The most successful sporting surf lifesaving club in the Illawarra is celebrating its 100th birthday. WILLIAM VERITY discovers why Bulli has such pulling power.
In the surf lifesaving world of the Illawarra, everyone has a view on Bulli.
They are the Manly of the surf lifesaving world, the object of envy and resentment from their detractors and sheer, blind adoration from many of their 600 members.
Members come from as far as Gerringong in the south, Sydney in the north and Camden in the west - bypassing dozens of perfectly respectable clubs to arrive at Bulli.
They come to patrol beaches, but they are lured by a surf sports program that has seen Bulli compete with conspicuous success at state, national and world levels.
In 1981, Bulli sent a team to the first World Life Saving Championships in Bali and have been regular competitors - and tough to beat - since.
The current club president is Keith Caldwell, a powerful man with piercing blue eyes. The kind of man who doesn't take a backward step.
Surf lifesaving legend and regional president Bill Seay has the highest respect for Caldwell, as well as for Bulli as a club.
"Caldwell is very switched on. He doesn't rabble on and if you look at him and he tells you, 'This is the way it is', then that is that way it is," Seay said.
So when Caldwell sits opposite you and tells you that his club is the strongest surf lifesaving sporting club in the Illawarra, that's the way it is. And if anyone has a problem with that, tough.
"I can go with the Manly thing," he says.
"When I was coming through, Wollongong City and North Gong were the clubs that everyone used to hate because they had the big member base.
"Then Thirroul came through. You go through eras where the clubs get stronger.
"Unfortunately, some of the clubs are losing the plot as to why they are here.
"Some of them are too busy building bigger premises to get cash for the club, but don't look after their members."
Despite whispered accusations from others, Caldwell is adamant that the club has a "no poaching" policy, but concedes that if new members come knocking, they will not be turned back.
Bulli celebrates its 100th season this year - it was founded in February 1913 - and will hold celebrations next weekend including drinks on Friday night, a lunch at Panorama House overlooking Bulli on Saturday, then a display of old-fashioned sports by the nippers at the beach on Sunday morning.
The club boasts a long list of firsts, from having the first member to gain an advanced lifesaving certificate (in 1976) to organising the first surf activity and awareness day for the intellectually disabled (in 1991).
But perhaps the most impressive first comes 143 years before the club was founded, when Captain Cook tried to land at Bulli Beach on his way to Jackson's Cove, but failed in rough weather.
The ship's botanist, Joseph Banks, gave the first written description of Bulli in his journal.
"The country today again made in slopes to the sea," Banks wrote.
"The trees were not very large and stood separate from each other without the least underwood; among them we could discern many cabbage trees but nothing else which we could call by any name.
"In the course of the night many fires were seen."
Cook's men may have crewed the first surfboat on the east coast of Australia, but it would not be until 1948 that Bulli ordered its first boat.
Though the club has grown progressively stronger in the post-war years, it had a slow start and was not the first surf club in the region.
Illawarra historian Joseph Davis has written the club's centennial history, The Sands of Time, and explains that 1913 was not a good time to be starting a club.
"Why then did it take so long for Bulli to get its own surf club?" Davis wrote.
"The main part of that answer can be dated to the events of 1887 and the devastation wrought by what was then the biggest land disaster in Australian history - the Bulli Mine Explosion in which 81 miners lost their lives. The impact was immediate.
"There were widows everywhere in Bulli."
The area was then badly hit by the 1890s depression and then, a year after the club's formation, the young men went off to fight the Great War.
"Bulli at the turn of the 20th century was thus, for many people, a depressed and probably largely depressing place," Davis wrote.
Hampering the club's early years was also a split between the Royal Lifesaving Association (based in England) and the newly formed Surf Bathing Association, the forerunner to Surf Lifesaving Australia.
Bulli aligned itself with the former, and so was unable to compete until it switched codes in the early 1930s.
It has always been a blue-collar club, a coalmining club, and built on those strong values of male mateship spiced with pride in self-sufficiency and independence.
So it was perhaps no surprise that Bulli became the first Illawarra club to build its own clubhouse, in 1956.
Club secretary Barry Adams, the longest- serving active member, joining in 1952, remembers going around local pubs on Saturday afternoons and promising brickies a barbecue lunch and keg of Toohey's New in return for labour.
One newspaper reported that the clubhouse was built on beer. After two years, 10,000 man hours and 65,000 bricks, the club moved into the building it still occupies today.
Adams was in the 1975 crew that came second to Cronulla in the first George Bass Marathon, a gruelling biennial event over seven days and 174 kilometres, starting at Batemans Bay and ending at Eden.
When the race was held in January, Bulli won the veterans' class, as they usually do, while the club has won the open men's category four times, the last time in 2002.
Like other clubs, Bulli valued discipline with a military tinge, performing the march past in formation behind a flag, even calling themselves the "life saving corps" in the early days.
This created the impression to some that they were a socially conservative bunch - even in the heady days of the late 1960s - and unlikely to be burning their draft cards or protesting against apartheid in South Africa.
This proved to be the case during a controversy that came to be known as "The Battle of Bulli Beach" when the club invited the South African Surf Lifesaving team to compete against them.
The carnival attracted a group of 40 anti-apartheid protesters who were jeered when they had the temerity to bring politics to the beach.
Joining the onlookers in support of South Africans and sport were a group of members from the Fourth Reich Motorcycle Club, wearing Nazi jackets and swastikas.
"Nazi bikies jeer racism protest," screamed the Mercury, while the Daily Telegraph went further.
"If the bloodless battle of Bulli served only to demonstrate the insulation of sport from politics," editorialised the paper, "at least in this country, it will have been a glorious victory for commonsense."
Apartheid may be gone, but Bulli's sporting success has remained.
In the past 10 years alone, first under the coaching of Geraldine Miller, and now of coalminer Downie Langthorne, the club's record has been extraordinary: 26 world medals, 144 Australian medals, 287 State medals, 497 Illawarra senior medals.
Members have won medals in every surf lifesaving sports discipline at major championship level.
No wonder Ben Allen, then NSW under-19 ski champion, defected from North Wollongong to Bulli in 2004 with the words: "I'm sad to leave North Wollongong, but if I want to achieve all my goals and become an elite ironman, training and racing with Bulli will provide me with the best opportunity to do so."
It was a golden age with the recruitment of a slew of top ironman talent - Langthorne, Wes Berg, Drew Cairncross, Greg Miller and Lilli Miller joining the likes of Matt Freeman and beach sprinter Cara Langendam.
Yet ask any of the senior members what they most value about the club and it won't be the medals, the marathons or even the family atmosphere.
"We are a surf lifesaving club, not a sports club," Caldwell said. "In years gone by, it was up and down and people were missing patrols. Now we have got to a stage where we are 99 per cent compliant in regards to our members understanding why they have to do patrols."
So the proudest achievement is this: In 100 years, there has not been a single drowning on Bulli Beach while patrolled. Mission accomplished.
■Past members all welcome at next weekend's celebrations. Details: Bulli100years@gmail.com.