Marion Bay

A sea of wide-awake, azure blue swollen with a navy-blue shadow beneath its surface. The smell of salt expands my nostrils. I stretch my arms out as if it were possible to embrace this big, pure, magnificence, stretch on and on as if my finger tips might touch its edges…on a calm, perfectly sunny day like this, with that winter freshness still against my cheek, I walk along this huge beach, feel at once gloriously big and small, the waves rolling in quite gently, yet I know how wild it can be on other days, but even on a calm day the sea sends mist across the sand.

Over towards the inlet, said to be treacherous, where the boats go out to sea, the aqua-marine water laps at my feet in whispers, enticing me to plunge its crystal depths. Gulls line up along the edge. Over this way it is so quiet that when I walk I can hear my shoes chew the wet sand.

Hard to believe that at other times a four-wheel drive might blast this silence like a crass advertisement, leaving behind a long scar of tread and the hovering stink of diesel. This is also the place where some like to gather with their vehicles and boats for recreation. What are they recreating, I wonder, with their need for speed and noise? What impulse pushes them to growl at the quiet and gouge the landscape?

Behind the dunes, near the car-park, is a settlement of shacks – some fortressed with wire and shut-out-light glare. Their on-guard appearance seems odd in contrast to the openness of the sea side. Further along, just before the road crosses over that lagoon-like stretch of water known as Blackman Bay on the map, a broken sign says: WARNING DANGEROUS CURRENTS AND … I think of how you might choose to finish this sentence were you the owner of one of those houses standing exposed in its square of space, reinforced by security lights and barbed-wire running the length of the fence line.

Across the channel the low hills are dense with trees. A few small, green dwellings merge into the thickness. There’s an old jetty so clearly outlined in this light, it seems to be within easy reach, and beneath it a mirror reflection of brown rocks and the tree-thick hills. This is the place to sit and breathe, in and out, slowly, calmly. A boat comes in, the channel stirs and to my left the sea’s sun-lit jewels dance.

Marion Bay, for me, is a long memory of treasured times spent with friends. Twenty plus years ago I started walking on this beach with friends: afternoon walks on the weekend with conversation and day-packs, group get-togethers to celebrate birthdays, sunny late morning wanders with our dogs.

Echo and I used to come here regularly when we lived in town. Echo the colour of sand, shone like the sun at Marion Bay, her little brown nose sniffing the air as she walked beside me. When we sat together on the sand she became mesmerised by the pattern and sound of the water, at one with its rhythms, beyond thought but full of knowing, her eyes eventually closing and her head nodding as the fresh air and sea chant sent her to sleep. Later there was Jiggs, a much younger soul even when she became an old dog, who ran up and down bounding with energy, covering twice the distance the rest of us walked, her puppy-like smile in total appreciation of this extraordinary place. I am especially saddened to now know that it was dogs and their careless owners who were responsible for the demise of the bird life here.

I’ve celebrated a number of birthdays at Marion Bay over the years – I remember once there were about six of us and we came here with baskets full of gourmet picnic goodies, but it was too windy on the beach, so we settled ourselves down into the dunes out of the wind and cheerfully tried to stop our excited dogs from kicking sand onto our food, as we drank champagne and dipped our Turkish bread into hommos. In the dunes the greeny-blue grasses, needle-sharp, are off-set by the soft, white-grey sand. On overcast days the intensity of this blue-green on white-grey is deliciously mellow.

My most recent birthday celebration at Marion Bay happened on a gloriously perfect autumn day, warm, still and full of sparkle – a paradise day. We got there late morning and met up with an old friend who’d bought a crayfish on her way back from the peninsula. Three of us sat in the sunshine eating crayfish, rolls and fruit, wearing our good fortune in being here like a new skin. Later we went for a walk towards the northern end of the beach, each of us stopping at different points for a rest and each of us from a distance, looking like tiny bits of coloured seaweed hardly visible, marvellously insignificant against nature’s immense backdrop.

Today I am the only person on this beach, a little blob of red and black on the sand. This is the place I longed for years ago, while sitting on a beach crammed with people, not far from Amsterdam. When I described it to my Dutch friend she thought the prospect of being on such a big empty beach, terrifying. But I am not alone here. My spirit jumps with glee, as I walk amongst the seaweed drifts and the tufts of rubbery succulent, sprouting tiny purple flowers sturdy as ever in the sand, reminding me it’s nearly spring.

Yet in these very moments, as I celebrate planet earth’s enduring beauty, I am also acutely aware of the historical price paid by those who once belonged to this place – the bands of the South Oyster Bay people – whose eventual demise shaped the kind of wild emptiness I know as Marion Bay today. When Nicholas Marion du Fresne anchored his ship at North Bay in 1772, the people of the South Oyster Bay area had their first contact with Europeans, and as described in historical accounts, it was ill-fated. The unfortunate clash that occurred resulted in the first killing and wounding of local people by Europeans. Marion du Fresne sailed on to New Zealand where he was killed in a clash with some Maori people. The power of an eighteenth century imperial European heritage that still has us calling this place Marion Bay, after such a short visit by the French navigator, seems astonishing to me. What was the name of this place before Marion came here? So many questions and so many lost answers.

Today at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as I walk along this shore, I absorb mostly its vast naturalness, grateful for the refuge it now provides in a world wrecked by war and environmental vandalism. I watch clouds constantly change shape as they drift over Maria Island which sometimes looks like a giant, lolling whale. The chequered pattern of farmed hills overlooking the beach, the crisp winter light, the sea’s deep breathing at the base of my chest, all tell me something about what matters. Sometimes what matters is wild and windy, and whips me around – no chance for sitting then. Sometimes what matters is the wrestling that has to be done with the tragic twists and turns of history. Sometimes what matters is the sea flat and lazy, or the cool, damp hardness of autumn sand. Sometimes it’s the deep, green tunnel of wave, the perfect curl. Sometimes what matters is the boundless energy in walking forever, it would seem, along these shores, on and on and on, the closer you get to reaching the end, the further away it looks to be.

For there is another kind of emptiness here, that is both nurturing and uplifting. It is not the emptiness born of historical tragedy, nor is it that cliched "there’s nothing here" emptiness still misunderstood by tourists who favour more crowded spaces. Rather, it is an emptiness that takes me to my centre, and requires a kind of surrender to the landscape, even if for only the time it takes to go for an afternoon walk. An openness to a deeper organic pulse that somehow transcends mere physicality and gives me an insight into what it is to be human, beyond words, beyond the demands and routines of everyday language and culture.

Today is Monday. Worldly success, for me, is being here on a Monday if I want to be. I look at this place and hope the fly-by tourists will find it too cold, too quiet, too outdoors. I hope the get-rich-quick developers who don’t like taking no for an answer, will be swallowed up by the bond of land and water. Freedom for me, is not wanting the pizzazz that has you win and others lose. Success for me, is an on-going conversation between work and play, getting beyond the separation. In absorbing this big, yawning, late-afternoon beach as the sun heads for the hills, I feed on its exquisitely creative atmosphere. The sharply silhouetted hills feature the few remaining trees on top. They look like a display of paper cut-out decorations against a sky awash with crimson. I head back over the dunes, take in a last glimpse of the sea, as usual it is difficult to leave.