Heroes of my autumn years

Bill Dunbabbin, Dunalley, Tasmania

Bill in his natural habitat, Dunalley fishermen’s wharf, Tasmania. Rest easy, old timer.

For me Dunalley will always evoke fond memories. It’s one of those rare places, which, like the Buccaneer Archipelago of my childhood, are forever changeless, magically fixed in time and space. There are people like that, too; those dear departed ones still vivid and warm in recollection. My old knockabout mates Bob Pomeroy and Julio, lovers, parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts – and Bill Dunbabbin.

Bill Dunbabbin is to me a large part of what makes Dunalley such a special place in my soul. In him are the sea and the wind and the enduring rocks of his beloved island; the great gums and the peaty rivers; the wave-battered cliffs and the quiet reaches of the sea-hammered West. But Bill was also a paradox: a quiet man who loved a yarn and a lively discussion as much as he enjoyed sitting in silent company, feeling the breeze off the bay and savouring the aroma that make coastal settlements what they are the world over: that sea whiff with its hints of far-off lands and adventures in great and noble causes.

He also liked a good read, especially from books about the lives and achievements of the great explorer–adventurers. We had a bit of a book club going there for a while, Bill and I, borrowing from each other’s collections. In Pat’s cheerful kitchen overlooking the bay and fuelled by her delicious home cooking, we exchanged views on authors and their subjects. Flinders (who Bill, in common with many seafaring folk, rated as probably the greatest navigator of them all), Baudin, D’Entrecasteaux, and Cook were discussed and dissected, along with accounts of great journeys by land and sea and tales of shipwrecks and wonders the world over.

In my past dealings with a national magazine, I was often in contact with modern-day adventurers and their achievements – mountaineers, kayakers, travellers in exotic overlands – and I respect their steadfast resolve to achieve what they do, but for all their wonderful feats, the fact remains that, when all is said and done, they are the modern-day equivalents of the “gentleman adventurers” of Victorian and Edwardian times.

Pat and Bill – like so many of their time – were adventurers in the course of earning a living and their time at Port Davey is almost the stuff of legend. Their generation drew strength from this rugged old land of ours and went quietly about their business, enduring much as they did so. They were the overlanders; the fishermen under sail; the soldiers, sailors and airmen, the Waafs and Waves and Wrans of great and terrible conflicts and the endurers of harsh economic times. And in them our Colonial past wasn’t history – it was in the conversations and recollections of their parents and grandparents. Let the politicians rant about flags and patriotism; I’ll stick to my Bill and Pat Dunbabbins.

If by chance you should ever be in Port Davey, that legendary haven of Tasmanian seafolk and, I suspect, Australia’s equivalent of Fiddler’s Green, rest soft a while. Let the moist morning air wash over you and open your soul to the voice of the water. There’s a good chance you’ll hear a soft, strong greeting: “Good morning, Captain.” Be not alarmed but instead be happy in the knowledge that Bill Dunbabbin has come home.Rest in peace, Bill, and condolences to dear Pat and family.

Afterthought – Where are the monuments?

Even though just a nipper as nations go, Australia has a proud maritime heritage. This is the only continent first populated by sea, and before the first European skippers sighted our coasts, with sometimes disastrous consequences, the Macassa Men traded with the northern Aboriginals for the right to dive for bêche-de-mer, or sea-cucumber. This link was once very strong. When I was a youngster, we knew this once-valuable commodity by its Malay name, trepang.

Ships and the seafarers that crew them have carried Australia’s economic lifeblood since the days of European settlement, while the RAN and its predecessors have always played a vital role in our defence. Our seaborne navigators and scientists add daily to our knowledge of the world and our fishing fleet, though a fraction of its former size, is still an important contributor to our economy.

A Tasmanian friend from another generation, the late Billy Dunbabbin, and I once discussed whether or not there should be a statue of Matthew Flinders, the greatest navigator of them all, in every coastal town, and if Flinders, then why not D’Entrecasteaux?

Billy himself was the stuff of legend – a former fisherman who with his wife Pat had for a time lived aboard their boat in Port Davey. On still, misty mornings I sometimes hear Bill’s low greeting: “Mornin’ captain. A soft day.” When the wind roars across the hilltops, I can visualise the whitecaps in Norfolk Bay and hear him opine that “It’d blow the milk outa y’ tea.”

So where then are the monuments and memorials? Who has heard of Harry Robertson, whose days with the Antarctic whaling fleets gave rise to a treasury of songs? When tourists take a Murray River cruise do they hear the songs and tales of the Mud Pirates?

Who collects the lore of the fishermen? Like the tale of the notoriously stingy crayboat skipper whose deckhand brother was lost overboard. Days later he radioed the police with the news he’d found the body. When told to bring it in he replied: “Can’t. I dropped him back in.”

When a horrified constable asked why, he replied: “’E was on good ground. I got 35 crays orf ’uv ’im.”

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Harry_Robertson_(folk_singer)

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