There’s her­itage, fun and snakes alive at the end of the line

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROSAMUND BUR­TON

THE man wait­ing for the L94 bus at Syd­ney’s Cir­cu­lar Quay tells me he’s go­ing to spend the day at the nud­ist beach at La Per­ouse.

‘‘Lit­tle Cong­wong Beach has been a pop­u­lar nat­u­ral­ist haunt for over 40 years,’’ he adds.

La Per­ouse is full of sur­prises; 14km from the CBD, it used to be a tram ter­mi­nus, and when the bus pulls up at the Loop, where the trams used to turn, it def­i­nitely feels like the end of the line.

Im­me­di­ately, I am­struck by the open space. On a huge grassy area sits La Per­ouse’s old­est build­ing, Mac­quarie Watch­tower, and be­low, La Per­ouse Mu­seum, orig­i­nally the cable sta­tion. Straight ahead are Botany Bay and Bare Is­land, which got its name be­cause Cap­tain James Cook men­tioned it in his jour­nal as a ‘‘small bare is­land’’ when he an­chored here in 1770.

The name La Per­ouse comes from the French ex­plorer Jean Fran­cois de Galaup La Per­ouse, who came to ob­serve the found­ing of the Bri­tish colony and ar­rived on Jan­uary 26, 1788, just as the First Fleet was de­part­ing Botany Bay for Port Jack­son. The French ex­pe­di­tion re­mained for six weeks be­fore set­ting off, never to be seen again. It was 40 years be­fore it was dis­cov­ered that La Per­ouse’s two frigates were ship­wrecked in Solomon Is­lands.

This usu­ally quiet sub­urb comes alive on Sun­day when vis­i­tors flock to savour all it has to of­fer. I start at the mu­seum — the build­ing was con­structed in 1881, five years af­ter the lay­ing of a sub­ma­rine tele­graph cable from here across the Tas­man to Nel­son, which pro­vided the final link in the tele­graph ser­vice be­tween Eng­land and New Zealand. It was a busy cable sta­tion un­til 1917, when the tele­graph cable land­ing site was moved to Bondi Beach.

In 1944 it be­came a women’s refuge and on dis­play is its old sign. The mu­seum guide tells me that oc­ca­sion­ally she gets a vis­i­tor who grew up here. It was at Bare Is­land Fort that Tomcruise rode a mo­tor­bike over the ram­parts in Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble II. I book a tour and walk across the nar­row wooden bridge that con­nects the is­land to the main­land. Teenage boys are j ump­ing off into the water be­low and divers in wet­suits swim around the rocks, tak­ing ad­van­tage of this pop­u­lar scubadiv­ing area.

The fort on Bare Is­land was built at the same time as the cable sta­tion, in an­tic­i­pa­tion that the Rus­sians might at­tack Syd­ney. It was a fort only for 30 years be­fore be­com­ing a war vet­er­ans’ home. Our tour guide is pas­sion­ate about the place and its guns, and up­set that many are no longer here.

The war vet­er­ans ob­vi­ously felt the same way about the re­moval of the guns from the fort, be­cause in 1939, she tells us, they buried one weigh­ing 18 tons and then put a bil­liard ta­ble on top of it. Years later, on one of the early fort tours, some­one men­tioned their grand­fa­ther had buried a gun, and it was sub­se­quently dug up.

Back at the Loop a snake show is about to start and a crowd has gath­ered around the large en­closed area known as the snake pit. Out of a can­vas bag drops a red-bel­lied black which, the snake man as­sures us, is shy and placid. How­ever, he also tells us that most peo­ple get bit­ten when they’re try­ing to kill snakes, and that this one def­i­nitely bites when it comes un­der at­tack.

The snake show at La Per­ouse has been run­ning for 112 years. Un­til re­cently it was in the hands of the Cann fam­ily, and John Cann, who re­tired in 2010, used to re­count sto­ries of his grand­mother, grand­fa­ther and fa­ther all work­ing with snakes. John Mostyn has been do­ing the show since last Novem­ber and com­bines the sen­sa­tion of the snakes with plenty of ad­vice and ed­u­ca­tion, ex­plain­ing what to do if bit­ten and how to ap­ply a com­pres­sion ban­dage.

It’s the huge tiger snake, whose bite turns the blood to gelatin, that I find par­tic­u­larly un­nerv­ing. How­ever, the eight-year-old girl next to me gasps with de­light. ‘‘He’s adorable,’’ she ex­claims.

The snake show re­lies on do­na­tions, so the hat is passed around be­fore the high­light: Australia’s most dan­ger­ous snake, the east­ern brown.

As it heads straight in our di­rec­tion, I back away in ter­ror while the young girl leans into the pit, mur­mur­ing, ‘‘He’s so cute . . .’’

A queue has formed at the nearby ice-cream van, with peo­ple buy­ing those soft whips syn­ony­mous with beach days. I join the line and watch the man in the van cov­er­ing cones in multi-coloured sprin­kles or dip­ping the swirls in choco­late and nuts.

Hav­ing de­cided against the nat­u­ral­ist op­tion, I have a quick swim at Cong­wong Bay Beach be­fore walk­ing through the na­tional park to Henry Head. Here the En­deav­our Light­house marks the north side of the en­trance to Botany Bay and I find the now-dis­used 19th- cen­tury ar­tillery bat­tery. I don’t come across many walk­ers but the lit­tle striped skinks sun­ning them­selves on the path scut­tle into the un­der­growth at my ap­proach.

On my way back I pass the area of bush known as Happy Val- ley, where there were un­em­ploy­ment camps in the De­pres­sion era, and from there to Yarra Bay I fol­low the Guri­wal Bush Tucker Trail along a path through banksias and she-oaks and past beau­ti­ful wooden carv­ings of snakes, fish and tur­tles.

I reach Yarra Bay House, which was orig­i­nally built as a cable sta­tion to re­place the smaller one at La Per­ouse, and to­day is an ad­min­is­tra­tion cen­tre for the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity. Indige­nous singer and en­ter­tainer Vic Simms runs bush­walks and Abo­rig­i­nal his­tory tours; he’s a Bid­ji­gal man from this area, was born on the La Per­ouse Abo­rig­i­nal Re­serve and is privy to a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about the sig­nif­i­cance of the re­gion.

As I walk with him through the bush, he points out a species of tea tree known as a cal­en­dar tree to Abo­rig­ines as its flow­er­ing in Septem­ber-oc­to­ber means it’s time to gather pipis.

He picks a na­tive fig for me to taste and tells me his sis­ter uses the fruit to make j am. He also takes me to the Coast Golf Club. Near the 15th hole over­look­ing Lit­tle Bay, he shows me rock carv­ings, worn by wind and weather, and be­lieved to be thou­sands of years old.

My final stop is the Yarra Bay Sail­ing Club. On the stage be­side the beach in front of the club a man is set­ting up speak­ers. Then on goes the back­ing mu­sic and, mi­cro­phone in hand, he’s belt­ing out Brown Sugar and then, as he breaks into Stand By Me, my toes can’t help but tap along.

Three women are wig­gling their bottoms and danc­ing as the sun’s golden rays lengthen over Botany Bay. It’s a glo­ri­ous end to a Sun­day at La Per­ouse.


A nar­row wooden bridge con­nects the main­land to Bare Is­land, home to a fort steeped in his­tory

Mac­quarie Watch­tower is La Per­ouse’s old­est build­ing

La Per­ouse Mu­seum is housed in a build­ing that dates back to 1881 and was ini­tially a cable sta­tion

Vic Simms runs bush­walks and Abo­rig­i­nal his­tory tours

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