It was all because of Blue the abalone diver. During her second year at Monash University, Sue had met and fallen for the charismatic character whose fault it was that, equipped with a little backpack and two hard-boiled eggs, she hitchhiked to Eden to share his caravan. And for two years there she lived, by the beach in the little fishing town on the south coast of NSW, until it all fell apart.
Melbourne-born Sue Cram, Northern Star journalist, was telling me the story of her 24-year-old self, the girl who had no idea what to do next until she encountered someone who was driving to Darwin. ‘So I thought I’d go there too,’ she said of the sort of random impulse familiar to so many baby boomers. ‘It was hippy idealism. I thought I might find someone with a yacht who was going to cruise around Asia.’
What she found instead, once she hit Darwin, was a job in a hamburger bar. Very late on one of her late shifts two men walked in asking if she knew anyone who wanted to work on a prawn boat. ‘I looked around the greasy spoon and said Yes,’ she said. ‘So at 6 o’clock the following morning I turned up at the wharf. None of this was thought out. All I knew was that prawn trawlers earned a lot of money.’ The fact that the boat was named NR Demon might perhaps have alerted her to the ensuing scenario, which consisted of sailing straight into a storm and being seasick for three days.
There was a captain, an engineer, a three-male crew and two women. ‘There were always two women,’ Sue said, ‘so that one could look after the other. The pattern was that the skipper usually made sure he was well taken care of for the five to six weeks they were at sea.’
As it happened, Sue wasn’t the Chosen One, which did not preclude her from liaising with one of the handsome Kiwis with whom she shared a bunk. ‘Not a great idea on a boat,’ she said. ‘As you’re at sea longer and longer the guys get a bit toey – it created friction. After about five weeks the guys are getting grumpy. Sociologically it was really interesting.’
Trawlers use nets which are dragged behind them to catch fish or prawns before being hauled onto the vessel for processing. The net has chains hung below a foot-rope to disturb the prawns as the net is towed along the seabed, making them jump into the mouth of the incoming net. Full deckhands all of them, every time the nets were spilt they all had to race on deck; whatever wasn’t a prawn was hurled back over the side of the boat. ‘When I first saw what wasn’t a prawn I was scared shitless – baby sharks etc,’ Sue said. ‘So at
first I was very trepidatious. But after a while it became routine. I became very gung-ho, picking up baby sharks by their dorsal fins. There were the most beautiful banana prawns. Sometimes turtles would come up in the net and the boys would want them for their shells – I’d protest, and was viewed as a bit of a leftie environmentalist.’ Even back then Sue was uneasy about the by-catch. ‘Even then I knew it wasn’t right.’
She lasted about six months, at which point getting up in the middle of the night had ceased to be enjoyable. In 1974 she returned to Melbourne and several months later Cyclone Tracy struck. ‘I had a whole lot of photos destroyed,’ she said.
Several remained intact, however, and one that Sue showed me, in its colour-sapped elderly graininess, is all sun-tanned gleaming exuberance, a 20-something woman with life spilling ahead.