Balgowan is a little seaside destination only about two and a half hours' drive from Adelaide but it occupies a whole other world where life is simple, time is slow and strangers exchange smiles and a chat. There is a shop called The Clifftop Kiosk where the never-ending stream of owners work for a while, coming from all walks of life for a little refuge or the chance to go fishing a few metres from work when business is slow. From there the view stretches across the bay and along the red cliffs, where, on the beach below, huddle the local farmers' old red tractors, seen daily at holiday time chugging down every street of Balgowan in the early morning, towing an astounding array of fishing craft bound for launching into the sheltered waters from the beach.
West of the kiosk is a space loosely described as a caravan park..... a rectangular area of grey gravel, bounded on the north by some mallee trees, at the western end by a couple of public toilets and on the south by a stretch of lawn as closely guarded by town residents from use as the lawns in the quadrangles of the colleges of Oxford University! Signs warn campers who are looking for some alternative to setting up a tent on the gravel to think again.... use this space at your peril. Lawn is rare in these parts....and this is the only patch of green you will find anywhere in Balgowan! It is for viewing only!
The avenue of shady trees provides no more than 8 caravans with a cool place to set up for the summer family holiday and offers a million dollar view down the coast, all for $10 per night. The days either side of Christmas are a race to get these spots, with caravan owners driving from near and far to claim their favourite position under a tree before it is taken by another. Once parked, children, dogs, annexes, chairs, tables, eskies and all manner of water craft are disgorged from the vehicles by parents worn out by the preparations required to be the first to arrive and put up the victory flag....the tea towel on the annexe rope. Once some kind of order is found, you will find the men standing with a cold beer, talking to their new neighbours about utes, boat engines, barbecues, the harvest and the missus. The women will be gathering to chop cabbage for a coleslaw, fix children's knees already skun by skidding their bmx bikes on the gravel and delving deep into boxes to find bathers,hats, towels and bats for a dip in the sea and a game of beach cricket before dinner.
One of the few places to get enough reception to pick up an sms in Balgowan is under the far tree, next to the last caravan, or further up the road by sitting on the concrete table outside the kiosk....on the table....not at it....the extra inches are vital for grabbing those mobile phone waves from a town further up the coast! Electricity has made its unreliable way to this place and even a bitumen road, but no other technology is here yet and let's hope it never is. It is there, under the phone tree, that this story begins in the late evening of Christmas day.
The day had been unusually heavy and cloudy and the evening was dim, with a few large spots of summer rain bringing that wonderful damp smell so loved by people of a drought-stricken landscape. We wanted to ring son Alex in London on his Christmas morning so had wandered over to the tree to try to get reception. The people of the caravans were doing their dishes and the children were having a last play on the swings as we approached. We checked the mobile reception and found it almost zero..... funny how it changes with the weather and the time of day. A man came by on the way back to his van and said a friendly hello to us, standing in the dim light under the tree. We got to talking as people around here do. He'd arrived the day before and secured his favourite spot. He was meant to be at a work Christmas party compliments of his boss, but he hitched up the old but immaculate caravan and took to the road with his wife instead, phoning his boss and telling him something had come up and he couldn't get to the party after all..... but thanks for buying him the ticket for the doo at the hotel..... maybe he even gave the impression his mother was ill.... he couldn't now rightly remember the details of what was said....
He suggested we go to the table on the other side of the kiosk to get reception..... so we weren't the only ones who knew this trick! First, we talked about the view, now visible with the last vestiges of the sunset still highlighting the red cliffs in the soft evening glow and how when you get here and have time to sit, you can hear the breeze in the leaves of the trees and see it play on the water below and feel it fill you with a peace that stays with you if you let it. Talk turned to fishing, as it invariable does in seaside towns, and he told us of his lucky catch on the break-water, only a hundred metres or so from his van, earlier in the day.
He'd dressed up all spick and span to have Christmas lunch with his mother, who lives at another seaside town 30km or so away, where the phone tower is, and having half an hour to spare before setting off decided to throw in a line and see if there were any squid about. His wife warned him about getting squid ink on his best clothes but he reckoned there wouldn't be any squid anyway but he'd be careful. He'd no sooner thrown the squid jag out over the rocks when he hooked a big one. Terrified of upsetting his wife, he began to jiggle the rod to and fro, and move from side to side to avoid the ire and the ink of the angry squid but at the same time desperate to land his catch and secure it in his lidded bucket. As luck would have it, the catch was soon safely in the bucket, with another 20 minutes to spare. He cast out again.....and again had to do the squid dance, narrowly missing by only inches the ink being squirted. This happened 5 times in the thirty minutes and each time the squid dance had him working off the Christmas dinner still to be eaten later in the day. This was the happiest Christmas morning he'd ever had and his mother was very pleased to receive 2 squid, cleaned and ready to cook, together with her regular Christmas presents. He said he wouldn't exchange his Christmas for anyone else's in the world....
We chuckled as he told the story..... only in such a place as this would a bloke wrestle with 5 squid, in his best clothes, before Christmas lunch.