The Gap (Sydney)

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The Gap, looking south over Watsons Bay and Vaucluse with the City of Sydney and the harbour on the right

The Gap is an ocean cliff on the South Head peninsula in eastern Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. The area, which faces the Tasman Sea, is located in the eastern suburb of Watsons Bay, in the Municipality of Woollahra, near South Head. Although the cliff is a popular visitor destination, it has gained infamy for suicides.

History[edit]

A tram passing through The Gap on its way to Watsons Bay, c.1949.

Prior to European settlement, The Gap was inhabited by the Birrabirragal aboriginal clan who were part of the coastal Darug people. Shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the British established a makeshift signalling station on the ridge above The Gap. Its role was to give early warning to the colony of any approaching ship. A formal signal station was established in 1790, serviced by a bridle trail that developed into the Old South Head Road by 1811. Pilots based at Camp Cove in Watsons Bay would meet ships at the entrance to Port Jackson in order to guide them safely into Sydney harbour. [1]

In 1871, a year after the official withdrawal of Imperial British forces, the headland around The Gap became a military garrison when work began to build coastal artillery emplacements to defend the Port of Sydney. Construction was undertaken by the colonial government's militia under the command of British military engineers. The first barracks, which were occupied by members of the New South Wales Artillery, were completed by 1877. Extensions were added in 1880 to accommodate additional personnel. Many of the early barracks are still standing near The Gap.[2]

By 1895, the area was being used by the fledgling Royal Australian Army as a gunnery school. In 1942 the Royal Australian Navy had established a radar training school nearby.[3] The facility was initially named HMAS Radar, but was later commissioned as HMAS Watson on 14 March 1945. Torpedo and anti-submarine warfare training were relocated to Watson in 1956.[4] Visitors are sometimes permitted to visit the clifftop chapel that was dedicated in 1962 to service personnel who served at The Gap.

The Gap has been part of Sydney Harbour National Park since 1982. In 1990, the area was opened to the public to offer access to the spectacular cliff views and walks.

Ship wreck

In 1857 the sailing ship Dunbar carrying 63 passengers and 59 crew struck the rocky cliff at the foot of The Gap. The Dunbar, which was captained by James Green, had left England on 31 May 1857 arriving off Botany Bay shortly after dark on 20 August 1857.[5] In poor visibility and stormy weather, Captain Green misjudged the entrance to the harbour. The Dunbar drove into the rocky cliff at the foot of The Gap causing the ship's topmasts to snap and the ship to turn broadside against the rocks because of the pounding of the waves. By light next day, crowds watched as breakers pounded victims' corpses against the rocks. Other bodies amid cargo and wreckage were washed inside Sydney harbour with the incoming tide; many of the dead were naked and had been mutilated by sharks.[6] The funeral of the Dunbar victims was one of the longest processions ever seen in Sydney. The unidentified dead were buried in a common grave at Camperdown cemetery.

A young sailor named James Johnson was the only survivor. He was rescued after clinging to a rocky ledge below The Gap for 36 hours. Johnson, who was later employed at the lighthouse near Newcastle, rescued another lone survivor from the wreckage of the steamer, SS Cawarra, in July 1866.

The Dunbar's anchor was recovered more than fifty years later and placed on the cliffs at Watsons Bay with a memorial tablet.[7]

Geology, fauna and flora[edit]

The Gap is formed from Sydney sandstone making it part of Sydney basin. The cliff was laid as sediment more than 200 million years ago in the Triassic period. During the Jurassic era, 40 million years later, a cataclysmic event resulted in an enormous crack forming within the strata. This fault allowed erosion from wave action to create the cliff line around Sydney. Tessellated basalt rock platforms lie at the base of the cliff because The Gap is bordered to the south and west by an older sequence of largely low-grade metamorphic and granitic rocks of the Lachlan Fold Belt. Northwards these rocks pass into the Hunter Region sequence that is transitional between the Sydney Basin and New England Fold Belt. The Gap itself forms a sequence that continues offshore to the edge of the Sahul Shelf. The total maximum thickness of rock formations within the Sydney Basin are in depth ranges of 5,000 metres (16,000 ft).

The rock is a very porous stone. It is composed of very pure silica grains and a small amount of the iron mineral siderite in varying proportions, bound with a clay matrix. The Gap's warm yellow-brown colour is due to oxidation of the stone.[8]

Skinks and Eastern water dragons can often be seen moving among the rocks. Sea birds, such as the Silver Gull and the Pacific Gull use the cliff for nesting sites.[9] The sandstone cliff has created nutrient-poor soils similar to those found around Sydney.[10] As nutrients are scarce, plants which survive on The Gap cannot afford to lose leaves to herbivores so they defend their foliage with toxins. Vegetation includes the Eucalypts which produces such toxins.[8]

Suicide location[edit]

The Gap is a well known place for suicides in Australia. Similar to Beachy Head in England, the tall cliffs have made it a location for those wishing to end their lives. Between 2008 and 2011 numerous measures have been implemented to dissuade those at risk of suicide, these include security cameras to monitor the area, several purpose-built Lifeline counselling phone booths, and information boards from the Black Dog Institute and Beyondblue. An inward-leaning fence has also been erected to deter people from jumping.

On the afternoon of 20 April 1936, noted Australian diarist Meta Truscott recorded how she and her uncle, Christopher Dunne, witnessed a suicide at The Gap. By chance the pair shared a bench with a well-dressed, middle-aged man who was later identified as William Albert Swivell. As the three watched a ship sail through the Sydney Heads, her uncle asked the man if he knew its name, to which Swivell replied, "The Nieuw Holland." Soon afterwards the smartly-dressed man stood up and walked away; he climbed to the top of the cliff and jumped to his death.[11][12][13]

In June 1995, a 24-year-old model, Caroline Byrne, fell to her death at The Gap. Due to the notoriety of the area, police did not initially suspect foul play. However in 2008, her then-boyfriend was convicted of pushing her over the edge.[14] He was later acquitted of murder in February 2012.[15]

In November 2007, Charmaine Dragun, a 29-year-old newsreader who worked for Ten News, jumped from The Gap after battling depression and anorexia.[16]

Angel of The Gap[edit]

In 2009, Don Ritchie, a former Second World War Naval Veteran and retired insurance agent, was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for preventing suicides at The Gap.[17] From 1964, Ritchie saved 164 people from jumping from the cliffs by crossing the road from his property and engaging them in conversation, often beginning with the words, "Can I help you in some way?" Afterwards Ritchie would invite them back to his home for a cup of tea and a chat. Some would return years later to thank him for his efforts in talking them out of their decision. Ritchie, who was nicknamed the "Angel of The Gap", died in May 2012.[18]

Gallery[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Paton, Neil (1987). Walks in the Sydney Harbour National Park. Kangaroo Press. p. 58. 
  2. ^ "HMAS Watson". Retrieved 22 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Oldham (ed.), 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy, p. 126
  4. ^ Oldham, Charles, ed. (2011). "Bases and establishments". 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy. Bondi Junction, NSW: Faircount Media Group. pp. 125–126. OCLC 741711418. Retrieved 20 June 2011. 
  5. ^ "SHIPWRECK AT THE HEADS.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 22 August 1857. p. 4. Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  6. ^ "[SECOND EDITION.].". Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1875) (Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia). 22 August 1857. p. 4 Edition: 2nd edition. Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  7. ^ "WRECK OF THE DUNBAR.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 21 August 1930. p. 11. Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Flannery, Tim (1999). The Birth of Sydney. The Text Publishing Company. pp. 14–19. ISBN 1-876485-45-0. 
  9. ^ "CIRCULAR QUAY TO SOUTH HEAD AND CLOVELLY MAIN WALK SECTION 4: SOUTH HEAD TO NORTH BONDI". www.walkingcoastalsydney.com.au. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  10. ^ Karskens, Grace (2010). The Colony, A History of Early Sydney. Allen & Unwin. p. 23. ISBN 978-1-74237-364-5. 
  11. ^ "Man's leap over the Gap". The Canberra Times. 21 April 1936. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  12. ^ "Fell 280 feet into the sea". The Aulbury Banner and Wadonga Express. p. 33. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  13. ^ "Shipping". The Sydney Morning Herald. 20 April 1936. p. 16. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  14. ^ Allen, Nick (21 November 2008). "British playboy threw model girlfriend off cliff in Australia to her death 'like a spear'". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  15. ^ Hall, Louise; Jacobsen, Geesche (25 February 2012). "State prosecutor's reasoning in Wood trial 'dangerous'". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  16. ^ "Hundreds pay tribute to Charmaine". The Sydney Morning Herald. 12 November 2007. Retrieved 25 August 2012. 
  17. ^ Kate Benson (1 August 2009). "An angel walking among us at The Gap". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 August 2012. 
  18. ^ Roger Maynard (16 May 2012). "Australia mourns 'Angel of the Gap' Don Ritchie, the man who talked 160 out of suicide". London: The Independent. Retrieved 25 August 2012. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 33°50′37″S 151°17′05″E / 33.843519°S 151.284599°E / -33.843519; 151.284599