Of steel and salt

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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At the edge of the world

“Renaissance cartographers portrayed the edge of the known world as an evil, enchanted place, where storms raged and bizarre creatures lurked. Sailors foolhardy enough to venture there were believed to face certain death. Yet resolute explorers pushed the world’s edge ever farther back, until the map finally wrapped around the globe.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

This triggered apprehension is the epitome of the Australian Gothic movement – the landscape is seen as malevolent so that terror shrouds the perception of a barren land that resolutely fails to fit a romanticised colonial ideal, that of the bucolic, verdant bounty of England’s green and pleasant lands. It was driven by fear of the unknown, a storm of ‘what-ifs?’ wresting anticipation into the realm of rank foreboding.

Far from the tame, considered beauty of the motherland – coppices cradled in cropped uniformity, ‘shaded lanes‘ and ‘soft dim skies‘ – the end of the world is a helix in time, a sinkhole to the past where the light dances and skulks with staccato resonance, a brooding reiteration of the dawning of time.

“Throughout its history Tassie, as the Australians call it, has attracted a rugged breed of people who have come and stayed. The first wave of Western inhabitants, the convicts transported from Great Britain, came involuntarily; but in modern times the island has held a special appeal for visionaries, explorers drawn to the far end of the earth.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

In a world in which everything has an online representation, Mount Terra, just to the north-west of Hobart, has but an echo of a story. Its contours exist in a vortex, no name, no place, no mark. It is a whisper cast in low-level light, bound by the circles of age that can be traced on ragged skin.

A sculpted muscle on the flank of Mt Dromedary, Mt Terra rises 608m above sea level. Mists swaddle ancient boughs heavy with doused lichen. Speckled rocks and faded green moss never rouse, but an iced bite refreshes the tips of your ears.

The air is bracing – a ‘clean’ you can taste – raw oxygen pumping into your veins like a drug, a soaring invocation of life on the edge.

Australia itself is remote, tucked away from almost everywhere else, but Tasmania – a small island state that dangles like a glittering pendant from the mainland’s neck notch – is about as far from anywhere as it’s possible to go.

And then there’s Mount Terra. So close to Hobart and yet so far removed, with its escapist views and redneck tinge it is wholly of its own. Trees and reptiles shed their outer casings to litter the dirt; skins and furs line the walls of the homes, crouched around wood stoves; and time casts off its mantle, stripping itself bare beneath our curious gaze.

There is a faintly gothic taint: the land is wreathed in smoke and fog, wraith-like vapours caught in curled valleys, pink, heather and velvet-grey tones bruise a faded eucalypt haze, and weathered hulks loom from the shade. But it is playful too, a natural wonderland, rich in soul, and the Tin Lid is quick to find his realm: a shattered trunk becomes a trader’s den, founded on the principles of Bartertown, rocks exchanged for love and long sticks.

Bleached rises soar ever up, strewn with the carcasses of long-hollow timber and burnt out burrows, while the scale, from the minute to the majestic, is awing.


And within this untamed intensity, couched within the wild sparse beauty of the edge, there is a tenderness. Stoves and flames stoke a closeted warmth, and life is carved out carefully:

   

Windows open to the expanse, edges are curled in tight. Rocks and bush poles form sturdy homes that bubble with hard-won laughter and warm toes; the scent of heady wine hangs in the air and produce comes carved from the earth.

In a shiver of sunlight at the zenith of day, we toast to a new life, a world away from the roaring choked grit of the city, and devoid of convenience or clique.

Faded by trial and time, Mount Terra is where shadows race to meet each other and an ancient place exposes its bones. It exists at the edge of the world and yet it feels so familiar, home away from home.

They say that here, time is forgotten. That can’t be, not in our modern world. Perhaps, instead, it has escaped, billowing free in an endless sky.