(First published in Tasmania 40 South).
It is an island only just, but island enough to carry the mystery and metaphor that islands have for thousands of years. I jump across the gap. Right foot first. 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 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 something feels a little different, as the seas licks at the grey stone below me. 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 gracefully demonstrates they are ready for manhood.
In Vanuatu, young boys come of age by jumping off of a 98-foot-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 symbolize the end of childhood.
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 even 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: a 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 Generation 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 all 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 under water 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.
Once The Hat had been experienced successfully in swell of a certain size, it had to then be possible in even larger swell. Eventually, we would jump in, knowing we may not be able to climb out. The only way out on the rough days was to position yourself close to a particular part of The Hat (but not too close) at the right moment to be lifted against it by the swell, grab the hand holds and foot holds as tight as you could while the falling swell tried to drag you back in, then climb as fast as you could up the rock to safety before the next swell smashed you off. If you lost your grip, you had to push off the cliff as hard as you could with your feet to make sure as you fell backwards you made it far enough off The Hat that the next swell didn’t thump you against it.
It scares and exhilarates me recalling it. Occasional tourists would stand beneath the lighthouse and watch, in delight, or horror.
I think we all had our own fleeting courtships with tragedy. I recall one day that the sea was simply too angry to allow a couple of our group to climb out. Eventually, they decided to slowly swim about a kilometre around the coast to the Bluff, thrown around by the sea and having to keep well clear of being beaten against the cliffs. They eventually made it back, exhausted and relieved.
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 alright, 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 inside which I was travelling. 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 the 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 30 years of age kayaking in California, having lived more in that too-short life than most ever hope to. For all of the Class of ’98 I believe, The Hat has instinctively become a place of remembrance and celebration of Leon’s life.
One of the people, with whom it is always interesting to occasionally catch up with, is my 17 year old self. A part of him always 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. It is places like The Hat that keep him alive.
I wonder to what we would have devoted the erratic energy of that age, if we hadn’t had The Hat. It is a place with risks, but it probably kept us out of trouble. We didn’t need drunken fights or other forms of adolescent stupidity to gratify the demands for adrenalin and risk.
Those kids who spent day after day wrestling each other off the rocks, jumping from cliffs and acquiescing to the forces of nature have all now harnessed the forces of life to create their own forms of success. In their mid-thirties now, they are authors, TV personalities, directors, school teachers, fitness experts, musicians and executives. Much more than that, they are all passionate, compassionate people. None of them can speak of The Hat without their heartbeat changing and their eyes sparkling. I wonder how much we all owe The Hat for the people we have become and the rich lives we have led.
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. As would be the case for The Hat.
Sacred places can be devoted to ceremony and ritual, or simply worthy of awe and respect. When you break down all human learning and behaviour in any culture, you find that it is always built around ceremony, ritual and symbols. Symbols represent or stand for something else, often a material object representing something abstract – a sign.
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 share 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.
The significance and power of the sacred place and sacred rituals is often forgotten in our modern Western cultures. We were somewhat (though not fully) unconscious about it at the time too, but with hindsight, I think we tapped this ancient spring.
Nothing too risky these days, but one last jump – a toast to the past, a toast to the future – and then I’ll be off. Left foot on the edge, lean forward and push off. A moment of weightlessness. Feet together to break the surface, breathe out through the nose to stop the water rushing in, a slap, curve the body under water, float slowly back to the air. Breathe in, savour the taste of saltwater and a taste of something else, something undefinable.