this (coastal) life
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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