If you look at our masthead on the front cover of your magazine you will notice houses on the hill. They’re at the top of The Strand, Port Elliot, and where internationally-acclaimed film director Scott Hicks lives away from the fame surrounding the Hollywood sets.
The actors are further down the road in the front bar of the Elliot Hotel, great characters like Lefty, JC, Mully, Willow and much later the animated kind. Closer to the main stretch you see the romantics at the coffee shops and the pie lovers of this world at a classic bakery.
The thing is, they’re all the same. In Port Elliot, you could be a passing star of Hicks’ forthcoming release Fallen, a romantic fantasy film, or one of the thousands of people who journey to the nearby caravan park, and nobody knows. If fact, nobody cares; in this town everyone is busy enjoying life.
According to Colin Silby, who has always resided here, this simplicity is merely one of the many things that make Port Elliot an amazing place.
Most of all, Colin has seen people from all backgrounds in some way living their life through the stunning beauty of Horseshoe Bay, which has kept drawing them back. Having been reared in his parents’ guest house, Maryland, which was a 90-second sprint from the back door to the waves, given so much to surf lifesaving over 47 years, and seen young people develop through his role as a schoolteacher and counselor at Victor Harbor High, his knowledge and understanding of the community within postcode 5212 is clear.
He paints a remarkable picture of pride and hope, indeed gratitude. No one could love this town more than Colin Sibly, but he talks only of what the town has given him and so many others – a special way of life. With his wife Deirdre, better known as ‘Cookie’, he believes he shares something special.
Colin’s late father, Joe, and his close mate Cliff Barton, were the first lifesavers in Port Elliot having established the Port Elliot Surf Life Saving Club – then under the auspices of the Royal Life Saving Society – in 1932, and both received meritorious awards for bravery and rescue work in the foundation days.
“I remember Dad talking about surf lifesaving being traditional and probably militaristic in a lot of ways with men wearing uniforms linked to patriotism with their pressed flannel pants and striped blazers,” Colin said. “Women were involved in surf lifesaving here originally, but after World War II it took another four decades for them to reemerge.
“I also remember longing to turn 16 so I would be old enough to join the Port Elliot club in the days of using a reel line and belt and marching down the beach.”
Now 64, Colin has been a patrolling member since the summer of 1966-67. He still swims most nights of the week, braving the icy-cold water in the winter, in between running and cycling. It follows many years as a jet boat driver and surf rescue worker for the club, plus 17 years in helicopter rescue.
He has stepped back from club administration including as vice-president and club captain during his 20 years on the committee, which he views as positive. “It’s a wonderful thing to see young people come in and take on key roles,” he says.
“I enjoy connecting with young people with whom I see here at school, and seeing them in a different shared experience at the surf club. Surf lifesaving is an effective builder of young people, a terrific way they can develop as individuals, human beings, and as young men or women in the making.
“Surf lifesaving here has been a wonderful thing for families. It’s a bit like a big extended family and it follows the idea, not by intent, that it takes a village to raise a child, as that old African proverb goes.
“Being a school counselor I am constantly reminded why I have a lot of faith in today’s youth of Port Elliot; very much so. I think young people I connect with today are a fabulous, dynamic and a really interesting group. They have got an open and enthusiastic view of the world, and most of them share a genuine fondness for our local area and want to do the right thing by it and all concerned.
“By and large, they will become very good citizens; they want to be the best person they can be.”
Colin resisted numerous opportunities for advancement within the education system to remain close to Port Elliot, and compromised by teaching at Strathalbyn for 20 years. But it seems that sooner or later, people come back here to live, and Colin returned to teach at Victor Harbor in 1993.
“The thing that kept dragging me back on the coast was lifestyle,” Colin said. “I find it extraordinary, and Port Elliot is the jewel in the crown of our coastal life. It’s got a range of things.
“Ever since its days as a shipping port it has focused around the beach and a little harbor. Even in those days people noted that in summer you frequently got maximum temperatures 6-8 degrees cooler than Adelaide… it’s milder.
“Horseshoe Bay itself is a treasure. It is a wonderful place for recreation for those who swim. It is unique because people who want to be more daring can surf around the far end. It’s been a classic family beach that is protected.
“You’ve got the caravan park; so many come here so many years in a row to the same site. They become part of the town; they connect. The park is on the best real estate coastal wise anywhere you will find in Australia.
“Port Elliot oozes charm. It’s a walking town, which was first noticed and cherished up until the 1960s when people traditionally came to Goolwa, Port Elliot and Victor Harbor by rail. It was an era of guest houses and they could virtually get around to do everything they wanted to do, like a convenient walk to a pristine beach along a cliff path while enjoying that coastal ambience. It is unsurpassed.
“It was a low-cost holiday in the old days – high fun, high enjoyment, relatively safe for people who wanted to go on to the beach. And do you know what? Nothing much has changed.
“Port Elliot has got incredible charm. The streetscape… if you stand above the railway line and look down The Strand it has remained largely unchanged since before the 1900s. Not only has it been maintained, it still has its rich heritage; it hasn’t been overburdened by anything multi-storey.
“The wonderful thing is that successive generations have come to Port Elliot and appreciated and maintained that charm and unique streetscape heritage.
“You can go to Port Elliot any time of the year and see people out browsing, having a coffee, enjoying the delights of a bakery. It is an escape for people from Adelaide and it is accessible.
“This is a town flush-full of heritage. Not constructed; it’s been kept with care and love, and a sense of genuineness about it. Take the quaint council building opposite the Institute; it’s just sensational.
“There have been additional attractions in recent times, but people still come to Port Elliot for much the same pleasure as they did in the 1900s. Over the last 10 years more and more people have come here largely because whale watching has under-pinned the idea of winter tourism. The history, excitement and charm of the old steam engines passing through the town is special.
“The coast, right along, is just as charming in winter as it is in summer. I love experiencing the transitions from season to another in Port Elliot, and with each example of attractiveness you feel alive.”
Indeed, Port Elliot has everything that you would want in a town. There are few places in Australia with a better setting for a restaurant/café hub than the Flying Fish on the foreshore as the lifesavers, whales and life passes you by. The adjacent bowling club has that spectacular seaside offering too, all beneath the gardens of remembrance where weddings have also been unforgettable.
There’s a lot to love about this place, and if you’re ever looking for a life experience join Lefty, JC, Willow and the rest of the crew who like to be a star at the front bar of the Elliot on a Friday night. Not even Scott Hicks would know what scene to shoot first.