Australia: In reach of a Beach

by wandering freditor / Apr 07, 2014 / 0 comments

There are over 11,000 ‘beaches’ in Australia - that is approximately 2,000 Aussies per beach but if you weed out the ones that don’t swim, those who don’t like sand, those for whom it is too hot, or those for whom the water is too cold, and those who can’t be bothered, why there is a bloody good chance that if you turn up early in the morning, you and your dog will have it to yourself. No, of course not the world famous beaches like Bondi, Manly, and Noosa, but many others are deserted and sometimes hard to get to, but oh, well worth the effort, standing on a beach as it must have looked at the dawn of creation. Pick your beach right, and you may just share it with kangaroos and a stained glass-like menagerie of some of the most beautiful parrots coloured by a God, as though playing with his/her paints.


Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia

Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia


The beach looms large in the psyche of most Australians, particularly given that it is one of the most ‘urbanized’ countries in the world with 90% of the people living around the littoral. Even with a little bit of driving, most are in reach of a beach. If the mythical ‘Outback’ or the ‘Bush’ of Croc Dundee is the stuff of desolation, wilderness, vast skies, and “show,” the beach is all “go, go, go.” The Outback came with fears, snakes, spiders, heat, lack of water, simply not being found. Australians are much more forgiving of the sea. Sure there were sharks, but then we ate them with our fish and chips and I dare say more Aussies have bitten into sharks than the other way around. And on our beaches, the tough lifesavers merely donned pantyhose and kept on rescuing, despite the threat of Stingers and Box Jellyfish. The beach was our Nirvana, up there with the best in the world, and pound for pound, snorkeling, lazing, surfing, picnicking, facilities, water clarity, it takes the cake from other impressive competitors. Indeed an early, internationally acclaimed film set in Australia, an apocalyptic Nevil Shute story about the end of the world following a nuclear war, was simply called On the Beach.

Mind you, the beach has changed since I was a lad, when “a day at the beach” was a relatively cheap option for parents and there was little concern for skin cancer and covering up. It was the cult of the bronzed body, rubbing in coconut oil so that if you lay down on your towel, you could almost hear our skin frying. Only later there was the agony of sunburn and ‘putting out the fire’ by dabbing on cooling metholated spirits.

The iconic lifesavers strode the beach like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, little red and yellow skull caps with cord tied around their jutting jaws, eyes peeled like eagle scouts, budgie smugglers hiding little as they stood legs astride like colossi, sweeping the beach with a rhythmical back and forth, like those fairground clowns that belch ping-pong balls. If Mind the Gap is the mantra of the London Underground, Swim between the flags was lifesaver folklore, and woe betide those who didn’t, berated by whistles, waving arms, public “hey you” admonition, and beach-goers opprobrium.

Periodically the wooden surf boat would set out to sea, four bronzed Anzacs who looked as though they had rowed for the Argonauts, besting any wave Neptune could throw at them, bows rising like a fighter jet, crashing through the white curl and back to sea like an eagle plummeting, Jason the sweep merely flexing his knees and dipping the oar deeper, shouting to his underlings to maintain their stroke as the next giant loomed. Oh yes they were Gods, they were majestic, especially when later they rode the huge boomers to the shore, weight in the stern, the sweep straining amid the white water, to keep the boat on course. The whole beach watched, for the ‘crash’ of a breaching boat was always spectacular, injurious and costly in that Formula One way, for the surf boat was the racing car of the sea. And a surf carnival, with the belt and reel races for men and women, the beach athleticism and life saving demonstrations, always ended with the surf boat race, club against club, with all the finesse of the chariot race at the Coliseum.

I think that I feared being called out by the lifesavers as more humiliating than by the gnarly people who ran the Surf Shooter stall, ugly rubber, colour-coded, surf mats that preceded boogie boards and were called to shore by the hoisting up a ‘flag-pole’ of a same-coloured flag. You had half an hour’s fun and woe betide those who ignored the call or feigned not seeing the flag. Burly, biffo boys blew whistles and bellowed, quick too with the occasional cuff if you were a smart-ass, and a probable banning if you sought the fearful flyer again.

It was too, the time of the long-board, the 16 foot (nearly 5 metres) wooden monster associated with the Father of surf-board riders, Duke Kahanamoku, on the long rolling curlers of Waikiki in Hawaii. They weighed over 50 kilos, and if while swimming or surf shooting you were ‘collateral damage’ to one of them, well you knew you had been hit, and probably required rescue. We gave them a wide birth. Later came the fibre-glass Malibu boards which still left you with a good weal and a bruise to heal, but on Australia’s beaches they had instant appeal. They were light enough to be lifted by even the puny and could be carried to the beach on car roof-racks. Because a surf board on the roof was such a ‘surfie chick’ magnet, there were so-called “highway surfers,” who bleached their hair blonde with peroxide, were perma-tanned, and spoke the right lingo, but whose boards were seldom unhitched.

The surfing craze brought with it a whole new language, lifestyle, and dress, bunting aside the  rock-and-rollers, with their greased hair and pseudo Elvis smolder and toughness, their motor cycles a-la-Brando in the cult movie, The Wild One, and hot, lowered Fords, Plymouths, Chryslers and the occasional Caddie. At the “Snake Pit” on Scarborough Beach in Perth, Western Australia, the watchers were always plentiful and the biggest cops were always there in numbers, as there was invariably trouble. “If you’re looking for trouble,” Elvis jeered from his RCA label record, “You came to the right place.”

For the callow youths and beach-goers, watching these Vipers strut their stuff, there was always the accompanying thrill of feeling a modicum of rebellion and generational change. Bodgies and widgies, to say nothing of Bill Haley, Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and dozens of others, were condemned from the pulpits. We were being taken in by the Devil’s music and by that overtly sexual dancing and pelvic thrusts.  Bodgies in collarless white tee shirts, stove pipe jeans, iridescent pink and lime green socks, black desert boots, jived with their Widgie women, dancing in loose fitting blouses, long frilled “Little Miss Dynamite” skirts, which showed their ‘panties’ when they twirled or were flipped over the shoulders of their partners. Oh the thump of the music, the sexuality, oh we loved the iniquity of it all, even if as teenagers, we watched from a safe distance, a little fearful and yep, envious!

It was the Sixties that changed the lexicon from rock to surfing. Sure, by the middle of the decade, the Mersey beat rode the wave of popular craze, but until then, “surfing ruled.” We were all Surfin’ USA with the Beach Boys, Woodies and Kombis an abode as well as a form of transport, and as teens, we lay on the beach ‘perving’ on the women who dared to wear the Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. It may have been Huarachi sandals, in the US, but for us, thongs – for the feet – and baggy board shorts became de rigeur at the Surf Club stomps where we danced slow-time to the mellow whine of Little Surfer Girl. And when you talked “waxing,” it was about boards, not Brazilians.


Kite surfing at Perth’s Port Beach, Western Australia

Kite surfing at Perth’s Port Beach, Western Australia


Fast forward to December 2013 – we were coming home for Christmas and the New Year. Sitting long hours in the tube, flying through the dark over an endless ocean, I dreamed of walking on the beach. It is so much a part of “being Australian,” hot summers, Christmas and New Year on the beach, early mornings of sniffing the breeze and checking the comb of the curl on a glistening sea for the magic call of “Surf’s up!” Invariably there are people in the water, even if the sea is as flat as spoiled soufflé, but oh what joy if the surf and boogie boarders are a-riding. I am a devout coward when it comes to cold water and favour the inch-by-inch-in approach, but the waves and the backwash usually insure that immersion is foot by foot. But after catching the first wave, I am laughing and stay a-playing, till even my wrinkles have wrinkles. Oh yes, I love the beach, the sights, the sun, the tang and tingle of salt and surf.

First though, there was a trip to the country. After a few days surrounded by brown and yellowed crinkly hills full of sun-bleached gum trees while staying on a farm outside Young, the cherry picking capital of Australia, with only lowing cattle, baaing sheep and the crows and their forlorn faark lament, with my son, his wife and my grandson, we headed for the south coast of New South Wales, as in 300kms south of Sydney. We drove from Canberra, the Bush Capital of Australia, and through increasingly greening farming country, to where the rugged Eastern escarpment drops a thousand feet through rugged bush and majestic ferns, to the sea at the River Clyde. It was a ‘rowed’ artery when roads were non-existent, for timber felling Scots came there in the Nineteenth century and simply floated the logs to market. A coast with lots of good “British names” like Bateman’s Bay, Berry, and Eden amid a smattering of Aboriginal names, Ulladulla, Narooma, Moruya, all like Sydney’s Bondi beach, an inter-cultural entwining of language and custom, ergo: potato gnocchi or sport coupe – no, not as in Little Deuce Coup!

A spindly road through stringy-bark gums brought us to settlement at Bawley Point, the sound and smell of sea, surf, and salt as well as from chaps with chips, spread before them on tables by the sunny shore. We too indulged, for fish and chips always tastes better in such spots, especially when downed with a Little Creatures cider, simply bottled sunshine. And then, after the mandatory half hour of 1950’s ‘mother’s logic’ had been entertained (“Let the food sink … or you will, when cramp sets in!), we hit the surf.


Pathway to paradise: Bawley Point beach, South Coast New South Wales

Pathway to paradise: Bawley Point beach, South Coast New South Wales


As I write, I am conscious that in the last few days, three people have been taken by sharks while swimming at Australian beaches. So while a shark attack is possibly slightly more chancy than being clobbered by earth bound space junk, it is always “there” in the subconscious when I enter the water. It is not just the coldness of the water that numbs the brain and bod. For me, after the caress of those clear and coolly clasping Caribbean curlers, any other occurrences are an oceanic ordeal, with the requirement of real recourse to a rum reviver! I always make sure that there are other, preferably younger, people in the water with me, and hopefully further out too, so that Mr Great White or Mrs Grey Nurse, has a choice and will give a miss to Mr old and wrinkly. Catch a few waves and I am back ashore to thaw, and give my eyes a chance to feast, put my cap on, rest on my elbows, taking in the sun, sea, serenity and the endless waves coming ashore. Oh it is so soporific.

My son and I later drove to Ulladulla, for a beer at a local hotel with its view of a mollusk sized fishing harbour and beyond it, a treed headland with glimpses of verdant golf course fairways. The beer always tastes better with the sea salt in your nostrils and the thrum of passing traffic tempered by a tranquility, which descends like an enveloping mist in places like these. You cannot fail but relax and leave your worries or thoughts somehow “back there,” in the cluster of concreted casements in the big smoke.


Morning at Mollymook, South Coast, New South Wales

Morning at Mollymook, South Coast, New South Wales


The next morning, while the sun was still sleepy, we went for a look at the sweeping beach of Mollymook. Despite the hour, it was already full of the young and the fit, out with their boards for a flit, and the oldies in togs, walking their dogs, or bobbing in bathing caps swimming laps, both ladies and chaps. Again, unbridled joy, an invigorating swim, and then back to our cabin for a coffee on the porch, a roast which was a dark, black and brooding little ring of fire, yet smooth on the throat. No wonder it was called “Johnny Cash.” Kookaburras came to the forest just beyond our setting, and laughed while the magpies trilled. And if you lived here, why wouldn’t you laugh and trill, when thinking about all the people who didn’t. Who would really want to be the toast of the town when you could be at the coast with a roast, the smell of coffee in the air, the breeze in your hair or smooth over your pate, if like me, you don’t follicly rate!  

We drove to nearby Milton, through farmland gently reaching to the escarpment, dairy cattle grazing in rich grasses and in the distance, the volcanic, nipple shaped plug of Pigeon House mountain, which the explorer James Cook had listed in his ship’s log when he had ‘discovered’ the East Coast of Australia in 1778. Milton, once a sleepy little village where they probably would have screened the ‘silent flicks’ in its little theatre and where farmers would have come to get their supplies from corner stores and feed suppliers, has transformed itself in to a pseudo-hippie, throw away your timepiece, alternative village. It is full of Veggie burgers and smoothies, ‘Greenie’ looking folk, bric-a-brac and tack shops, coffee parlours and mushrooming art galleries and ‘antique’ shops. As a result, there are now traffic jams on the Princes Highway outside the old C19 Council Chambers, the strip of small shops, and the two old, veranda-fronted hotels which have no doubt witnessed many a drunken pub brawl.

Milton feels olde worlde, the Australia of yesteryear, with old bakery windows full of vanilla slices and iced buns, an old-style butcher’s shop with big fatty chops, slabs of steak and strings of snags, even the odd skinned rabbit. It is a place for browsing and full of the “free range” and “organic” set, the grey and the balding, the stooped and the just plain pooped, but also those with bouncing babies, parents not much out of the baby bouncer themselves.

Our day was short, the last of the year, when our world aged another year, and our time to return to Canberra. The afternoon was still hot and after an hour we threaded another gum forest to the National Park at Pebbly Beach, where even the kangaroos come to take the waters. The sky blazed with parrots, the scarlet breasted Kings with their Lincoln green wings, the impossibly tinted cockateels, the scarlet and blue Crimson Rosellas, all amid the occasional foray into the colour-splashed world, by the more plainly plumed black and white magpies. The sand stung the naked eye with its whiteness and sunglasses were standard tackle. We slipped out of our Tees, slapped on the “sun-sod-off” slop, and jumped into the water, the beach almost ours alone. Catch a few waves, salt on our skins, the body relaxed; we headed home.


Not a pebble in sight: Pebbly Beach, New South Wales

Not a pebble in sight: Pebbly Beach, New South Wales


The sun hung low as we crossed the Clyde River and sat at a wooden table outside the waterfront fish shop, fishing boats bobbing, a zephyr from the sea. We ordered chips and a kilo of fresh prawns, heaven on a paper palette, while the seagulls squealed above, beside, and the bold ones, below, our table. And in a moment of quietness with the going of the gulls, I looked across at the distant bank, my elbows on the table and my hands steepled, as though in prayer. Perhaps I was, I am unsure now as I look out the window across the date palms and sand, here in Bahrain.

But I know that I thought of Peter Allen and felt the power of the words of his 1980 “Expat anthem,” I Still Call Australia Home, I remember the ‘mistiness’ in my eyes, yet the keenness that it not be shared with others, what me an Opa and all! A quick dab and swallow, hoping the Adam’s apple didn’t bob too much. You big kid! Perhaps they would think it was the sea breeze after all.

I too had been to cities that never close down, New York, Rio, and old London town. Yes, I’d been spinning around the world, away from family and friends.

Always leaving the sun and the sea.

So much had changed for us personally. Our children had married while we fleetingly went home, later grand-children came too, little people who wondered where these ‘interlopers’ fitted in, and then, just as we had found acceptance, we were gone again. There were other, all too brief meetings with old friends, and a feeling of rootless, with no place other than our country, that we could call home. And in the intervening years, it, and we, had both changed too.

In many years abroad, I had never felt “homesick” but somehow, his little coastal caper brought home to me like no earlier visit, that indeed, my heart lies waiting over the foam.

We resolved to go back to Bahrain to pack and farewell fond friends who have made our lives here so rich and enjoyable friends with whom we had “put down tracks.” They, and Bahrain, will always evoke warm memories, and I don’t mean just the summer swelter. Of course, we will keep in touch. Email and Skype make that task so much easier. And we hope they will come visiting too, and see us and our land.  

It is time to come home, to Australia, but this time for good.






Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators


All photos courtesy and copyright Winfred Peppinck