Tim Elliott June 29, 2012
"People complain about all the asylum seekers … but if I was them, I'd wanna live here, too." – Paul Upham, building manager.
The locals proudly call it "God's country", so why is the Sutherland Shire so maligned and misunderstood by the rest of Sydney? Tim Elliott gets to know the area beyond the stereotypes.
If you want to understand the Shire, you could do as I did and walk along the boardwalk at Cronulla, watching the surfers, or you could talk to local shopkeepers or admire the artwork at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre in Gymea. You could even drive around the waterfront, nipping in and out of the lovely leafy little bays that riddle the foreshore of Port Hacking. Or you could save yourself a lot of time and effort and go see Carol Provan.
Provan is 69 years old and 173 centimetres tall, a flawlessly groomed and unexpectedly shapely woman with yellow eyes, a blonde newsreader's bob and a smile straight out of The Bold and the Beautiful. With her Carla Zampatti suit and sinker-size pearls, she resembles nothing so much as a superannuated Bond girl, which in a way she is: in 1975, early on in her long and phenomenally industrious career, Provan worked as an extra on the George Lazenby film The Man From Hong Kong. Right now, however, she performs the only slightly less glamorous role of Sutherland Shire Council Mayor.
As befits her office, Provan is a veritable motherload of Shireness, a walking, talking, Prada-bag-toting embodiment of all that is good and not so good about this much-maligned, misunderstood part of Sydney. "Why do people say such terrible things about us?" she says, when I visit her one sparkling autumn day. "I think a lot of it comes down to jealousy. I have travelled all over the world but you'll have trouble finding anywhere as nice as here."
Provan is showing me around her home, a $3-million waterfront she bought last year with her second husband, Ross. (Her first husband, Peter, died in 2010.) The three-bedroom house in Burraneer Bay is done out in a French-provincial theme, with white walls and lots of polished mirrors, large glass-topped tables and a remote-control bar with a drinks cabinet that pops up at the push of a button. ("Isn't it fun?" Provan giggles.) In the absence of reading material - there isn't a magazine, newspaper or book to be seen - a colossal 65-inch flat-screen TV dominates the living room. The whole place is serenely clean and clutter-free, with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a tiny private beach and a jetty.
"Ross is a waterskier," Provan says, walking me outside. "He keeps his powerboat, a Malibu, in the garage." She then points to houses around the bay - "Ricky Ponting lives just over there ... and Glenn McGrath, he's over there ... And just down there" - she waves her hand along the waterfront - "are some Italians and a Greek family. It's very multicultural."
Provan was born in Campsie and grew up in Bankstown. Her father, Ken, who worked as a fireman on the railways, died of lung cancer when she was eight years old, leaving her mother working three jobs to raise Carol and her younger brother, Dennis. Carol attended Bankstown High School, but left when she was 15. At her mother's urging, she enrolled in deportment classes at June Dally-Watkins; in 1962, she was crowned Miss Bankstown at the local trotting club.
Bankstown, for Provan, was about work and striving: "It was where I started," she says. The Shire, on the other hand, was the destination. Like her parents before her, Provan came to Cronulla every weekend to sunbake, swim and hang around the surf club, where she met her husband-to-be Peter Provan. Peter was a rugby league star; he played for St George and Balmain and was the younger brother of St George legend Norm Provan. "Peter and I were married on January 14, 1966," Provan says, "the same day we moved into the Shire."
Provan's terrier-like loyalty to the area is as much a function of what the Shire has given her as the way it is regarded by outsiders, who have, since at least the time of Puberty Blues, derided the Shire as the natural habitat of flag-waving bogans and the nouveau riche, the last hold-out of an older, whiter, pre-enlightened Australia, full of Southern Cross tattoos, Lara Bingle look-a-likes and "F... off, we're full" stickers.
Unfortunately for Provan, this image is set for a boost with the imminent airing of two TV shows - a scripted reality show called The Shire and Puberty Blues, a remake of the 1981 film based upon the sex'n'surfing teen novel by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey.
Provan doesn't have a problem with Puberty Blues, which, she says, "came to us with a clean slate and transparency". But The Shire is another matter. "It's pretty clear that it's going to be focused on the negatives," she says. "They just want to make a smutty show. I mean, you could go to [local nightclub] Carmens and maybe find some drunken idiots, but you could also do that in Mona Vale or Bondi. So why do it here?"
This is a good question. Why do it here? Why the Shire? When all is said and done, what's all the fuss about?
Perhaps because of the 2005 riots, the Shire often boils down in the collective imagination to one suburb, Cronulla, and to one particular part of that suburb, the beach. It is, of course, much more than that, 370 square kilometres that encompass everything from Australia's sole nuclear reactor, at Lucas Heights, to the snoozy seaside villages of Maianbar and Bundeena, where it's not uncommon for locals to see deer grazing in their backyards. Driving down the car-yard-and-McDonald's-lined wasteland that is Taren Point Road, it's easy to forget that the Shire is also home to four national parks, including Australia's oldest, the Royal National Park.
"Geographically, it's an extraordinary place," Kathy Lette says. "It's the great lungs of Sydney, with national park on one side, the sea on the other, and the Georges River all around."
The area holds multitudes and multitudes of contradictions. Ask someone to name famous locals and they'll say Grant Hackett or Andrew Ettingshausen, but best-selling novelist Markus Zusak also lives here (in Engadine), as does Archibald Prize-winning painter Garry Shead (in Bundeena). Australian flags are indeed a feature in the Shire; walk along Cronulla Beach and you will see them, hanging limp from the lamp posts, like battle colours or a statement of claim. And yet nearby Kurnell, site of Captain James Cook's landing - the birthplace of white Australia - is a terminally neglected landscape of sand mines and oil refineries.
In a few discrete but important ways, to head south over Tom Uglys Bridge is to board a time machine hurtling backwards. While much of Sydney has ceded to multiculturalism, the Shire remains predominantly, determinedly Anglo-Celtic, a largely conservative electorate that also makes up the city's second-largest Bible belt. Here is the Sydney of a more innocent era, a Sydney of debutante balls, cropped lawns and kookaburras, of footy on Saturday and church on Sunday; a suburban idyll of gumtrees and swimming pools and wildlife right off an Arnott's biscuit tin.
"It's Australia, mate!" Paul Upham tells me. "This is what it's all about!" Upham, who works as a building manager in the city and as a boxing commentator for Fox Sports, was born in Sutherland Hospital in Caringbah, and grew up in Lilli Pilli, on Port Hacking. "Some of my fondest childhood memories are being with friends racing our bicycles home from Caringbah High to paddle our skis up to the local bay surf when the swell was up on Port Hacking River."
These days Upham lives in Engadine with his three children, in a four-bedroom house on an 800-square-metre block in bushland. "It's a bit of a time warp here," he says. "There's a real connection to nature; I feed cockatoos on my balcony, I see wallabies and possums."
Upham points to a "special camaraderie" that binds residents of the Shire, "a pride they wear proudly on their faces. Saying the Shire is the best place to live in Sydney is not to be disrespectful to other residents of Sydney," he says. "And it's not just an opinion - it comes down to genes. Humans may well be at the top of the food chain. But deep down we still retain those raw animal instincts from thousands of years ago. Ask yourself, do wild animals appear happier locked up in cages or roaming free? In the Sutherland Shire, of all ages, heritage and backgrounds can truly experience the many pleasures of life amongst the wide open spaces ...
"People complain about all the asylum seekers," he adds. "But I don't blame them. If I was them, I'd wanna live here, too."
Despite it featuring the spot where Cook first made landfall in Australia in 1770, Sutherland is a young suburb, a largely postwar community that until the 1950s was not even considered part of Sydney. Separated from the city by rivers, bays and parks - there was no road access until 1929 - the area was widely seen as a holiday destination, remote and semi-rural, a place, according to Sutherland Shire: A History, where remnant Depression settlements remained unsewered and unpaved until the 1960s.
It also became a land of opportunity, the closest thing Sydney had to a working-man's paradise. "The Shire has always been aspirational," says Dr Amanda Wise, one-time Shire local and a sociologist at Macquarie University. "It's where tradies and builders could buy a house on the waterfront."
Wise's father was a fitter and turner from Panania, near Revesby, who started an engineering business and, in the 1970s, bought a waterfront home in Sylvania Waters. "The locals feel loyal to the Shire precisely because it was the kind of area that allowed them to get ahead," she says.
But even in Australia, home to the fictive classless society, having money comes with the expectation that one will know how to spend it. "Classism plays a big part in stereotypes about the Shire," Wise says. "The disdain that a lot of people have for the Shire is often simply an old-money-versus-new-money thing, the establishment looking in and seeing a bunch of tacky, nouveau riche people who have gotten above their station."
This image was disastrously reinforced by Sylvania Waters, the 1992 fly-on-the-wall television series that documented the lives of Noeline Baker and Laurie Donaher and their largely adult offspring. Noeline and Laurie had a successful contract-labour company that had afforded them a yacht, an apparently endless supply of chardonnay and a fancy waterfront in Sylvania Waters, a suburb that London's Independent newspaper tactfully described as a "reclaimed swamp". Billed as a real-life documentary, the BBC-made series devolved into a verité version of Muriel's Wedding, complete with constant boozing, smoking, bickering and casual racism (at one point, Noeline gets a stripper for one of her parties, but Laurie disapproves because he's black).
Even at the time, it was criticised as pandering to British preconceptions of Australians as uncouth and acquisitive: when it aired in England, The Sun newspaper ran a story headlined "Meet Noeline: By Tonight You'll Hate Her Too". And yet complaining about such stereotyping was disingenuous coming from Sydneysiders, since some of the most enthusiastic sneering was done locally.
"Everyone loves a whipping boy," Belinda Hanrahan, manager of Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, tells me. "Everyone loves looking down on someone; it's human nature."
Hanrahan grew up in Gymea, near Miranda, in the 1960s in a house her father built from reclaimed materials; in the 1970s the family moved to Cronulla, which was, then as now, a surfie culture. And yet the area has also become a culture-culture. Hazelhurst, the grounds of which were left to the community as a "place of culture" by the last owner, in 1994, had 170,000 visitors last year, most of them locals. "The people who come here love art," says Hanrahan. "They enjoy it just as much as anyone else."
Until starting at Hazelhurst in 2011, Hanrahan spent 18 years in senior management for the Art Gallery of NSW. When I ask if she was ever subject to any "Shire prejudice" at the AGNSW, she answers with a long pause. "Everybody judges everybody according to what their background is, what school they went to and, well, I guess I was a bit of voice for the Shire at times. But I never found it hard being listened to."
At about 1pm on Sunday, December 11, 2005, Diana Kontoprias was standing in her gelato bar near Cronulla Beach when she heard a strange rumbling, like a thunderstorm or distant artillery. Peering out of her shop, she saw stampeding up towards her a crowd of several thousand extremely angry and apparently very drunk young people. "It was scary, just that noise, the thumping of their feet," she says. "It was a really hot day and they had been down near the beach drinking since 8am in front of [local pub] Northies, and then they heard that Middle Eastern kids were arriving on the train, so they took off for the railway station."
So began the Cronulla riots, a nasty social boil that had become inflamed, a week before, by a fight between some volunteer lifesavers and "young men of Middle Eastern appearance", then had been shamelessly prodded and poked by Alan Jones and The Daily Telegraph, and facilitated by SMS messages, particularly one calling on "every F...ing [sic] Aussie in the Shire [to] get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day ..."
When the boil burst, it produced some of the most explicit images of race hate ever seen in Australia; a hysterical, 5000-strong crowd chanting, "F... off, Lebs", wild-eyed posses storming the train at Cronulla station, hunting for "wogs"; a man, later identified as Marcus Kaptiza, wearing a singlet with the words "Mohammed was a camel-raping faggot". By the end of the day, at least 20 people were being treated for injuries; a further 104 people would be charged.
Locals were appalled - "It was bizarre, horrifying," Kontoprias says. But, truth be told, they weren't that surprised. There had for some time been tensions between locals and "Middle Eastern" kids on the beach, but for very specific and unique reasons: Cronulla is the only beach in Sydney where a train from Sydney's ethnically diverse south-west terminates right opposite the water. "So you had these two populations being brought together," Amanda Wise says, "the Middle Eastern kids and locals in the whitest area - the beach - of what was already a fairly white suburb."
As far as the rest of Sydney was concerned, the riots were a rerun - albeit uglier and more violent - of Sylvania Waters: here go those drunken bogans in the Shire again, reverting to type. "It was an easy out to point at the Shire and say, 'That's where the racists are,'" Wise says. "By fetishising the Shire as a place of white racists, it excused the rest of Sydney from looking at their own attitudes. And that's all connected to the previous stereotype of them all being uncosmopolitan, unsophisticated. What it meant was that we all didn't have to own what happened there more widely."
It's mid-morning at North Cronulla; there's the blue of the sea, the honey-coloured sand, a luffing offshore breeze pampering the waves. Watching the surf, a tradie sits in the cabin of his truck, eating a pie. Across the road, two teenage girls are lying on the grass in front of their block of units. For a minute, I can believe, as Carol Provan told me without a skerrick of irony, that I am indeed in "God's country". I walk down to the kiosk, which turns out to be a classic, unreconstructed beach food pit - sticky floor, pimply schoolkids, sparrows eating crumbs off rickety plastic tables. Somewhere a radio plays Dragon's April Sun in Cuba. Standing in front of me in the queue is a tall, gym-fit mother of three, her cheekbones toasted cashew-brown, blonde hair pulled tight into a perfect bun. A typical Shire Amazon, I tell myself. Or is she? She could be from anywhere, I'm just assuming she's from here. I resolve to ask her, do a bit of impromptu research, but suddenly her name is called and my Shire woman collects her coffee, calls to her kids and departs, half walking, half running, up the hill, away from the beach and off to who knows where.
Where to …
… drink good coffee
Popular corner cafe Ham, run by brothers Harry and Mario Kapoulas, doubles as a deli with a particularly impressive range of cheese. Well frequented by the local beach babes and boys.
Ham, 3/17 Gerrale Street, Cronulla. Phone: 8521 7219.
Grind Espresso, coffee central at Cronulla for those who know their halogen siphon from their drip filter - and those who don't!. Richard Calabro and the caffeinated team have had a huge following for 10 years because they know about boutique brewing, good vibes and have a good play-list. Their new place has solar power and 11 different brewing methods. Coffee nirvana by the surf.
Grind Espresso, Shop 4/15 Surf Road, Cronulla. Phone: 0403 844 533
… have a drink
Cronulla is packed with options: Brass Monkey for live music; the bar at El Sol Mexican restaurant; or try Splash Tapas Bar for its ambience.
Brass Monkey, 115a Cronulla Street. Phone: 9544 3844.
El Sol, Shop 2, 40-42 Kingsway. Phone: 9544 4116.
Splash Tapas Bar, Shop 2, Cote D'Azur Building, end of Kingsway. Phone: 9527 3377.
... shop like a master chef
Dijon Foods is a massive warehouse meets gourmet food store stocking everyday supermarket basics through to otherwise difficult-to-find, esoteric cooking ingredients.
Dijon Foods, 5-7 Resolution Drive, Caringbah. Phone: 9531 4766.
... dine with a view
Enjoy fine dining in the Elouera Surf Life Saving Club at Summer Salt Restaurant, with 180-degree ocean views and great service, according to the locals. Executive chef and owner Carl Jensen offers a menu of modern-Australian cuisine, and a $100 degustation.
Summer Salt Restaurant, Elouera Surf Life Saving Club, Mitchell Road, Cronulla. Phone: 9523 2366.
... escape the crowds
Salmon Haul Bay, which looks across to Bundeena, is a quiet spot to swim, snorkel, and try stand-up paddleboarding. Also try Darook Park, on Gunnamatta Bay, and the sandstone at Kurnell's Cape Solander.
Monique Farmer and Helen Greenwood