Of steel and salt


Renegade and tumbledown, Newcastle Ocean Baths are a still life in concrete and rust, skeletal girders and pockmarked slabs slick with the patina of summer: ice-cream wrappers wrinkle and skid bombing gracelessly into the depths, cream is smeared on lips and hips, its oily sheen rainbowing the water, and drifts of sand and chicken salt cling to the softest part of toes.



An echo of a simpler life, the utilitarian beauty of the baths is scorched, degraded and rusting alive, concrete cancer a virulent viral decimator. Band-Aids swarm the drains, bawling nanas corral their ratbag charges with promises of sweaty pocket-fluffed lollies, and the lifeguards are snoozing in splintered towers.


Clouded green shadows entice the Tin Lid and his besties in, a concrete bollard chained to the depths their end game. Snorkelled up, riots of high-vis swimmers crowd the ragged edges, soft skin splitting and weeping. Bombing, howling, stalking and raging with delight, they trawl through sun-stretched days, exposed hides pinking in delight.



Amid a haze of saltwater, Winnie Blues and tea in polystyrene cups, ice-cream-crusted piccanins barrel into crumpled mothers endlessly searching for lost thing, while goggles get smashed…


The cool depths of this one-time deco darling are a magnet, drawing swimmers, lovers, pirates, hippie-chicks with salt-crusted locks and old men who gamble using long-dead crab carcasses. It is a microcosm of life at the water’s edge and the epitome of cool relief on a blistering day.

Newcastle MirageShane Williams

The baths and pavilion crest the edge of the world on a wave-cut platform, a lifeline between ocean and earth. Opened in 1922, at one time this was a sparkling jewel in Newcastle’s mercantile crown. Today, authorities bluster and frown, conservation vs gentrification an epic battle of wills. The Young Mariner’s Pool was carved out of the stone for the ‘tinies’ in 1937 but was so popular with all ages it had to be extended. Today the Canoe Pool is a glorious knee-deep wonderland, crusted edges, flaky form and brimming with bodies.



A turquoise geometry defines the business end of the baths, numbered pedestals queuing for attention, bleachers bleaching in shards of light, spectators blooming like algae on wet rocks when the races are on.


Beyond, however, is the land of big rollers, endless pounding walls of water that drench and scour. Storm drains peel from fragments of land with bite-size jags, spewing water in effervescent efficiency, and ocean crevasses swallow your mind whole, a one-way trip to Narnia bathed in acid-green kelp.

Here council approved ‘protection from the elements’ dissolves pitifully into the raw fabric of the earth, studded as it is with razor-sharp rock, staunch in the face of crashing surf, sluicing tides and the stink of decaying flesh. This is an entirely new reality, and one the children, unsurprisingly, take to with alacrity…


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This is the land of trawlermen and surfers, back-flipping teens on the hunt for fresh-fleshed girls and a mob fishing for flatties off sea-grass rocks. Memories are enshrined, shrines memoried, and shadows cast long.


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Roachy, La Punk, the Waterman and the Cowrie Hole boys send their love.

Frilled out into the endless blue, this scratch of land holds endless adventure, roaring with sound and spray. Its depths are watery homes glanced through glass, its heights cumulus nimbus curls.


And it is home, for a short while, a reminiscence of childhood, the immediacy of now palpable.



Time feels inert as if stolen from another generation and laced with the narrative of a simpler story, a no-frills nuance on reality. It offers up a borrowed sense of freedom while sluicing free the anxiety and exhaustion that shackles itself to us all, the aggressive silent partner in this modern-day marriage.

With crabs clutched in salty hands, tangles of hair sucked dry, we straggle home as the light fades, the only recourse hot chips beneath a mantle of cawing gulls and teenage attitude.


A tale of two cities

Australia’s only tropical capital,  Darwin gazes out confidently across the Timor Sea. It’s closer to Bali than Bondi, and many from the southern states still see it as some frontier outpost… But Darwin is a surprisingly affluent, cosmopolitan, youthful and multicultural city, thanks in part to an economic boom fuelled by the mining industry and tourism. It’s a city on the move but there’s a small-town feel and a laconic, relaxed vibe that fits easily with the tropical climate.

                                                                Lonely Planet, 2014

The last time I was in Darwin it was 1998. My world was aflame with anarchy, and I spent my time stomping solidarity into the dirt at Jabiluka, in protest against the threat of a sister uranium mine for Ranger. The wetlands of Kakadu, to the east of Darwin, and the Mirarr people whose land it is, face an ongoing battle with the deadly removal of yellowcake, though there are significantly fewer protest buses to help these days…

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In town, our days were spent parked up beneath the shade of the pepper trees on the Esplanade, toes curled into still-damp buffalo grass, brewing up tea in the billy, lounging, laughing and alive with the heady fervour of our campaign. At night, catching stars in longnecks, we would sleep on the grass until the rangers’ devious 5am sprinkler plot to move us on forced a retreat to the back of the Falcon.

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It didn’t matter that you couldn’t swim in the ocean; the seedy yet strangely exotic confines of the Hotel Darwin, a colonial dear who struggled with her hearing, brimmed with salt water and draught beer, potted palms giddy sentries that lolled against time-worn walls. Her crackly pool cradled hot bodies flush with Thursday’s dole cheque, and her patina was flecked with hiccuping shadows as the sun fell into the sea.

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Or we would drive out to the cool green waters of Howard Springs, a red-dirt slash deep in the jungle 35kms south of the city, and sink into a waterhole teeming with barramundi the size of small crocs that would brush up against our pimpled skin with lascivious delight.

Now? Like a sullen teen in a skin-tight dress and heels too high, Darwin is all show and no substance, her flesh exposed yet promising nothing. The Esplanade is off limits, save for a bikers’ meeting fringed with TRG (Territory Response Group, a tactical police division with a reputation that snarls). Howard Springs is barred to swimmers, a tacky playground for the kids where the fish look mournfully up sensible skirts. And the city skyline is cleaved in two by towering cranes that vibrate with the angry buzz of machinery from below.

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Darwin has its toes in the saltwater and its ears in the dirt. The nuances of its character have been forged by the tough-as-guts mentality of a people who thrive in this remote outback space, surrounded by water too dangerous to take a dip in, survivors of Japanese air raids during World War II and a cyclone that levelled the town in 1974 (Tracy, you bitch). They have a reputation for stoic understatement; “yip, it was blowy…”


Herald Sun

But the muscly brawls and stubbied banter I remember has been replaced. The Hotel Darwin was the victim of concrete cancer they say, though in a curious coincidence the demolition crew came in just 24 hours before the heritage order was slapped on her creaking frame, razing her to the ground to make way for a tourist village, which is, at its best, oxymoronic.

And the seditious lawlessness that holds hands so coyly with frontier towns the world over seems to have been cold shouldered, dropped in favour of cosmopolitan gated living and frozen yoghurt.

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There is art beneath the cranes, and there are glimpses of the glory that is the tropics:

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There is tasty looking wildlife:

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and more art:

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But this brash young thing is all about the glitz and the glamour of her newest attractions, from the neon holler of the waterfront precinct – STEP RIGHT UP FOLKS, PLENTY TO SEE HERE! HURL YOURSELF INTO THE TREATED WATER! NO NASTIES! YES! WE HAVE FROZEN YOGHURT! AND A WAVE POOL! AND BANDY-LEGGED SECURITY WHO WILL ENSURE YOU ARE CONTAINED AND SOBER AT ALL TIMES! WHAT COULD BE BETTER? – with its metallic sand and murky depths, plastic tat and high-rise prices,

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To her overly expressive signage, for those with little imagination I assume.

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Somethings remain steadfastly Territorian:

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And on a night out on the tiles the Cowboy and I glean more about Darwin’s botched facelift. A fella who does hair and his pretty Indo girl (fabulous hair) talk of excess, of salons across the Territory, Asian brides, fast lives and digging up Bagot Road just to use up the cash that is splashed around by the government.

Sipping genteelly from a fishbowl of lurid liquor, Damon explains that the Territory belongs to Canberra. It is wholly owned. So there’s little chance of a recession here, propped up as it is by the government, the military, tourism and mining. That also means no self-governance, but who needs that when there are rickshaws peddled by long-legged scantily-clad backpackers and late licenses and an armada of tacky hotels that breach the Esplanade like a badly steered invading fleet?

And really, who doesn’t like a gas mine off the coast, what with its dutiful employment record and killer profits?

At least Mindil Beach hasn’t changed much, with its smoky tang and bubbling lilt, the heady brew of a cosmopolitan society who still throng to watch the sunset over Fannie Bay:

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And the sprinklers still work:

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There are moments that are ripe with the past – the girl with bi-polar and a sad story shares her chips beneath the whine of Baby Don’t Hurt Me; squaddies bail up a ringer in for a big one and shout him a night on the piss; Jesse, curled into a ball, sleeps beneath his ute, the healer in the back on guard; and an old fella invites us to go crabbing at Lee Point, “but mek sure youse brings plastic feet eh? Der’s crocs up der” – but mostly the city is concrete and steel, sapped of memory, its faded glory lost to the shadows cast by progress.

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Heading inland, away from this flirtatious fringe with its skyscrapers and sun loungers, the sky reveals a ancient horizon. I can’t help but think that Darwin, with her blowsy revamp and hefty shopping allowance, has turned into a spoilt little rich girl, pearls dripping from freshly shot ears and diamonds on the souls of her shoes where once bare feet and a broad smile sufficed. More is the pity. 

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The road out of town