Mind The Gap – Sun Herald, Sunday May 28, 2000

The 1965 incident with Frederick Pickhills was my family, and my brothers death. I have covered the case in my article “Kevin Pickhills – The Unspoken Name.”

Words by Glen Williams
Like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, Bondi and the beaches, the Gap is a must-see for tourists and locals alike – a place of shattered deams, unsolved mysteries and dramatic beauty.

You are lured here by the view – high above a seething ocean, veiled by sea spray and circled by noisy gulls. The final 25 steps rise from a road that winds back toward the city and all of a sudden here you are – white knuckled, clutching the safety rail, yet drawn closer to the edge. Free-spirited sightseers and single-minded fishermen have all looked down from this spot, captivated by the churning sea and beckoning rocks below. To get this far you must turn your back on Sydney and when you do, its soaring towers and sparkling harbour disappear – replaced by a vast, distant and empty horizon. See the tourists turn their backs to take a photo, of a windswept spot where others before them turned their backs on life.

This is the Gap, Sydney’s infamous “drop off” point, a sweeping arc of wave-blasted sandstone gouged into South Head. Long before there was a Bridge to climb and way before the Opera House welcomed its hordes, this majestic sweep of coastline, in places more than 100m high, played lively in the imaginations of locals. It still does.

It is a place of intense contrasts. Stand at the safety rail, look straight out to sea, and the full brunt of nature hurtles toward you. The noise, a screaming fury, almost knocks you over. Turn around and the harbour and city skyline are displayed in all their glory. And, like the contrasting views, life and death manage to co-exist here.

Ask a Sydneysider their impressions of the Gap and they’ll tell you it’s lunch at Doyles, and a beer at the Watsons Bay Hotel. They’ll say it’s the best vantage point from which to catch the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. And, either in hushed tones or with insensitive grins they’ll tell you, “It’s where people go to jump.”

Howard Courtney will tell you about the night out with his wife and friends which began with dinner at Doyles. One moment he was enjoying the company, the next, he was over the cliff’s edge. “We’d just finished eating and decided to take a walk up there to show our friends what the place looked like in the dark,” he recalls. “We got up to the safety rail and there we found a pair of shoes and a handbag. I looked over the Gap, and down on a ledge was a woman. I could see she was ready to go again. She was crawling out towards the edge. It was dark but I could clearly see her.”

Overcome by the woman’s plight, Courtney kicked off his shoes and socks and, calling to his stunned wife and friends to run for help, leapt over the safety rail and out of sight.

“I didn’t think,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t remember how I got down, and I suppose had it been light, and I’d seen the reality of the drop, I might not have gone. I only know my wife wasn’t too pleased. I managed to make it to the girl. She was crying and I held her and tried to pacify her until the police came. I clearly remember she had scars on her wrists.”

It was March 1973 and newspapers reported how Courtney had clambered 40 feet (12.9m) down the cliff face to reach the 21-year-old woman. She was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital in a satisfactory condition despite a broken leg, internal injuries and shock. Police said the narrow ledge had stopped the woman from plunging 200 feet (60.96m).

“I’ve often wondered what happened to her. Where she ended up,” Courtney, 65, says. “I haven’t been back to the Gap since, but I remember it as a place of dramatic beauty.”

A fence – a sturdy hardwood affair mostly, waist-high and wrapped in cyclone mesh – is intended to prevent people from getting too close to that “dramatic beauty”. But as Woollahra Council carpenters Stuart McKinlay and Bill McLeary know only too well, those wanting to be at one with the view will find a way over the barrier. “There’s a lot of maintenance work,” says McLeary, 56. “We’re often up here fixing the fence. We can’t really stop anyone,” adds McKinlay. “Most are just trying to get a closer look.”

The cheerful tradesmen double as unofficial tour guides of the area and are well-versed in the Gap’s history. As the tourist buses pull up, sometimes 72 in one day, the amiable pair will don their second hat. They’ll point tourists to the rusted anchor from the ill-fated Dunbar, wrecked in 1857 after surviving an 81-day journey from England. Before it could reach the shelter of Port Jackson the ship hit enormous seas and a gale force wind smashed it onto the rocks below. Of the 122 people aboard, only one, Able Seaman James Johnson, 15, survived. “Imagine coming all that way to die here,” says McLeary. “It’s just not fair, is it?”

The men will also gladly help tourists take what they believe is the perfect Gap photograph. “A bus will come along and disgorge a whole heap of Japanese tourists,” McKinlay says. “They’ll race to the rail and take a photo straight out to sea. I mean that photo could be of any sea, any horizon. I tell them to look behind them at one of the best views they’ll ever see. So we’ll take a photo for them, we usually try and line up the Bridge, something that says ‘Sydney’. We’re like ambassadors for tourism.”

Ask them to explain the Gap’s attraction and their initial answer is the view. “Well, as you can see, it is spectacular,” says McKinlay. “It’s also such a well-known place for the obvious reason,” he says, then falls silent. “Um … people like to jump. It still goes on but it’s kept real quiet.”

Indeed, the great unspoken has been associated with the Gap since the mid 1800s. The first recorded case of someone taking their own life here was of 35-year-old Anne Harrison, a publican’s wife who leapt to her death in 1863, after grieving for her nephew who fell from the cliff top. But the two men, who recently nailed plaques detailing the telephone numbers of Lifeline and The Salvos onto the fence, are reminded of more recent tragedies.

There was the man who, in 1993, murdered his former girlfriend then tried to end his own life by driving off the Gap at great speed. “He meant business,” McLeary says. “He tore down here at a million miles an hour, smashed through the fence and became airborne over Jacob’s Ladder – that part of the Gap where the rock fishermen clamber down.”

The car flipped mid-flight and became wedged on a ledge. Miraculously the man survived. “He’s in jail now. They called us straight away to fix the fence.”

Neither man underestimates the dangers of their work, especially McLeary, who admits to being scared of heights. “I’ll climb over the fence, no worries,” he says. “But there’s some spots where you’re right up on the edge. Stu does those.”

Residents of the area moved here to enjoy the ceaseless roar of the ocean and that view. They didn’t intend to be caught up in the broken lives of others or to become heroes. But that is what has happened to some over the years. In the 1960s, Mrs Eve Bettke and her husband Anthony were known as “The Guardians Of the Gap”. Together they brought scores of people back from the edge. In one week alone they dragged back 27 people. News reports from the time tell how the Bettkes, who once lived across the road, kept a vigil from their house, scouring the cliffs for anyone lurking too near the edge. Often they’d invite potential suicides back to their house for a comforting chat.

Don Ritchie, 73, has lived in Watsons Bay all his life and has been involved in several rescues at the Gap. Some of the people he’s saved have actually sent him thank-you cards and gone on to enjoy life. Like the Bettkes before him, he keeps watch over the Gap from his house and has climbed over the fence to talk to people who are contemplating taking their own lives.

Ritchie has lost count of the number of rescues in which he’s been involved. He was awarded a Bravery Medal from the Royal Humane Society in 1970. “That involved a young girl,” he says. “I came home from a function in 1969 about one o’clock in the morning and straight across the road was a girl sitting on the edge in the dark.

“I went over and talked to her and as I did she kept moving close to the edge. I gave the wife a signal and she called the police. The press picked up the message and arrived first. Their arrival unsettled her so I got over and I pulled her back. She was screaming abuse at me and kicking like hell. She got a bit of leverage by pushing off the rail with her feet and she nearly pushed us both over.”

Still, Ritchie prefers to dwell on the Gap’s positive stories. “There’s often people playing musical instruments in the park,” he says. “And the music wafts up over the cliffs, it sounds beautiful against the sounds of the ocean.”

Bill Fahey, 75, remembers being called out to the Gap a couple of times a week when he was with the Police Department’s Cliff Rescue Squad from 1955 to 1985. “Mostly suicides,” he says. “but also injured fishermen and those knocked down by the seas. I tell anyone who is down in the dumps to always hold on, because a new day will bring change, hold on and wait for the new day.”

Fahey singles out one particularly macabre incident in the early ’60s that has stayed with him through the years. “A bloke had pushed his three children off then thrown himself over,” he says. “There were four bodies at the base of the cliff and we had to go and bring them back up. We got down there and there was this fisherman who just casually stepped over the bodies and kept right on with his fishing. I’ve never seen such single-minded behaviour in my life.”

There is a magnetic force at the Gap that compels people to venture dangerously near to the edge, he says. “I’ve felt it myself. Through the years I’ve spent long periods of time looking out to sea. I remember one time sitting, looking over the edge and I could feel my feet being pulled. The water definitely has a draw. The perfectly sane can feel it. But for all the dramas I’ve seen played out there, I still regard the Gap as one of the most beautiful places on the coast.”

Gap historian Claire McIntyre feels so close to those who’ve taken their lives here she’s written a book about them. “They’re not just obscure people who’ve jumped, they’re people like us,” she says.

The former director of nursing believes the Gap is a very spiritual place. “Just to be there is a spiritual experience,” she says. “There’s a definite draw, you can’t ignore it. As I got more involved in the writing of the book, my daughter was concerned that I was disturbing the dead. I totally disagree. As far as I’m concerned these people have a story and they are not just a statistic. I think I’m helping to put them to sleep.”

McIntyre says she too has felt the Gap’s pull. “I love it best on a very stormy, southerly day. I call them angry days. The waves are hurled up the sides of the cliffs and it’s almost like a suction pulling you towards it. To me the Gap is like a magnet.”

It is the role of Rose Bay Police to respond to any incidents at the Gap. On average they are called there two or three times a week, though these incidents are not always suicide related. Today, the Gap’s churning waves and jagged cliffs harbour many unsolved mysteries. Rose Bay officers are still investigating the Caroline Byrne case. Byrne, a model and fiancee of Gordon Wood – a former chauffeur of Rene Rivkin – was found at the base of the Gap in June 1995. Investigators also have their hands full with an unrelated gangland-style murder.

Local resident John Doyle has heard all the stories; the tall tales, the myths, the cruel realities. After all, the members of his famous family have lived alongside the Gap for five generations. As a boy it was his backyard, his playground. “I’ve lived here all my life,” Doyle, 66, says. “I’ve played on the Gap, I’ve been in trouble with the police for climbing down the Gap and wagging school. But it’s a pretty sombre place, really. We lost a really good mate down there. My brother Timmy was playing with him down there and he got washed out through the blowhole. That was 40 years ago now.”

Doyle, who now manages the Watsons Bay Hotel, believes the Gap proves somewhat of a disappointment for today’s tourists. “A lot of people say, ‘I’ve just been up to the Gap and I couldn’t find it’. Or they’ll tell you they’ve seen bigger Gaps in their own backyards.”

Master of suspense inspired by the Gap

How appropriate that the master of the cliffhanger, Alfred Hitchcock, should find himself drawn to the ominous cliffs of the Gap.

It was Friday, 6 May, 1960, and Hitch was in Australia to promote what has become an all-time classic motion picture, Psycho.

“Alfred Hitchcock thinks Sydney’s Gap would be ‘ideal’ for a suspense movie,” David Burke reported in The Sun-Herald, on 8 May, 1960.

He took an umbrella with him. “Just in case I decide to float over the edge,” he explained. “Before I make a picture I must always experience the hero’s emotions myself.”

“He poised his roly poly figure on a railing of the safety fence and looked down on the rocks hundreds of feet below,” Burke wrote. “The westerly blew his umbrella inside out; the renowned chins and jowl quivered with the cold. But his eyes lit up to saucer-like proportions.

“Ah, yes, ideal,” beamed the master of suspense. “I can see it all. The villain has the hero on the edge of the cliff and is slowly pushing him over backwards. We have close-up shots of their faces. Then we have close-ups of their feet, scuffling on the brink. The wind is shrieking … the waves are boiling far beneath … we know how far the hero has to fall.

“At the last moment he wrenches himself free and the villain goes over the Gap. Yes, a really ideal setting for suspense.”

Generation gap

1857 The Dunbar is wrecked in pounding seas on the rocks at the foot of the Gap after travelling for 81 days from England. Of the 122 aboard, only one survived – 15-year-old able seaman James Johnson.

1863 First recorded suicide. Anne Harrison, 35, jumps to her death after grieving the death of her nephew who fell from the Gap.

1857 The Dunbar is wrecked in pounding seas on the rocks at the foot of the Gap after travelling for 81 days from England. Of the 122 aboard, only one survived – 15-year-old able seaman James Johnson.

1907 The Dunbar’s anchor is recovered by divers. It is incorporated into a memorial at the top of the cliff. The wreck becomes a popular spot for divers.

1942 Police Department’s Cliff Rescue Unit is organised.

1960 Alfred Hitchcock, in Sydney to promote Psycho, declares the Gap “ideal” for a suspense film.

1965 Frederick Pickhills of Sylvania, tells Vaucluse police, “I have been over the Gap with my son. I had hold of his hand.” Pickhills was charged with the murder of Kevin Pickhills, 7. Pleading guilty in court to an amended plea of manslaughter, Pickhills was released on a five-year good behaviour bond.

1975 Sydney Harbour National Park is established. the Gap is included in the National Park.

1991 Singing star of the 1970s, Mary Jane Boyd, leaps to her death from the Gap on July 20.

1995 Model Caroline Byrne is found at the foot of the Gap in June.

2000 Police are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Byrne’s death.

© 2000 Sun Herald



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