Gunnamatta Bay was a world away from the glistening, sparkling seas of surfers with bronzed bodies, blonde hair, budgie smugglers, two piece bikinis, zinc cream and red and yellow flags.
‘Magic Beach!,” my daughter Sia yells as we make our way to Sydney’s Gunnamatta Bay in Cronulla. That phrase is from her favourite book, by Australian author Alison Lester. This summer she yelled its title all up and down the north and south coast.
The opening scene of the book evokes a typical summer experience most Australians have of the beach. “At our beach, at our magic beach, we swim in the sparkling sea, surfing and splashing, and jumping the waves, shrieking and laughing with glee.”
But for many thousands of Greek-Australians like myself, Gunnamatta Bay was a different kind of beach from the images evoked in Lester’s book. If I was to write about my ‘Magic Beach’ it would read a little differently.
“At our beach, at our magic beach, we dog paddle in the not-so sparkling sea, we do not surf and splash and jump at the waves or shriek and laugh, because we are here at Gunnamatta Bay."
It was a calm still bay with questionable water quality with men who had dark, hairy olive bodies (like me) and women who wore one piece costumes and scarves. Instead of surf boards there was inflatable tyres.
Gunnamatta Bay and its plethora of shaded trees, grass and large undercover seating areas made it the perfect place for thousands of Greek, Italian and Lebanese migrants who converged there in their thousands during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
If it was a hot day, Greeks across Sydney would start calling their relatives around 7am. The message was short and sharp: ‘See you at Kronulla’. After finding a coveted car park, a caravan convoy of chairs, esky’s, pillows, blankets, inflatable tyres, tables and charcoal BBQ’s would lead them to their favourite tree.
It was safe for newly arrived migrants because of a shark net that surrounded the swimming area and most importantly there were no waves.
No crushing sea meant overprotective Greek parents like mine could feel safe that their kids wouldn't be dragged out to sea by dangerous rips or currents and that they wouldn’t be dumped by waves.
It became the perfect setting for epic cricket games. It was the only time I remember that my parents allowed me to play with Australian kids.
UNSW Humanities Associate Professor Nicholas Doumanis has been compiling a Greek Australian Archive for the NSW state library.
He says Gunnamatta Bay was important because Greeks needed to get together.
“That social reason was important,” he said. “They needed to reconnect to their community to maintain social ties - it was a psychological thing. They needed to see their own people.”
“The thing about my parents’ generation was that they were constantly harassed or often treated rudely,” he said. “If it was a park full of just Aussies you wouldn’t be playing your music or kicking the soccer ball around if you were one of the kids. If there were large numbers of Greeks like there was at Gunnamatta Bay, then it was likely that there would not be any discomfiture. They just wanted to relax and the last thing they wanted to be was insulted by passers-by yelling ‘wog’ which was often done. It was a normal part of life to be called a ‘wog’ and to be dismissed and to have insults thrown at them.”
After almost 30 years I returned there over the summer with my daughter and it has hardly changed after all that time. The covered picnic area and barbecues are still there, so is the impressive pavilion that houses the toilets and changerooms as well as the wharf where kids defied their parents by jumping off the pier.
What stops me from being completely nostalgic about Gunnamatta Bay is that it was the place where I was called a wog for the first time by a group of older Anglo kids. My father asked us kids to get some bread from the shop near the bay. I left our Greek beach and crossed the street into Cronulla proper. My two little brothers and I heard someone yell, "Go back to where you came from you wogs." I was 10. I never forgot that horrible feeling of being made to feel like "the other" in the country I was born. That incident stuck with me like a tattoo. This was in the early 80’s and I wonder if the new migrants that arrived after the Europeans - the Asians and Africans who have converged at Gunnamatta Bay today - are able to mix with the locals without the same fear I had after that incident.
Going back after almost 30 years I felt excited about the future and hoped that if I brought my daughter here again she would never be told 'to go back to where she came from' like I was.
Con Stamocostas is a freelance writer. You can follow Con on Twitter @constama10.