It was approaching dusk, and the north easterly spiked the pacific with a persistent but irregular pattern of whitecaps.
Down on the beach, a fisherman edged along the sand, rod in hand, a gaggle of kids frolicking in his wake, buckets and nets twirling, clearly excited to be ‘going fishin’’ with Dad.
Wallaby Point is part of a national park on the far south coast of New South Wales, a banksia-covered headland that overlooks the ocean, one of dozens of ‘secret’ beachside hideaways Australia’s urban dwellers flock to over the summer.
There are two beaches.
The big beach, which stretches a thousand metres or so north of the headland, is the main surfing beach. It is backed by a tangled mass of dark-green banksias, acacias, and coastal mahogany, with the granite gleam of Gin’s Rock towering overhead, latent with memories of Aboriginal women silhouetted against the sky, pointing men in canoes offshore to schools of salmon behind the breakerline.
South of the headland there is another beach, a small amphitheatre enclosed by boulders. It’s little more than a hundred metres long, with huge black rocks half-submerged offshore protecting the pebbled shoreline from the swell. It’s a private place that makes anyone who goes there feel like it’s theirs and theirs alone.
Wallaby Point is a place for serious camping: no electricity, no phones, no kiosk.
No mod cons at all, just pit toilets, stone fireplaces and a supply of hardwood off-cuts from the local timber mill.
Goannas are common, strutting square–shouldered across the grassy clearings and climbing banksias and wattles to soak up the sun. They have a taste for eggs, goannas, and aren’t shy to rummage through tents. Over the years, more than one shade house has been ripped to shreds by some scarred old goanna who either couldn’t find his way in or couldn’t find his way out.
It’s close to nature, this place.
You could be having a cuppa in the morning with rock wallabies right there munching on tussocks just at the edge of camp.
Black cockatoos and king parrots fly overhead. Their screeching echoes off the hills, and mingles with the rhythmic pounding of the ocean on an ancient shoreline.
Occasionally a wave of excitement spreads through the camp, and people gather on the point to watch a pod of dolphins arch their way around the headland and playfully head north along the big beach. Twenty or thirty maybe, catching waves at will, jumping and diving out through transparent, lime-green walls of water, their dark bodies glistening in the afternoon sun.
We’d been coming to Wallaby Point for nearly twenty years, from the time our kids were babies, our daughter crawling bare-bottomed into the water like a little turtle.
But this year something changed. Or maybe it has always been changing and we only just noticed.
Only yesterday, it seems, the kids could be found on those rocks, buckets in hand, their shrieks and squeals filling the air as they scrambled about in sandals or thongs trying to catch crabs in the crevices cut by the fallen tide.
The trick, of course, was to catch the crab without getting nipped, the campsite playing witness to the excited cries from narrow escapes.
At the south end of the little beach there’s a cave.
Like most of the other families who return here each summer we’d gone on more than one adventure, timing our walk to catch the low tide, rock-hopping across cunje (‘sea squirt’) covered boulders and edging nervously through the half darkness of the cave, a void filled with the thumping sounds of waves crashing on the rocks outside.
Young hands sought assurances from mum or dad.
‘Just take it easy.’
‘There’s no rush.’
‘One step at a time.’
‘You’ll be OK, just watch what you are doing.’
Half an hour’s walk from the cave the rocks give way to a small beach, a mysterious little cove that faces south and seems to catch all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, whenever a ‘Southerly Buster’ brewed in the Tasman. There was driftwood piled against the banks of the cliffs at the back of the beach, the timber bleached by years at sea.
‘Is this really called ‘Pirate Cove’, Dad?’
‘Yep. True dinks.’
We’d fossick through the debris in search of ‘treasure’.
Rusted beer cans became goblets, corroded metal remnants from a cannon or a pirate’s sword; and shards of glass the remains of a chandelier from the Captain’s cabin. Glistening fragments of shell were prized as pieces of gold, wrapped in tissue and carefully tucked away to take back to camp. These later found home on the windowsill with all the other ‘treasures’.
We’d dress up in shell bracelets and rope belts, choose a nice piece of driftwood for a sword, and become pirates for an hour – crafting shelter from fallen branches and dragging in logs as furniture. ‘Pirate’s Cove’ would be scratched onto a signpost and planted in the sand. We would huddle inside drawing maps with charcoal on weathered ply wood, ever scanning the horizon for signs of skull-and-cross-bones or a sail.
The campsite at Wallaby Point is spread over about five acres with tents and small pop-up campers half hidden between banksias and coastal mahogany. There’s plenty of shade so the little ones were never burnt in the harsh sun.
The crew of regulars included about half a dozen families with kids all about the same age – over the years a few other families with kids would add to the mix.
The kids all knew the rules: ‘If you want to go to the beach, tell Mum and Dad and one of us will take you down’ and ‘you can play anywhere around the camp, but Mum and Dad need to know where you are.’
As the years passed, of course, and they became good swimmers, the rules relaxed, and the younger ones were allowed to swim as long as the older kids were with them.
We had paradise.
There were cubbies and treehouses; stick signs giving directions to this spot or that; grass traps; and little hollows dug in the sand, all signs of the kids’ many adventures. They went boogie boarding as a pack and snorkelled in the shallows. A game of cricket began before breakfast and at dusk there was always a game of tag to get out of doing the dishes, torch beams criss-crossing between the trees.
The kids wandered around in groups, like little tribes, switching and swapping on the ebb and flow of campsite politics.
On good days all the kids would be together, the young ones following their teenage heroes everywhere, but there were times, the day after some ‘unforgivable’ incident, the group would split into twos and threes, often along age and gender lines, with the little ones left behind.
The grown-ups all came from different backgrounds: a university professor, a fencing contractor, a journalist, artists, a musician, a farmer, an academic, a plumber, a chef, even a politician. We all more or less wore the same uniform: blokes in old Volleys or Blundies, board shorts and a t-shirt, and the women the same – although they sometimes preferred sarongs and tie-dyed skirts. We rarely spoke shop – focusing instead on the kids and the weather and the fish, but each year at low tide we had a casual game of cricket on the beach. Everyone got a bat and a bowl and the grown-ups took a beer to the crease.
The academic was passionate about fishing. He’d disappear well before dawn, and head off to nearby Lake Wapengo in a patched-up inflatable dingy, stay out all day lathered in sunscreen, a ragged old white tennis hat stuck on his head. More often than not he returned after dark with a bucketload of bream, flathead, garfish and whiting, clean up and then get prepare an evening meal, happy to share his catch with anyone who happened to pass by.
The politician was keen on golf and painting. You’d see her down the far end of the beach chipping a ball around with a sand wedge; or clambering over the rocks two or three beaches to the north, her canvas and paints in a backpack; a little later she could be found perched on a headland, quietly working away leant against a tree.
If she happened to see you she’d nod ‘hello’, but there was no need to interrupt her and so we never did. Back at camp we’d have informal viewings under the kerosene lanterns at night – landscapes showing where the land meets the sea, rugged rocks wet with spray and banksias hanging precariously overhead.
The farmer loved tinkering with old Tilley lamps, and just about every time you popped in for a cuppa he would have a lamp in pieces on the table, a container of kero and a rag. He’d clean the fittings and glass, and spike out the fuel jet while he chatted. Later into the evening the lamp lit up the dinner table and surrounds bright as a star.
The farmer’s trailer was designed specifically for camping, higher off the ground than your typical trailer and with deeper sides and heavy-duty springs so it could hold more. Everything was in its place: perfectly positioned for ease of use. The gas fridge was closest to the tailgate on the right. The stove, enclosed in a neat metal frame, was on the left, with a wooden cutting bench between. Further back there were drawers for utensils, a washing-up basin and the lid to the water tank, which opened at the top but spread the full width of the trailer for increased capacity.
He really was one of those people who always had to be doing something.
And he always was.
Once he made a stool out of off-cuts from the wood pile. He worked away at it for days with nothing but a penknife and a file. It was beautiful, a squat three-legger with a triangular seat that just begged for company and a guitar.
Nothing was organised in advance but every day you’d see the women heading off some place for a walk either early in the morning, or around dusk to avoid the heat. Sometimes they’d head off down the beach, other times through the bush to the estuary entrance a few kilometres away.
They’d walk and talk, or sometimes stick about the camp drinking tea. For many years they also conducted a sort of summer school, taking the kids exploring along the beach or out into the forest.
The kids liked to make things. With mum or dad in tow they would go hunting for shells and things washed ashore – driftwood, old bottles, bits of rope – they would gather their finds and make jewellery or canoes or cars with bottle-top wheels.
The girls were almost always wearing some sort of bracelet or necklace.
For the most part, I found everyone was exactly where they wanted to be.
For many years it was easy. Relaxed. Fishing, reading, dozing, swimming, playing.
The first change came when the wooden fences were erected to mark the camp sites and parking spaces. We all knew it had to happen to protect the fragile vegetation; but the stamp of civilisation still came as a shock after so many years blending only to nature’s irregular patterns.
We feared we would have to find some other place to go, but then we all kept coming, mostly just the same, adjusting to the man-made edges of our native paradise. One family didn’t return – we heard later the mother was diagnosed with cancer and the family had moved.
Another woman brought her ‘new man’ to the camp after she split from her husband. The new guy was ok, fitted in just fine. The woman herself seemed incredibly renewed – little things we hadn’t noticed for many years – her hair was braided again, she wore little beads through it, and she smiled more, her laughter cutting right across the campsite.
The kids – quickly growing up – began turning up in cars of their own.
They would arrive in a cloud of dust, stickers plastered to the rear window, as if to say ‘we are here’. Claiming their independence, I suppose.
The boys had a bashed-up old Holden Commodore with balding tyres and a bonnet that sat slightly askew. They called it the ‘Hoon Mobile’ and liked to play Eminem loud with the windows down, drowning out the engine and any sort of nearby campsite activity. They wore Vans or Reeboks and too-large, low-slung jeans with checked boxers puffing out the top, changing into board shorts only to swim.
You’d catch a glimpse of them heading off some place between the trees, often with mates from school. They’d park out along the estuary, listen to music and go fishing.
For two weeks one year, I swear every time I saw my son he had a solitary digit raised and a compensating smile on his face. Finally one day I yelled that I’d flatten him if I saw him do it again. His expression was pure shock, hurt even. He was just being a teenager, I guess.
The girls wore bikini tops in all weather and ritualised skincare, using everything from tropical fruit-scented sunscreen to coconut oil, or, once, even cooking oil, a whim that left us smelling salmon patties for days.
Flirting happened, inevitably. The excitement of the kids was palpable. They relished spending time down the beach, in the dark, having a beer or two, disappearing en masse beyond the glow of lanterns and the prying eyes of us, the grown-ups.
Occasionally we’d hear them laughing, or calling out down the beach.
Sometimes, of course, there were sheepish grins in the mornings, and you might pick up traces of someone’s silliness from the night before, detect a budding romance in the sudden onset of shyness. There was never confirmation either way, but you’d been a kid once. You knew.
Then one day they gathered on the rocks, circling vaguely, heads down, their hands outstretched or cupped and held close to their chest their brows furrowed.
The boys in one group; the girls nearby in another.
The sun was starting to set behind the headland, blackening the rocks and leaving the kids silhouetted against the white-capped ocean, their hair blowing in the wind.
I realised soon that they weren’t searching for crabs. They were doing the dance of the mobiles, shuffling around on the rocks trying to get a signal to the outside world.
Illustration: ‘Dance of the mobiles’ / Gayle Turnbull
Read the rest of our Autumn Fiction edition:
‘The fish’, by Rebecca Slater
‘a madman’s lullaby’, by Stevi-Lee Alver
‘A long breath’, by Stuart Wilkinson