A week ago we returned from a 4 day break in Port Macquarie, a town on the mid north coast of NSW which has been the location of many family holidays since my childhood. I’m looking at a few of the “snapshots” from that mini break and thinking about the joys and struggles of the Australian summer, things that I have known all my life, but which after 10 years living in the chilly north, have impacted me in a new way.
We arrived on a Wednesday evening to find this lovely stretch of coastline oddly dim, with a pall of smoke hanging over the town, and the smell of fire pervading everything. We soon discovered that a bushfire was raging a few miles north, around Crescent Head, another popular holiday destination, of which we also have happy memories. The beach showed the tell tale signs: the first day we sat on black burnt leaves blown from the fires out to sea and then washed back onto the beach. But in a few days the tides magically cleaned the debris away, the sand washed clean by nature. The smoke and the smell cleared the second night after a fall of rain, although there were still smouldering remains visible to the north when we left town four days later. Bushfires are the bane of the Australian summer. They impact us all, but none more deeply than those who have lost homes or loved ones many of whom struggle with the trauma for years.
The beach has been and is a source of endless fun and recreation for millions of Australians and tourists every summer. But it has its dangers, and deserves respect and caution. The day we arrived in Port we were greeted with the news of an 11 year old lost in the surf, caught in a rip, carried out to sea. He and his family had arrived in town that day and thought they would take a dip to cool off. But they chose an un-patrolled beach (no life savers) on an afternoon when the surf was rough and dangerous, and though the boy and his older brother were not out of their depth, the smaller lad was presumably knocked down by a wave, caught by the current, and disappeared. His frantic older brother tried to find and rescue him, to no avail. He raised the alarm and a search ensued, but he was gone, lost to the sea. The search continued for a week, but his body has not been found, claimed by the sea. A few days after the tragedy we were walking on the beach at Lake Cathie, a coastal village some miles south of Port, and a rescue helicopter flew over, low down, combing the coastline, searching to see if the currents had carried his body south. It was a chilling reminder, and like the smoke cast a shadow over our days away.
Ours is a hot land. In Sweden people never use the word hot to describe the weather. It is never more than “warm.” But our summers here are hot, there is no other way to describe them. We wear sandals or flip flops (“thongs” is the Australian term) to protect our feet from being burned by the road when we go the beach. We smother our skin with sunscreen whenever we go swimming and it is noticeable that the older we get the less of our bodies we expose to the sun, and that’s not just because we have lost our youthful beauty – though there is that! Responsible parents make sure their kids are not just smeared with sunscreen, but have long sleeved shirts and hats when they are in the water. By my age, our skin is showing the ravages of many Australian summers, and we cover up.
The Australian coastline is wild and beautiful, even in coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle, where we live. It give us so much joy, and we have had, and continue to have, so many happy times there. Despite the sadness that tinged our mini-break, and the hazards that are part of every Australian summer, we loved our few days at Port Macquarie, walking the beaches, exploring the rocky headlands, surfing in the waves. Early last Sunday morning, before we packed up to head home, I walked down to Flynn’s Beach, just a few hundred metres from our Pacific Drive apartment. There was a camper van parked by the surf club building, clearly a rental vehicle, with its top up and the back door raised to reveal a little stove and fridge. The occupants had obviously spent the night there, sleeping to the endless music of waves breaking on the beach. I strolled past and realised by the conversation that the four young people eating their breakfast in the shade of the towering pines were European tourists, perhaps on their first trip to Australia. It made me happy to think that others from around the world can come here to enjoy the natural beauty of our seaside. I thought how wonderful it must be to experience all this for the first time. I silently wished them well on their journey north.