As Chris pointed out, I was stunningly negative in my last post, especially considering that I was talking about a location that I travel to for at least two weeks a year and spend the rest of the year thinking about. I feel I have done it a great disservice.

So I’m going to tell you about my happy place.

Get ready for a lot of photos

Stockton Lake is an institution of my childhood. I have been camping there, along with an assorted oddball crew of friends, family and relatives, for literally as long as I can remember. It was there that I had my first kiss, learned to ride a motorbike, and overcame my fear of water – which, for an Aussie, was truly crippling.

I had to pick out of, like, ten awesome sunset shots

Several kilometres outside the coal-mining town of Collie, deep in the verdant forests of Australia’s quiet south-west corner, Stockton began life as an open-cut mine in the 1960s. After pillaging the landscape as much as they deemed economic, the local companies shut down the mine, and some benevolent power – public or private, I don’t know – had it filled in with water to serve as fifteen hectares of aquatic playground. Although the trees have long since grown back, the marks of the mining era are still visible: black coal strewn across the shoreline, steep cliffs surrounding most of the edge, and a nearby slagheap (dubbed “Quartz Mountain” in antiquity, and seeming to grow smaller with every passing year) peeking over the treetops to the south. Signs warn that we shouldn’t go in the water for too long, since “due to previous mining activity Stockton Lake is highly acidic”, and the university academics concur, but we spend the fortnight in bathers and wetsuits and have noticed no ill effects yet. My uncles Lindsay and Tony, old Stockton hands who have marked their territory here since the early ’80s, once scuba dived to the lake bottom. At least sixty metres, straight down, into a dim world of knee-deep silt and rusting bulldozers. The place is popular among locals, other campers from towns in the south-west, and the nearby “city” (snort of laughter) of Bunbury, but as far as we know we are the only regular Perthites.

Morning

We are a jumble of friends and family, a collection of tribes and clans with old bonds of friendship, who together make an annual pilgrimage to a dusty grey campsite next to an unremarkable lake. The Hills have always been the backbone of the community; Lindsay, his devoted wife Liz, and their three children Terri-Ann, Michael and Dennis. I recall one distant trip, when I would have been about eleven or twelve, when the Hills were called back into the city for a family emergency, leaving the rest of us rudderless, lonely and depressed for the final week of the trip. As a child that was unimaginable, and terrible. Now it seems to happen every year; Terri has left university, and rarely comes anymore; Michael, too, is moving on in the world, with work and travel commitments. Other families are also important – the Robbins, the Muirs, the Gullottis, the Schneiders – but as time has gone by, people have faded away, and sometimes entire surnames have disappeared altogether. My own family, the Edgeworths, has begun to rise as the largest clan following the recession of the Hills. My father, my sister, myself and my close friend Chris, who was absorbed into my family not only in Collie but practically in Perth as well. With the various friends my sister hauls down added to the mix, along with my father’s new girlfriend, our sheer size means we shall soon reign as the new god-emperors of this tiny patch of land.

LtoR - Jocelyn Robbins, Chris Cody, myself, Brett Gullotti, Dennis Hill, Rachel Fforde, Terri-Ann Hill, Michael Hill, Melanie Still, Georgie's latest fling, Phoebe Edgeworth, Gabriella Gullotti, Georgie Gullotti

Traditionally we all go down in January, about a week after New Year’s, taking the south-west highway out of Perth, a three hour drive through Pinjarra and Mundijong and dozens of other tiny towns with unpronounceable Aboriginal names. We roll into that muddy grey clearing with grins on our faces and happiness in our hearts. This is our annual respite from the real world: sixteen days of camping.

Frankly, British names aren't much better

The lake is the drawcard. Originally only the Hills had a speedboat, an orange 1970s model that we spent many happy hours being towed behind, endless counter-clockwise circuits, listening to rock bands older than the lake itself rattle from the tinny speakers. When I say we, I mean the other kids; my aforementioned fear of water meant that I didn’t even dare try anything until I was thirteen or fourteen years old. As a result I was usually asked to be the obby, sitting at Lindsay’s right hand and watching the other kids get thrown around in the biscuits with riotous screams of laughter, trained to immediately bark out a name if somebody fell off, so the boat could whip around and retrieve them. After the ride, we would all gather round the campfire for warmth, me fully clothed, them dripping wet and wrapped in towels, talking excitedly about all the fun they’d just had. As one might imagine, this eventually spawned a feeling of exclusion inside me, and I was forced to overcome my fears and join them. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.

Campside vantage point

The water is, in the high-thirties heat of an inland summer, blissful. Combined with the sheer fun of being dragged around at high speed on an inflatable tube, or plastic kneeboard, or wooden disc, or whatever you could really think of, it becomes paradise. My father bought a speedboat of his own several years ago, a slick 90s model with dazzling paint and an inboard motor. Subconsciously I interpreted it as another challenge to the throne; though I really should note that I do so for my own entertainment, and no such rivalry actually exists. The greatest thing about it was the fact that an inboard motor’s wake leaves a much higher ridge for jumping.

Myself and Michael

Experiments with jumping on biscuits dates back to 2004. The boat throttles along the water in a snake-like pattern, constantly dragging the riders back and forth across the wake. As you approach the wake, you simply hunker down on all fours, grab the handles and jump. Once the technique is perfected, impressive amounts of altitude can be reached. In the years since we learned this, we have mastered not only the jump, but the jump-entirely-over-another-person, the barrel-roll, and the barrel-roll-over-another-person. Exhaustive searches of Google and Flickr leave me convinced that we are the only people in the world who do this. In photographic terms, I could easily fill an entire album with images that make me sneer at other people’s wretched attempts to have fun on a biscuit/donut/tube, and have therefore done so.

Chris soars; image courtesy of Brett's waterproof camera

But biscuits are not the only thing we spend time on behind the boat. There are other ridiculous inflatable devices…

Gayest shit ever

…good old traditional kneeboards…

Michael and Chris battle it out

…wooden discs, which float against all expectations…

Myself in the middle, Chris and Mike being total dicks

…wakeboards…

Mike was the only one who really got the hang of it

…and skis, which I personally find to be quite dull.

Mike teaching my sister Phoebe HOW IT'S DONE

On particularly hot days a few of us will take the windsurfer board out, minus the sail, and paddle to the white cliffs on the other side of the lake. There’s a spot where erosion and water run-off have formed gullies leading up to the clifftops, so one can climb up and promptly jump back in again, from a variety of heights. Occasionally the rest of the camp will see what we’re doing, pile into the speedboats, and roar across the water to join us. Liz and Kerryn, ever mindful of posterity, take photographs while we jump and dive and backflip into the void.

Note the look of utter terror on my face

But the lake is not all there is to Stockton. Although the practice has waned as we have grown and matured, in years long gone we would spend hours out in the bush. We would cross Quartz Mountain, ford mosquito-infested wetlands, discover stagnant lakes and build forts out of branches, paperbark, stones, and tyres filched from the motocross track that borders the western edge of the lake. Wars would be fought between the children of rival clans; the conflict between the Schneider-Muir Pact and the Edgeworth-Hill-Robbins alliance was particularly fierce around the turn of the century, with the battle lines sometimes splitting families in two, brother against sister. Territories would be claimed, and when the unseasonal rainstorm would keep us confined to our tents, we would draw maps and form battle plans.

Nowadays this clearing is flooded, yet the FORT STILL STANDS

Traditionally, caravans were the favoured form of shelter for the elders of the family, with the children relegated to dome tents that clustered around the main camp like the distant suburbs of a city. In past years this has been replaced by a trend of camper vans, half-tent, half-caravan, dilettantes who cannot decide what they are. Not for my gruff, ambitious father. He bought an old bus second-hand from a Muslim girl’s school, painted it, touched it up, ripped the seats out and replaced them with beds and cabinets. A vehicle and a home in one – ingeniously groundbreaking! Just inside the sliding door, under the shade of the passenger seat, a mound of keys and wallets and phones and sunglasses accumulates with every passing day, blocking out a faded sticker detailing safety instructions in curly Arabic. Dad barks at us for going inside it to get changed with damp wetsuits, leaving footprints on the linoleum floor, but never takes any firmer action to stop us.

Far more honest than the glitz of a Winnebago

Deep in the bush is Devil’s Gate, an old stone archway leading into a mine that has long since collapsed. One year we arrived to find that it had been painted white and retouched by the local council, who obviously do not understand the allure of a ruin. Our response was to sling mud all over it.

Surrounded by sinkholes of varying degrees of danger

Graduating from the pre-teen school of child warfare came the era of off-road vehicles, which dominated the middle years of the decade. The Hills had always had a tiny Honda Zed, but when they bought an XR-80, things snowballed. The Gullottis purchased a dirtbike, as did the Robbins, and my father made do with a dune buggy called a Honda Odyssey, which in retrospect was adorably insufficient. Nobody except the fathers had the strength to pull the Odyssey’s ripcord to start it, and so we were confined to the dusty grey area around camp, for if we ventured too far and the engine cut out we’d have a long, embarrassing hike back. We were quite happy with that, driving back and forth, doing doughnuts and kicking up dust, until eventually the Odyssey’s engine troubles overcame it and it finally died (though not before Chris had a chance to plough it at seventy k’s an hour into a tree on an unrelated trip up north, with a crack that sounded like a gunshot). As a replacement, Dad bought a quadbike, which was cherished.

Those were the days

The dirtbikes ushered in a new era of exploration. Like the Iberian sailors of the 15th century, new technologies opened up new vistas of discovery for us. No longer confined to our feet or our rusty pushbikes, we were free to travel as far and as fast as we could, ranging from the distant bush trails and sinkholes beyond Devil’s Gate to the edges of the railroad track on the other side of the lake. A new tradition was formed – whenever we heard or saw a train approaching, we’d drop whatever we were doing, scramble to our motorbikes, fire up the engines and race around the eastern edge (gravel roads, bridges, gullies) to the train tracks, where an ugly yellow locomotive would be hauling thirty carriages laden with coal. We’d ride alongside it for a few minutes, signalling for the driver to honk his horn, before eventually giving up chase as the train entered mining land with an ominous NO TRESPASSING sign. These were happy years, but unfortunately they came to an end when the local branch of the Department of Conservation and Land Management employed a particularly uptight ranger who stuck firmly to the rules about offroad vehicles on CALM land (i.e. they are not allowed). Curiously, this only applied to us, and not to the local hooligans who’d roar up and down the nearby road on four-wheelers every night at 3 AM. We shall forever curse the name of Bev Gardner.

VROOOOOOOOM

Other locations are scattered round the edges of the map, each one a firm fingerprint in my mind – sights, sounds, smells and memories associated with it. The Zip is an old chalk quarry with a pond in one corner where we used to delight in splashing through the reeds and catching frogs. The pine plantation is an eerily quiet forest Chris and I discovered in ’02, where we would walk around regaling each other with spooky tales of Mothman, the Bloop and the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. The water pipeline is a long, concrete line running straight as an arrow, and down over the hills, which once sprang a violent leak that we happily poured detergent into in order to have a bubble fight. The sandpit is a bare expanse of dirt and dead trees where we used to take our bikes and the quad; now it is the windswept domain of Chris’ four-wheel drive alone, with an old couch in a rusted silo that is perfect for photo ops.

Image resizing causes severe problems regarding fucked-upedness of our eyes

There was once a pine tree on the edge of the cliffs that leaned out at a steep angle, one of those ubiquitous examples of how stubborn the plant kingdom can be. I would climb up it despite the protests of my sister and girlfriend, shaking the branches around and watching pine needles tumble down into the water, confident that it was completely secure. After all, it had been there for as long as I could remember, and if it could hold on for that long it wasn’t going anywhere soon. In 2008 we found it at the bottom of the cliff edge, a dead brown colour, rotting to nothing in the water.

Note my presence two thirds of the way up, playing with fire/swimming with sharks

People have gone too, over the years. Our friend Leigh slipped away as gradually as he did in Perth. The Gullottis rarely make an appearance anymore; Tony and his son Brett are the only really committed ones. The Muirs disappeared entirely. There are few permanent newcomers. But the old guard are still faithful, still determined to keep coming with every passing year.

LtoR - Michael Hill, myself, Rachel Fforde, Dennis Hill, the Hills' unbelievably adorable niece, Cassie Schneider, some stranger, Jocelyn Robbins

And so that is Stockton. We get away for long weekends whenever we can, but the true beacon of hope is the two weeks every year in January. Two weeks of jumping and barrel rolling biscuits, being flung headfirst into the water as soon as you strike a bad ripple or lean too far to one side. Two weeks of lying in the sunlit hammock reading; I have a tendency to flick through the latest Terry Pratchett I am obligated to receive for Christmas, while Dennis Hill will devour entire fantasy cycles. Two weeks of playing chess on Dad’s old magnetic set he got for five bucks at a pawnbroker, eating lunch with the other hand, Chris inexplicably kicking my ass every game without fail. Two weeks of Liz and Kerryn and Sheryl cooking up a roast dinner for the entire camp, burying their cast-iron cooking pots in the embers of the campfire, and lining up the plastic tables in a row so that we feel as though we’re in a medieval feasting hall. Two weeks of watching Dad set up fireworks by the water’s edge, lighting the fuse with his cigarette and then turning to run, a comical figure with a beer in one hand, his thongs flapping and scraping while the sky blossoms green and red. Two weeks of driving out into the bush to collect logs for firewood, with the kids (yet we are now eighteen, nineteen, twenty) riding on the boat trailer as tradition demands, screeching as Lindsay takes the car right through a puddle and splashes us with mud. Two weeks of standing around camp during the gaps between boat activity, with our wetsuits peeled down to our waists, reading the paper or cooking lunch or discussing the year to come. Two weeks of lying on our backs at night and spotting as many satellites drifting overhead as we can, easy to see in the sky so clear and sharp compared to the light-polluted air above Perth. Two weeks of taking the entire population of the camp on four-wheel drive trips out to the nearby mine, marvelling at the torn-up expanses of yellow and brown earth, at the trucks so large they have staircases up the grille. Two weeks of riding my bike around to the concrete toilet block on the east side of the lake, then emerging to find that Michael and Brett have inflicted some hilarious practical joke on it – covering the seat with detergent, removing the front wheel and taking it back to camp, or (impressively) placing it upside down on the roof of the toilets. Two weeks of reading in our tents by torchlight until well after midnight, sleeping in as late as we please in the morning. Two weeks of bacon and eggs sizzling on the barbecue for breakfast, and Subway or Chinese food from Collie when we can’t be bothered cooking dinner. Two weeks in a place that would seem odious to most, but is heaven to us. Two weeks of perfection.

It's a magical world, Hobbes ol' buddy!

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