Christmas everyone!!

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