Bermagui - In a Strange Sunset

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Bermagui - In a Strange Sunset  (1910) 
by Henry Lawson
First published in The Bulletin in 1910. Lawson travelled from Bermagui, a small fishing village on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, to Sydney. He probably was travelling on one of the ships of the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company. In this piece, Lawson mentions the 1880 disappearance of Lamont Young near Bermagui.


BERMAGUI: Where The Mystery was - and where mystery is. Sunset, and a sad, old mysterious bright gold fan-like to dull copper one. Red flag with broad white cross; gloomy and half fearful, half threatening in sunset glare.

Sort of jumbled curve of bay - sand, rotten rock and beach scrub and tussock. As if it were meant to be a clean curve with white sand. But juttings-out of rotting earth and sand and bastard rock that were not "points" nor anything else were left - mixed up with scraggy bush and scrub and coarse tufts that Nature forgot, or hadn't time to shove away and tidy up. Scene started in a hurry, left half finished, and - forgotten. Blue hill - or bastard mountain - to the west, running down to pygmy peak at the end of it: Mount Dromedary - and looks like it. Tired, sulky, obstinate old Dromedary in the dusk, shutting out daylight. Point same rotten clay or rock topped with a fringe of bastard, scraggy, half-dead trees. Stacks of sleepers, sleepers, sleepers and sawn timber along darkening clay road. Jumble of sand, and mongrel scrub, and tussock, and Beach Hotel. Sort of regular jumble of weatherboard shanties. All seem to face sunset with guilty, guilty, glazed and glaring eyes turned towards where, far out at the end of the Mountain, Lamont Young's party were lost - or not lost - nearly thirty years ago. One house, back half behind clump of decent trees to the left, with only one guilty, glassy, brassy eye visible from deck. Showing well above jumble of houses on hill at the back, one small, oblong, weatherboard, bare, verandahless "cottage" with two eyes more glassy, more glaring, more blaring, and guiltier than all the rest, against sunset.

Darkness falls. Flares glaring on wharf and deck. Long sawn timber swung aboard and below with amazing clumsiness and carelessness. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Snatching hatfuls of cargo from every little port. Too lightly laden. Chancing it and running across from Maoriland in perhaps the most dangerous seas in the world, in little more than ballast. I know it and have known it for many years. Way back in Dann's time - Clark Russel speaks of it. Rotten ships started off round the world - too deeply laden. Down here, in Lawson's time, coffin ships from Newcastle to Sydney have dropped into a trough and through the bottom like a kettle filled with bullets. And men drowned like rats in same kettle with lid cramped on. Now it's all haste, razor-edged competition, and greed. I've been round the Cape, from Durban to Sydney, where the Waratah was lost, and know something about something.

I'd rather be in one of our little Mallacoota or Cunningham cutters with a comfortable belly full of cargo, off Gabo, in a sea, than in some of our long, high, narrow, top-heavy, too-lightly-laden, speed-greedy liners, in the long, greasy, devilish beam roll. The little cutter sits upright, anyway, and climbs like a cat. Think of the liner turned turtle ! Hundreds, men, women, children, lads and lasses, trapped, helpless - the most horrible death you could imagine at sea. When she swamps, there's light, at least, to the last, and a chance for it.

But we're sketching Bermagui. Sawn timber. Chaff goes ashore. (Points and trees dark and dreary). More cheese comes on board. Cheese, butter, eggs, sawn timber, calves, pigs, and sleepers, and in the season, wool! We can't get away from wool.

Pigs and calves slung aboard anyhow here, without the benefit of the bosses.

Someone, catching me furtively taking notes, asks:

"Taking an inventory of the live stock?"

"Yes," I say.

So I was - both in the cattle hold and the saloon. But that later. But let's get out of this.

Light on Montague Island like star in the East. Moonlight.

Passed Ulladulla in my sleep, but it sounds like cheese, butter, eggs, calves, pigs, pumpkins, and, in the season, wool.

Same as Cunnamulla in Queensland always suggests mashed pumpkin or pumpkin pies to me.

Hatches left off, with chain round, to give air to stock. Roaring of young bulls, blurring of calves, grunting and squealing of pigs in cattle hold - and ditto in saloon smoking-room, for they're drinking a bit. If we only had a donkey, and a sheep or two, and a goat, we'd be complete for'ard. Sailor says there's queer cattle in the saloon sometimes.

Roused by strange noise just as I was dosing off. Thought it was comic steward doing a bit of ventriloquism, or imitating animals, or the chief, for the edification of his mates - they all doss here - just as we were going to sleep. It was the fore cabin steward with the jim-jams in his sleep. Most uncanny sounds I ever heard.

About the saloon - there's a thing that will be altered when this strikes the proper person. On one line in the fore~cabin it is written everywhere in brass and paint and worked on the mats- "Second Class Ladies", "Second Class Gents"; on the other "Males", "Females". Stony fact. Goes a bit further than "Men" and "Women", doesn't it?

Morning bright and glorious. Off Port Hacking. Rockdale over beyond, chimney visible. Shelving cliffs: cutter between the heads - sails dark-brown, clay-coloured, light brown with touch of yellow, yellowish grey, and grey, and tawny, and almost black as they turn to the sunlight or away: small boats fishing outside. Strong morning breeze. The heads at nine o'clock.

And so Australia. No meadows and fields showing fair down to the sea, nor aught, as in other lands, to hint of the great wealth of love and riches within her. Shelving rock coast, capped with hopeless and forbidding, dry coastal scrub - you'd never dream of what was behind and within. Australia, my Australia; and I hold her mine as no man ever did, or ever shall.

This work is is in the public domain because it was created in Australia and the term of copyright has expired.

See Australian Copyright Council - Duration of Copyright (February 2012).


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1922, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.