First landing

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sydney Ports Corporation

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.

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At the other end is the splintered timber and plastic veneer of the sailing club, blinking with pokies and bickered at by bookies.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Any port in a storm

Evacuated from Fraser Island, the storm pressing down on us, bedraggled and rattled we flee south, covering barely 80 clicks before Mary hauls her dripping tailgate into Maryborough and skids to an ungainly halt.


And. So. It. Starts.

Howling Valkyries vent squalling funnels of rain at the truck. The KD (our knock-down shelter) buckles and sinks to its knees, a watery death with sodden mourners. As Mary slews to the left, rocking on her axles like a troubled child, the streets slide away, coursing, surging downstream in a flood of despair. Tangled limbs skewer deep drains that choke and overflow and the maelstrom spins into a whorl of hate, lashing all in its path with malevolent fury.

This is the prelude to the devastation wrought by ex-tropical cyclone Oswald, a storm cell of unprecedented force that slammed into the southern Queensland coast in January 2013.

The morning is a slate grey shroud, bruised-bellied clouds skud across an invisible horizon and water pelts from the sky, caught in a vortex of angry air.  Towns submerge before our eyes, all roads to the coast are closed and the highway is our final retreat.

In full flight and surfing a latent frill of fear, we let Mary off her leash…

It feels like this

It feels like this.

Russell Island is the largest of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, a mob of curly coasted land snippets that wallow just off the coast of Brisbane. Funny place to take shelter you might think, but Russell lies in the lee of North Stradbroke Island, which promises protection from the elements. That and an open-hearted saltie, the indomitable Captain Dave, catcher of crays, who offers a port in the storm.

The car ferry rolls like a bitch; while the Tin Lid and I pitch queasily from side to side the Cowboy spends the hour at sea boning up on local info. According to the storyteller Karragarra is the gay island, a mere four kilometres of rainbow-hued hubris and a Ferrari owner who drives his pride and joy along the 300m of tarmac twice a day in a squeal of glory. Macleay is the site of a recent murder, an elderly woman robbed of not only her hidden fortune but her life. When we were there no-one was talking, a wall of silence that buffeted the police barge moored stubbornly in the ferry lane. The culprit, a ‘junk-mail deliverer’ has since been arrested. On Lamb Island there is much discussion as to how the mainlanders cope with ‘Australia’, that distant country just 20 minutes to the west.

Russell Island does not rate a mention.

As we wait out the storm at Captain Dave’s all hell breaks loose, a bellicose virago that scolds the landscape with her hysteria.


The power fails on the first day, the pier is inoperable and the ferries stymied; there are food and water shortages, produce rots in the darkened island store and the threat of structural collapse keeps people shuttered inside. Isolation takes on new meaning here, as visibility drops to a few feet and the long life milk the Tin Lid has stashed dwindles to a trickle.

For five days we are stranded. It’s all very Robinson Crusoe – with mango moonshine and board games for ten.

A quick game of mango bowls

A quick game of mango bowls

In the aftermath the IGA is the place to be. It is eerily empty, shelves bare, save for a few hollow-eyed souls stocking up on Black and Gold.

A grey lady sporting grey mullet, teeth and skin, plus a dim outlook on life, is bereft in the biscuit section:

“We’ve ‘ad no power for four fucken days, no food, no help. No bugger came to see if we was alright or nuffink. We moved from bloody Gympie to get away from the water but me, I’d rahver be flooded there – at least there people come and check on yers. Drive through flooded roads and everythink. And some fuckers had power! So I didn’t have to throw all me bloody food away after all. Fuck ’em. No-one even offered to help.”

Distraught and dejected she slides out into the rain carrying her yellow-and-black-hued treasure: cat litter, chicken soup, dunny roll and a ratty pack of Milk Arrowroots.

A disaster management plan is in place and flashing lights illuminate the damage. Finally we escape the confines of our isolation into an island that thrives on, well, isolation.



Kibbinkibbinwa Point and Ooncooncoo Bay, Turtle Swamp, Whistling Kite Wetlands and Wet Mouse, the island trails intrigue in its wake. With all the inherent issues of island life, Russell is a weathered soul, lines of frustration worn deep on a sunburnt face.

Once an Aboriginal hunting ground for shellfish, fish and turtles, the island was only settled recently. The local mob believe that the eerie searching sob of the curlews that stalk the corners are the souls of children who have died, “the call of the young ones”.

They left well alone, save for a crossing point from the northeast tip across across the passage to Stradbroke Island.


The whitefellas have no such quandaries, spreading out, kit homes in tow, like an unexplained rash. According to the Brisbane Times,

“The population is small, the views are priceless and the facilities are reasonably good  considering most things have to be shipped in. But the wide-spread land scam that dogs Russell’s reputation has likely kept many away from this spot in the past. During the early 1970s, large parcels of farmland were divided and heavily promoted by investors. Many unwary buyers found the blocks of land they had bought were not where they thought, and media reports at the time documented how some were even underwater at high tide.”

Moving house, island-style

Moving house, island-style


A house with no stairs


True blue hidehole

This place has a healthy seam of blood-red Australiana running richly through it, a sticky viscosity of retro dagginess. A sulky teen butt-scoots along on a skateboard down a dirt track. A heavily mustached, tattooed and muscle-bound bloke leers from a Commodore, his vowels exorcised into an ocker drawl. His moll is a picture of suburban necessity, unscrunching her Aussie emblazoned boxers with an expert finger, uggs schlepping on wet concrete despite the tropical heat.


Island necessity breeds innovation in the sweetest style:


And a Sandman lolls insolently on a pebbledash drive:


The whisper of a dope-dealing mafia outpost that is protected “by a pit bull with aids” meets a tangle of rusted metal that marks the final resting place for a burnt-out ute, eaten alive by the sand. A man arrives home carrying an esky and a car battery, his stubbies rumpled from the ferry.


A scrabble of discarded fridges, rusted car bodies, old shoes and plasterboard stamp a heavy urban footprint. It is testament to Russell’s status as a human hideaway, a bolthole for artists, retirees and thieves. Million-dollar properties with waterfront views are lapped by a stain of underprivilege, a greasy scum that floats on the surface of paradise.



But despite the palpable pall of inequity that scents a wary breeze, there is a rich weave of society on Russell island and social debris and the clutter of commonality aside, nature has a way of burgeoning before your eyes, rampant, verdant and wealthy.


Precious wetlands, an abundance of woodlands, mangroves and tall trees, Russell is a conservation locus. It is here, among the whispering grasses, or knee-deep in a rock pool where liquid life churns between cool-skinned bones that this inscrutable curl of isolation truly exists.

Dirt tracks straight and true peter out with a sigh as the bush reclaims its own. Vacant lots have an air of resignation, plots with no plot. While humans challenge and develop and clutter, Russell Island strikes the sound of perfect silence all on it’s own.

And Captain Dave took the Tin Lid crabbing. Which made his little life…