Wednesday, October 30, 2013

At Kylie's

Diamond Head has its own special illusion. Anyone who comes there is filled with a wild resolution to stay for ever. No man but is possessed  with the urge to bend Diamond Head to his secret longings, to make it his own. Diamond Head deals with them. It outlasts. Its great lump of basalt was doing just this a few hundred years ago when captain Cook and his crew of constipated heros swept past, claiming the continent in a distant and gentlemanly manner. They heard the roar of the cliffs as so many cheers for their passing, a bombardment of welcome salutes. And Diamond Head will give a belch and a roar for the passing of all who come after him.

Kylie Tennant, The Man on the Headland (1971)

We came to Diamond Head (Dimandead) in the late afternoon of a hot, dry and windy day a couple of weeks ago, having left Canberra about 8 am. We did not know it, but the state was burning to the south in our beloved Blue Mountains.

It was a day of complete fire ban; we knew that, so cold baked beans for dinner. We called in at Diamond Head camp ground to register and pay our camp fees. The ranger was away till a quarter to 5, so we waited, wandering down to the beach. A storm was brewing.

Back at the Ranger's office, it began to rain, fat drops making us take shelter under the overhang of the roof. Nearby kangaroos, used to people, hopped over at once to also take shelter under the roof, though around the corner of the building from where we were.

The Diamond Head camp ground is the most popular, full of motor homes and caravans. Simple campers, we prefer the seclusion and privacy of the Kylie's Hut area, a kilometre or two away, at Indian Head.

In the 1940s, the writer Kylie Tennant moved to nearby Laurieton where her husband got a job as school principal.  They stayed many years; both their children were born there.

And it was there that Kylie met Ernie Metcalfe, the 'mad hermit' of Diamond Head, whose family had a farm there (very little farming seemed to be actually done). Later, in 1971, she published a memoir of their time there, naming it The Man on the Headland as a tribute to Ernie, whose story this also is.

Ernie was neither mad nor a hermit; Kylie described him as the 'most sociable of men'. He loved beer, but because he couldn't afford to shout (buy a round of drinks for others), he did not go to the pub.  He was the archetypal bushman, happy to rough it as long as he had his freedom.

Kylie and her husband Roddy befriended him. He'd come around and play chess with Roddy, and borrow books. He read all Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac, as well as stories of Polar and African explorers.

And Kylie would go to stay out at Ernie's because she loved the bush; it gave her time to think and write, and was a good place to take her first baby, Benison, to give her plenty of sun and air.  She wanted to build a hut to stay in and insisted on paying a fair price for the land Ernie wanted to give her. He was astounded that it was worth sixty five pounds.

In 1976, she gave the land and hut to the National Parks, and the whole headland is now national park.

We first went there over 30 years ago, and then not till earlier this year. The hut has been moved, and fixed up somewhat, so it's not quite as it was described in the book, or what it was like when we first went there.

There are now large swathes of grassed area (there are about 80 camp sites, though both times we've been there this year there were only three lots of campers. From the hut, which may be used in an emergency to sleep in, it is only a short walk down to the beach.

In her book, Kylie talks of the rutile sand miners coming in next door. (Sand mining disrupted the dunes and bush all the way along the coast and left the curse of the weed bitou bush, which they used to revegetate.  She hated having them there, for the the damage they did to the beach and bush, and the noise of the machinery, but Ernie was phlegmatic. 'You'll never know in fifty years,' he said.

Bitou bush is a noxious weed, but the bush has fairly well recovered, sixty years later. maybe Ernie was right.

I met Kylie Tennant in the early 1970s. She came in to the magazine where I was an editorial assistant to see the two women I worked with, notable children's writers both. I had tea with her a few times, and found her warm, generous, and good-humoured.

As are all her books, and especially The Man on the Headland. It has the kind of humour that speaks of a particular brand of Australian resilience.

When I camp at Kylie's I feel that she and Ernie are there with me, that I am entirely welcome. It's a good feeling, rather like coming home.

Tennant and her family later moved away to Sydney, but they kept the hut, and went to visit. Ernie also visited them in Sydney.

After he died:

A year later, my son coming back from Dimandead said, "You were right about Ernie. He's still there." Somehow the memory of his old army hat has left him. He is always bareheaded in the sunlight. If I did not turn round Ernie could be heard talking of the weather and the birds. Dimandead shines now with more splendid light. It is not every day that a headland takes to itself the soul of a man.

The Man on the Headland