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On Finding West Australian Identity: Henderson’s Naval Base Shacks

Words by: Jonathon Davidson
Image credit: Jonathon Davidson

This is what makes the Naval Base Shacks community 20 minutes south of Fremantle so remarkable: Whilst there, one feels a deep and overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a way of life never before experienced by the modernized and predominately suburban Generation Y.

A selection of older shacks located within the southernmost end of the holiday park.

It’s a feeling you can describe as a kind of alien deja vu, and it ignites within one a smothered yet pulsing connection to a simpler time and a relatively simpler Australian awareness, confident in its own culture, position and identity. A time when we would have no need to compare our collective selves in the south-west to urbanized zones on the east coast. This is a feeling that I believe it’s safe to say the most of us don’t experience past childhood.

Within lot 373, attached to Cockburn Rd. on the way to Rockingham, you can pull in, park up, look around you and take yourself away, feeling more or less at home within a snapshot from the past.  It’s definitely a therapeutic experience for anybody feeling bummed out about their fave act not coming past WA on the world tour.

I discovered the Naval Base Shacks completely by accident late on a Tuesday night after taking a cruise through Henderson. I went down a winding path after sneaking through the aluminium plant, and eventually came to a rough bitumen road running parallel to the coastline, which was extremely close, just beyond the sand dunes illuminated by my headlights.

Bored and with nowhere to go, I sat in idle for some time, rolled a cigarette, and turned right on impulse.

Henderson Ports/Industrial Marine Complex, which can be seen looking down the coast at Henderson Naval Base Shacks Holiday Park.

I’m glad I did, because I was about to enter a wormhole and go back 50 years to an almost entirely forgotten point in West Australian history.

The Naval Base Shacks Holiday Park was established in 1933 when Garden Island, south of Rottnest, was transitioned into official usage as a Navy base.

Navy employees once made up the totality of the population at Naval Base Shacks, even then established as a beachside cottage. However, the current population sees varying demographics projected across the populace.

The second time I went to the Naval Base Shacks – late afternoon on a Sunday, the day before Australia Day – I parked my car in the gravel visitors bay and watched the sun set behind Garden Island as my hood faced the sandy shore some fifteen metres away. Over and beyond a four foot high chain link fence, brilliant hues of orange contrasted with rich blues alongthe dividing line between the ocean and sky.

The view from the visitor’s bay at midday

In those clashing worlds of colour, I could feel a parallel occurring, between the clashing of worlds in the sky and those clashes between the holiday park lined with 178 self-sustained shacks and the industrial shipyard that lies perhaps a further kilometre south.

The aforementioned remarkable feelings one feels while visiting the shacks are only solidified by the holiday park’s relatively obscure and isolated location, and if one does not pay attention it is quite easy to miss the turn off when deliberately looking for the place, giving me the intense predisposition to see the holiday park as incredibly hard to find.

Despite the minimal daytime light left remaining, I took a stroll through the holiday park in its entirety, from the southernmost point to the northernmost and then back to my car again. The experience is akin to travelling through the open air markets or villages of South East Asia – families eat and laugh in backyards, from some shacks drift 40’s swing, from others drift 92.9 and Nova FM playlists, car windows are left down, doors left open, backdoors and side gates swinging; dogs unleashed, possessions in the open, neighbours content with facing into one another’s lives, neighbours and friends congregate on laws in thongs and old hoodies to fend against the cool evening sea breeze.

One of many decorative designs on the shacks at Henderson Holiday Park

In fact, so strong was the presence of authentic, localised kinship and community, that whilst walking the length of the holiday park and meeting the stares and smiles of its many residents I could not help but feel vaguely like an outsider in a foreign land. This was a feeling quite unusual when considering that conversations happening in rooms and by backyard barbeques were all in English and Australian flags hung and flapped around the place.

An idyllic scene tucked away in an obscure part of the South West.

Initially, and somewhat obviously given the name, Navy employees once made up the totality of the population at Naval Base Shacks, even then established as a beachside cottage.

However, the current population sees varying demographics projected across the populace. Of 178 shacks built on the land at various states of time and in various states of repair, not all are inhabited.

A shack under construction early 2015

In fact, some are for sale.

A residence closest to the sea for sale @ $60,000.

However, there are a considerable number of well established permanent residents.

The Naval Base Shacks are recognized as being more than a collection of still-standing throwbacks to phased out architecture (and this itself would be worthy of a trip down the coast).

There is the undeniable presence of community; a relaxed, intimate, stylized lifestyle and micro culture that offers to travellers, who become retrospective viewers, a glimpse into WA’s often overlooked or ignored history.

Definitely the creepiest entrance design out of the lot.

I think this is why I felt the need to celebrate the Naval Base Shacks: it’s therapeutic in the current climate of early 2015 to dive into a quintessential experience of Australian life that was – marine blue paints, outdoor generators, Australian flags, The sound of the shore, seagulls and a communal BBQ and kitchen/bathroom amenity.

“Dragonfly Cottage” – One of the many curious names that owners give their personal micro-castles.

And this stays true to the history of the shacks site – early shacks were permanent fixtures attached to caravans that had parked on site.

An old shack towards the northern end of the holiday park. Originally, this shack would have been relatively isolated – today, it is surrounded by neighbours.

These shared utilities and the lack of running water and electricity present overwhelming and ongoing ties and similarities to a quintessential caravan park.

The standard brand/make of external gas reservoir that is commonly found throughout Henderson holiday park.

It is by no means a controversial statement to claim that all of Australia has been caught within a national  identity crisis for over a decade on both political and social fronts. Within West Australia, the Liberal government remain wildly unpopular, we are voyeurs to our own country’s involvement with the world as the inherent high-level threat of terrorism only seems to care about Sydney and Canberra, our population has changed by almost unbelievable degrees in the last two decades and a slew of environmental and ecnomic concerns threaten to remain onimous for years to come.

I don’t know what the Henderson Holiday Park says about West Australia, necessarily, but I do know that if we ever lose sight of what that definition entails – we only need to come here.