Saturday, May 02, 2009

Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Coffs Harbour Surf Music

It is hard now to believe that the population of inland New England and the North Coast were once in balance. At the 1961 census, Tamworth (19,390 people) had just overtaken Lismore (19,010 people) as New England's largest centre outside the lower Hunter. Armidale (13,170 people) was still behind the North Coast's second largest centre Grafton (15,600 people), but was rapidly closing the gap. Coffs Harbour's population was 7,188, Port Macquarie's 6,110.

I make this point because in those days inland New Englanders saw the North Coast as their own playground. Yes, we went to other places for holidays as well, but most went to the North Coast. Each family had their own special spot.

At Yamba, for example, the James and Kay, Yamba 1961flats in one street carried the names of New England properties from the Armidale area. These flats were in fact owned by country people who bought them because Yamba was their spot.

My aunt and uncle were part of the Yamba group. This photo from cousin Jamie's collection shows James and Aunt Kay at Yamba in 1961.

Over forty years later the Drummond family gathered at Yamba in that street for Christmas in what would in fact be the last time before death decimated the sisters who had formed the core of the continuing family.

The Belshaw's were not a Yamba family.

We ranged more widely. Port Macquarie once, Urunga a number of times, Sawtell ditto. We also stayed at Manly in Sydney where Mum and Dad had been married and and at what is now the Gold Coast. Mind you, the Gold Coast was really an extension in some ways of New England made exotic by its Queensland location.

In all this, we did not stay at Coffs Harbour. I always thought of Coffs as a port town, not a holiday place, although many New Englanders camped there just next to the main beach. I would be in my forties before we first stayed in Coffs for a break just after Helen was born. Oddly, or perhaps not, Coffs is now Helen's favourite NSW coastal resort.

While we did not say at Coffs, our holiday focus on Urunga and Sawtell meant that we went there a lot. This was the big centre for food and shopping. As a kid I really liked the jetty area, hoping to see a ship. Sometimes we did, although the port was now very quiet because of the decline in coastal shipping.

Time passes. I am now at university in Armidale. The Beatles are all the rage. Very few of us had cars, so our focus was mainly campus and local. However, from time to time we would pile into one of the few available vehicles and head for Coffs.

The pattern was nearly always the same. Coffs was then about three hours away by road. We would drive down in the morning, arriving for a late morning swim and then lunch at the pub. The afternoon was spent drinking beer and listening to surf music.

From this distance in time, I have no idea how often the pub in fact had a band, nor could I really describe the music. My recollection is that surf music came out of the US in the late 1950s. Initially band, it had a strong beat. Vocals were then added.

While brother David bleached his hair, I had little interest in surfing as such and remained outside this particular cultural loop. This remains the case today. Even though we presently live in Sydney not far from the beach, I still think of the beach as somewhere to go on holidays. My wife and eldest are very different.

Back then, surf music was interesting in part because it was different. It was also an excuse to have a swim and drink beer. We would generally leave for Armidale in the late evening, sometimes staying till the pub shut.

The trip back was always less fun. Often as we reached the top of the mountain and headed inland across the Dorrigo plateau, the mist would come down. Those who know the Dorrigo will know what I mean.

Driving in thick mist is not pleasant. The mist diffuses the car lights. Put high beam on, and the world dissolves in white light. Kept on low beam, only the road just in front can be seen. When, as in this case, the road is windy, driving is slow and a bit jerky.

We would often reach Armidale late at night and, exhausted, drop into bed.


Over on my personal blog, North Coast Memories - SS Fitzroy, provides a postscript to this story.

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