I’ve been to the Otways before, but never to Johanna. It all seemed sort of familiar, but it really wasn’t. It’s only when you get ready for bed that you really begin to notice the differences. Before that it’s been a rush to get the car unpacked, find the light switches and work out how to turn on the oven. Eventually the kids are asleep and you can wind down from the day and go to bed. You get into the same side as at home, with the same book and bookmark, maybe even with the same clock. A glass of water on the bedside table. The same back and forth of conversation and plans for the next day. The same hissing flick of turning pages. But as you settle in the differences come to the fore. The sounds of the house settling down for the night are different. Logs crack and fall in the fire box, the bedside lamp may buzz. The dishwasher rattles and sings quietly until you turn off the light and then, in the darkness, it sounds like an express train – this is a strange phenomenon, but it seems to happen in every house I visit.
But mainly the difference comes from outside, and here the difference is the voice of the sea. As it grows dark – or as I become sleepy – the sea’s voice seems to come closer and closer until it whispers in my ear. A sound that is both gentle and violent. The in and the out of the ocean. A sea breathe. I always sleep well near the sea. Some people say it’s the sea air, I say it’s the sea sound. Like a lullaby from years and years ago, the sea’s voice reaches in and puts me to sleep. (Many years ago I lived on an island, almost on the western edge of Europe, surrounded by the sea – and its call was never silent. When I left and the voice was no longer there, I missed it, I felt lonely without it. Strangely I found an echo of it in the distant noise of traffic that was always there in the next place I stayed. In a place that had seen better days and felt ignored by the rest of the country I may have been making the best of a bad job, but that’s what happened).
The beach was only a short walk away, ten minutes at the most and almost all downhill. Short steep uphills marked the slopes of old sand dunes, covered now in thick spongy grass. In places cows had poached the soil – around gates and feed troughs, along favourite pathways – and the sand broke through to the surface. For kids used only to cows on TV the real things are surprisingly large. And noisy. And smelly. I’m sure that the cows were thinking similar things about the kids.
On the other side rock bar that helps funnel the rip, the Johanna River comes down to the sea. It winds about as the beach levels out and dawdles a little before it meets the waves. Silver Gulls peck at the river’s edge and where the water comes through the dunes a White Faced Heron stands and watches. All the birds seem more timid than normal – maybe this beach is not as popular as others. The birds seem less used to humans, less acclimated to beach runners and splashing children. On the other side of the river a pair of Hooded Plovers run and peck. I don’t feel like wading today so the birds stay just a little too far away. The Plovers don’t do well on popular beaches – too much disturbance when nesting, too many misplaced feet, too many prying eyes. Just too much humanity. In the end they spook when a bird of prey flashes out of the sand dunes. They land a few hundred meters down the beach and start feeding again. Their lives a knife edge balance between the wasted energy of unneeded fear and the need to feed. Too much bravery and they get eaten, too much fear and they never have time to feed.
The kids are playing in the distance as we walk back to the cottage. This time the interest comes not from the size of the cows, but the sheer volume of snot running from their noses – that’s the cows’ noses just to be clear. That unique combination of revulsion and fascination keeps them interested - and in this case this could apply to both the cows and the kids!
Most of the walks my kids have been on have followed paths that were built and maintained with the express purpose of getting to the place you were going. Tourist paths in National Parks are still controlled by the lie of the land, but they have been built with a more logical plan than those in the English countryside. They do not encourage wandering. They encourage movement. We follow no path at all but drop down a narrow spur, past a bridge and over a hill. It’s clear we are going in the right direction because we get to where we want to be. You could have probably got to that point dozens of other ways. This, and the small folded nature of the land, reminds me of England. The trees and the birds tell me I am elsewhere.
As we return to the cottage P finds an echidna. For all the memories and familiar wandering paths I can only be in one place in the world. All illusions to the contrary are false, all memories are simply that. I see the place for where it is, and say, once more, “Hello, Johanna”.