The usual rock fishing trip planned for the weekend had been 'up in the air' due to a fair sized groundswell, but with an enormous high pressure system moving right over the centre of the country and a forecast for really strong westerly winds overnight, we decided to at least take the drive to Dover Heights and have a look at the sea. The only reasonable weather forecasts back in the 70's and 80's were "only a guide" to what conditions were proposed to be like and often were simply worded "slight, moderate or rough" in regards to sea and "low, moderate or large" in regards to the swell- didn't really provide any decent detailed information like today's forecasts/surf-cams etc do, so going and having a look was the best guide to whether or not to proceed.
For the record, the forecast stated "slight to moderate seas on a moderate swell"- which would normally have kept us home, but the forecast big westerly would quickly flatten the sea, leaving conditions that are always productive, due to plenty of food being washed in.
A variety of species should be around and usually hungry to cash-in on the food washed in from the wave swept ledges. Weed and cabbage, crabs and "weed worms"- a small marine worm similar to a tiny bloodworm and found amongst the cabbage and cunje- all get washed in, on rougher days cunje also is added to the mix of natural food, in fact anything living on the rocks is food for one species or another. Different small fish species often shelter also, taking cover under the foamy wash and the ever present Pike would be darting around, presenting themselves as attractive big fish meals and the predators would definitely be in search of easy pickings, able to hide in the wash themselves. So the first day of an abating sea, is just as attractive to the rock fisher as it is to the fish.
The route to the cliffs took us past Bondi Beach which would give us our first view of the ocean, however, looking at the sea from Bondi was never really a good indicator of what the swell on the rocks would be like unless the ocean was dead flat. Going past Bondi though, had become part of the "ritual" for all of the crew, as we all lived from Sydney's inner-west to the western suburbs and all were as eager as always to go for a fish. Sighting the ocean always raised excitement and expectation.
On arriving at the cliff top park and walking over to the "view" spot, near Liverpool St, we observed there was still a fair sized swell coming over the rocks. Might be too hard to fish towards high tide in the night, however as we were going down for the afternoon and night and not returning until midday the next day, we had a chat at the view spot and decided we could always go down and fish "high", on a small perch above the water known as Magpie, if it got too hairy on the lower platforms. Besides, three more of the guys were going to come down and join Ross, Bob and I, somewhere around midnight.
So down we went. Uneventful climb down, but arriving at the bottom of the cliff, closer to sea level, it was evident that the sea was a little bigger than as observed from above. Looked like only high level fishing, at least until the westerly arrived, with it's flattening capabilities. So off on the 800 odd meter scramble to the southernmost end of the area, where we'd base ourselves in our cave, which was both well back and high enough up from the sea to provide a safe camp.
After initially having a fish off the only lower level spot that was fish-able, due to the swell, we decided to go up high instead. So up to "Magpie" we went. Fishers from different clubs have different names for Magpie, such as "Scarecrow", "Dropsy" or "High Rock", but as our mentor and initial guide to the area- Wally McLuckie had fished the location for nearly 60 years and he called it "Magpie", then Magpie it was.
Magpie is a small perch of a spot that consisted of about a fifteen by six foot bit of ledge, carved by wind out of one of the natural cliff-side archways, sitting about fifty feet above the water and also some twenty feet out over the sea above the cliff wall. You could fish straight down below you or flick a cast out, the spot is only about six foot wide from cliff wall to the edge with a ceiling about seven or eight feet above, so not much room to cast "side-swipe" style with long rods. Fish up to about 4-5 lb would be winched up, anything larger needed to be either cliff-gaffed with a purpose-made gaff on a rope or more commonly, walked about thirty yards back to the north and then washed up on a lower ledge, but this was a difficult maneuver, so winching up the common method for smaller fish.
To get to Magpie, first you had to climb about eight or so feet on a swinging rope that was dangling from the next level of ledges above our camp cave. It's a thick rope about an inch and a half in diameter, with two large knots tied in it, one about three feet above the ground and the next about two feet above the first. You put a foot each side of the knots and squeezed each side, using the knots as steps, then reached up and took hold of the three steel pegs the rope is hung from and pulled yourself up. Then a short scramble over some fallen ledge and follow a natural archway that had been eroded by wind out of the side of the cliff face.
The "dodgy" part was where the ledge became so narrow, about halfway along, you had to face the wall and lean in as you inched along, with the footing becoming as narrow as about seven or eight inches and you couldn't see your feet while crabbing along sideways. About a fifty foot drop at your back. At the narrowest part as you moved along, there was an old iron peg about thumb-thick, that was cemented into a chiselled hole and it stuck up about three or four inches. You took hold with your left hand and shuffled along carefully, making sure you didn't bump either your head above, or your shins below on an any of the uneven bits sticking out from the sandstone wall, then swap the left hand for your right and another old peg matching the first was about four feet further along. Same again, shuffle and swap to the right hand and the path widened slightly to about two feet across and you naturally lean in cliff-side as you turn and face forward, left hand side to the drop as you to move the last few yards towards the perch. The danger along here is there are multiple protrusions of sandstone jutting out from the wall, many chest to head high, so careful along this bit and then you're on the spot.
Great spot for Tailor, Bream and particularly Snapper and exciting spot to watch a bobby cork with a whole Garfish suspended on a set of ganged hooks. A favoured rig off here was a large running cork, sinker, swivel, 18 inch leader, a set of four 5/0 ganged hooks with a Garfish bait and a single 4/0 hook attached to the bottom ganged hook with an eight inch piece of either wire or 20 lb line. Amazing how many big Bream would take the piece of bait on the single hook suspended below the full Garfish. Also accounted for plenty of Tailor if you used the wire option when they were around in numbers and enabled catching a second fish on the one rig.
On this trip, due to our prior knowledge of a fair sized swell running, we had actually taken a small metho stove, tinned soup and tea, as we would be possibly sitting in the cave for much of the night and Bob, who had only been down a few times, took a sleeping bag- a luxury item to carry down the cliffs. Most trips, it was sandwiches, a pack of biscuits and the old favourite space food sticks, if we had hot food, it was fish caught on the trip and cooked on a hot plate permanently cemented on four steel beer cans wedged up against a boulder the size of a shipping container, but fish eating was usually done some time after sun-up.
We actually had a great rule for eating fish- whoever caught the second fish for the morning had to be the cook if we were going to eat any. I still love a fresh Tailor, bled, filleted and cooked on the hotplate- Blackfish were cooked whole. Bigger fish were taken home as "evidence" was needed in some households!
After having a fish on Magpie for a couple of hours, we decided to go back down to the cave for a feed, so we left our rods and tackle up on the ledge and just took the fish and the bait back down with us. You couldn't leave anything edible alone on the dry rocks, even these tiny ledges on the cliff wall would have rats sneaking around looking for food only minutes after you left. So back to the cave for a feed of hot soup and a sandwich. We used to leave a torch on in the cave, thinking it would deter the rats, but over time, realised it probably just aided them in their food quest rather than put them off. Before we went back up to Magpie for our second fishing session, Bob dropped his torch and busted it, no amount of mucking around with it got it going again, so we salvaged the globe and the batteries. This left us with only two torches and as we wanted to leave one going in the cave while we were gone (we hadn't worked out at this stage it wasn't putting the rats off) we decided to just take one up to Magpie.
So up the rope and off to the path again. This time, as Bob was the least experienced, we let him have the torch and we worked our way out to where the path narrowed and the hand-hold pegs were. Ross edged across first with Bob shining the light for Ross from behind, then Bob edged along and when he was across to the wider bit, he turned and shone the light for me. I inched along, got past the two pegs and turned to face the spot, made it about four feet and then Bob turned the opposite way with the light! Instantly disorientated, I yelled for some light, but as Bob turned back around, he inadvertently shone the light straight at me and in my eyes- it wasn't a deliberate act, just reactionary, but it blinded me and I lost balance. Knowing the edge was on my left, I instinctively dived inwards to the right, but there was a sandstone protrusion about chest high and my head collided with it.
I remember hitting it in the darkness and falling in towards the cliff. What happened next was almost the end of me- unconscious from the collision, I slumped down and then rolled sideways, I'd turned around 180 degrees and ended up with my right leg hanging over the 50 foot drop. Out cold for a few minutes, I woke to find Bob holding the drop side of my jumper and saying "don't move man"- I was too groggy to move, and realised my leg was hanging over the edge, but was unsure of where to move it for fear of going over the drop and into the big sea below. I think my wool jumper got caught on the sandstone and it was the only reason my momentum stopped, otherwise over the edge and into the swell smashing into the wall down below.
I was too disorientated to do anything and the boys couldn't move me- it was just too precarious. I remember putting my head back down and then woke again a few minutes later as Ross was trying to climb past me- no mean feet considering the narrowness of the spot; he managed somehow and was back a few minutes later with the pulley rope, which we sometimes took off the pulley and carried down to the fishing area for a safety line in case someone got washed in.
Still shaky, I put my head back down and woke up some time later to find my left leg tied to something in one direction and my left wrist tied to something in the opposite direction. Ross had used the pulley rope and tied the rope to me and the cliff sort of longways in one direction so I wouldn't roll over the edge, he and Bob were sitting holding the rope in the other direction. It was all they could do until I was conscious enough to move by myself, as there just wasn't any room to move or anything stable to grab hold of. Probably around half an hour or so passed before I regained full consciousness and I had a shocking headache, I felt really thirsty and dry and for some strange reason the idea of dropping over the edge and down into the water came to mind- which of course was absolute lunacy on my part, however that was my thought at the time.
Awake now and feeling both hot and cold at the same time, I just wanted to get away from the edge and have a drink of water, but as I had the shakes really badly, agreed to stay put while we worked out a plan to get me along the narrow part and back to the safety of the wider ledges above the cave. Ross made the decision to re-tie the rope around my chest and then he and Bob could get up against the cliff wall either side of me and guide me/pull me in towards the cliff if I became unstable on my feet. This worked out OK and they guided me past the narrows and pegs and along to where the ledge widened right out. Only then could we all get together and they got me to the short rope without saying too much. Bob got down first and I followed, but didn't make the proper move over the top knot in the rope and I knackered myself on it- lucky the rope is free-dangling! Down the rope and I was at the cave, with it's perfect seat-height flat ledge, Ross down a few seconds behind me.
When I sat down on the flat sandstone, the boys came over with both torches and started checking out my head. I hadn't realised this whole time, that I'd bled pretty badly from the top of my head and the blood had flown from my forehead through my hair and down the back of my head and neck, it had stopped bleeding by itself and congealed blood had dried and matted my hair. As it had stopped bleeding, the boys decided to leave it alone and then we all started talking about what had just happened.
Both Ross and Bob said that it almost happened in slow motion, both said the sound of the thud of head and wall was really loud, followed by the fall and roll, if my jumper hadn't got caught I would have been over the edge and into the water below the spot. As I was unconscious, no doubt I would have either drowned immediately or been smashed against the cliff wall by the big swell. In either case, I would have been killed if I'd gone over- man was I lucky I wore that particular jumper that trip- the usual sloppy-Joe probably wouldn't have caught like the wool did. Even if I had regained consciousness, with the big swell, I wouldn't have been able to get out if I did manage to swim in and if I did make it to the ledge, undoubtedly would have been swept back off anyway.
The tiny first-aid kit I carried permanently in my backpack, consisted of some Savlon antiseptic cream, tweezers, some Styp-wool to assist stopping of bleeding, a few cloth band-aids and one crepe bandage. It was the only time a crepe bandage ever got used for an injury in over 22 years of rock fishing, they came in handy for various purposes, from makeshift belts to shoelaces and backpack 'repair' cords, but it was the only time anyone needed one on an injury and boy I was glad it was a permanent addition to the tiny kit. Add a handful of Panadol tablets and that was it- not much I know, but handy on plenty of occasions.
They Savloned and bandaged up the wound, stuck-hair and all, then put me in Bob's sleeping bag, but we knew not to let me fall asleep, with concussion in mind, so we just made some more tea and I sat up in the sleeping bag. All thoughts of fishing were gone for the night, until we spotted lights coming down the side of the cliff in the far distance, it was the other three mates coming down to meet us. By this time it was well after midnight.
It took Wayne, Ben and Frank nearly an hour to come around the bottom level instead of the usual fifteen to twenty minutes, as they had to scout right around the back of the bay of boulders between us and the climb, due to the swell reaching right up into areas water didn't generally get to. It was nearing high tide and it was a big tide that night. By the time they got to us, they knew we'd probably all be in the cave, as there's only a limited appeal to fishing "high" and we only ever went up for a few hours each session before retiring back to the cave's 'comfort'.
On seeing me bandaged and hearing the tale, nobody was real keen to go back up to Magpie that night and we sat around in the cave from then until dawn, sipping tea and eating all the food we had with us.
The sea meanwhile, had started to succumb to the effects of the big westerly wind, which according to the three later arrivals was absolutely howling up top- of course it was totally wind-less under the cliffs, and being a completely cloud-less night, there was no way we could tell if the predicted wind had arrived.
As light approached and the tide was getting closer to low, Frank decided he wanted to go and have a few throws off the front of the 'lake', which hadn't had any water even splash over it from when we could first watch it in the pre-dawn light, a far cry from only about four hours earlier. The westerly was absolutely howling and blowing in the opposite direction to where the swell had come from, flattening the sea in the process. So over he went while we all watched from the cave.
Well, after rapidly catching three fish in three casts, it didn't take long for the lot of us to put our rock plates on and race over to join him. Over the next hour and a half we pulled over eighty fish between the six of us. Bream,Trevally and small Reds came out one after another and we had enough fish for a couple of feeds each.
Around 7.45 am the guys decided we should get going, as they still had to help me up the cliff, so we cleaned the fish and packed for the return journey. We were able to take one of the lower routes on the way back, which suited me, as my head started 'thumping' again while scrambling around the rocks and I was dreading having to do the rope climb. There's no other way up other than the ropes, so they put the 'safety rope' around me, tying it under my arms with a bowline knot and two guys manned the safety rope, half hauling me as I climbed the big wall. By the time I got off the ropes a few minutes later, my head was really pounding and by the time I finally got over the cliff-side fence at the top, I was feeling pretty lousy. Sitting in a car never felt so good.
When they dropped me at home around 10.45 am, there was a note to say the family had gone out with the relatives and they'd be home late, so I put the fish in the fridge and went into the bathroom to remove the bandage. I had to soak the bandage to get it off, but the dried blood with hair matting stayed solid.
I only lived about 600 yards from the old Western Suburbs Hospital, so I thought I should go and see a Doctor up there. After waiting about four hours in the old casualty waiting room, I got tired of waiting and walked back home. Got home and my Mum rang to let me know she and my brother were going to stay the night with the relatives, so I thought I'd wait until she was home to talk about the accident. Then I went to sleep for over twelve hours, waking the next day with the same shocking headache as I had down the cliff. All the Panadol had worn off and I felt really lousy again, so I walked back up to the hospital for the second time. The reception nurse recognised me from the day before- probably due to my bloody, matted hair and grubby appearance- I hadn't even had a shower as I felt so drained- she insisted I come straight in to see a Doctor and he gave me several needles on the top of my skull and then used a scalpel to cut all the hair and dried blood away, before saying "where are your x-rays?" I replied I hadn't had any done, so off to x-ray.
The scans revealed a hairline skull fracture and the Doctor decided I had "delayed concussion", so after giving me another half dozen needles and 8 stitches to the cut head, he made me stay for a few hours and I finally got home in the afternoon, completely exhausted.
I continued fishing the area for years after that trip, but if the sea ever got rough enough to drive others up to Magpie, well, I went home.
I'm SOOOO lucky to have survived that night, and it reinforces some of the hidden dangers of rock fishing.