“Do a Harold Holt”, or “do a Harry”, were sayings that were (and to a lesser extent still are) a part of the Aussie vernacular while I was growing up. They mean to run off quickly, or disappear, referring to the fact that in 1967, Australia’s 17th prime minister, Harold Holt, vanished without a trace after swimming at Cheviot Beach on Point Nepean in Victoria.
It wasn’t until much later, living in Melbourne, that I gave this topic any serious consideration. With Cheviot Beach lying just an hour and a half away from the city, I convinced a few friends to join me and investigate this reputedly beautiful spot, now associated with Cold War conspiracy theories, alien abductions and quick social exits.
Heading down the Mornington Peninsula, home to handsome coastline and quality pinot noir, we arrived at the car park just south of Cheviot Beach, on Point Nepean, more than 40 years after Harold Holt’s friends saw him enter the sea, never to return. After a short walk, we arrived at a fence on a barren hilltop with a do not proceed sign. Past the fence I could see an alluring, wild looking beach.
With Hardy Boy enthusiasm, we traipsed onwards, to one of the most southern beaches on the Australian mainland. Wide strips of sand sloped gently into a beautiful, unsettled sea, one that is notorious for dangerous rips. As we continued, I could see the tide was coming in fast. By now we were a couple of kilometres north of the car park, at Cheviot Beach, although I could see no sign of Harold’s memorial.
Enjoying the raw, isolated mood, we were suddenly forced into a decision. Go forward or backward to escape the tide. We decided to go on, leaving the scene of the crime in our wake, and look for a point to head inland. Thus far, the cliffs were too high to scale, but we soon found a hill suitable for a scramble.
Clawing our way to the top, we were confronted with dense bushland. I led my little party, with feigned confidence, through a hefty thicket and over twisted boughs until we came to a dirt road. This eventually led to a fence, which we squeezed under and I ripped my pants, before we staggered through a lengthy field (part of the Pearce Barracks from WWI, we later found out).
We saw no sign of Harold Holt’s memorial that day, which is said to lie just a little inland from the beach. Although he was known as a strong swimmer, Harold had presumedly drowned. Some claim he was a communist, foiled by Cold War assassination. Others claim he committed suicide. In any case, Harold had led us to one of the loveliest beaches I’ve been to, and a day I won’t likely forget.