All of My Sisters in Burqinis are Enjoying Christmas Day at Lady Robinson’s Beach (No 44 – 25 December 2016)

In recent years, I’ve made the tradition of a Jew’s Christmas my own. In the United States that’s a movie and Chinese food. But this is Australia so: a swim, a movie, and Chinese food.

Lady Robinson’s Beach is on Botany Bay between the mouths of the Cooks River and the Georges River.

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European settlers (invaders) named this Seven Mile Beach but it was renamed during the tenure of the 14th Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson. He served from March 1872 to February 1879 and the beach was named for his wife, Lady Robinson, or Nea Arthur Ada Rose D’Amour. The fifth daughter of the ninth Viscount Valentia.

Sir Hercules’ career, Lady Robinson’s as well, reads like a stereotype of British colonial service: Administrator of Montserrat, Lt Governor of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), Governor of Hong Kong, of British Ceylon, of Fiji, of New Zealand, Acting Governor of British Mauritius, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, and Governor of the Cape Colony. Yet, he managed to get home to London to die in October 1897, aged 62.

Their daughter, Nora Robinson, wed Alexander Kirkman Finlay at St James’ Church in Sydney in 1878. The groom owned Glenormiston, a large station in Victoria. This wedding was the second vice-regal wedding in New South Wales and, as such, attracted much public attention – a crowd estimated up to 10,000 gathered outside the church.

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Wedding party for marriage of Nora Augusta Maud, daughter of Sir Hercules and Lady Nea Robinson, to A.K. Finlay, Sydney, August, 1878 (Lady Robinson is seated, facing the bride)

I do suggest reading Sir Hercules’ Wikipedia page. It’s both fascinating and a strange and unlikely tale to be tied to this stretch of beach – which, on Christmas Day 2016 is hosting families from all around the world – a few of whom, were surely, from other places touched by Sir Hercules’ colonial hand.

The day, while breezy, is otherwise a perfect Sydney Christmas Day: sunny, warm but not too hot, not too humid. Just lovely.

Every bit of shade in the reserve has been colonised by a United Nations of families: East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and African. Many are clearly Muslims, some probably Buddhist – the Christians come for a dip and go back to their parties and lunches at home.

Christmas is the day when I feel most Jewish, not that I practice, but on this day I usually feel very much an Outsider. But not here, not at Lady Robinson’s Beach, where today is, mostly, a day for non-Christians making the most of a holiday courtesy of the Christian majority.

There is a busy shark-netted swimming enclosure. Jet skis buzz along the shore. International flights circle, approach from the southwest, and land on Sydney Airport’s third runway while other planes queue for their turn to depart. In the distance, the cranes of Sydney’s port fill the horizon.

I love this beach. I love how it’s a bit gritty in a working class, working port, immigrant families way – the antithesis of the glitzy beautiful-people blonde-haired blue-eyed stereotype of Sydney’s beaches.

There are more women and girls on this beach in burqinis than bikinis.

And I love that too. I love that an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, started a company, Ahiida, to provide swimming attire that allows Muslim women, who choose to abide by dictates of modest dress, to fully participate in this most Australian of activities – swimming in the sea and enjoying the beach.

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I wade into the Bay – the water is cooling, refreshing but not cold. I move slowly to where I’m waist deep then dive in. Emerging I feel a wave of welled and condensed emotions – a rejoicing for my return home, finally, to Sydney, and the easy contentment that has brought me, also some nostalgia for the 19 months of travel and volunteering gone by and the knowledge I’m unlikely to have that kind of open-ended freedom again, and, too, some sadness, for hopes unfulfilled. All of that in the woosh of rising out of the water, raising my arms to splash the sea around me, and then feeling the heat of the sun on my wet skin.

I sit for a time on the beach and write – as I do, an excited family group arrives, first a dad and kids running past me into the water than the younger women, in colourful burqinis, then older women in flowing black hijabs and matching garb. They were all, seemingly, having a really lovely time – while making for a striking scene – these black clad women, wading in the shallows, the planes and port cranes in the background.

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I rode my bicycle home, enjoyed sweet and sour chicken at the Happy Chef then met some new Jewish friends for a screening of La La Land at Bondi Junction.

And so, another Australian Jewish Christmas in the books and a good beach from which to restart this blog.

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Lady Robinson’s Beach was an 13.5 kilometre (8.3 mile) bicycle ride from home.

The portion of the beach which I visited is in Kyeemagh, a suburb in the Bayside Council.

Kyeemagh is a wee little suburb – home to 780 people of whom 37.5 % were born overseas (Greece 10.5%, Lebanon 2.3%, and Cyprus 2.2%). English is the primary language spoken in 44.3% of homes. (All per the 2006 census.)

It’s in the Rockdale State Electorate (Steve Kamper, Labor) and the Federal Division of Barton (Linda Burney, Labor). (It has been a LONG time since I’ve been to a beach represented at both levels by the Labor Party.)

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The Last Beach Before My Travel Began, No 43: Lady Martin’s – 17 May 2015

Is this a bit of a cheat?

I visited Lady Martin’s on 17 May 2015 – one week before I departed for my midlife gap year – but never posted about it.

I don’t want to visit it again so I’m going back to my diary from the day to write it up now.

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Lady Martin’s is a wee crescent of beach at the bottom of Point Piper. I suspect in any other country it would be privately held and divvied up among the millionaires whose mansions hover nearby. These include the current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Of course, when I visited back in 2015 he was fuming on the back benches as Tony Abbott went about his business of losing popularity.

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Sneaky access: the pathway next to the Prince Edward Yacht Club.

Here’s what I wrote then:

There’s real and lovely warmth in the sun – which burns bright when not obscured by clouds. The light shimmers blindingly on the weak harbour waves as they flush ashore with a rhythmic, sleep-encouraging hush.

A flotilla or racing yachts rush past out on the harbour.

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There is a party – a birthday party  perhaps – at the Prince Edward Yacht Club. A one-man-band plays groovy guitar jazz.

Among the party guests are many multicultural, multilingual families – a wee girl speaks French, English, and Russian. But mostly people seem to be speaking French. Which seems appropriate as I realised earlier today that I really will need to learn some of that language.

Had I come at high tide I expect there’d have been little beach to visit as the sand is wet right up to the retaining wall. As it is, there’s maybe five meters of beach running 100 meters or fewer and bisected by the yacht club’s pier.

The beach is Sydney-sandstone golden and surrounded by about a billion dollars’ worth of residential property. It’s a place to really celebrate the decision, early in Australia’s story, to keep beaches, all of them, even little ones like this – public.

It’s lovely. I’m so glad I came.

Next Sunday … will I have time for a beach before my flight?

The following … a river ride and the Giro d’Italia?

Close enough to a swim for May.
Close enough to a swim for May.

Lady Martin’s Beach is in the Municipality of Woollhara, the State Electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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Naked Liberation at No 42 Lady Bay Beach – 22 February 2015

Until recently I was dreading Lady Bay. It is the second of, I think, three  ‘clothing optional’ beaches in Sydney (this one granted that status in 1976). The first in this project was beach No 13: Cobblers.

I am not generally inclined to get my kit off in public. Prior to Cobblers I never had and I found the experience fairly nerve-wracking. Back then (20 February 2011 – so almost four years exactly) I was not as well equipped, mentally, to look at things that made me uncomfortable, step back, and question why. But several weeks ago, thinking about Lady Bay, I asked myself what was the worst thing that could happen? My answers were: someone I don’t want to talk to might talk to me and I might get sunburnt is places I’d really rather not. I realised the former was nothing to fear as I’m perfectly capable of walking away from pesky people and the latter I could take precautions against.

So it was that my friends were more worried about Lady Bay than I was.

I rode my bicycle the 22 or so kilometres to Camp Cove in Watsons Bay from which I walked to Lady Bay. Sydney is an undulating city and this was an undulating ride – up down, up down – Google says ascended 265 metres and descended 276.

Camp Cove looks like a beach and is treated as a beach but is not listed by Gregory’s as a beach so I have not visited it as part of this project. But many, many people are visiting it today. There’s an adorable kiosk dispensing ice creams, lollies and coffee to a steady stream of customers. I have a coconut sorbet and a short black – neither is fantastic but both are perfect after the ride.

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The Camp Cove Kiosk.

 

With my courage enforced by cold creamy coconutiness I walk the 300 or so metres to the top of the stairs leading to Lady Bay. The beach is about 100 metres below the walking path but not far enough for me to miss a quite fit very naked man emerging from the harbour on the beach below.

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I’m here, no time like the present. Down the stairs I go. And along the beach looking for a spot to call my own which is near enough the cliff as to not be too visible to the strolling masses of clothed onlookers above and not too close to other visitors.

I am a little intimidated as nearly everyone on the beach is male – maybe 15 or 20 men and three or four women including myself. The men come in all ages, shapes and sizes. Including two quite heavy, quite furry and, if it’s not too much to say, rather, um, tiny, men who – not together mind you – stand about on the beach occasionally smoking cigarettes. But, you know, whatever. Lady Bay is, I understand, a mostly gay beach so it’s likely none of these men will look at me with even a passing glance of interest.

I am hot and sweaty from the ride and the harbour is calling. Off comes the kit, all of it – and especially the glasses leaving the world a soft blur. So in nothing but my tattoos I stride the 10 or so metres to the water and plunge in … knowing I’m visible to those above and, presumably, those in boats not too far off. And … so what? If they are judging me, what do I care? Not a whisper do I care.

 

It’s fantastic. The late summer water temperature is perfect – just cool enough to be refreshing yet warm enough to be inviting. Even out of focus I know the city is all around me and yet here I am naked and floating in Sydney Harbour. It is liberating and genuinely fabulous

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I wrap a towel about my waist and sit topless feeling the late afternoon sun on my wet skin and watching the light jewel off the water. A young bloke notices my “No 42 Lady Bay” sign and asks about it. He is not, I realise, someone I did not want to talk to – I am happy to chat and tell him about the blog. His name is David and he has a website devoted to Sydney’s nudist scene (www.sydneynudists.com).

It is strange but good – I’ve never met someone in the nude before. In fact I don’t think I’ve conversed in the nude with anyone ever who was not, at some point, a sexual partner. If you see what I mean. None of the gyms I’ve belonged to have been the sort where women wander about the change rooms naked, for instance. Ah, well … I have been to baths in Japan where I did exchange greetings while naked with other naked women but we didn’t converse for lack of a shared language. But David and I chat for a good 10 minutes or so, introduce ourselves and shake hands. All very civil. All very liberating … I can’t come up with an equally good word for it.

I swim again then sit and write for a while then swim again. I would stay longer but I hadn’t arrived until nearly 5 pm and it was now coming up on 6 pm. I was taking the ferry home but it would still take the better part of two hours to get there.

Waiting on the wharf I got some fish and chips and rang my best mate who was awaiting a report on Lady Bay and all I could say was that it was fantastic. Really fantastic. For days after it left me feeling fabulous and strong and like someone who had finally learned the value of asking of myself, of anything I’m feeling worried about, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Lady Bay is in the Municipality of Woollahra, the state electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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You May Have Your Mansion But the Beach is There for All – No 41, Kutti (1 February 2015)

Kutti Beach is in Vaucluse, long the most affluent of Sydney suburbs and still in the top five. Prior to European colonisation the area was home to the Birrabirragal clan of the Dharug language group. They named the whole area, now called Watsons Bay, Kutti.

That the usual Sunday crowds are waiting at Watsons Bay is evident on the wharf at Circular Quay.

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I am set to meet Tom Allen, his wife Tenny and her sister Narineh under the big Morton Bay Fig in Robertson Park at 1 pm.  Tom is a bicyclist and all-around adventurer, blogger, filmmaker and bicycle advocate. I’d been following his blog for a while when he wrote a post saying he’d just arrived in Sydney and would be staying a while. I got in touch and invited him along to a beach outing and he, to my delight, accepted.

It’s not a perfect beach day – the sun comes and goes and its a bit breezy, but its summer, in Sydney, and two of our foursome have just arrived from the UK. (Narineh has been living in Sydney for a couple of years.)

Here’s the thing about the most touristic waterside places in Sydney – if you walk just that little bit further the crowds will drop away.

We walk south past the baths, past the crowded café at the adorable library, and past the Vaucluse Yacht Club. Gibbons Beach has maybe 15 visitors. As we pass through the reserve there I point out the house at the end of the beach of which I’d wondered, when I visited Gibbons, “what sort of life would I have had to live to live there?”

Up to the street, a right turn then another into Wharf Road, and we come to a dead end facing the Vaucluse Amateur Sailing Club.

Having Googled Kutti before coming I knew there would be a narrow stairwell down to the beach and so it was, there it is.

The secret to Kutti is finding the stairs.
The secret to Kutti is finding the stairs.

And so we arrive on an exclusive, obscure, quiet little beach in the heart of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Kutti is about 100 metres long, maybe less, and some 20 metres deep. A couple of very small sailing boats are pulled up on the sand and a dozen or so boats are moored in the bay. Just as we arrive man and his dog, on a paddleboard, return to the beach – both a bit wet and salty looking.

A man and his dog.
A man and his dog.

There are maybe four or five houses that front Kutti Beach. One is for sale if you are in the market of a multi-million dollar home. In many countries this little stretch of beach would have been divvied up amongst these few properties. But in Australia all beaches are public. Tom is impressed.

There are families using the “boathouses” (now more loungerooms/guesthouses with kitchens) of two of the houses – kids are running around, in and out of the houses, into the water and back again. I am sort of amused to see Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags strung on this house  which was recently on the market with an expected price tag of $25 million.

Revisiting the question of what it would take to live here Tom says “good fortune” and I suggest that even if the fortune has been in the family for a century I expect the wealth would have been gained in a way that offends my sensibilities at least a little. He laughs.

The clouds remain mostly at bay; its warm and lovely and very very Sydney. We all swim then sit on the beach and chat about the lives we’ve led, are leading, hope to lead. We swim some more. I take my obligatory photograph and then its time for cold beer back at the Watsons Bay Hotel.

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Before we went our separate ways I even remembered to get a group photograph.

Me, Tom, Tenny and Narineh
Me, Tom, Tenny and Narineh

Then the dark clouds begin to gather making for dramatic light through spray-splashed windows on the ferry ride back to Circular Quay.

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Kutti Beach is 19 kilometres (12 miles) from home. It’s in the Municipality of Woollahra, the state electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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A Riot of Kookaburras and Cerulean Seas – No 40 Jibbon (4 January 2015)

 

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.

On Friday afternoon I spent some time with Australian bicycle tourist and blogger Matthew Harris having drinks and talking travel – our catch up the result of good fortune and the internets.  In the evening while Jonathan Bradley and I had dinner we fell into conversation with Carla and Boris, recently arrived holidaymakers from Germany. (I wrote a thing about the day on my bicycling blog.)

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.

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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.

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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.)

The dickhead and his boat - I'll leave it to you to imagine the music.
The dickhead and his boat – I’ll leave it to you to imagine the music.

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.

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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).

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It seems they may have forgotten this plaque.

 

 

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Is this heaven? No, it’s Bundeena – No 38 Horderns (21 December 2014)

Horderns Beach from the ferry landing.
Horderns Beach from the ferry landing.

This summer’s beaches have created challenges.

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.

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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).

Horderns Beach from the Bundeena Ferry
Horderns Beach from the Bundeena Ferry

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.

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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.

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***

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).

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I Think You Must Leave Australia to Become Fully Australian – No 36 Gunyah (Bundeena) 23 November

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.

19th century engraving of an Aboriginal humpy or gunyah.
19th century engraving of an Aboriginal humpy or gunyah.

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.

Planning - at Little Marionette
Planning – at Little Marionette

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.

The path to Gunyah
The path to Gunyah

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.

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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.

Santa and the Sea
Santa and the Sea
Festive season at Bundeena RSL
Festive season at Bundeena RSL

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].

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