I grew up by the sea. Not in a romanticised way, where snug cottages overlook glistening seas and fishing trawlers bob up and down in weather-worn harbours. Neither in the glamorous manner of those doing it tough in Australia, with their angular beachside houses, all windows and look-at-me decks. In fact I survived growing up without a prized sea view, but the ocean was never too far away. Close enough for seagulls to shriek down the chimney, near enough to feel the brutality of a winter’s storm. Never too distant to walk a pebbly shore and experience the space and light and air that is unique to being on the cusp of an ocean.

You could say that the sea has been in my DNA since I arrived in the world and into the salty air of Plymouth [1]. This makes it all the more surprising that I have not lived within easy reach of the waves for what is now half of my life. I went away to university in the very centre of Britain and then coped with the occasional glimpse of muddy river in London. I moved to Australia – the land of beach bums and surf rescues – and wound up in Canberra; the only capital without prime ocean frontage. I clung to windy days on Lake Burley Griffin, when waves would whip up, and consoled myself with frequent trips to various points on the stunning east coast.

The ocean seems integral to the Australian way of life. Unsurprising given most people live on the more amenable fringe of land closest to the coast, surprising given there is a whole load of land in between [2]. The oceans here – from Pacific to Indian – are oceans apart, and it takes quite some enterprise to bridge the two.

It’s mid-March down in Mallacoota, on the very southeast corner of southeast Australia in southeast Victoria where a southeast wind blows. It’s fairly sedate compared to previous days, a sea breeze in contrast to the cold blasts streaming off the ocean and bombarding the shore with downpours. Around the corner, in Ben Boyd National Park, dirt roads are churned into muddy blancmange leaving a detritus of abandoned cars. I know this because my car nearly joined them, drifting sideways like a drunken celebrity ice skater. Precariously though it made it through to the salvation of tarmac and gleefully crossed the state border to recover in Mallacoota. And what a recovery Mallacoota offered.

This sparse corner is both rugged and tame; the waves of the Southern Ocean and Tasman Sea conjoin and thrust onto sweeping sands while gargantuan dunes remould themselves on the breeze. Behind, protected and sheltered gleams the expansive surface of Mallacoota Inlet, spilling into creeks densely lined with Eucalypts and Tea Trees and Acacia; quietly lapping at the boardwalks and manicured front of the town. Pelicans and people flock to fish, the more intrepid cycle, run, and fly.

Out on a limb, Mallacoota really is a long way from anywhere, perhaps as wild as it gets along the most populous strip of this huge country. Possessing essentials like a pub, bakery, two small grocery stores, a bakery, hardware store, and – did I mention – bakery, it is self-sufficient, with a long day trip required for Big W and McDonalds and Flight Centre. There’s not a great deal to do, other than interact with the outdoors, to walk, run, cycle, surf, fish, or simply sit in the sun and gaze out across water. I suspect this is part of its appeal.

The constant roar of the ocean is often the only sound to shatter the peace; at least outside of peak summer holiday times when Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra converge along the shores up and down this coast. It’s a sound which may seem appealing, an obvious marker of being close to water, of arriving at the edge of the world. I think on top of this though, the ocean can sound threatening and cruel, daunting in its vastness and unrelenting, unrestrained energy. People may fantasise about going to sleep with the soothing, repetitive sound of the ocean in the background but the reality, particular when a layer of canvas is all that separates you and the outside world, is of an incessant crescendo of noise, amplified in the stillness of night.  

The noise echoes from the cliffs and trees fringing the ocean beach here, which is itself like a thousand other beaches in Australia. In that, it is nothing remarkable, even though it is, objectively, remarkable. Pristine sand and pristine waters, so clean the aroma is pungent with the abundant seaweed and crustaceans and fish. Scattered with the dog walker and fisherman and surfer and yoga practitioner, it is the spot to clear the head and mind, the place to come at the end of day to walk, fish, surf, or contort. It is the spot to feel at one with the world, humbled in insignificance as the sun lowers, the sands blow, and the waves churn out into the eternal horizon.

O_mallacoota

Beyond Mallacoota the southern coastline invariably throws up much more in the way of ocean-sculpted lands. Long beaches of ninety mile and entrances to lakes. Vast promontories and bays, becoming refined with sandcastles and beach huts and docklands and Melbourne. Westward still and curving great ocean roads meet shipwrecked coasts. Lagoons and islands of kangaroo turn upwards to Adelaide, and the waters greet peninsulas fringed with small ports and big jetties. Beyond things return to the empty simplicity of ocean and land, the land meeting ocean, a bight of irresistible force and unmovable object. Beautiful archipelagos emerge and vast sounds appear as civilisation returns, and the ocean weathers colour the corner of the southwest. A corner which turns onto another ocean and signifies the crossing of a continent.   

Some two months later and a lighthouse appears on the horizon, another lighthouse rising elegantly into a softly painted blue sky. Passing through Augusta the coastline takes on an edge-of-the-world charm, as the land narrows between two seas [3]Small bays and coves fringe the leeward side and teeter their way along to Cape Leeuwin, from where the lighthouse surveys the Indian Ocean. Next stop from here: South Africa.

In this prized corner of Western Australia the Indian Ocean is very much like the seas that have come before, knocking out a reassuring rhythm of surf and disappearing into a depth of endlessness. It’s a different ocean but the same country; many kilometres distant but not a million miles apart [4]. Windswept hills slope down and break off into the ocean, broad sands form at river mouths and creeks. Majestic forests revel in moist valleys while vines take advantage of open, sun-soaked slopes. Near this ocean, small settlements and towns still serve flat whites and offer The Australian for all the propaganda you can stomach. The same brands of coolant are available to top up a car which has done much since almost becoming bogged down in mud on the other side of the country, oceans apart.

There are of course subtle differences formed through climate and geology and mankind’s hand. A different array of deadly sharks and jellyfish may well linger in the water, ready to nibble on loonies in wetsuits embracing the epic waves. For the less adventurous, the diversity of the terroir yields different aromas in the Cabernet Sauvignon…perhaps less blackcurrant and pepper and more pomegranate and diesel (though don’t quote me on it). Tourist information signs are a different colour, though nonetheless as mysterious and confusing. And practically every town ends with the letters ‘up’, like Manjimup and Nannup and Whatsup Buttercup.

The big contrast – and a satisfying symbol embodying the accomplishment of crossing a continent – is that the sun sets into this ocean. At Yallingup, camped beside the roar of the sea for one last night, Mallacoota is reincarnate, a mirror image of sand, sea and sun. There is just chance, with the now shortened days of May, to amble on the beach as the day draws to a close; to battle through the sands and scarper from waves thrusting up the beach with great flourish; to join the smattering of dog walkers and fishermen and surfers and yoga practitioners, watching as the sun sets into this particular ocean and seals the wax on a momentous journey. A journey that has frequently mingled with the sea along its course, and astonished in scale as it has crossed from ocean to ocean.

O_yallingup


[1] Which is now branded as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ no less

[2] Is it any wonder the latest Australian Prime Minister is such a visually strident man of the seas, sometimes scarily so?

[3] A charm seemingly being addressed by the construction of a large marina for more boat-owner people…Stop the Boats!

[4] In fact, for me, 17,000 kilometres, but more like 3,500 as the seagull flies.

Links

Britain’s Ocean City: http://www.visitplymouth.co.uk/

Mallacoota visitor information: http://www.visitmallacoota.com.au/

Destination Margaret River:

http://www.westernaustralia.com/en/Destination/Margaret_River/9009633

Wasssssup in Yallingup: http://www.margaretriver.com/regions/1

Another ocean apart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_e2D2qsaso

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