Along the Nine Mile

Wild beaches churn and boil with a savage beauty, and Nine Mile is no exception with its storm-crushed surf laying waste to to a coastline that cannot escape, the roar of fury held hostage in white-capped waves, and the howl of unforgiving offshore winds that sift sand through their teeth.

They are untamed places that force us to forgo comfortable ideals of control and mastery over the natural world, substituting vicious surges of adrenalin in their place. Fight or flight coursing through the blood, ancient instincts override the system and rank survival kicks in.

Where the earth’s contours are rewritten into endless spools and mirage horizons contort basic assumptions, humanity seems fragile, the likely victim in a power play with nature, its visceral force a stinging rebuke.

The CB crackles with static, voices muffled by the elements. The truck slews through thick drifts of knee-deep sand, the block bellowing, low-range torque clawing its way across the terrain, crab like. The Cowboy is in OK-Corral heaven, aviators glinting at each new obstacle, yee-hah-ing as we get air. The Kelpie has her front paws on the dashboard, her nirvana nearby; and I cling on for dear life, muttering disjointedly about tyre pressure, the lick of high tide and tank traps.

Nine Mile Beach is not. It is actually seven miles and riven with whorls of soupy shifting sand. The vollies at the bucktoothed entrance – all potholes and exploded rusted steel – are quick to remind everyone that the beach is abnormally soft, and known to eat SUVs for breakfast. The Cowboy is calm: Private Camel, he reassures me, can handle anything.

An ex-mining water-drafting truck, the Camel is a rarified beast, which is readily apparent in this showcase of 4WD utes, bristling with roof tents and B+S ball stickers. A dual cab Mitsubishi Canter with Super Singles, a truck-bed gate cage under canvas and a race-track’s worth of diesel grunt, it is a show pony… well, a Clydesdale perhaps, dutifully dragging its dray.

Sticking out like tits on a bull, we rumble through the grainy scrub of wetlands at Belmont, and down to dip tyres in the raging drink at the edge of the beach.

The Wetlands State Park that fringes the beach is 549 hectares of crown land, dunes, bush, and brackish wetlands acquired by the State Government in 2002 from BHP. It has a rich history of degradation: Redhead Coal Mining Company mined the land in the late 1880s; during the Second World War, Blackshmiths Beach was considered a potential invasion point, and defence strategies to protect Newcastle were shipped in – Cold Tea Lake was excavated as an anti-tank ditch with twin rows of large tetrahedral concrete tank traps linked with interlocking cabling studding the southern bank, like inedible cake decorations that shatter teeth.

Image caption: Newcastle Herald

In the 50s, silica dredging was the degradation of choice, followed by sand mining in the 70s and general abandonment until 2002. Scabbed and damaged, this unloved dog doesn’t offer up much when you first meet it, with its straggly undergrowth scarred with rusted wrecks and muddied hollows. But it is loved, by many, from hoons and horseriders to twitchers and tent-dwellers.

The wetlands are the traditional lands of the Awabakal People, bounded to the north-west by the Wonnarua, the Worimi to the north-east, and the Darkinjung peoples to the west and south. Middens, artefact scatters and campsites dot the margins, while it is believed that undiscovered burial sites edge Belmont Lagoon, a dreaming site formed when the Moon wept out of loneliness. The Awabakal were determined defenders of their land, too, repelling incursions by neighbouring clans for thousands of years.

State Library of NSW

People are still fighting over this culturally contested land, with environmentalists agitated by the off-roaders, fisherman at odds with swimmers, and the BWSP Board of Directors recently disbanded due to a bitter power struggle between members. But beneath skies so sharp they could shatter and icy ocean spray, we find a like-minded tribe parked up in the hind dunes.

The Camel ticks softly in the fading light, cooling. Driftwood fires emerge along the sand, tinnies clink, and the raggedy tribe of mutts that Belmont welcomes holler and yip at the water’s edge. The Kelpie is above such things as she has her own camp chair and a stash of sticks all of her own. Later, though, she spends hours dancing at the surf’s edge, ears, tail and tongue cartoon-like in bouncy joy.

The Cowboy goes into mountain-man mode for a while, hauling out the unfortunate from vehicles bogged to their bellies and cutting wood for the fire, while I emu pick along the churned tracks searching for shells.

The power in this unbound land catches you unaware. The space, with its 360º rake and skin-scouring love climbs inside you, stilling the human while enticing a primitive other. Fire, shelter, pounding water and the sense of smallness that we rarely experience in this conditioned world – these are the things that echo here… that and the meaty roar of V8s sideways in the sand.

We remain alert, though, watching, waiting, heartbeats a skip faster than before, salt-tight skin tingling in anticipation of the next assault of hormone laced primitive fear. We fail, repeatedly, to keep the sinuous, mutable force of nature at bay. Paint is scoured from the Camel’s flanks, there are fat welts in her tyres and corrosion eats at her underbelly, while the Cowboy and I look like Cactus Beach locals, wire-like hair slicing pink skin, eyes scrinched shut against the elements. The Kelpie, alone, resists. Perhaps it is her lack of the deep, primal and internalised Man vs Nature conflict humans must bear. That and the sticks.

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