The car is finally packed. In a couple of hours I will have to unpack it. The transhumance of an Australian summer; leaving the suburbs for the coast. A journey between the world of work and the world of play. In the time between the packing and unpacking we will remember what we have forgotten. We have boxes and bags, books and balls, but no hair brushes, no beach shelter. And thankfully no work – that box has been left behind in another place, in another time, in another world. The memory of unmarked marking, lying in the corner of the room to remind me that I never really could leave work makes me shudder and laugh at the change. A memory of a search for perfection that was futile, all encompassing and ultimately mind breaking. When I get to that thought I stop laughing.
The stop start of the traffic soon fades into the long sweep of flowing freeway driving. Out past the sewage works, out past the market gardens being sold for housing, out past houses with no shops, no trains and cramped yards. A patchwork sky suggests sunshine, but with the possibility of rain held in its back pocket. It’s a poker playing sky, not showing its hand, keeping a few secrets. The summer may be a bluff; the forecast suggests a cold flush will soon arrive. To the bright tic tac rattle of a wine bottle on a tin I keep driving.
By evening the car is empty, the house as organised as it needs to be, the cupboards stocked, the beds made. There’s a new carpet and a better kettle than last time. The grape vine looks a little sick, the lawn looks healthier and the cat flap still rattles in the breeze. Despite the fact that it’s nothing of the sort, it feels like some kind of homecoming. The magpies notice there are people in the house and gather round the door, hopping from foot to foot, hoping for food, pecking at the boxes placed in the shade. In the evening we head to the beach at Queenscliff – traditional first night fish and chips. Down on the beach, with fingers that still feel greasy, the birds gather by the water’s edge. Passing through the Heads is a ship from China, container upon container of goods.
Passing along the beach are resident and migrant birds, some here all year and some that have come all the way from China too. Rednecked Stints flicker through the seaweed and pick at the sand with rapid, stabbing beak work. Pacific Gulls stand huge and muscular, and peck with a certain brutality at whatever comes to hand. Silver gulls, nervous of its larger cousin, fight over a chicken frame, pink and slightly bloody in the washing waves. And Pied Oystercatchers – my favourite – pick through the storm wrack, the wave wreck, the fingerprint of yesterday’s weather. Possibly in greeting, possibly in fear and annoyance, they flick the wings up and over their backs. They call sharply and leap frog each along the beach towards a group playing beach cricket. The water laps a gentle rhythm and clouds push through a pale blue sky. The wind holds a soft unsummer chill, and the light grows and then fades with each passing cloud. Gathering the kids from the monkey bars and climbing nets we head off to bed. A routine of no routine starts and the holiday really begins.
The wind was still cool the next morning. I was sat on a borrowed boat, trying to catch some waves, having fun, watching H. Classic wave theory moved me down the beach and classic bad luck dumped me on the rocks. Every time I stood up I fell over, every time I put my feet down it hurt. I was floundering. My ever supportive wife and daughter were pointing and laughing. I gouge a twenty cent sized piece of flesh from my instep, slice the skin from one shin and smack both elbows on the rocks. Ouch! By the end of the week the points of my elbows look like Dr. Seuss fried eggs – green and yellow yolk and a pale white white. I give the boat back to its owner and promise not to sue. My wife and daughter stopped laughing, but they were hardly sympathetic. Exploring the Anglo Saxon elements of my vocabulary in an under my breath sort of way, I walk back towards my bags. Strangely, I still want to buy a boat.
But the rocks that chewed my foot also hold life in abundance. In the nooks and crannies of the stone, life takes shelter from the wave wash and the tide pull. Seaweeds large and small hold fast on to the rocks, things eat the weeds and bigger things eat the weed eaters. This is the only real ladder of life. When the rocks are left bare by the falling tide the stone life takes cover and holds its breath, it collapses without the helping hand buoyancy of water and waits for the tide to turn. In the air these places look green and flat and slippery, as flat as burst balloons. Not lifeless, but deflated.
When you pass between the worlds and sink into the water all this changes, and you enter the domain of the waves and weed, of fleeing fish and a feeling of discovery. With simple mask, snorkel and fins (but never, never ‘flippers’) you can pass into this water world, or at the very least float on the boundary between air and water.
Down behind the Cottage by the Sea, on a beach with at least three names, fingers of rock push out from the sand and into the sea. I walk backwards into the sea – a kind of evolution in reverse – turn and drop into the water and float. A few fin flips pushes me toward the rocks and the tiny marine cliffs that burst from the sea sand floor. Life explodes around me. As I swim along the edge of the rocks my left side is brushed with weed and watched by hidden eyes. To my right is the bright expanse of sand and sun speckle, but little else. I keep moving and the rocks become more complex. The movement of water has carved out deep places, swimming pools with the edges always under water. I duck dive into them and scatter fish before me. A shoal of Yellow Eyed Mullet pass by near the surface – silver and slinky, primary school fish, typical fish. Wrasse dart under weed curtains, salmon depart and a zebra striped fish drifts past with what seems to be an over confident air.
First one, then two and finally three squid hover into view. Their long fin edges ripple them away from me. They watch with large hollow eyes, black as ink. I try to follow, but their water jet engines push them over a rocky ridge and out into open water. Out into open water where squid lures drift. They would have been better off staying with me. The squid fishers actually catch me instead. De-hooked I head back into the beach. My foot stings in the salt water and my head spins from the colour and life. I pass back into the land world, leaving the water world behind.
Queenscliff has two piers reaching out from its beach, one is the old life boat pier, now the haunt of squid fishers and idle wanderers, and the other is the Pilot Boat Pier. At regular intervals a bright orange boat powers away from the pier to guide boats through the Heads, in and out through the Rip. The water between the piers seems relaxed and gentle, hand held in the safe arms of the two piers. We are out in a group, families with kids and a bearded man who knows the names of things. Some of the families seem to have forgotten – or maybe never knew – that snorkelling involves swimming and getting wet. They linger near the shore and wait for life to swim by. It’s not really a successful strategy.
A lost lure glints from the bottom, catching the wave broken sunlight. A little way off shore, rock bulges press up towards the surface. Light and currents swirl around them, and as expected, life is richer here than on the sandy floor. A wandering anemone, looking like a brain and feeling like jelly, is partially hidden by slight weeds. In the hand it slumps and almost flows between your fingers. Its stinging cells are beaten by the defence of human skin. It sinks slowly to the bottom and rolls away on unseen currents.
A movement to the right catches my eye. I tap H on the arm and point. I see his mask turn in the direction I’m pointing; I can see his head moving from left to right as he searches for what I’ve seen. I point again and now I know he has found it. I wish I could see the look on his face as he lays eyes on his first shark. He flashes an ‘OK’ and we swim after it. The shark slips through the weed, eel like and swift. After a few seconds it’s gone – hidden somewhere. We both bob to the surface and look at each other. I can only assume I am grinning as much as he is.
Now, before you start ringing the Child Protection Agency to report a madman swimming with sharks with his son I need to point something out. Our shark was a Cat Shark – less than one metre long and not really a threat to me and H. But, a shark is a shark, especially to a person bought up near the chilly seas of England and to a kid in primary school. The people near the shore fain disinterest when we tell them, but I’m sure it’s not true. As we squelch back along the beach a light rain starts to fall; but neither of us really mind.
Finally I find a day when there is a low tide and a bright, open sky. The rock pools below the lighthouse look clear and crisp. A rock bar cuts the pools off from the open sea. This is a good job as the open sea here is The Rip – the stretch of water where boats need a pilot to slip through the narrow channel. The water is surprisingly warm, not tropical by any stretch of the imagination, but warm enough. The first pool is deeper than I expected, but I have to shuffle over a shallow section to get to the next, even deeper, one. My wife assures the passing walkers that the black object floundering in the water is not a beached whale. How thin would you have to be not to look fat in a wet-suit? Thinner than me is the only answer I am sure of.
Once I reach the deeper water I am surrounded by fish. Up near the surface garfish cruise by, reaching out with their spike like noses. Down below, smaller fish dart from the weed, crabs rush away from the dark shape on the surface and wrasse swish past. It’s at this exact moment that my waterproof camera stops being water proof and ceases to be a camera. It flashes one sad little message at me and become little more than mega-pixel bling hung on my wrist. With perfect timing I drift over a rock wall speckled with bright anemones, waving in the current. I probably swear down my snorkel. But the light and the colours are too bright for my mood to darken for more than a few minutes. Fish. Light. Rocks. Sand and crabs. A weed dance of wave held motion. I float from pool to pool, sometimes feeling an unexpected current, a reminder of the ocean’s less than neighbourly presence, a reminder not to go too far.
As I walk up on to the sand the cut on my foot stings as the sand is pressed up into the arch of my foot. It’s not that it does not hurt, but at this time, I don’t really care.
Back at the house we start to organise and pack. The car fills with boxes and bags, books and balls, a two week old hair brush, and a beach shelter brought to us by a friend. Tomorrow I will go back to work, I will leave this world and go back to another.