• Bob Taylor

Musings - Day 62 / 63 / 64

Day 62 + Day 63 + Day 64 – 28th February 2020

Thank you everyone for messages. Special thanks go to Jo Rawlings, who I have never met but has followed my journey from day one – even to the point of arranging meetings with her husband’s relatives in Australia. Alessandro who has followed me since we met in Beijing, and of course my great fiends in the US who are forever sending me messages of support. Also every single one of you that has supported the cause. This is the penultimate blog covering three days.

Starting on Wednesday morning I made my way from Steve Irwin territory towards the beautiful sands of the Gold Coast, in particular Surfers Paradise. It must be! The great long stretch of sand is as good as beaches get. The surf is fantastic, the sea majestic and the climate terrific. This was the only sunny day for the past week. The city (If it is a city, perhaps conurbation,) looms high above the surf – I suspect mainly made up of holiday lets and expensive apartments, with what must be stunning vistas from the glass towers.

I travelled extensively up past the Palazzo Versace, (Both start and finish point of the Jungle Celebrity ITV show,) Sea World and up to the Gold Coast Spit. A wonderful ocean entrance to a magnificent set of bays, islands and inlets. I walked a kilometre or more along this stunning piece of land, before making my way to the built up area that becomes Surfers Paradise. I parked near a place called, ‘The Hogs breath Saloon’ which for its name alone deserves a visit and the customary cold one. There was a sign attached to the marina fencing that requested, “Please don’t feed the birds.” – Bit harsh that the girls have to go to a different restaurant, I thought…

I drove around five miles or so, still on the same stretch of beach, to a place called Burleigh Heads. Because this area is so wonderful, I repeated the walking process, probably rambling around three kilometres there and back. It was now around 1pm and I had an arrangement to meet some relatives of a lady and her husband who have been following the journey. Their names were Christine and Hugh, although originally from the Midlands, they emigrated to New Zealand, where they lived for thirteen years, before moving to the warmer climes of the Gold Coast to help with the onset of arthritis. They lived in a suburb just north of where I was, so I arranged a meet point for 3pm. They were a delight. Lovely people who were now living with their son and family in a palatial house set in half an acre. They gave me a meal, drink and a shower, which was wonderful allowing me a fresh start when I left them. They also gave me as a parting gift a container of home-made soup, and a packet of buns for the journey. Lovely gesture from very nice hospitable people, who hadn’t been without an encounter with a family tragedy themselves.

I left around six with the intention of driving until dark, getting a few miles under the belt and then finding a rest point. It turned out that I actually, via a couple of short coffee stops, drove until around 11:30 pm. I went down like an abattoir cow. Four hours passed enjoying the most rewarding sleep. I only woke with a start just before 4am, because the neighbouring vehicle started his own journey from the rest site. I was soon to follow, being once more amazed by the power of nature. Heading south on the Pacific Highway, I witnessed ahead of me the most dramatic electric storm that had the night sky alight from a variety of points. The lightning bolts were of the form conjured up for a Hollywood blockbuster. Each bolt appeared to have been painted on a canvas. Lasting a few seconds each time the storm seemed to be mainly out in the ocean to my left. With mountains to my right you can imagine the eerie illuminated backdrop. The storm ahead lasted for around thirty minutes before I eventually caught up with it. The rain hit Toyah like a water cannon forcing me to pull over yet again. I didn’t mind because first light was around half an hour away, making the skyscape drama unfold like the impact of the first act of Macbeth. Reds and navy blues of a veined New South Wales aerial bombardment was captivatingly unleashed. Just astonishing unharnessed power!

This morning found me at sun up in the delightful Coffs Harbour. Early morning fitness gurus were treading the beach, the surf, and the waves. I couldn’t help but visit this place, because I was reminded last evening of the horrific spate of shark attacks the area has witnessed. Two years ago a British man was just thigh deep in the surf when a large shark first took his foot, returning within the minute for the rest of the leg. The man died in hospital later that same morning.

“A man has suffered severe leg injuries after a shark attack south of Coffs Harbour on NSW's mid-north coast.”

“Emergency services were called to Wellington Drive just after 7am on Sunday after reports a man was bitten while wading near Scotts Head Beach in Nambucca Heads.”

These photographs are of the magnificent area they refer to. Noticeably people still swim, surf and wade into these waters every day believing that the odds are with them. They most certainly are, but….

Finally before leaving the coast, I called in at Port Macquarie. Same as the above in terms of fatalities, but a wonderful part of the world for people who love the sea. A busy little harbour town which was built around a penal colony. It is situated along the Hastings River, known for its beaches, wildlife and coastal walks. The Anglican church of St. Thomas was built by convicts sent from England in the late seventeen hundreds. Photographs of this coastline are what travel brochures are made of. I overnighted in a charming tiny NSW town called Bulahdelah. One horse town, one pub town, one coffee shop town, and one big river town. An exaggeration, in fact the pub where I am writing some of this blog from, has organised a meat raffle, to raise money for local causes. It is a very busy early evening wit probably more than one hundred customers on the premises. (I have no idea how far afield they all came from.) My ticket numbers came up! I only went and won the darn thing! I had to pick from one of the meat trays. So here I am in the middle of NSW the proud owner of four large steaks; a couple of pounds of sausage, and some pork chops. Oh no! More teeth could go for a walk! It looks like I will have to shop tomorrow for a self-contained barbeque tray, and have a meat feast in a camp site somewhere. Maybe I will invite some local gypsies to share in my good fortune. Crazy how fate works – eh?

Just a few miles to the west of Newcastle lies the small town of Maitland. This visit is the second time that I have been, (the first in 2004,) inspired by a visit of a personal hero of mine, ‘Billy Connolly.’ In his series called ‘Billy Down Under’, he explained about his love of graveyards. He said that he adored cemeteries because they told you so much about local families. Mainly that they were all dead! I also share that same love, I find it somehow respectful of people that I never met, but marking their time as being valued. Odd sentiment, I know, but one I hold so there it is! The story he told was one that touched my heart, to the point where I had to visit this particular, not so modest headstone that was built upon and turned into a monument years later. It is important to note that I have copied and pasted the facts, just slightly editing it for the purposes of telling the tale. Please forgive my indulgence in this story but it is true, sad and highlights the fickle nature of public opinion..

‘James Leslie (Les) Darcy (1895-1917), boxer and folk hero, was born on 31 October 1895 at Stradbroke, near Maitland, New South Wales. It tells a popular tale of a hero, then villain, then a returned hero, and a death from heartbreak. He was the second son of native-born parents Edward Darcy, labourer and later a share-farmer, and his wife Margaret, née O'Rourke. His grandparents came from Tipperary, Ireland. Leaving Oakhampton Public School in 1907 Les worked as a carter before being apprenticed at fifteen to a blacksmith at East Maitland. As his father was at times unemployed, and his elder brother was partly crippled, Les was called upon to help his large family financially.

Darcy made his first money in the boxing ring aged just fourteen. In 1912-13 he won several fights at Newcastle and Maitland. In November 1913 he lost to the Australian welterweight champion Bobby Whitelaw, but his performance attracted the attention of the Sydney promoters. On 18 July 1914 he appeared for the first time at the Sydney Stadium, against the American Fritz Holland. Darcy was already a local hero—his supporters came from Maitland in two special trains. When Holland won on points there was a riot; two months later Darcy lost on a foul to Holland and 'the cognoscenti' were ready with elaborate accounts of how Holland had contrived the incident. They need not have worried: Darcy had impressed one ‘Snowy Baker’, the promoter. He became the stadium's leading drawcard. In January 1915 he fought the American Jeff Smith in a contest billed as a world welterweight championship. When he lost because his seconds refused to let him continue after being hurt by a foul blow that the referee did not see, the sensation only enhanced his fame. That defeat was his last: until September 1916 he won twenty-two consecutive fights. He was now comparatively well off—when he bought himself out of his indentures in mid-1915 each contest was netting him about £300, and he was also being paid for exhibitions and for acting in a film.

At the end of 1915 Darcy announced his intention to accept an offer of fights in the United States of America but, probably influenced by Baker, he changed his mind. Six months later the political atmosphere had been radically altered by the Easter week rising in Dublin and a commitment to conscription; and passports were being refused to men of military age. Darcy began to come under pressure to enlist—partly at least as an example to other young men—and his predicament was aggravated by his Irish-Catholic background. His own attitude was ambivalent, but he was now anxious to go to America. He claimed that he wanted four or five fights there to make his family financially secure, and then he would go to Canada or England to enlist. His decision may have been influenced by E. T. O'Sullivan, an ingratiating adventurer who had made a big impression on the naive boxer. He and O'Sullivan and family, sailed clandestinely from Newcastle on 27 October, the day before the referendum which, had it been carried, would have made him liable to conscription. The patriotic press denounced him as a shirker; so too, with less disinterested motives, did Baker and his connexions. He also got engaged to the promoters daughter, who he planned to marry after his first world title win. He was entirely besotted with one Winnie May O’Sullivan and they barely left each other’s side.

In New York a major fight was arranged, but it was banned by Governor Whitman, ostensibly because of the manner in which Darcy had left Australia. The decision was disastrous for Darcy: promoters began to lose interest in him. He broke with O'Sullivan, gave some vaudeville exhibitions and on 5 April 1917 took out United States citizenship. A fortnight later, after a bout he had arranged in Louisiana was also banned, he volunteered for the army. His fiancée Winnie O’Sullivan was so devastated by the news that Australia had disowned him because, of his back door escape to fight for the title, she left him. Yet another fight was arranged in Memphis, Tennessee, and Darcy's call-up was deferred so that he could train, but on 27 April he collapsed. He was admitted to hospital with septicaemia and endocarditis; his tonsils were removed but he developed pneumonia and died on 24 May; his fiancée Winnie O'Sullivan came back when she heard, to be at his deathbed. He was just 21 years old. The press had labelled his cause of death as a ‘broken heart’ after the break up, blaming his fiancée. His body was brought back to Australia and, after immense funeral processions in San Francisco and Sydney, was buried in the Catholic section of East Maitland cemetery. The press had turned him back into a hero, and reportedly over one hundred thousand Australians turned out for the procession.

Les Darcy had all the makings of a folk hero. His remarkable ring record—he lost only four professional fights and was never knocked out—was associated with a quite extraordinary physique: a muscular body apparently impervious to the heaviest blows and a reach 7 ins (18 cm) greater than his height of 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm). He neither smoked nor drank, and spent most of his income on his family; he attended Mass most mornings, one of his closest friends being the local priest. His decision to leave Australia secretly, in breach of the War Precautions Act, provided the controversy (and the enemies in high places) without which no hero-figure is complete: his lonely death, especially billed as caused by a heart break, gave him an aura of martyrdom. So powerful a legend did he become that fifty years after his death flags flew at half-mast, and a memorial at his birthplace was unveiled by Sir William McKell, former governor-general. When he had been dead for two generations, he was still inspiring the pens of Australian nationalist writers.’

Here is his gravestone. I am less that a hundred miles from Sydney. So all things being equal, Saturday 29th February – Day 65 should see the journey end.

And the somewhat churlish testament added many years later.

Position: 32°42'35”S 151°30’58”E – Miles completed: 16115

Location: Maitland, NewSouth Wales 19:04 - 28th February 2020 - Journey 64 days 14 hours


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