It is an island only just, but island enough to carry the mystery and metaphor that islands have evoked for thousands of years. I jump across the gap, grab the rock, and pull myself up. A narrow channel of water breathes in and out with the swell, separating me from the mainland.
This rock – my island – is known as The Hat. It looks like a beanie, complete with a pom-pom on top.
Such a tiny gulf I’ve crossed, but as the sea licks at the grey stone below me, something feels different. A slightly larger swell slaps the side of The Hat and sends a little white firework of salt water shooting into the air. An ocean gull loops past. This place always triggers something, changes my mood, my breathing. It unlocks memory. It speaks to my soul.
The Hat is a place of initiation from boyhood to manhood, of brotherhood, respect and mutual care. A place where the human world and the natural world merge; and, sadly, a place of life and death. It is a place that has helped shape my life and the life of others.
. . .
Most cultures have rituals and ceremonies to assist young people to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. For boys, these rituals often involve pain, risk, bravery and heightened states of consciousness. When boys of the Brazilian Amazon tribe of Satere-Mawe turn 13, bullet ants are sedated in a herbal solution so they can be woven into gloves with the stingers pointed inward. The ants soon wake up angry and the 13-year-old boys have to wear the gloves for ten minutes. Enduring the pain demonstrates they are ready for manhood.
In Vanuatu, boys come of age by jumping off of a 30-metre-tall tower with a bungee-like vine tied to their ankles, just barely preventing them from hitting the ground. After the jump, an item representing their childhood is thrown away, to symbolise the end of youth.
Many cultures, including some Australian Aborigines, send boys into the wilderness to survive unassisted and in solitude for as much as six months to prove their readiness for manhood. Other cultures use fasting, facial tattoos, scarification, circumcision or hallucinogenic drugs to farewell boys and welcome men to their communities.
Indeed, such rituals are so inherent that they can be observed in other primates. Clearly it is fundamental to personal development, but also to the stability of the community and for socialisation. All rituals are designed to leave a permanent impression on the participants and to expose and nurture internal qualities that will assist both the individual and the group throughout life.
In the little sub-culture that I came of age within, the initiation rituals and ceremonies occurred over a year or so at The Hat, that special rock, a creator and observer of generations of young men’s stories, located below the lighthouse at the Devonport Bluff.
I still can’t pass Devonport without detouring up to the lighthouse, scratching my legs as I push through the rugged scrub and climb down the overgrown track to share my mind for a moment with The Hat. I cannot see it without memories, people and states of mind returning to me in a rush of exhilaration. Rarely would a geological feature hold such significance to the lives of a group of Gen Y white fellas.
. . .
During Year 12 at Don College, a group of about ten 17-year-old boys (let’s call them the class of ’98) spent every spare moment at The Hat. Long lunch breaks, classes missed, after class, before class and on weekends. We had names for each other that were only used at The Hat.
We knew there had been other groups before us and had some vague notion that there would be others after us, but it was our place for that year. This is not to say others were not welcome, but we knew it more intimately than anyone else, we had more pride in it than anyone else, we could calculate the risks better than anyone else and we acted as custodians, ensuring it was never desecrated by litter.
Over time we developed a closeness with the place that bordered on fanatical. We knew every current, every underwater rock, every depth and every potential hand hold that might enable you to climb out at every different tide level.
As our confidence grew, calculated risk inevitably grew with it. Once all the jumps had been done, there had to be new jumps. They became more and more difficult to achieve: having to jump as far as possible simply to reach the water and not hit the rock. Once achieved at high tide, they would be attempted at lower and lower tides, making the jump higher and meaning you would often hit the bottom under the water – just hopefully not too hard.
It scares and exhilarates me recalling it. Occasionally tourists would stand beneath the lighthouse and watch in delight, or horror. I think we all had courtships with tragedy.
There is a cave next to The Hat that can be entered when the tide is low enough, allowing you to get about 15 metres inside a dark, generally underwater tunnel. On lowest tides we would head inside, waterproof torches with us to explore such an unusual place and sit together at the end. Inevitably, we began to enter when the tide wasn’t so low. This was the place where I had my worst moment at The Hat. I had got inside all right, diving under the low entry with the help of a gentle incoming swell after minutes of close observance. But once inside, it wasn’t so easy to get back out – you didn’t know when or what size swells were about to enter. Every time I thought I could dive under with an out-going swell it seemed another came in. Eventually, I decided to go for it before my panic grew any further. I timed it wrong. Halfway under the entry rock an incoming swell met the out-going one. The force pushed me up, thumping my head on the rock above. Underwater. In darkness. Pure panic. I made air again, heart thumping, head throbbing – on the wrong side of the entrance. No one knew I was in trouble. No one would hear me. My brain was already rushing on what might have been, and what could still be.
I made it out, obviously. Head bleeding, humbled, and forever wary of The Cave. I suppose it was all part of learning my limits, realising that nature perhaps doesn’t care if I live or die and, so importantly for teenage males, that we are not invincible. I say this of course with the benefit of hindsight – the epiphanies back then were all about experiences and being alive, not limits and loss.
So rich in life were those days that whenever I steal a visit to those rocks, generally in solitude, it feels like a silent communion with those brothers of The Hat, especially – because he is no longer with us – with Leon Wescombe. Leon was named Dog Seal and was one of the most enthusiastic visitors to The Hat. Much to everyone’s bemusement, Leon would dive from the top of The Hat with his arms neatly, almost formally, behind him, hands links at the small of his back, breaking the surface of the sea with the top of his head. It was known as the Penguin Dive. Leon would die before he was 30, kayaking in California, having lived more in that too-short life than most ever hope to in three score and ten. For the Class of ’98, I believe The Hat has become a place of remembrance and celebration of Leon’s life.
One of the people with whom it is always interesting to catch up is my 17-year-old self. A part of him awakes when I visit The Hat. I try to take some of his thirst for life, wonder and freedom from baggage away with me. At 36, I can still learn a lot from him.
. . .
In Aboriginal tradition, sacred sites are places within the landscape that have a special meaning or significance. In coastal areas, such places can include features which lie both below and above the water. For me and for many others, The Hat is a sacred place and a symbol. It is made sacred as any sacred place is, by virtue of its cultural significance and ceremonial use, which makes it a living archive of memories and a place of heightened consciousness.
It is a place that I believe has allowed me the tiniest comprehension of what Aboriginal people mean when they speak of sacred places. The connection the Class of ‘98 shares from a year or so with the place is so strong almost 20 years later, I can only begin to imagine the power of such a place when it is also fully woven into wider beliefs and spans the threads of hundreds of generations.
A publisher once told James that when he is asked for his bio, he should say: “James writes subversive essays about important things.” James felt a bit awkward about saying this publically, but secretly he liked it. He has written for many publications. His books are Essays from Near and Far, Walleah Press, 2014 and The Balfour Correspondent, Bob Brown Foundation, 2017.