this (coastal) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Melissa Coburn

On the Pittwa­ter side of Syd­ney’s Palm Beach, peo­ple stream along the sand in the same di­rec­tion. There is a bot­tle­neck at the start of the track lead­ing up to Bar­ren­joey Light­house and the crowd slows.

A sign by the side of the track prom­ises a climb of 800m in 15 min­utes.

The track up is smooth now, not like it used to be for decades when it was made from un­even boul­ders and the scour­ing of a nat­u­ral wa­ter­course. It is still steep, though, every step of it. As we climb higher we have a bird’s-eye view of the Pa­cific Ocean crash­ing on Palm Beach, while on the other side of the isth­mus Pittwa­ter glis­tens, calm and pro­tected, the safe haven of ex­pen­sive-look­ing yachts and age­ing run­abouts alike.

Some­times from the west­ern fore­shore, look­ing back to­wards Palm Beach across Pittwa­ter, the spray from the ocean waves is vis­i­ble and I won­der if it is just a mat­ter of time be­fore Bar­ren­joey Head­land be­comes cut off from the rest of Palm Beach, an in­ac­ces­si­ble is­land.

When we reach the light­house we stand on top of the world, sur­rounded al­most en­tirely by water, with Lion Is­land ris­ing from the sea in mag­nif­i­cent iso­la­tion in the dis­tance.

The grave at the top of the head­land marks the burial place of the first light­house keeper, re­port­edly struck by light­ning, although his death cer­tifi­cate records the cause of death as a stroke. The grave used to be over­grown and hard to reach but is clearly vis­i­ble now, the epi­taph car­ry­ing an un­nerv­ing warn­ing to all visi­tors to pre­pare “to fol­low me” for “I in haste was called away”.

Nar­row steps cut into rock take us down the hill a dif­fer­ent way, via Smug­glers Track. The steps have been worn smooth by the pas­sage of many feet. My thongs can­not nav­i­gate th­ese steps with­out slid­ing; I com­plete it in bare feet.

We fol­low a nar­row pas­sage­way through veg­e­ta­tion and over sand dunes be­fore burst­ing out into the noise and bril­liance of the Palm Beach Surf Beach. The sand is darkly golden, the colour of ochre. My feet sink deeply in that vel­vety sand and it is im­pos­si­ble to hurry.

The waves are un­pre­dictable. They erupt on the sand and fan out quickly, for­ward and side­ways, grab­bing at my an­kles and knees as I walk. Sun­glasses fall and are im­me­di­ately swept out in a rip, a strange me­chan­i­cal fish mov­ing fast out to sea. I let them go.

The waves gather height, seem­ingly sus­pended for a mo­ment midair be­fore they crash down on the beach like a cur­tain fall­ing on a stage. I watch every act, mar­vel­ling at the glory of the ocean, at its heart-lift­ing beauty and cheer­ful in­dif­fer­ence, as I savour its salty fresh­ness brought in on the on­shore wind.

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