SMH story link December 26 2012

Hidden depths of a water obsession

This Wermugga corroboree was photographed in 1892 at what appears to be the south end of Bondi Beach. Photo: Charles Kerry

The beach has long been Sydney's playground, but surf chronicler John Ogden has gone back even further, writes Rick Feneley.

THE photograph tells us so much and yet, gnawingly, so little. It is thought to be a Sydney beach, quite probably Bondi, but we're not sure. It is about 1892, just 120 years ago. It is a corroboree, but they are not local Aborigines. The painted "Wermugga" dancers are Queenslanders, probably brought to perform shows in Sydney where, tragically, such vivid displays of tradition had been obliterated a century earlier.

The Sydney firm Charles Kerry & Co produced the picture below as a postcard. Today it demands a deeper viewing. It says as much about the history we have lost as the snippets we have kept for posterity.

It is the kind of image that speaks volumes to John Ogden, a 60-year-old surfer, photographer and author who has devoted the past four years of his life to Sydney's beaches and their history.


Ogden was an eight-year-old South Australian when he got his first surfboard. His father crafted it from hollowed plywood. "It was about 18 feet long," he says. "They called them toothpicks. I think my dad regretted giving it to me because I never stopped surfing."

Not even when the sport cost him his right eye. "That was over 12 years ago; a late drop in a big swell at Whale Beach. I was dumped and the fin chopped my eye out."

Ogden had been drawn to live at Whale Beach after surfing there in the 1970s. It happened to be the location for the headquarters of Tracks, for which he was briefly a photojournalist. Ogden would move on to surf cinematography before becoming a director of photography. But some in that trade were disconcerted by the idea of a one-eyed cameraman. Ogden moved on to books.

Last month he and Cyclops Press published Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore – Sydney's Southern Beaches. It is a sequel to last year's Saltwater People of the Broken Bays – Sydney's Northern Beaches. Ogden often worked 16-hour days to research and write and to shoot, collate and select and arrange the hundreds of photographs that put historical grit into the playgrounds at the eastern fringe of the metropolis. There is the production still from Forty Thousand Horseman, the 1940 Australian film which recreated the Battle of Beersheba on the Kurnell dunes. And there are the Kuranulla Wahines – like so many Gidgets with their longboards – at Cronulla in 1960. There's Hal and Betty Baily, who baulked at paying a £65 for a block at Whale Beach during World War II. Hal became a legendary lifesaver while Betty had roles in They're a Weird Mob and Babe. Ogden still sees Betty, now 92, at the shops. "Occasionally she'll sing a ditty from her showgirl days." Then there are the adventures in swimwear: from head-to-toe to neck-to-knee to itsy-teeny. And in surfboards: the 100-pound eight-footer, cut from local sugar pine, that the Hawaiian visitor Duke Paoa Kahanamoku rode at Freshwater in 1914.

Ogden misses none of the post-colonial transformation of beach culture. But his greater preoccupation, in both his glossy picture books, is the first saltwater people – the clans that populated Sydney's coast before settlement and after. "So-called coffee-table books get a bad rap as the bimbos of the publishing world," Ogden says, "but the Saltwater People books are quite subversive. What on the surface appears to be another book on beach culture hides a powerful message about recognition of the first people, and how we can create a sustainable future."

Along Sydney's coastline are hundreds of petroglyphs. Many of these rock engravings feature whales. Ogden worries what will become of one magnificent specimen, about 10 metres long, with the planned widening of Mona Vale Road. At Ogden's latest book launch, actor Jack Thompson lamented the wanton neglect and destruction of engravings that would be fiercely protected if in Europe.

Between 2005 and 2009, Ogden says, the NSW government approved 541 permits to destroy or disturb Aboriginal heritage sites. No application were rejected in the first 10 months of 2008, he says. But the engravings are vanishing. Examples that explorers measured at 25 millimetres deep in the 1880s have eroded to five millimetres. Dean Kelly, an Aboriginal liaison officer has been working with local youth to preserve a significant site at Jibbon Point at Bundeena. "It teaches our youth the significance of these things," Kelly says.

He takes heart at a contemporary take on the artform. At Clovelly beach, the path is decorated with images of a blue groper in memory of Bluey, a fish adored by snorkellers but killed by an illegal spear fisherman. Bluey's legend lives on, etched into the contemporary history of Sydney's beaches.

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