West Side Story.

Cut into the south coast of Victoria is Port Phillip Bay. In typical style this is shortened to The Bay by most people. If you are from Melbourne this makes sense. There is only one bay for Melbourne, so there is no risk of confusion.
The Bay is no neat apple shaped incision into the main land, and the way to the sea is narrow and dangerous. The Bay’s entrance is known as The Heads, and within this is The Rip, a narrow passage of shoals and rocks, through which the water does literally rip . The spelling is significant here. If you miss the 1 km of navigable water R.I.P could be for you. Rapid currents, reefs, contrary tides, all guard The Bay, and with it the entrance to Melbourne.
The Bay covers almost 200 km2 , but nowhere is it deeper that about 25m. Just like that other shortened location, The Prom, the Bay is a flooded landscape, brought about by the melting of the ice sheets as the last Ice Age dripped back from its maximum.

People chase fish where they once hunted on foot. Massive wombat like creatures – the size of compact cars, but with less acceleration – once lived here. Piles of shells can still be found from age old feasts and meeting places. If the last Ice Age is barely over, this is a landscape that has barely begun. The Yarra flows into the head of The Bay through docks and ferry terminals, past old industry and modern revival, over the long sediment of pollution and the silvered backs of bream and snapper. The history of the country could be read in the liquid ooze held under the bay – flood, fire, death, loss, the boom and bust of industry, dust from the countries red heart, brought by the hot breath of droughts. Ships entering and leaving the bay hug its western shore, following the path of the old Yarra, following the path it would have taken when the land was drier and the sea lower.

The eastern side of the bay forms a sweeping arc that comes to a point at The Heads. The west is less refined in its geometry. Out past Werribee and its sewage, out past Geelong and its industry is the Bellarine Peninsula.
Squat and chunky it sticks out into the bay. This is a place of old fishing towns, open coastline, golf courses and beach holidays. Some parts refined, other parts simple. Less developed than its neighbour across the bay and more attractive because of it. This is no wilderness, but there are hints of wildness here and there.
Time and tide, sand and wind, all lay a veil across coastal places. The solid is unusual, the dynamic the norm. Coasts bring a flux of energy, a here today, gone tomorrow feel. Fixed points are few and far between and often human, maintained with effort or threats of fines, hammered into place. Before we returned to navigation by the stars, such fixed points were rare and when found, were protected with vigour. A fine of £100 was a great deal in the past, and for some people it still would be. Here was a fixed point about which human travel could revolve. But the sea and the sand move on regardless. When time and tide conspire the sea can bring an energy to bear that is hard to resist. As waves crash and flow along barriers of stone you can feel the human world shake. Old stones are moved and new ones brought. People are drawn to the waves – to be splashed, to be soaked, maybe to feel a power that they know is really beyond them. With the waves, sand becomes a weapon to be flung against coastal defences. Each grain a bullet of erosion. In the end the invasion of the land by the sea will be complete here and the points and bars will be washed away. But at the same time, elsewhere and often unseen, the sea loses its energy and new land is being formed. Although it may win the battle here, it is losing elsewhere.
On the beach before Queenscliff the sea is winning. The cliffs are undercut and there is a danger of collapse. Signs that warn of collapse are undercut and fall. More signs are needed to warn of falling signs.

Each day the sea brings new things and wipes others away. Waves wash away old castles, children’s footprints, yesterday’s indiscretions. And they bring a cargo of finds. Some human, some natural. A strand line speckled with colour, flecks of plastic, specks of weed. Shells. Old rope. And the dead.

That the sea would deposit its dead on the beach is not surprising. What is surprising is the little death you find. Penguins, Shearwaters and once a wounded Gannet, dragging its broken wing. This bird was alive in name only. It may as well have been dead already. Sometimes the dead are larger, a Fur Seal, a Dolphin and once an Albatross, with its huge wings flapping in the waves. Dead but still flying. Gulls gather round such things and shriek their protests as you approach. The sea may give up its dead, but the living are unwilling to forsake it.

Cutting rocks push up through the sand to catch the bare footed unaware. Children cry, adults swear and dogs seem to pass through unharmed. Some beaches are Dog Beaches, where old sea dogs chase waves and tennis balls. They shake as they emerge, with a wave of movement that starts at the nose and seems to end just beyond the tail. Salt spray and dog hair – not a winning combination. Flat patches of rock, cushioned with weed stick though the surface, often crowned with a gull, or sometimes an Oyster Catcher. A pair of Oyster Catchers plays tug of war with a beach worm at the surf's edge. Young gulls beg for food.
Down where the waves die is the best place to walk, water firmed and solid. Out to sea birds flash past. Gulls, terns, gannets, cormorants at sea level. Pelicans and once a Sea Eagle higher. Gannets are all points. Bill, tail and ink dipped wing tips. Never common on these shores, always welcome, they breed on a semi circle of rock in The Bay. Sharp eyes spy a silver flash, a circle dive and fall, with their wings collapsing back just before impact. In that split second, as they pass from air to water, their life depends on the form that they become. Like a collapsing model plane, a failed toy, the wings fold back along the body in a mockery of their prior form. Bird no more, they become nature's spear, an air flung arrow. Seconds later they re-emerge, wings held in the water, dripping wet and often hungry still. But sometimes with a thrashing fish. Sometimes with a meal.
Finding fish is like looking for living silver. The shine of fish seems clear on the fishmongers slab, but in the foam and stir of a brightling wave they are less so. You see them as they go. In the end you look for shadows rather than things. The dark patch on the sand more reliable than the flash in the water. Mullet, Bay Trout and Toad Fish dart away and tease with fleeting glimpses. Still fish would die or starve. They are as mobile as the water in which they swim.

Each day the sea brings new news. The sea, the sand and the gifts that the currents bring. This is why we keep coming back.

1 comment:

Brian H said...

Stewart,
You write well and I do hope you will take up a greater challenge - I am waiting for the first BOOK!
Brian H