You won’t find Woonona beach in any guidebook. It’s two kilometres of gently curving sand at the edge of a formerly working class suburb of Wollongong—which, like pretty much the whole of coastal Australia, has some beautiful beaches. In Wollongong you can walk for hours from beach to beach, along the sand or along walkways and cycle paths at the top of the beach if the tide’s in. Woonona, though, is my favourite.
In some ways it’s special because of its ordinariness. There’s something about it that reminds me of the beach in that excellent Edward Burns film No Looking Back. I love that film for its small town feel, its real-life characters and genuine emotions. It’s also got a brilliant cast: Edward Burns, Lauren Holly, Jon Bon Jovi, Blythe Danner. Their quiet desperation is played out by an always empty beach where the wind never stops blowing.
A period of quiet desperation in my life was spent walking along Woonona beach. There’s nothing that a beach walk can’t solve. I’m a beach-in-winter kind of gal, and when I first moved to Woonona there were times when I had the whole crescent of it to myself. I remember walking on the hard sand at the water’s edge, watching the sunlight turn the waves a glassy green. There were silver backed gulls and huge pacific gulls wheeling above the breakers. Tiny hawks hovered over the vegetation in the dunes. Way out on the horizon the container ships lined up, waiting to unload at the port to the south. When the sun began to set it went down like blazing magnesium tape behind the escarpment.
The beach changed every day. I don’t know why, but that surprised me. It was as if the beach was a physical representation of what life was trying to teach me: there is always change. Sometimes the beach was strewn with dead cuttlefish, white and fleshy and rotting. Sometimes there were beautiful pebbles, worn smooth and glistening. I once found a grey pebble with a perfect circle of white quartz in it. One day the beach was full of sponges and someone put a bar of soap next to a sponge. That made me laugh out loud. When there was a king tide or a big storm the beach changed shape completely and after a while it was hard to remember what it had been like before.
I used to ask a lot of questions as I walked along Woonona beach. I was looking for answers, trying to see all the angles, hoping and wondering and praying. On one particularly memorable day I threw out a prayer that went like this: “Help. I need backup. I need a home.” The answer came, in the form of a phone message, as soon as I finished the beach walk. Like I said, there’s nothing a beach walk can’t solve.
This week I went back to Woonona to visit a dear friend and to walk on the beach. We started at the northern end, near the saltwater pool where we’ve both done many laps in summer. This also happens to be the spot where, in 1770, Captain Cook and his crew were running low on water as they sailed up the coast in their “discovery” of Australia. They left the ship and set out in a small boat to look for water on land. But, according to Cook’s diary, there was “giant surf which beat everywhere upon the shore” and the little boat was leaking too much so they turned back.
The best part of this story was that there were four men from the local Dharawal tribe walking along the beach at the time, carrying a small canoe, and they pretended not to see Cook and co. Just imagine their conversation. They’re out on the beach, probably about to go fishing in a more secluded spot where the surf’s lower, when they see some really odd-looking creatures bobbing about in a strange type of canoe. “What is that?” “Whatever it is, I don’t like the look of it.” “What are they wearing?!” “Who goes out when the tide’s like that?!” “Just keep walking. Maybe they’ll go away.”
Dharawal is apparently also the original name of the trees that used to grow all across the region. We call them cabbage palms today because that’s what Banks called them when he first saw them, on that same trip when he and Cook tried to come ashore for water. They do look a bit like cabbages on long sticks, but I wonder whether Banks actually named them that because he’d just had his dinner. Perhaps he’d had a meal of cabbage (to keep away the scurvy) and claret (because they were low on water) and that’s what his slightly inebriated imagination came up with.
This picture of Cook sits on a plaque at the top of Woonona beach. I love the way that he looks resolute, so formal, while all the little photos that make up his image are of smiling, relaxed looking people.
As we walked along the beach this week my friend and I caught up on each other’s lives. We asked questions and nutted things out and looked at all the angles. The sand was cool and wet underfoot and the autumn air was surprisingly hot. At the end of the walk we rolled up our trousers and paddled in the sun-warmed water pooling by the rocks. It felt glorious, so we did it again. My friend commented on how good we were going to feel after walking and talking and paddling our feet. She was right. We did feel good. All our worries seemed smaller, left behind on Woonona beach for the tide to wash away.