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Getting Rescued


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Went to the Mattens below Dover Heights for a day trip instead of the usual overnight stay. Day trips usually meant far less gear, as you generally targeted only one or two types of fishing. By types, I mean methods such as Blackfish fishing and on this particular day "cunje fishing".

Cunje fishing was actually using cunjevoi- those brown-topped "pods" that squirt water if trodden on, found at low tide, growing in clusters on low platforms and in amongst tidal pools, particularly where there are boulders. Inside these pods, there's a red meaty interior that most rock dwelling species love to eat. So cutting some cunje and extracting the meat for bait always provided a mixed bag of fish for the table.

The sea was really flat this day, meaning getting onto most of the lowest spots, many just above waterline, which was always good. There were four of us and although I love Blackfish fishing, I spent a few hours with two of the guys- Fraser and Ben, dropping cunje down these rarely accessible spots. The fourth mate- Ross, happily got into the Blackie's while the rest of us did the cunje thing.

A good mixed bag could contain Bream, Tarwhine, Leatherjacket, Black Drummer, Blackfish and the odd Groper, plus the usual bunch of unwanted species like Kelpfish (which we've always called Rock Cod), Wrasse and if your bait got too close to the bottom, Wirrah's- known as "Boots". 

We all used 6 inch drag-less Alvey's, 10-12 ft fibreglass rods and around 10- 12 lb mono, all Tortue "Super-control" brand- the rock-hopper's choice. Rig the same basic set-up for fishing the rocks all around Sydney- a pea sized ball sinker running freely between a swivel and the hook. No leader line required, you just use the same line you've got on your reel, any bust up from a big Drummer, or a bite off from a 'Jacket' and you just reverse the swivel end and you're back in business. That way, you only needed to carry an old film container with a few 01 ball leads, some 2/0 and size 2 suicide hooks (the 2's carried in case you struck a patch of cunje feeding Blackfish) and a couple of swivels in your pocket. Simple but effective fishing.

We had a pretty good day, nice mixed bag with plenty of Blackfish, a few Bream and Jackets plus a few others and were cleaning fish well before 4 pm, in order to get back up the cliff well before dark. Fish cleaned and off on the 20 minute walk back towards the climb.

To get back to the rope climb area, initially, you moved upwards to a height about 30 odd feet above sea level, well back and away from the sea, then clambered over a few hundred meters of boulders before scampering down to flat walking for about the last 200 yards, then up a little on some stepped ledges.

On the trek back, Ben, who was still a junior club member and about 16, made the remark "what would we do if the ropes were ever gone?" - "we'd start by cooking your fish" the light-hearted reply. As we had a "stash" bag of spare gear hidden up high in the boulder section, Fraser and I went up to replenish it, while Ross and Ben continued on.

After adding a bit more tackle to the stash bag, Fraser and I rejoined the route, finishing the boulder section, then as we started the last flat section before the final stepped-up bit to the ropes, Ben was running back towards us. "You aren't going to believe it, someone's cut the ropes" he shouted. He was grinning as he got closer, so at first, we thought he was joking. He wasn't, someone had cut the climbing ropes off at the top and they now lay dangling on the cliff wall, still attached to the "half-way" pegs.

A few "expletives" uttered and shakes of heads; no way of getting up the highest part of the cliff, we were stuck at the bottom.

It was early May, pretty cool air and probably about 45 minutes of light left, so all four of us separated and went searching for firewood- in fact anything that we could burn. We all had the standard rock-hopper's clothing on- T-shirt, sloppy-Joe and shorts, fine for daytime, but not suitable for just sitting on the rocks all night and no protection from the mozzie's either. So a fire made sense.

There's always a few things washed up in a spot known as "suicide"- as it's right on water level and we managed a couple of bits of foam surfboard from there, then working the back of the boulder bay provided an armful of various small tree branches, bits of driftwood and the always present fence palings. For some reason, people liked to throw these palings off the top of the cliff, dangerous to those below and a constant job for the council to replace. A couple of bits of plastic to add to the collection and we had enough to burn for probably an hour or so.

We gathered back at the bottom of the ropes, with our motley collection of "burnable's" and picked an undercut spot where we could sit safely, just under the cliff and with just a little protection from the wafts of breeze. A fire pile was carefully constructed, but not lit- we decided to wait until we saw signs of rescue or perhaps other fishermen, although, as it was a Sunday evening, we doubted anyone would come down until at least next morning.

There was however, the standard instruction left for those at home, which was, if we weren't home, or hadn't rung to say we were on the way home, by one hour after dark, to give the Police a call. If the car/s were still parked at the top, then there must be a problem down below. This was everyone's standard safety precaution, as there were no such things as mobile phones in those days and everyone's family knew the instruction. It was the one "rule" everybody strictly adhered to- no contact meant trouble.

So we made ourselves as comfortable as possible and waited. 

Well within two hours after dark, in the distance, towards South Head a bright searchlight appeared on the water, it was coming from a boat and trained on the cliff walls. Then a minute or two later, there were two lights, coming from separate vessels. They were still a fair way off, so we lit the fire and piled all the plastic and foam on to get it going. Sure enough, the lead vessel spotted the fire and made haste towards us, staying probably 50 yards out from the rocks. They probably took about 4 or 5 minutes to come down to where they could see the figures around the fire and trained the searchlight on us. The Water Police had arrived.

We held up the ropes and indicated they'd been cut and thrown over the cliff, while doing the "thumbs up" to let them know we were all OK. They replied in kind with the thumbs up and pointed high above us, before motoring about 100 yards out fro the ledge directly below us. Sure enough, a Rescue Squad officer in white overalls was being lowered down the cliff. He reached us and we explained what had happened. To say he was horrified someone would cut the ropes would be an understatement. He said it was an act of a bastard. 

Then, a light appeared up at the pulley adjacent the climb and voices yelled out for us to tie the ropes onto the pulley rope, which we did and the ropes were hauled up to be tied back on again. 

Great! Now we can climb out- or so we thought. The Rescue Squad officer "Steve" thought otherwise. He stated that as they'd been called and he'd come down, it was now an official rescue and he said he didn't deem it safe enough for us -or anyone- to climb up the ropes. Instead, as the sea was so calm, they'd take us out by boat, Steve included. 

In the mean time, the ropes had been re-tied up top and the pulley was lowering a couple of backpacks down. The light and voices were from two of the Eastern Suburbs Anglers club guys who'd come down for a Bream session, Damian and Wayne, and we watched as Damian climbed down the wall. On reaching the bottom Steve had a quick word with him and gave instructions to tie our gear onto the pulley rope when they'd finished using it, as we were going out by boat and couldn't take it with us. No problem, then we four and Steve climbed right down onto the ledge under the ropes and carefully moved out to the front of the platform. You had to walk in small steps as it was slippery with marine growth, regardless of no water coming over the ledge and we couldn't wear our rock plates to jump onboard the Police launch.

We'd already told Steve it was about 40 ft deep straight off the edge and I relayed the same message to the boat crew, they needed to know there was no hidden underwater obstacles. As there was no swell at all, they could bring the big Police boat in nose first and we could jump on. Seemed simple enough. The Water Police decided that due to the slippery nature of the rocks, we should all have a life-jacket on first, so they motored right up to the edge and two officers came to the bow and tossed 5 jackets to us then backed a few meters off the platform while we put the jackets on.

Then they threw a single rope with a canvas circular sling at the end and one at a time, we donned the sling and simply hopped over the bow rail onto the front of the launch. The skill of the launch driver kept the bow from actually touching the platform and the tide was low enough for us to actually be just marginally higher than the bow, making for an easy jump. After each jumper landed on deck, the launch would back off a few meters while the sling was removed and the jumper ushered down the hatch to safety. Then repeat the process until all were safe on board.

The Water Police were great, they gave us a blanket each, a drink and as two of the boys were smokers, a much appreciated cigarette. On hearing the circumstances of the cut ropes, they said there'd been similar problems along some of the other accessible rock fishing spots over the last few weeks. They also asked if we knew about water depth at other spots going back towards South Head, for future reference, in case they needed to bring the boats in at other spots. We were able to oblige with information on the spots we knew well.

The launch arrived back at Watsons Bay wharf and was greeted by both the Rescue Squad who'd packed up from the cliff and the regular Police. After having a yak to all concerned and ringing all our homes to say we were safe, we got a lift back to the car at the cliff top. After farewells to the rescuers, we then went back down the goat track and down to the pulley to retrieve our gear.

On reaching the pulley, for reasons unknown to us, the gear hadn't been tied on and the pulley rope tied off down below. So I had to climb down and back up anyway!

Exactly one month later, with club mates Dave Gardiner -who operates a charter boat on Lord Howe Island these days- and Paul "Sluggo" Sullivan- now one of Sydney's best commercial fisho's, it happened again. 

This time however, 3 of the top section ropes had been cut, and one was left tantalisingly still draped down the top part. I actually climbed up to halfway this time and dropped the safety rope over and brought Dave up to halfway, but after discussing whether to risk it or not, decided that whoever'd cut them, could have easily cut through most of the remaining rope and although "ropes-confident", I wasn't going to chance going up on the one.

Back to the bottom, firewood gathered again and this time, a helicopter with spotlight arrived first. This time the Rescue Squad arrived before the boat, same rescue officer Steve and same method of leaving, by boat. This time though, we tied our own gear onto the pulley and tied the thrown over ropes on as well, to re-attach ourselves.

In the 22 years I fished the Mattens, these two incidents with the ropes being cut, were thankfully the only times I'm aware of this happening there.

About a month later, when climbing back up after another trip, there were three youths sitting right where the ropes were tied onto the pegs. Where they were, was a spot you wouldn't just sit at for the sake of it and I was worried climbing the last few yards up. As soon as I got off the ropes, I really put it to them- What were they doing there? Considering climbing down- was the unconvincing reply. Then one of the other guys appeared from below and was just as concerned at their presence. 

We told them to move away from the ropes and come around to the pulley, where we "told them our concerns" and ordered them up the cliff, as their story just didn't make any sense. Two had ugg-boots on- not climbing suitable. We issued them as strong a warning as necessary in regards to going near the ropes, but also offered them the chance to come down one day- if they truly wanted to.

There were no more rope cutting incidents after that day.

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On first name terms with the rescue squad Waza. That's funny. I suppose they took it in as good experience.

Luckily we never experienced cut ropes down out way. Most spots involved an adventurous climb before reaching any ropes.

Another great story mate. Thanks for sharing.


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