Trial and tribulation

Daniel Scott feels a powerful sense of history on the rugged coastline at South West Rocks.

Close your eyes as you wander through Trial Bay Gaol, near South West Rocks, and you can imagine hearing a German folk song or a Beethoven symphony drifting across the prison courtyard. It is nearly 100 years since the jail was used as an internment camp for people of German descent, considered potential enemy sympathisers during World War I. But what happened here, between 1915 and 1918, resonates through the ruins.

The men sent here, many born in Australia but with German parents or grandparents, were deliberately chosen "community leaders", such as the internationally renowned surgeon, Dr Max Hertz, who became camp doctor. They were rounded up in Australia and South-East Asia, lest they ferment discord. The first group arrived from Sydney aboard the steamship SS Yulgilbar in August 1915.

Faced with incarceration and uncertainty in this beautiful but isolated location, these mostly well-educated men set about making the best of life at Trial Bay. They formed clubs for athletics, chess and boxing, founded two choral societies and a language school, produced a free newspaper Welt am Montag (World on Monday) and even had a gourmet restaurant, the Duck Coop, which served fine food to wealthier internees.

In August 1916, a theatre seating 280 people opened in a wooden barn at the jail, with performances every Saturday and Sunday. During 1917, no less than 56 plays were staged, all of which, as in Shakespearean times, featured men playing female parts. The prison orchestra played at the theatre. One particularly evocative performance, echoing the internees' ups and downs, was of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in C minor.

If Trial Bay feels like a "fairytale" prison because of the pervading sense of the men's vibrant culture, it is also because of its magnificent location on a jagged, sparsely populated coastline, where promontories rise between sweeping bays. With the Smoky Cape range as a backdrop and the arc of Trial Bay - named after a brig wrecked here in 1816 - on its doorstep, the ruin has one of the most inspiring outlooks of any Australian prison.

The Dunghutti people, who lived in this area originally, would have baulked at having a prison on their land. Free to roam this section of the coast, backed by the broad Macleay River valley, they found it a reliable source of food and shelter and it once supported one of the largest Aboriginal populations in northern NSW. When Captain Cook passed by on May 13, 1770, it was the fires lit by the Dunghutti on a nearby headland "which occasioned my giving it the name Smoky Cape", he wrote.

It was 100 years later that the idea of building a jail here was raised. Unusually, the intention behind its construction was that its inmates would build a breakwater to provide a safe harbour between Sydney and Brisbane. In three years, 1863 to 1866, 90 ships and 243 lives had been lost along the coast.

The prison's first wing was completed in 1886 and another added in 1900 but construction problems with the tough local granite and dwindling finance led the breakwater project to be abandoned. The original jail closed in 1903.

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When it was resurrected 12 years later to house "enemy aliens", Trial Bay was unprepared for the new arrivals. Internees initially slept in tents and had no bedding.

The men's efforts to create a sort of holiday camp at Trial Bay are what strike me first when I visit yet there is a penetrating sense of their sadness as well. Innocent of any crime and torn from their families, they were thrown into a tough prison regime. Nobody knew how long their incarceration would last and emotions fluctuated. "Some days the mood is following the course of the war," wrote one internee in 1918, "one day there's high tension and then again one is doomed to wait and wait."

The camp was closed in July 1918 because of fears that internees might contact passing enemy ships and the jail was abandoned in 1922. Five men, including one who drowned in Trial Bay, did not survive the internment. A monument in their memory was erected on the cliffside above the jail. Yet even this was subject to anti-German sentiment - it was blown up by locals in 1919. Rebuilt in 1960, it can be reached by a kilometre-long return walk through banksia heathland.

Discovering this poignant chapter in Australian history among the ruins of Trial Bay Gaol has been the revelation of my visit to this part of the Mid-North Coast. However, just a little further south, there is another intriguing glimpse of the past at Smoky Cape lighthouse. As with the jail, the still-functioning lighthouse has an enviable location, high on a narrow, lumpy headland above the Tasman Sea. For Pat and Wendy Halverson, who run the bed and breakfast here, the ever-changing vista, including humpback whales in winter, is just part of its appeal. Reaching the gleaming white structure after a long climb, I'm greeted by Pat, who is itching to show me the lighthouse's new museum and take me on a tour.

"Smoky Cape is the most elevated lighthouse in NSW," Pat says as we climb the tower's winding stairway. "It was completed in 1891 and was the last one designed by colonial architect James Barnet." At the top of the tower we stand beneath the lighthouse's mighty lens. Made from three tonnes of glass ground into 300 prisms, it reflects a beam visible 28 nautical miles away.

The lens is an impressive sight but I am almost literally blown away by the views as we step on to the windy balcony encircling the tower. To the south, a long surf-assailed beach curls into the distance, ending at conical Korogoro Point. To the north are small sandy coves gripped by deep-green claws of land.

I look out across the sparkling indigo ocean at several large rocks rearing up from an angry, frothing swell. The jail and the lighthouse owe their existence to treacherous maritime conditions such as these, adding a slice of history to this wild, spectacular coastline.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Mid-North Coast Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Trial Bay Gaol is within Arakoon State Conservation Area, four kilometres east of South West Rocks. Smoky Cape Lighthouse is nearby in Hat Head National Park. Turn off the Pacific Highway at Kempsey, continue for 43 kilometres south.

Staying there

Arakoon State Conservation Area campsites, from $24, are below the jail.

Trial Bay Gaol is open 9am-4.30pm daily. Entry $7.50 adults, $5 children. Phone 6566 6168; see trialbaygaol.com/camping.html.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse has bed and breakfast accommodation and self-catering cottages. Mid-week B&B rates from $198 a night for two people.

Lighthouse tours are available any time by pre-booking, $10 for adults, $5 for children. Phone 6566 6301; see smokycapelighthouse.com.

See macleayvalleycoast.com.au or phone 1800 642 480 for more information.

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