Did Australian sand get sent to Hawaii?
If you are on holidays at one of the many charming hamlets on the east coast of Australia, go and find an old local. Someone who was there when it was just a few fibro shacks by the estuary.
Pull up a stool next to them at the bowling club and ask them this question: Is it true that back in the day, they used to mine sand at the beach? Chances are they'll say yes, so then follow up with this: Is it also true that the sand was then sent to Hawaii and used to build Waikiki?
Chances are that no matter where you are staying, particularly on the NSW coast, they will nod and confirm that yes, back in the '50s, '60s or '70s, Waikiki was built using Australian sand and the best sand was sand from their beach.
You will be offered confirmation.
Another local, most likely mahogany tanned and barrel gutted will tell you that they went to Waikiki in the '50s, '60s or '70s and the locals there told them that the beach was made from Australian sand.
Some claim to have seen a sign.
Some will say they found in the Hawaiian sand, a Fosters' bottle top. (Fosters then being a popular beer drunk only in Australia and most usually from a brown long neck bottle. )
Another classic Aussie story
During the year, I ran a call-in session on ABC Radio Sydney about myths that are common to many places.
All cities around the world that back onto bushland or mountains have local stories about sightings of panthers and leopards that should not be there.
They all tell a similar origin story: The cats escaped from a private zoo/circus/US military camp during World War II.
For some reason, like bigfoots and thylacines, it is impossible to produce video or photos of these cats that are in focus.
So I got the cat story and the one about how on all university campuses there will be a legend involving a mysterious building that is not on the map but houses secret government files or labs.
And then I heard from Pete from Port Kembla who claimed that the Port Kembla dunes were huge until they were mined in the '70s and the sand sent to Waikiki. Pete said it was in all the papers at the time. He had read it.
I had heard this story before, but not about Port Kembla.
Did we send sand to Waikiki?
So what is the truth? Did sand from all of these places, one of these places or none of these places, end up in Hawaii?
Firstly, it is true that Waikiki is an engineered beach. I spoke to two experts with truly authentic American names: Dolan Eversole and Chip Fletcher. They are both at the University of Hawaii: Dolan is Waikiki beach management co-ordinator and Chip is professor of geology and geophysics at the School of Ocean and Earth Science.
In the late 19th century where the Hilton stands now was a narrow strip of sand with wetlands behind it. The wetlands were filled with rock and stone from a dredging operation in front of the beach area. Local government and developers knew that if they were to create a tourist industry they would need to build a beach.
So yes, Waikiki was made with sand from elsewhere.
Sand from Los Angeles. There is a plaque on Manhattan Beach, California, commemorating the exporting of their sand.
Sand from China. Two barges arrived only 20 years ago intended for a beach not far from Waikiki.
But most of the sand on Waikiki and other engineered beaches in Hawaii comes from, well, Hawaii.
From dune systems, from other islands and from Waikiki itself, taken from the undersea foreshore right in front of the beach.
When Dolan Eversole — I just wanted to use his name again — and other ocean experts talk of building beaches they use the word "nourish". Waikiki has been nourished several times in the past decade. Like many spots on our coast, it has been hit by king tides and suffered serious erosion.
Nowadays the nourishment comes from pumping sand offshore back onto land.
The wrong sand
OK, so in Hawaii there is no record or study which suggests that sand ever came from Australia.
What about here?
Wollongong historian Glenn Mitchell has heard all the stories before. He has looked into it for 30 years.
"Unfortunately for Pete and other Port Kembla locals who say they read the Waikiki story in the paper at the time — they did not. There is no published story in any local or major national paper that confirms this story."
He goes onto to further kill the tale. There is nothing in the local council records to suggest that there was anything other than some minor mining of sand in the area. There are no permits. There is no physical evidence.
The Kembla dunes have shrunk, but that's what dunes do. They rise. They fall. They are after all made of sand.
But before other burgs rush in to claim the glory, Dolan and Chip can flatten their claim as well.
Sand is not just sand. There are two main types of sand: silicate and carbonate. NSW has silicate, Hawaii needs carbonate. There is no evidence of silicate sand on Waikiki.
We did actually export Australian sand to Hawaii. But it was used to make golf courses and build hotels. Not to make Waikiki.
Cultural cringe extends to sand
In the '60s and '70s, Hawaii was exotic and fashionable. It was thought of as a resort place for the sophisticated, like Monaco and Acapulco.
It was close enough that some of us had been there. Hawaiian music, shirts and food were popular. On TV we watched Hawaii Five O. One of the better Elvis films was made there.
In the '70s the story that Waikiki beach needed rebuilding was well known around the world. It was in the papers.
It is easy to imagine how up and down the coast we would make the joke that "the yanks need some fair dinkum Aussie sand" could soon turn into a "fact". Confirmed and strengthened by the re-telling. And as they decades pass, we create memories of reading about it in the newspaper or hearing it on the radio.
There is, for example, an ABC documentary about the life of 1930s Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon.
Merle told everyone she was born in Tasmania. Hobart city councillors persuaded Merle to come home and organised a reunion of her school classmates. The classmates told of their memories of merry times with Merle.
Except they could not have happened. Merle grew up in India. The reunion was her first trip to Tasmania.
We know our beaches are the best.
But in the mid 20th century, Australians had a cultural cringe about everything. Including our sand.
Our sand could only be considered the best if the Americans had used it to build something as marvellous and modern as Waikiki.
So now you know the truth. But don't tell the old blokes at the bowlo.
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