We caught a ferry from Rockhampton, then camped very cheaply just outside the resort on Great Keppel Island. At the resort’s perimeter we could buy a coffee or a meal at an outside cafe. Those inside, presumably paying a price far beyond our means, rarely left the confines of that playground. They seemed to prefer the swimming pool to the ocean and the reefs, and of course they had access to a bar scarcely an arm’s reach from that pure blue rectangle – which had its own abstract appeal, let’s not deny it; but in Sydney we lived about two minutes’ walk from a pool and well over five hundred miles from the bottom end of the fabled reef, where, it seemed, we had an island practically to ourselves.
Each day we would walk up a winding narrow road to the top of a hill that almost amounted to a mountain and spy out another empty beach where we could see the dark blue areas offshore that denoted reefs. The upside down shadows of reefs it seemed, a familiar and thrilling sight to me. At the bottom of the hill, as I suddenly recall – not having remembered it more than twice during the intervening decades – there was a kind of wildlife reserve which included such exotics as peacocks. Add to these eclectic elements the fact that we spoke like American gangsters a good deal of the time, having seen a barbershop on the mainland, owned by one Johnny Travino. A fantasy developed around this (e.g. perhaps the island was where Johnny’s hit men hid when they were hot, sunning themselves and checking the babes poolside; perhaps having a bit of target practice in the game reserve, and maybe a spot of fishing with dynamite or machine guns) which made a fine counterpoint to the reality of the reef itself.
He had not until then seen coral, though we were both skilful body surfers (specially him) and underwater swimmers in all conditions off Sydney beaches, cliffs and rock ledges and in various locations down the coast. The last time I had seen it was in the Coral Sea with its outer barrier of ribbon reefs – the same that had seemed to be closing in on Cook’s Endeavour at the beginning of our modern history. I had stayed for a couple of weeks on the Lizard Island research station at the invitation of the Australian Museum, who asked me to write about their largely unpublicised activities. Would the coral be disappointing down this end? The first day we swam across the pure white sand to meet the blue reef shadow he took his snorkel from his mouth, lifted his head and said, ‘Faaantastic!’. We skimmed the reef, examining all that detail, much of it very close to our faces, like scholars. The contrasts and gradations of colour, from the pastel pale biscuit end through tangerines, mauves and pinks to the sharp iridescent bite of chemical and poison tones. We saw the lone hunters and the sudden clouds of small fish that fluttered briefly like violet or royal blue butterflies to disappear in a twinkling into slots and crevices as if sucked back into the reef by a vacuum. We saw the coral-chomping blue parrot fish, the dreaming sweetlips in caves beneath, fish yellow as daffodils, a batfish much taller than it was long out over the sand, and saw the racing zig zag course of some predator or fleeing prey: intricate, precise and lightning fast as an Eric Dolphy solo. We were in some ways nerds. We had done our researches. We had found the bluebird of happiness. Of course the reefs here were in much shallower water than those around Lizard Island and especially those in Cook’s Passage where I went very deep with scuba tanks (this was where Cook sailed through to the 0pen sea). Nevertheless Great Keppel was more than satisfactory as an introduction.
Beyond that reef he dived on ahead along the sand and then swung back up to me, beckoned and pointed. I knew that gesture. I overtook him and there, coiled around the stem of a coral mushroom (called Bombies and at one time Niggerheads), was what I took to be a moray eel. But I had seen a few of those and this was a darker bronze-green, where the moray was closer to the green of a garden hose. Further, the tail ended in a curious short, narrow extension like a pencil or a finger, an oddity that seemed queerly malign. Nor was there the eel’s rippling fin along its back from head to tail. Just as it dawned on me that this was a very large snake it uncoiled and stretched up straight in the water as if to show me how big it was. Roughly as big as I am. Then it swam at me.
I swam away backward and indeed on my back about six feet below the surface, using my flippers in unison vertical sweeps instead of alternate kicks in the hope that this would present a more awkward barrier. But it was clear from the sinuous ease with which the snake followed me that if it wanted to swerve around my flippers and bite me it would have done so without difficulty. Instead it abruptly swept back the other way and returned to its original position. I looked for him and he was beside me and a little above, poised to dive at the snake if it attacked.
Later we told one of the divers apparently employed by the resort about this encounter and he told us they saw them often and that their bite was deadlier than the King Cobra’s. Ah. Right! But they would almost certainly not bite you unless you failed to heed the territorial warning such as we had witnessed. In fact the fangs that injected venom were right at the back of the mouth so that the jaw would have to be practically dislocated if it wanted to fatally bite your leg or arm.
This trip had already delivered more than we could have dreamed. And so did a number of others. Incidentally, he also went to Lizard Island much later on his own and camped near the research station. He asked one of the scientists to indicate a good reef and was directed to one a few kilometres out and told to keep lining himself up with the granite mountain on the island, which Cook himself had climbed, with telescope, to spy a way out through the ribbon reefs. He went without hesitation, accompanied by a lemon shark, which can be aggressive. On the way back he was accompanied by two barracuda. He had many adventures ahead of him in a number of countries, some with me, until he died of cancer at 47 a few weeks back, leaving a successful business in Brisbane (West End Coffee House), a beautiful wife and a fantastic little boy. He was my son. That his name was spelled Mathew you can put down to the illiteracy of myself and my then wife.
I won’t go into his many talents – musical, graphic, athletic, culinary and so on. A leading barista, he taught the owner of cafe we visited in Rockhampton to use his expensive espresso machine properly. No charge. The expression on the owner’s face when he mastered it its own reward. What grips me still, waking and in my dreams, was his intense and wide-ranging enthusiasm, his connoisseurship, his convulsive laughter. We sometimes dived to 20 metres without tanks or weights. Scuba divers were sometimes startled to see us down there, and he later got his own license and this is how he knew how deep we were diving – a depth gauge being essential when using tanks). Sometimes a school of fish would hover beside us, staring. There was an intimacy down there in that light, in that mysterious room of water, shared by a school of fish. The legendary, the fabled, the fantasised usually became real for us. Ascending, it always felt as if you would only just make it. As you got closer the surface became a billowing field of quicksivler, of instantly evaporating clouds.
One of his tunes was called ‘Static Apnea’.
His last band was The Freedivers. Here are some of his friends, including a number who played with him: Rebecca, Alon Ilsa, Cameron Deyell, Cameron Undy, Evan Mannell, Josh Green, Joseph Tawadros (the oud virtuoso rather than the pope of the Eastern Church), Alister Spence who taught both Mathew and Joseph at the UNSW Music Department, David Goodman, Simon Baker (the mentalist), Sam (I Am), Pat (In The Hat), Roger Dean. Bless you all.