From the early sixties, my father and mother led an expedition of family and friends to a remote island in Bass Strait, called Erith, one of three main islands in the Kent Group, halfway between the mainland and Tasmania and only accessible by fishing boat. Across from Erith is Deal Island, which for most of my life was inhabited by two lighthouse families who endured the volatile weather of Bass Strait all year. From our island each summer, we could look across the dangerous stretch of water to Deal and human habitation. At night, the triple beam of the lighthouse was our comfort against the darkness and loneliness of the strait.
It’s impossible to feel proprietorial about Bass Strait—in its weather and its rugged grandeur, it defies ownership, seems so unarguably more powerful than anyone who might lay claim to it. But I see myself belonging to the strait in a way that I do not see myself belonging to anything else. The Bass Strait islands rise out of the sea like sleeping, prehistoric animals. The lichen-striped cliffs conjure craggy granite faces that stretch up into turbulent sky. The islands are lined in golden beaches, covered in groves of eucalypts and tea-tree and she-oak. The seas are treacherous, not only for their size but also for the speed with which they change with the winds.
When the easterlies rise up over our island and batter us for days, my family hides inside the small cabin that has nestled in the corner of West Cove since the 1950s, built by Jack Lierich, a boat-builder who ran off to Erith with another man’s wife and stayed for four years. Jack built the three-roomed cabin from driftwood and lined it with sail-cloth and installed a wood stove, in which we bake our bread.
Most summer nights of my life have been spent around that tiny table, set beneath a window that frames the middle of the bay. From this table, we chart the temperament of the strait, watching the williwaws streak across the bay, the rolling seas, the eerie days when the bay shimmers like a mirror. Around this table, my parents and their friends drank and argued and laughed and cried into the early hours, while I lay in my bed in the next room listening, attempting to decipher the strange codes of adulthood.
The trips I made as a child could last as long as six weeks, and by day three we had forgotten mainland life entirely. We lived by the light, rising early, vanishing for hours, returning only when we were hungry. Often, we accompanied the fathers on the cray runs at either end of the day. The cray pots were dropped in carefully calculated places with names such as Deepwater Cove and Nautilus Bay. Nestled in the bow of the dinghy, we children watched the pots being heaved up from sandy bottom, the rope’s gravelly friction against the dinghy edge giving rhythm to our fathers’ tugs. Eventually, there was the first glimpse of the concentric tea-tree pot rising towards us through the water and, if we were lucky, a blaze of red.
Fathers dipped their hands through the top and grabbed the feelers, pulling the crays out and assessing their size. We pulled our feet up from the bottom of the boat, unwilling to subject our bare toes to the snapping pincers, while the driver raced the dinghy home. As we turned into our bay, we held our fingers aloft to the landlubbers to indicate the size of the catch. On wild mornings, we gathered in the hut and the victorious sailors had a Scotch before my mother cooked breakfast.
When the crays had been weighed and measured and recorded meticulously, the children stood around the camp fire and watched in enchanted horror as they were dropped into the boiling water—a practice dispensed with in more recent times. Later, when the shadow hit the far end of the beach, the day’s work was declared done. Erithrians gathered above the dunes, poured drinks and ate the carefully cut crays with lemon and garlic mayonnaise and homemade bread and watched the sunset ritual of the stingrays sweeping the shallows.
Erithrians, as those of us who have gone for many years refer to one another, have always laughed at those who ask us how we fill in the day. The day is consumed by the real business of living, the pursuits mainland life has relinquished. We find, hunt, prepare and cook our food, and the activity is both an endurance and an entertainment. Fish must be caught, fires must be lit, bread must be baked and the schedule of the day is set by the sun and the moon, the timing of tides.
The bread is baked in the hut stove or the heavy camp ovens lodged in the camp fires and the activity can take most of a day. The dough rises in puddles of sun through the tea-tree bowers. My favourite loaves are the ones my mother makes, not constrained by tins. They go loose into the camp oven over a layer of sand and tinfoil, doughy cushions, and emerge as golden steaming mounds to be devoured with jam and tea.
An enduring image from the early days is of late afternoon light, small legs and red buckets climbing around the rocks that curve from our bay into the next, cleavering abalone from beneath the tide line, small hands pushing aside the seaweed to find their curved shells. Back on the beach, the adults take our buckets and cut the fish from the shells, finely slice and beat the flesh on the Erith box-lids and fry it that night in garlic and ginger. The same images persist, only now the small legs are my children’s—they are the bucket-holders and I am the one who watches anxiously as their feet fly around the rock edges, apparitions suspended between sea and sky.
When writing or even just summoning images, I find it easier to reconstitute the island through the eyes of a child. As a child, I inhabited the island in an absolute way that the adult in me cannot. Whereas now I see the island in overview, as a child it was the length and breadth of my experience. I smelt, touched, tasted, dreamt about the island with an intensity that has become diluted by the adult’s compulsion to analyse and place. And perhaps I know myself most strongly as a child still. Despite my age and my own children, I am not yet convinced by my own adultness.
As much as possible, we lived from the sea. Dinner was pulled up from the opaline depths, the ingredients named with descriptive vibrancy: the magpie perch with its black and white stripes, the red morwong, the trumpeter with its squat nose … At sunset, we stood on the beach, two lines of small net-sorters, stretching the net, nimble fingers extracting the tufts of kelp and layering the net on board for the next day’s fish.
Other days, we used the seine net, where the dinghy was rowed in a semicircle from the beach out into the bay and back to the beach some twenty metres beyond the starting point. At the right moment, two teams of net-yankers stood in lines like a tug-of-war, pulling the arc of the net into the shallows where the folds closed like lips, collecting hundreds of silver trout dancing in the light.
My mother is the island’s champion filleter. The adults stand in a huddle over the rocks armed with sharp knives, throwing the carcasses into the shallows where the Pacific gulls dip and plunge.
At night, the fish are cooked all ways. In the hut, my mother fries the fish and makes vast quantities of chips, piled high on a metal dish. Other nights, we make our way up the track and eat communal meals at one of the other camps, with their driftwood-built structures lined by tarpaulins and views out into the strait.
Outdoors we eat the day’s catch neat, fillets wrapped in foil with lemon juice and pepper and butter and turned once or twice on the grill over the camp fire and accompanied by whole potatoes cooked late in the embers and eaten by gas lamp and firelight, surrounded by the noises of the bush. We eat late, often beginning at first sight of the nine o’clock owl—we can set our non-existent watches by it as it swoops across the shadowy sky, moments before nightfall is complete. Moments later, we children are running through the bush, dodging shadows, lying on our backs among the tussocks, tracking satellites.
Simple cooking has always ruled Erith eating. But there were (and remain) the Foodies. The Foodies used to be the exception, but these days, when every Balwyn home boasts a wok-burner, Foodies are the rule. The first wave of Erith gourmands came to dominate island cuisine in the late seventies. They looked to the island as a canvas on which to negotiate the challenge of great ingredients and certain deprivations. A great meal not only tasted good, it was also a triumph of improvisation, since there could be no last-minute dashes to the deli for Sumac.
There are the culinary legends: Robert and Jenny’s bouillabaise, cooked up over the camp fire, Max’s twelve-course Chinese banquets, served on a table on the sand dunes at sunset, complete with damask tablecloth. Such nights had an advantage in that if you didn’t like the soup, you could (and often did) surreptitiously tip it into the sand beside you. One year was the Year of the Squid Ink Pasta, with the homemade fettucini draped over the boughs of the tea-tree as it was cut. There were the years when a rare oversupply of crayfish merged with gluttony to cause a seriously decadent affliction—cray rash.
For the Erith expedition, a particular wooden box was manufactured, designed by Erithrians for easy lifting and passing in the eternal human chains used for unloading supplies from boat to dinghy to island and then up the tracks to the various camp-kitchens. For easy access, in case of night arrivals or storms, the contents were noted in Texta and over the years each box has become a graffitied archive of changing culinary fashion. If you saved a sample box from each of the Erith trips from the early sixties until now, the resulting display would not only resemble a piece of Biennale-worthy conceptual art, but also be a fascinating sociological record of shifting appetites.
The early box contents were tributes to cans: Plumrose hams and creamed corn, sardines, corned beef and tins and tins of Uneeda biscuits, along with powdered milk and tinned butter. Delicacies included smoked oysters and tinned asparagus as soft as butter. Then there was the gradual advance of snobbery and erudition … The olive oils and balsamics, labelled ‘Fragile Exclamation Mark’, chutneys and liqueur fruits, spices, pestos, soy milk and saffron. Toblerone, once the epitome of sophisticated post-meal luxury, gave way to Pannetone, which has evolved into Panforte. The huge buying spree from wholesaler Ballantynes in South Melbourne has been supplanted by forays to Simon Johnston, where those same islanders who had once devoured Rosella tomato soup now stock up on laksa paste and preserved lemons.
For my father, the great Erith meal was the Fray Bentos night. This involved removing the tin tops of the shallow pies and baking them in the wood oven until their pastry-lids puffed. Inasmuch as he was a pro-lighthouse person, he was an anti-foodie, thriving on the corned-beef hashes he whipped up in the giant frying pan or a bolognaise my mother managed to concoct from tinned meat and vast quantities of red wine. Now, as we unpack box after box of Lebanese spices, I imagine him looking down at us from where his ashes lie on the ridge above the beach, scoffing at our capitulation to fashion.
Christmas dinners were in the hut kitchen, where at the appointed hour all island dwellers would squeeze in the door and take a place around the extreme edges of the tiny room, completely filled with two tables pushed together. For many years, the Christmas feast was composed of a ham, stored on ice and eaten in the nick of time along with my mother’s Cumberland sauce and the battle-fatigued salad ingredients. But the new generation of Erithrians has cast off tradition to the benefit of everyone and the meal is now crayfish, cleavered with the shell on and fried in the wok with ginger, chilli and garlic over the camp fire—impossible to improve on.
Only pudding remains intact, served by my mother with the full range of accompaniments, including her famous brandy butter. One year, the island woke to her shrieks in the Christmas meal countdown, when she discovered that she had left the brandy butter at home. My father promptly radioed the lighthouse-keepers opposite, who rang my mother’s neighbours on the mainland, who broke into her house, extracted the brandy butter from the freezer, and drove it to Tyabb, where it was placed on a helicopter flying to the Antarctic. At the sounds of the chopper approaching, my mother ran down onto the Erith beach, sprinted along it arms aloft and caught the hard sauce as it was thrown out of the hovering helicopter. The Christmas meal was saved.
In the early days, we sometimes crossed the treacherous Murray Pass to Deal Island a mile away, in order to visit the light-keepers. Erith children, looking like tinkers, ran to the houses to turn the bathroom taps and see water gushing out and deliriously ate bowls of ice cream, a product we had been denied for weeks. At night, we travelled back across the pass, watching the luminescent jellyfish sparkle at the bough of the dinghy, in almost perfect reflection of the vast night sky.
Strangely, over time the images and events of the separate journeys have collapsed into a single archive of memories. I can never distinguish one year from the next. It’s impossible to summon the island without finding all senses joined. In the writer’s inward eye, an image comes complete with sound and smell and taste. The williwaws shooting spray across the bay summon pictures of my father in the dinghy looking out of the pass towards Flinders Island, or taking in the light on Deal’s extraordinary bluff, Squaw’s Head. There is me in those memories, as a child and with a child, more recently with two. And every so often, a bite of something brings me a gust of Bass Strait air, a fragment of thought or feeling of people once loved and now dead, and a recollection of meals, hundreds of meals lit, in part, by the beams of the light.