August 27, 2016
The Back Beach, that wild stretch of coast west of Wonthaggi between Coal Point at Harmers and the Mouth of the Powlett, was my family’s Shangri-La. My great-grandmother wished to revisit this stretch after breaking her hip so was motivated to exercise and walk again. My grandfather, like scores of other miners, regularly walked/pushed a bike with a long-line rod attached, out past Lake Lister to the surf. My parents trekked to this favourite spot with their parents and friends. My siblings and I, too, felt the pull.
Miners, especially during strikes, forged the tracks, fishing, crayfishing, rabbiting, mushrooming, blackberrying – anything to bring home food for hungry bellies. One pit comrade often dropped a few crays over our fence: “Cliff, they’re becoming too heavy to carry. You’ll have to have a couple to lighten the load!”
Excitement built to a crescendo when we were allowed to make the trip unescorted. Our ages ranged from four to 13. What to take: food (sausages, bread, sauce, cake, fruit), matches, a wire griddle, mugs. What to wear: school shoes, usual clobber, bathers. (Remember the days of three lots of clothes: best for church, second best for school and knockabout?)
The route was from the end of Broome Crescent, diagonally across the paddock to the Rifle Range, due west through the paddocks (under the barbed wire, avoiding cow pats and cattle), through the scrub past the air shaft, a brief stop at Lake Lister, up over the sand dunes and down to the beach.
We could run, scream, shout to our hearts’ content but we were always mindful of the time – listen for the mine whistles to know when to start for home. Then for the trudge home, hot and exhausted, donning shoes to get over the hot sand. Beachcombing treasures soon became too heavy so were stashed under a trackside shrub “for next time”.
(In later years the area changed after the Soil Conservation Society Authority planted marram grass – this stabilised the dunes but altered their shapes. The springs disappeared, interdunes becoming thickly vegetated.)
Our route home sometimes veered to the slope at the end of Wishart Street where we would pick a bunch of spider orchids and an armful of gumtips for Mum. We completed our satisfying sortie, a day of camaraderie, communing with nature, trusted by our parents with great responsibility for ourselves and our environment. It had fostered our love of the outdoors, knowledge of our district and led to life-long passions.
One of my brothers and his friends camped for a week, residing in a hut made of driftwood, in this idyllic spot. Subsisting on spring water, they caught fish or fell back on tinned sausages and vegetables.
The next generation has been introduced to the site, enjoying the same pleasures. Excitingly, they discovered a “military” piece of metal half-embedded in the sand, not to be approached. It was reported and a special squad from Melbourne deactivated and removed it.
Now a further generation has visited – when old enough they, too, will walk the tracks.
Our clan recalls many special times at the Back Beach: a whale and calf off the rocks, by-the-wind sailors lining the tide-line, a thylacine sighting, quicksand at Lake Lister … our Shangri-La.