The Barwon River has a popular bike path and series of parks, it’s a greenspace that should be a high point of civic pride. And I’ve discovered something, something that I feel we could all enjoy if only we knew it were there. It’s an island. It’s our island. It’s Australia. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a look at this:
An island shaped like Australia
Yes, in the Barwon Valley Park, there is an island shaped like Australia. The satellite imagery is years old, the island is now green and the ponds full. My research suggests it was built as part of bicentennial celebrations, but whose idea was it? Why does it exist unmarked? It could be so much better. For one, I can’t really make out Tasmania because it is hidden by reeds. Surely Tasmania has suffered enough indignity.
I visited the island shaped like Australia and it’s not topographically correct. We need to get a cartographer and landscapers down there to more accurately represent our mountain ranges, sand to represent areas of our red deserts, scale models of our cities could be erected, we could literally put Geelong on the map. At the moment it feels like a job half done. Why bother building an island in the shape of Australia if you’re not going to tell anyone about it.
Geelong is a city in transition
Geelong is changing from port town to industrial hub to whatever it is becoming now. Undoubtedly, with the departure of Alcoa, Ford and the constant threat of Shell refinery closing its taps, Geelong is looking for a new identity. Families are fleeing Melbourne in search of affordable housing, beaches and a more relaxed lifestyle. Business are looking down the highway to find new customers and employees. Geelong is on the move. It has to be.
Part of this transition should be celebrating what we already have, a great example of this is the recently renovated Valley Worsted Mills which now houses the bustling Little Creatures Brewery and Dining rooms. Small things can make a big difference, showcasing our creativity and pride will make Geelong an even more vibrant and interesting city. We have to mark the map. Let’s finish the job. I want the map of Australia to be a space enjoyed, or at least noticed, by visitors and residents.
I’m on a 6-day trip down Australia’s east coast from Sydney to Melbourne with my wife, Jo-Roxy. We’re living in a campervan with “crusin” written across the front. I have never driven the A1, usually preferring the Hume for speed. It’s blowing my mind because in my head Australia is never this green in the summer months, maybe in the tropics or something, but this is the same scrubby gum bush that I’m used to seeing as a Victorian except here in this area south of Ulladulla I’m confronted with lake after lake, green literally all I can see in places other than a sparkling blue sky.
I’m driving to see a family friend. She said she has a good surf break nearby and a place to park the campervan and that’s about all I’m looking for. I’m passing known surf spots like Moruya and Potato Point, not having realised the distance required to reach my friend’s place. I’m thinking about all the different places that I still have left to explore, the highway between Ulladulla and Bega diverges from the coast and I’m passing sign after sign for beaches that the only reason to go down the road is you either live there or are going to the beach. And every one of these beaches I pass is a missed opportunity to me, something I’ll in all likelihood come back to explore another day because even as I’m writing this there’s probably 100 beaches with all-time conditions somewhere on that rocky coastline and I’m missing all of it. But plans are plans and to take each of these roads to small coastal villages would seriously derail my timing for getting the hired camper back to Melbourne. Still, they’re out there.
gMaps is telling me that I’m not far from Camel Rock when I pass another sign for a beach, Mystery Bay. I am informed by a friendly local at Bendalong, a man who has more than a passing resemblance to Gene Simmons and images of his dogs tattooed across his breastplate, about a surf spot named 1080 at Mystery Bay. The name, 1080, supposedly, is of a rabbit bait heavily used in the area. I pass this sign begrudgingly. Mystery Bay: the name itself is calling me.
I arrive at Camel Rock. Everyone that I bump into along the way is really nice. I ask a guy emerging from the water in a spingsuit what the water temperature is. I tell him I have a wetsuit jacket and trunks. He says I should be fine. I ask how the waves are, he says, ‘Better than mowing the lawn.’ With this much greenery around I’d imagine that mowing the lawn is a daily encumbrance. The beach, first mentioned by early explorers Bass and Flinders, obviously derives its name from a sitting camel shaped rock. I say, ‘ah, there’s the camel.’ Another local says, ‘One time a tourist said she saw the camel but couldn’t see the hump.’ This causes the man a low-level snicker that I think is supposed to mean that foreigners are less intelligent or perceptive than us hump seeing people.
Of course, as we arrive everyone gets out of the water. Usually, this is a good thing, but as this is my first time surfing Camel Rock it’d be nice to have a guide as to where to sit. The waves are stormy and inconsistent, seemingly breaking wherever they feel like breaking. Their size is at about the top of my comfort level but for the most part are rollers, foam forming at their peaks and gently engulfing the waves face as it rolls toward shore and are therefore not difficult to get under. A rip pulls away from where I think the take-off is and I’m constantly paddling to stay in position. I catch two maybe three decent waves before capitulating to exhaustion, of the waves I catch all I remember is there being a full football field of wave face, enough room to make high speed sweeping turns, the kind of space that makes me start to see what people are talking about when they talk about painting lines on waves – if only I could keep from sliding out and falling on the bumpy faces.
As this is day 3 of our trip, and we’ve mostly been parking overnight in beach carparks, on our return to our friend’s place the first opportunity of the trip presents itself to have a shower. While one of us keeps our host company, the other spends an inordinate amount of time washing salt from their body.
Although I make every attempt to honour the reputation of campervaners, lest their name not be associated with hairy, smelly hippies, right now I’m seriously letting the side down. I need a haircut. I’m having a shower. I’m on my way. My host offers me a beer. An exhausted body, once it feels that carb hit from beer will crave it endlessly until you put the whole thing to bed. Our friend has a view to a lake across the road. We sit on the porch and talk about mutual friends, about how this little area has stayed quiet because it’s on the road to Bermagui and not the highway. The mozzies arrive with the evening. I replace the salt that covered my body with Aerogard. The first beer turns into two, by the fifth I’m out in the van getting more.
The morning begins with a short trip back to Camel Rock to check conditions. It’s smaller than yesterday and I’ve got a full tank of gas and nowhere specific to be. I ask someone what conditions could be like at Mystery Bay. He looks to the sky, the wind, the water, looking for the clues in nature that might suggest conditions at a distant location, these are the codes that surfers peak in, ‘I reckon this nor’western wind swell might just have enough to wrap the rocks. Wind protected from the north too. Doesn’t like a straight westerly swell though. Yeah, probably worth a look.’
We follow the signs from the A1 into Mystery Bay heeding the local directions, ‘Pass the campground, take the first right, at the first 50 sign take a left on the dirt track.’ And as if by magic, we turn left at the 50 sign and find a wooden entry marker, put up by the national park people, for 1080 beach. The track is rough and I’m starting to wonder what really qualifies as an unsealed road as per our insurance, which instructed us that insurance is void on unsealed roads. The track continues for a full kilometre into the Eurobodalla National Forrest creeping uncomfortably close to gnarled trees either side of the track. Despite how isolated this spot feels, as we arrive in the carpark, grabbing our belongings to take a look at the beach, a park ranger arrives and asks if we can move the van so he can mow the grass I’m parked on. We walk out onto a headland where we can see the no waves in all directions. It’s times like this that you wonder if local advice is maliciously wrong or just plain wrong, but soon the carpark fills up with other disappointed board carriers. Jo-Roxy and I body surf the small shore break. Everyone who arrives quickly leaves and we have the beach mostly to ourselves. The water is brisk, even in a wetsuit jacket, but is clear and bright blue at the same time. As I duck under each wave I open my eyes and watch the tumble of water folding over on itself above penetrated by sunlight, shade cast by white water momentarily turning everything dark. After the wave passes the bright blue melds with the distant deep water and messes with my depth perception and I can’t tell how far I’m really seeing and if what I am registering is just distant nothingness. The mystery at Mystery Bay might be in the water just out past the rocks but I’m not the one who’s going to look.
The surrounding countryside is rich with places to visit. Tilba Tilba proves to be charming, the scene of a cooking show based upon the English River Cottage, no doubt it’ll be overrun with culinary tourists in a year. Our host calls and invites us to an evening kasundi party. We buy preservative-free, organic sausages for the inevitable BBQ at the kasundi party from a Scottish guy at a farmer’s market who breeds and slaughters his own lamb and pigs. I say he must stay pretty busy, he says he doesn’t notice anymore as either rearing or selling his animals is all he has time for. This news takes the shine off the life I had been contemplating since entering Tilba Tilba.
The kasundi party is hosted at a small one bedroom fibro house on a double block that has lake views from both the front and back yards. I ask how this is even possible. ‘We’re on beauty point,’ is the answer. I pull out my phone to look at a map but have no reception. Good.
Kasundi is an Indian relish, so a kasundi party is basically a pickling or canning party. It all feels very appropriate and commune-ish. I’m tasked with deseeding and finely chopping a large paper bag of green chillies. Others are dicing tomatoes. There is a distinct lack of sharp knives. The owners of the house have two young boys, Tom and Angus. Tom talks, a lot. He knows an incredible amount about nearly everything and tries to tell you all of it at the same time. His younger brother Angus has learnt to pick his moments between the avalanche of information pouring from his brother, quietly announcing insights to the human condition without fanfare. For an 8-year-old he sounds a lot like late career Tom Waits. They live in the mountains that lie a couple hours drive inland, Jo-Roxy asks Angus which he prefers. He cups his chin with a clenched fist, takes a pregnant moment to answer, lets the suspense build, extends an open palm away from his body, ‘Beach, bush, river, me: doesn’t get any better than that.’ I finish chopping my chillies and the ingredients are combined with a full rack of spices inside in a huge pot which is then left on the stove. It starts to rain heavily causing everyone present to huddle on the small porch. A fire in a cut open 44-gallon drum burns defiantly on the front grass. Tom details the world’s top-5 most poisonous spiders then lists, in order, his favourite cuisines. I speak with the boys’ father whose profession is floating up and down rivers killing noxious weeds and replacing them with native vegetation, I didn’t even know that could be a job. I shouldn’t be surprised when the sun goes down directly in front of their house, lighting up the lake all kinds of beautiful colours, it is called beauty point after all. We eat sausages in bread and various salads. Desert is gluten free cake. Angus finds another opportunity to speak and contributes: ‘I made a chicken skewer sandwich one time. When I bit into it there was something hard. It was the skewer.’ We leave the party with two small jars of kasundi that have accompanied nearly every meal I’ve eaten since, there is nothing kasundi can’t make better.
We drive onward. We pass more beaches, more opportunity to explore, more waves to find. Surfing is the excuse to be out here, but really it’s the people, places and the experiences that fill time between waves that you relish.
Donald. It’s hard to know what to say about it. This is where my father’s side of the family has been for generations. Nearby towns Boort, Wycheproof, Birchip and Charlton come up frequently in conversation but I’ve never visited them. I find it almost impossible to believe there is anything past the flat fields that spread in every direction like a flood. My Dad grew up on a farm, which is mostly sold now. My uncle and aunty live in my Dad’s childhood home on the last 300 acres.
My Dad purchased a spare Volvo as a parts car for his other Volvo. He’s storing it at the farm. We drove it up there, I suppose it’ll be its last journey.
While holidaying on the beaches of the Otway ranges this unseasonably cool summer it has been natural for holiday makers thoughts to turn away from beaches and to the spectacular forests inland. My interest in Forrest Brewing was piqued after a visit to the Wye River Pub, where I tried a stout from the mid-sized bottle that have become Forrest Brewing’s trademark. Arriving in town from the Great Ocean Road Forrest Brewing is difficult to miss, a one level former general store with BREWERY written across the silver corrugated roof in gigantic letters. A circular sawblade painted with the Forrest Brewing logo is the first indication of the origin of the township’s name and its former industry.
A glass window looks from the dining room down to the small brewery where Matt Bradshaw diligently experiments and produces 800 liters of beer a week. The pub serves four beers, the sourish silvertop, a floral but cleanly-balanced pale ale, a mid-strength Irish red ale that manages to pack in a bunch of malty flavor and the stout which had encouraged me to visit in the first place.
I found Matt deep in process of creating a specialty beer that will only be available at this year’s Geelong’s Great Australian Beer Festival. The forest location had given him inspiration, ‘I went out last night and foraged for a bunch of blackberries, I’ve been inspired by European fruit beers and am experimenting with a blackberry Belgian ale.’ Mid brew he inspects the fermenting liquid, ‘I’m hoping it doesn’t come out a bright purple.’
Of the breweries four permanent beers the pale ale comes the closest to 5% ABV, a decision literally driven by the requirements of having a destination brew-pub. Says Matt, ‘You’re either relying on the 170 residents of Forrest to buy your beer or you make sure people can still drive home after trying the product.’ A ‘tasting pallet’ of five samples at the bar will cost you $8 and comes in at 2 standard drinks. When asked if the experimental beer would follow in the same pattern, ‘Well,’ smiles Matt, ‘hopefully no one is driving home from a beer festival.’
I grew up on the Victorian surf coast in Australia. I learnt to surf on an 8’ funboard with electric blue bottom and cream deck at Ocean Grove. I spent my summers dodging closeouts and nippers at Wye River, the sandbars were always going to sort themselves out with the next easterly swell or river flood – neither did. Pulling on wetsuits year round was normal, cold water was the only water I knew. Booties meant you didn’t have to come in direct contact with floating kelp. From Point Lonsdale to Torquay to Aireys Inlet, there wasn’t a beach break I hadn’t surfed, still too much a novice to brave the reef breaks, still scared of waves over 3’ and usually one of the few surfers under 25 in water dominated by grey hair, rotund bellies and
beaten-up longboards. I remember the lineups being quiet, dawn patrollers a hardy bunch who were there to surf and left the yakking to the carpark. The sky nearly always low and surfers in the perpetual pose of bare hands in neoprened arm pits to keep warm.
Nearly a decade has passed and I’ve spent the majority of that living overseas. I’m now about to hit my mid-thirties and base myself in LA and leave when water temperatures drop and booties become a necessity. I’m probably more committed to surfing now than I ever have been, having finally developed the skills to competently ride a shortboard, skills I only really dreamed I’d ever have, and developed beyond a fear of rocks and reef breaks. When I arrive at the beach I’m now hoping to find waves over 3’. I never thought that the older I became the more surfing would become the thing that I do with my life, the star by which I navigate.
I’m home for Christmas, like all good sons should be. It’s summer but I’ve arrived to a Victorian cold snap that should transform into a minor heat wave in a few days, the old saying will always be true of Victoria – If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. I’ve been at the beach for dawn patrol, shivering in the light layers of clothing I though sufficient for a Victorian summer while packing in early winter LA. But the cold has been welcome, I feel committed to my surfing, as though making a sacrifice for the thing that I love. Dad has leant me his ‘88 Volvo with 355k on the clock before the odometer broke, a car to which he has strangely attached five roof racks, saying that he carried an eight meter piece of concrete board the other day as way of explanation. The radio has been updated and the central locking works, but most other feature are malfunctioning or not working at all. But the Volvo runs strong and has ample room in back for my board, sadly making the five roof racks redundant.
With the radio up loud, vibrating the loose interior of the Volvo, I’ve been driving to the surf coast’s more famous surf spots, shivering on wooden viewing platforms, climbing down stairs to beaches partly wind protected by prehistoric limestone cliffs waiting to see the sets. The tough sand dune scrub and dull, wet-looking sand lit in patches by shafts of light penetrating cloud. The surf hasn’t been even remotely excellent, but I don’t care. The beaches that I surfed as a teenager are transformed, opened up to me by an increase in competency and experience. Waves where I once looked and thought, Well that’s for the good surfers, I can now conceivably sit on the shoulder at Bird Rock, Beacon Point or Winki, in the clean cold water that to me will always taste like oysters, and hope one or two waves swing wide.
Victorian surf culture stems from these surfers, the ones not running from lips but seeking them out and bouncing off them as though spring loaded, painting long curved lines on the face looking to get back to the power, the same surfers who are going to be building your house when they get out the water, or installing plumbing and electrics, or working the local supermarket, maybe teaching your kids. Although, these days they’re just as likely to work marketing for Rip Curl. These are the brave and reckless surfers, the nameless black wetsuited surfer you look up to. Victorian surfers have a worker’s ethic, the cold isn’t an issue because you get up and go surfing and that’s what you do, you just get on with it regardless. Having been exposed to Southern Californian lineups where competition is fierce and everyone is calling each other off waves and pecking orders are obvious and guarded, Victorian lineups are quiet, spread out, the assumption seems to be that if you don’t know better you shouldn’t be in the water. A long stare at someone dropping in has about the same effect as an expletive laden rant does at Topanga. Novices are ostracized until they learn.
I don’t want to make it sound unfriendly, because it isn’t. And being an outsider is part of the aesthetic. There is simply a unique rhythm to surfing here that it’s taken me a moment to adjust to after surfing elsewhere in the world. And the more surfing I do on this trip I see where my commitment to surfing stems from, where my relationship with water and waves began, my own personal surfing culture is so heavily influenced by Victoria’s Surf Coast, where surfing isn’t the white sands and warm water of Bondi or Snapper Rocks, where there aren’t beaches full of half-naked sun bathers, where the only reason to be at the beach is to walk the dog or go surfing. The natural environment is unforgiving, uncomfortable, and that breeds a sense of belonging, and respect. I’ve long enjoyed surfing alone because in Victoria you never are alone, you’re enduring the conditions with everyone else, all committed to the same goal of riding a decent wave or two before you thaw out and real life takes your day. Surfing Victoria isn’t more or less clean and pure than it is anywhere else, this isn’t intended as a comparison, to be honest there are better waves elsewhere, but the surfing life here doesn’t feel like something you do to keep fit, or to train for competition, or to win favor with those half naked people on the beach, or because someone has their camera out – there is nothing impressive about it, it just is what it is, surfing because surfing is fun and grounding and the best reason to get out of bed on a cold morning.
I’ll keep making my morning pilgrimage in my Dad’s Volvo to visit those viewing platforms, always hoping to see the iconic sets wrapping into the Bells bowl. But even if the surf is consistently awful I’ll feel good, because I’m there and I’m committed and I’m part of this thing that makes me feel like I belong to this nature of cliffs, wind and rocks and to my home.