The tribulations of Trial Bay

Patriotic camping at South West Rocks.

Patriotic camping at South West Rocks.

It’s mid May and after a month of winter, we have just had a week of summer or at least early autumn. The wild weather that has lashed the New South Wales coast while we were battened down in campgrounds further south gave way to temporary sunshine. Just north of where we are is known as the northern rivers, but the weather has left its mark on the rivers down here too. On the flat edges of their banks there are still lagoons of water from the floods and in the tidal estuaries the water still runs russet brown and fresh tasting, staining the sea as it pours out for kilometres.

We have enjoyed this intermezzo of brightness at a coastal place curiously named South West Rocks. The name is not curious because of the rocks, they are there all right and could do any amount of shipping damage. It is curious because the rocks are north east, south east or just plain east of any significant place on the mainland. It seems the name comes because a tiny finger of land curls further out to sea and that was the original settlement of a location called Trial Bay and the South West Rocks town is to the south west of this settlement. 

The bay got its name from a ship called the Trial which was wrecked there in 1816, when the Australian colony was only 28 years old. But there were other trials associated with the place, such as those that filled a jail built in the 1890s as an experimental public works prison to extract labour for a rock breakwater to turn the bay into a refuge for coastal shipping in storms. About half the inmates were prisoners ending their sentences and they initially had a more lenient time than normal prisoners and were even paid for their work, to see if this treatment eased them more successfully back into society on release. 

 Trial Bay Jail ruins.

Trial Bay Jail ruins.

But a little more than two decades after it opened the bean counters deemed the project too expensive and it was shut down. The breakwater was also a failure. Poorly engineered it soon collapsed into the sea. The prison was only ever again used briefly during World War I to house German prisoners of war and German residents of Australia deemed enemy aliens. They were popular with the locals, providing good sausages, bread and entertainment including even an orchestra.

The ruins on a sunny afternoon.

The ruins on a sunny afternoon.

The prison then turned into one of Australia’s most picturesque ruins, before being partly restored to allow tourists to feel nostalgic over the harshness of a past age. On a sunny afternoon the western light turns its stone walls to gold and you could be excused for thinking you might be in the south of France or somewhere else on the Mediterranian looking at the remains of a castle.

While the prison might have commanded a great view over the water so did the site we were allocated at the Horseshoe Bay caravan park at South West Rocks.

Commanding campsite.

Commanding campsite.

It was unfortunately under a large Norfolk Island Pine, that was the roosting spot for thousands of very quarrelsome rainbow lorikeets, almost deafening at sundown, but mainly quiet at night. It is a very popular caravan park with a location ensuring it is almost completely booked out even in the colder months. A very patriotic one too, with Australia’s union jack decorated flag everywhere, even fluttering from one lady’s motorised wheelchair.

Horseshoe bay.

Horseshoe bay.

The park’s bay is a small surf beach that seems to enjoy an almost endless supply of gently rideable waves that were encouraging enough for me to pull my boogie board and flippers from beneath the bed for some water fun.

Me in the the surf.

Me in the surf.

Apparently in more prudish times, this bay used to be reserved for ladies- only bathing. If Islamic State ever gets a foothold in this country it would be perfect for such purposes again.

Putting aside that depressing thought, we took to our kayaks. First of all Jill and I attempted the still flood swollen Macleay River at the nearby old port Jerseyville. There was a strong wind and tidal pull so we had to paddle hard to avoid ending further upstream than intended.


Jill explores Jerseyville.

I wanted to attempt the bay which is mainly open sea, but Jill baulked. She did however agree to provide moral support and with binoculars watch out and call marine rescue if needed. It wasn’t, but I faced an increasing north westerly as I ploughed through the chop from the prison several kilometres over to our caravan park beach and back. What would have been a pefectly boastful performance was spoilt at the end when in a small surf, I nose dived into the beach, spun sideways and threw myself out onto the sand.

Speeding into the beach. Pride before the fall.

Speeding into the beach- before the crash.

Fortunately in the only photos she took, I appeared in complete control.

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