Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that this summer there’s been an unprecedented number of shark sightings along the Victorian coastline – equal to three or four normal seasons put together. Nearby Fairhaven beach was closed several times in the one week, and our own local Point Roadknight beach was also closed for an afternoon, while a pack of five hungry Bronze Whaler sharks feasted on fish, just off the point. Up until that afternoon, I’d felt a bit smug here at our sheltered, family-friendly beach – surely the sharks wouldn’t venture into the bay? But alarmingly, the red and yellow Westpac chopper hovered over the sea, with its siren blaring, and the surf lifesaving crew ordered everyone out of the water. Now, we hold our breath as the helicopter approaches, and we breathe a sigh of relief when it passes over. But the frequent, steady whir of the chopper is reassuring, and is just as much a sound of summer as the squawking seagulls and the screeching cockatoos. It’s funny how you adapt to the latest source of danger – but then again, we’re Australian, and that’s how we roll.
Here, life at the beach is fun, but it’s not without its risks. As well as the sharks, this has been a record season for blood-sucking mosquitoes, with several cases of Ross River Fever diagnosed down near Anglesea. Few other countries could lay claim to two such record-breaking events in the one summer! Throw in the stingrays that have been swimming up and down our local coastline these past few weeks, and you really have a sense of the adventure that awaits at an Aussie beach. Last year, it was the swarming, biting sand flies, plus the distant smoke from the Wye River bushfires. And always, there’s the depleted ozone layer, with the sun’s harsh rays beating down on all but the most diligent slip-slop-slappers.
However, no one could ever accuse Victorian beach-goers of being ill-prepared for the conditions: we have our well-secured beach tents, our protective rashies, swim vests and floaties for the young, our 1-litre pump packs of 50+ sunscreen, hats and sunglasses, and insect repellent. Beach umbrellas are perfect, as they protect against the sun or the rain, and remember, anything is possible within the one day. Only yesterday, my bikini-clad friend whipped out her long-sleeved thermal top when the sun disappeared behind the clouds. Four seasons in one day – isn’t that our motto?
Beach entertainment is also a consideration. Our Project Ten beach bags are bursting with cricket sets, beach balls, boogie boards, inflatable rings, buckets and spades, toy diggers and trucks, magazines and bestselling novels. Not to mention our cool bags, filled with bottles of water, watermelon wedges, bread rolls, chips and popcorn. There are beach chairs, or if that’s not enough, try the latest invention…the inflatable beach sofa that works on sand or sea. And don’t forget the wetsuits, because even though it’s almost 40 degrees on the beach, the water is freezing – straight from Antarctica. A day at the beach is certainly not for the faint-hearted. That’s why you’ll see quite a few families dragging their jam-packed beach trolleys through the sand – there is simply too much to carry, even with a herd of children to share the load.
But at the end of the day, when the crowds clear out, lugging their bags and belongings, the beach is deserted and pristine: it’s so beautiful, rugged and unpretentious. This is nature in all its glory.
We may not have the convenience of permanent deckchairs and beach umbrellas like our European counterparts, nor the sophistication of beach cafes and bars right on the sand, nor the waiters serving cool refreshing drinks straight to sunbathing beachgoers. We don’t have the consistent Mediterranean climate, the pleasant balmy waters, or the intact ozone layer. But we have adventure, authenticity and unpredictability. I made all these observations recently, on a trip to Spain.
Our holiday spot was an out-of-the-way, unassuming, non-touristy place, more like the Spanish equivalent of Point Roadknight than Noosa or the Gold Coast. But the beach still had all the trappings – there was no need to cart anything more than a book and a towel. No need for beach tents, beach chairs or BYO food and drink. Their mantra was Fun First, not Safety First. They had bar staff, not surf life savers. People selected their spot based on proximity to the bar, instead of proximity to the red and yellow safety flags. And instead of pondering “Will I wear a rashie?”, it was “Will I wear a bikini top?” More reef oil, anyone? There were no sharks or stingrays to fear, no choppers circling overhead. At the time, I noticed the difference, but the contrast has appeared even more stark now that I’m back home and revelling in the Australian summer, with the sharks and the mosquitoes, the harsh rays and the dangers of flying cricket balls.
But, despite all this, I cherish my Victorian summers at the beach, and I feel that the risks and rewards of our unique beach experience are a microcosm of life in Australia. Yes, there are dangers, but they are far outweighed by the upsides of life in the Lucky Country. As Dorothea Mackellar wrote in her 1908 poem My Country, “For flood and fire and famine, She pays us back threefold". And isn’t this the essence of life in Australia? Our country is one of the hottest, harshest natural environments on the planet: we are ravaged by bushfires, droughts and floods (thankfully famine is a thing of the past!); our waterways and coastlines are filled with sharks and crocodiles, stingers and jellyfish; our outback is full of poisonous snakes, deadly spiders, and wild dingos. But we are truly blessed. As we reflect this Australia Day, we have much to celebrate. We are a resilient people, well-prepared and positive in our outlook, with a great sense of adventure. We can adapt to the challenges that Mother Nature sends our way, and do it with gusto. And sometimes you need to leave our shores in order to be reminded of that fact.
Reflection by Carmen