I am in thrall to the sand, salt and sun ratio that the powdery fringes of our world promise, toes scrinching in the cool damp of buried seawater, the sluice of surf over the break, and a horizon that sidles up to the sky. And while I have a deep appreciation for the finest beaches in the world – mirror-clear waters in the Maldives, the raw savagery of Fraser Island’s ragged coast and the scented chic of the Côte d’Azur – it is the schleppy beaches of the world I cherish.
A sorry excuse for a strip of sand, Power Station Beach frills its way along the edge of Lamma Island, itself an outlying island of Hong Kong. It was once my home, literally. I slept in a teepee above the tideline and woke each morning to the belch and squeal of hot air rising in monolithic cement chambers, and the warble of red-throated loons as they paddled off-shore. There was a smear of sulphur in the air sometimes, which collided gracefully with saltwater and early morning char siu bao.
Yarra Beach, which skims the edge of one of Sydney’s least known and smallest suburbs, Phillip Bay – La Perouse’s jerry-built neighbour – also fits the bill faultlessly. It features a container terminal squat at one end, sand that may contain dead bodies and a distinct case of multiple personality disorder.
It’s our favourite place – me, the Tin Lid and the Kelpie – even on a wintry day that scours vapourised breath from chapped lips. It stretches away from the eye in a leisurely curl, deep anchorage in its embrace. At one end, Port Botany Transfer Station and container terminal hulk-in, heavy; towering stands of metal boxes await the colossal grip of the lifting crane, and tiny stevedores scurry like ants from a height, busy in their endeavours.
Peering in close, to get a good view of the action, blighted headstones line the ridge, the residents of the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park taking best advantage of this ‘forever’ spot.
At the other end is the splintered timber and plastic veneer of the sailing club, blinking with pokies and bickered at by bookies.
I think that might be part of the attraction, the hustle of activity on a stretch of sand that stands sentinel to time. Ocean leviathans steam into port honking and wallowing, their steel guts either laden or set to gorge on the gargantuan consumerist container picnic that awaits them. The dead on their last journey, as they shift and sift through the sand; yachties riding their charges over trough and peak and returning, sodden, to the sailing club for a cold schooner and hot chips; the burning rumble of the jets as they land and soar from Kingston Smith; and local dogs who howl and splash in joy, catching life in salty draughts on lagging tongues.
Defined by Yarra Point and Bomborah Point, the Bay is a series of south-westerly swoops, unique in this east-facing city. At the height of summer, we head to the shade of some scrub at the southern tip; in winter, we get to luxuriate in its length, right up to the otherwise sun-baked perimeter, a concrete seawall beneath the steely gaze of Port Botany, its industrial choker.
The Tin Lid is agog at the plastic-bottle whirlpool churning in the eddies, and the Kelpie insists on dragging a tree wherever she goes. Ring-ins for the day include a bestie and her bottom-waggling charge, who hurl themselves into dune climbing with verve:
Beyond the bend is Frenchman’s Bay (and La Perouse on the spit), considered culturally significant as the site of some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Indigenous Australians, and it remains significant thanks to the survival of the archaeological remains of a nineteenth century Indigenous encampment and mission, the continued presence of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community and the oral tradition and social identity associated with this history of occupation.
But that is another story.
Today, we are here, ensconced in a world of salt spray and cool sand, a blustery wind bemoaning our intransigence.
This was where Governor Phillip first strode ashore; here on 18th January 1788, the Indigenous population of Yarra directed the be-hatted Arthur to a fresh water source, Bunnerong Creek, which flows between Frenchman’s and the Bay.
It is believed that Yarra means flowing, originating from this water source. With resoundingly narcissistic flair, Admiral Arthur quickly renamed the place Phillip Bay, despite the lack of ‘lush meadows’ promised by Joseph Banks. In fact, he was quick to decree that Yarra was ‘unsuitable for habitation’. And the meadows, it turns out, were round the corner at Port Jackson, which is where they headed, more demand for the HMS Supply…
No-one knows why Phillip’s name was kept for the suburb but dropped for the Bay, but Yarra will always be Yarra to us, as I suspect it is for the Aboriginal community here, who have successfully claimed Native Title for the Yarra Bay headland and Yarra House. But that’s part of that other story…
As the shadows stretch we head away from the Bay, promising ourselves a longer adventure next time. The Tin Lid is intrigued by Serious Stuff, complete with it’s half-drunk bottle of claret, and the bottom-waggler is intent on discarded hot chips, to his mother and the local gull’s dismay.
The Kelpie yelps at the prospect of leaving, but she is soon snoring, dreaming of slung sticks and foamy surf that she snaps at in her sleep.
That other story, with its 16′ skiffs, haunted homes and secret coves, awaits our return.