The strange summer continues as I’ve had to skip another (and hopefully the last) of the Hawkesbury beaches which can only be reached from the water. I will visit number 39, Hungry Beach, along with numbers 35 (Gunyah – Brooklyn) and 37 (Hallets) in due course.
I got up this morning and didn’t dawdle. I was going to the beach without delay.
I catch the bus to the Queen Victoria Building and the train from Town Hall Station to Cronulla Station and, from there, walk down to the ferry wharf. A riot of kookaburras are laughing their heads off in an oversize gum tree. The sun is hot. The air is steamy. A ferry’s worth of passengers await the 12:00 pm crossing.
With the arrival of the New Year my mind has finally turned fully toward my travel plans; my big bicycle ride begins in April with a hit out around Australia for a few weeks before moving to Europe in late May. I feel like I’ve opened myself to a traveller’s life and a traveller’s experiences even while still in Sydney.
Now here it is Sunday and I’m seated in the bow of the Bundeena Ferry surrounded by people speaking many different languages in many different accents. Opposite me two women of a certain age are chatting, they are wearing beach moo-moos and sun hats, gold jewelry compliments fresh manicures. What language are they speaking? Something Eastern European. At times it sounds German: und, nicht – but at other times it doesn’t sound like German at all. I am reminded I know nothing of Eastern European languages; I’m so ignorant I can’t even guess whether they are speaking a German dialect or Hungarian or Romanian.
The water is cerulean, shimmering and beautiful. As we near the pier I can see both Hordern and Gunyah are crowded and many passengers await the return journey. Disembarking I am greeted by more laughing kookaburras; I never tire of that sound.
Jibbon is about a 15 minute walk from the ferry wharf. It’s 750 metres of curving beach stretching to a bush-covered headland which is part of Royal National Park and home to some Aboriginal carvings. A flotilla of pleasure craft are moored mostly at the eastern end of the beach while sun bathers and cricket players favour the western end. I find a patch of shade near the midway point. I sit and I write until a swim beckons.
The water is cool but inviting and perfectly clear.
A dickhead arrives in his big motor boat, he is alone and middle-aged. He swims then sits in the sun with one of the worst radio stations in Sydney cranking from his sound system. “How’s the midlife crisis going?!” I shout but he can’t hear me over the doof-doof pouring from his speakers and making the water pulse with the bass. (Okay that didn’t happen – the shouting, the bass.)
I sit on the beach trying to ignore the asshole and feel the sun and wind dry the sea on my skin into a fine dusting, a slight crust, of salt. I will enjoy feeling this on my skin the rest of the day and will sort of hate washing it off this evening.
Jibbon is 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Five Dock. It’s in the Sutherland Shire Local Government Area, Heathcote State Electorate (Lee Evans, Liberal) and Cunningham Federal Division (Sharon Bird, Labor).
I should have begun with No 35 Gunyah (Brooklyn) – up on the Hawkesbury – but it can only be reached from the water so I need my mate and his boat at a time that works for us both and the weather is amenable. I broke my rules and skipped to No 36 Gunyah (Bundeena); No 37 is Halletts – another Hawkesbury beach with water access only – has been added to the boating list. Which brings us back to Bundeena for No 38, Horderns.
I’ve failed to find the connection but I presume Horderns Beach is associated with the Hordern Family – the 19th and 20th century retailing dynasty. They of the now defunct and demolished Anthony Hordern & Sons – once the world’s largest department store (on the site of what is now World Square); also, of course, the Pavilion, the Fountain (at the corner of Pyrmont St and Pyrmont Bridge Rd) and a scattering of heritage listed homes.
An American work colleague of mine, Joe, has taken an interest in this blog – which is lovely – he lives in Cronulla and his mother is visiting from wintery Michigan. I’ve taken the train to Cronulla, where we will meet and catch the ferry across Port Hacking to Bundeena.
Awaiting their arrival at Grind I spot a kid who couldn’t have been more of a stereotype if he tried: about 12-years old with sun-bleached, salt-sculptured nearly shoulder-length hair; his skin was golden, his eyes were blue; he strode barefoot on the hot bitumen like he’d never worn shoes. When he finished helping him mum and he rolled past on his skateboard it was to a soundtrack of Forever Young (in my head).
Joe is a big – as in tall and athletic – gregarious guy. He’s a genuinely nice fellow, interested in others and always smiling. I like that Joe, unlike a lot of the other Americans who come to work for the Australian Baseball League, determined to live near the beach, had chosen Cronulla and, once there, had thrown himself into life in the community and made a lot of local friends. His mother, Bianca – not surprisingly is equally outgoing with a big exiled Noo Yawka personality (life has taken her from the Big Apple to upstate New York then west to Michigan following her husband’s academic career – but it’s clear that “New Yorker” is very much a key part of her identity).
On the ferry Bianca regales us (and perhaps embarrasses Joe) with stories of her son, her daughter, her husband and life in Michigan. Once in Bundeena we wander up the hill to the RSL for lunch – I again have the fish and chips and they are, again, excellent. The RSL is exactly as it was two weeks ago … same Santa decorations and tinsel and baubles, but now they’ve added a Christmas tree beneath the plastic eternal flame.
Then we go to the beach. It is a good, if not perfect, beach day: hot in the sun but with a cooling breeze.
It’s busy but not chockers. There are family groups enjoying picnics and barbeques in the shade of the fig trees while others have erected tents and umbrellas on the hot exposed sand. The usual multicultural colourwheel of Sydneysiders are here: a Muslim family getting their charcoal grill going, a group of Asian students engaging is a supersoaker battle royale, European backpackers, and a ramshackle mix of mongrel Whitefella Australians.
Hordern is a long – 200 or 300 metres – shallow curve of sand stretching west from the ferry wharf. The eastern end, where we set up, is separated from the town centre of Bundeena by a park. Along the rest, houses, lovely enviable houses, face Port Hacking and Cronulla beyond with only the beach and scrubby dune between porches and the beach.
We swim. The water is shallow and clear; it has warm pockets and cool ones; the breeze blows goosebumps onto my wet, exposed skin. Bianca speaks of snow drifts and compares Bundeena favourably with heaven.
I sit on the sand warming in the sun when my friend Jim arrives and we join the others back in the water. Bianca tells a tale of bringing baby Joe home for the first time just after a blizzard in Syracuse – “Remember that Joe?” she asks and Joe smiles that smile of resignation to a parent’s repetitive joke.
When we’ve been in long enough Joe and Bianca move on to Gunyah while Jim and I retreat to the RSL – I’m becoming a regular.
Look, it was a nice visit but returning to the same suburb so soon (and knowing that the final beach in the Bundeena triptych – Jibbon- is just around the corner) took a little of the excitement and adventure out of the day. Still, it was lovely. It was Sunday, the sun was shining warmly, the water was mostly pleasant … any complaints would be frivolous.
Horderns Beach is 30 km (19 miles) from home (via the shortest route to Cronulla and the ferry). It’s in the Sutherland Shire Local Government Area, Heathcote State Electorate (Lee Evans, Liberal) and Cunningham Federal Division (Sharon Bird, Labor).
It’s late November and this is only the first beach of the summer. I’ve been delayed by the hopes of sticking to my rule of visiting the beaches in strictly alphabetic order. Beach number 35 is Gunyah (Brooklyn) which can only be reached from the water so I’ve been waiting for my boat-owning friend’s schedule to mesh with mine on a day with fine weather. It’s proving a challenge so I decided to break the rules and set No 35 aside to press on to No 36.
There are, I think, a couple of same-name, different-location beaches to be visited in this project but these are the first and they couldn’t be more distant from one another. The beach at Brooklyn is on the southern side of the Hawkesbury at the very northern reaches of Sydney. The beach at Bundeena is some 100 kilometres (62 miles) south on the southern shore of Port Hacking at the very southern reaches of Sydney.
Gunyah means “an Aboriginal bush hut, typically made of sheets of bark and branches” and is derived from the word ganya from the Dharuk Aboriginal language – meaning “house or hut”. If you are interested in knowing more about the homes built by Aboriginal people this blog post is a good place to start.
The cicadas were screaming as I left my place – beach umbrella under one arm, swimming gear piled in a bag in the other – to catch the bus to Annandale. Laura and I have taken to meeting at Little Marionette when we are heading out someplace. She lives in Annandale; I take the bus there and she drops me back home afterwards.
Walking to the café I began thinking of my departure next year. I’ll be off for a long bicycle ride around Europe and other places and expect I’ll be gone about a year. I was thinking of my mates seeing me off at the airport and I got a little teary … it’s still 26 weeks away. Oh, wow – six months today.
I’ve been reading Dr Caroline Ford’s Sydney Beaches: A History– she quotes a letter to the editor from the early 20th century suggesting how a properly deployed towel will provide the beach goer all the modesty needed to change from street clothes to swimming attire. I’ve felt for some time that my willingness to use this method was a proud mark of my Australianness. And so it was, that we changed at the car – towels used to cover what modesty decrees should be covered.
There’s a charming, discreet, narrow and steep path down to Gunyah. The beach is just east of the ferry pier but around a small rocky headland so, while busy, it wasn’t teeming with the masses. It runs maybe 150 metres or so – a shallow curve of maize-coloured sand from one rocky platform to another. The beach – neither wide nor narrow, perhaps 20 metres deep – backs, in part, on to bush but otherwise on to houses. Including an adorable holiday house which seems stocked with surfskis and paddle boards.
There were families and groups of friends. A few fishing lines were in the water. A scattering of boats were 100 metres out. Further out in Port Hacking sailing boats tacked back and forth on the choppy water. The sounds were of waves lapping/crashing (what’s louder than lapping but softer than crashing?), jet skis in the distance, children’s voices and women’s laughter.
We planted our gear and plunged in … Laura first, and with expediency. Although I know better, I tip toed in as I do – when the water tickled my ribs I counted to three and dove in. The water was deliciously cool and, for being so near one of the world’s great cites, so very clear – slightly green, running to a hazy horizon kissed by clouds, but higher – a sun-blasted sky, the blue burned out. Once in, the sea was lovely, cooling, relaxing, a space all its own. We were hanging, floating – just suspended, toes dancing on a sandy bed. Kids were floating in an inflated ring while boys were throwing around a football and newbie paddle boarders were trying to find the magic.
I love it, I love being here, in this water, in this city and I will miss this project when I’m away next year. Missing this project will be but one piece of missing this city. But I will try, when possible, to spend time near water on Sundays while I’m travelling and to write about them here. I like that, I like that idea.
As we emerged back onto the suburban street from the narrow path up from the beach a woman asked Laura if this watch, left on a post, was her’s – it wasn’t but it was mine. I must have dropped it when I got my camera out as we arrived. The woman seemed a little sceptical that is was mine, but it was. I love Australia. My watch isn’t worth anything but I think in many places someone would have pocketed it. Here someone had found it and put it in a prominent place hoping the owner would find it – and I did – thanks to the woman who asked Laura about it but hadn’t actually found it herself.
The sea and saltiness made the choice of seafood for lunch so obvious as to not really require discussion. To the Bundeena RSL we went – the Irishwoman taking orders at the bistro warned of a long wait but we weren’t in any hurry and ordered fish and chips and crumbed calamari rings. We got cold beers and waited while looking out at the sea past the Santa Claus decorations and admiring tinsel and cheap baubles strung on the ceiling. The RSL’s Eternal Flame is a bulb behind red flame-shaped plastic situated above a picture of the beach. The Queen – perpetually just coronated – takes in proceedings from over the doorway. Blokes are sitting near the open windows but have their backs turned to the azure sea so as to watch the One Day cricket on the TV.
Lunch was lovely – just the right amount, cooked well, good chips, and nice diverse salad. Walking back to the car – a pair of parrots, green ones, darted from a bush and attacked Laura. Well, one ran into her and both the bird and Laura were startled.
On our first stop on Gunyah I’d forgotten my sign in the car – now armed with that we headed back down for a few more photos but when we got there the water was again so tempting we plunged back in – and it was just as lovely as before.
We sat a little on the rocks, in the sun, drying and talking about choice and fear and recognising the difference between can’t and won’t. A toddler was exploring the rocks, making full use of his limited grasp of balance – parents with an eye on him but 10 metres away. It was good to see a child that age allowed to explore like that.
The mistiness seemed to be gathering into threatening clouds as we got in the car – but it held and we stopped at the Audley Weir for cups of tea and thick, rich brownies. The tail-enders were still scattered about the park and out on the water in the rental paddle-boats. A very buff dad – shirtless and in boardies – and his five year old son tried to figure out how to throw their boomerang.
We drove back to the city enjoying our lingering saltiness and thinking our various thoughts of what we had to do … today, this week, this month, etc.
I love Sydney and we spent a certain amount of time talking of our mutual love of our adopted town. Laura is contemplating a career-driven temporary move to Asia. The worst thing about that for her is leaving Sydney. And I know exactly what she means.
As much as I am looking forward to my big adventure next year – the excitement, the discovery, just leaping into an unknown space – I’m going to miss Sydney and Australia with heartbreaking intensity. I know there will be times when I will weep lonely tears for the place and for my mates here. I know that I will look longingly at photos of Sydney and that I will watch, through teary eyes, cheesy awful things like the Qantas choir singing I Still Call Australia Home.
I will be away from Australia long enough to truly feel Australian. I think it’s an important rite of passage for Australians: to go away long enough to really miss it – to imagine the smell of bushfires and eucalyptus, the particularity of the huge blue Australian sky and the sound of the birds: the cry of the kookaburra, the chattering racket of the cockatoos and the screeches of the rainbow lorikeets.
But that’s all months away yet. In the meantime this summer awaits and with it as many beaches as can be managed.
Gunyah Beach (Bundeena) is 52 kilometres (33 miles) from home. It’s in the Sutherland Shire Local Government Area, Heathcote State Electorate (Lee Evans, Liberal) and Cunningham Federal Division (Sharon Bird, Labor) [Wow! A Labor beach! I don’t know the last I’ve visitied].