Australia Day and the beach


Mindil Beach, Darwin, 2013 (not Australia Day). Photo by Bob Wilson

There’s nothing much planned here for Australia Day (aka Invasion Day) except a trip to the (doggie) beach and an evening neighbourhood gathering at a local park.

You won’t find much flag-wearing/waving, lamb eating, dunny-racing, gumboot-tossing fervour in this essay, probably because I am among the 16% of Australians who think a national day of commemoration is unnecessary.

(Robbie Burns’ birthday (today) being the exception to the rule – Ed).

The headline item in a recent Australian Institute survey was that 84% of Australians believe it is important to have such a day. The Australian Institute survey also found that 56% of us don’t care which day it is held, just as long as we have one.

Then, if you want to buy into the ever-growing Australia Day shouting match between the extremes of the conservative side of politics and the so-called bleeding hearts, 49% of people surveyed said Australia Day should not be held on a date that is offensive to our indigenous people. (Here, here – Bob and Ed)

The other 51% probably thought there was nothing ill-timed or insensitive about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement (a year ahead), of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia. Earlier this week the PM said the government will spend $6.7 million to sail a replica of Cook’s boat, The Endeavour, around Australia in 2020. The circumnavigation would be managed ‘sensitively’, Arts Minister Mitch Fifield added, and will present views both from the ship and from the shore.

The circumnavigation should, all things considered, lead to a lot of beach traffic, where sightings will be sought of The Endeavour in full sail. No mention of the fact that then Lieutenant Cook didn’t circumnavigate Australia on his journey here.

Life’s a beach – unless you live in Birdsville

If you were one of the 225 people in the national survey of 1,417 who don’t see the need for a national day of commemoration, you should at least spend part of Australia Day at a beach.

Although Australia’s vastness straddles three oceans, we are in but 7th place when it comes to countries with the longest coastlines. Canada wins, by a long margin.

Where Australia has the advantage, when it comes to people who like to surf, swim, fish, walk or just lie in the sun, is that we have 11,761 beaches, about 3,000 of them suitable for surfing. Furthermore, the weather is suitable for beach activities all year round in most States.

It could be argued then, that the quest for an ideal beach is far easier in Australia. Ideal in this context means a beach where there are as few people as possible, like one of the remote beaches of New Zealand’s East Cape. Of course, I am assuming you prefer to walk on a deserted beach instead of sharing a swathe of sand with 40,000 people (Bondi). And there are plenty of seldom explored beaches to go around if you are keen. You can get to them by driving (4WD), walking, or by boat or helicopter. No mystery as to who uses them: Australia has 5 million fishermen, 2.5 million surfers and 110,000 members of Lifesaver clubs, for a start.

Beach-loving surfer Brad Farmer wrote a book in 1984 documenting the country’s best 1,200 beaches across six states. It didn’t stop there. In 2000, Farmer and his pal, coastal scientist Professor Andy Short, agreed to collaborate and produce the benchmark of Australia’s ‘best 101 beaches’. (Queenslanders may be miffed to find there were only four beaches in the top 20 for 2018, even if No 1 was Fitzroy Island’s Nudey Beach.)


Cape Hillsborough, kangaroo beach, photo by Bob Wilson

I have not read Farmer’s book, but hope that Cape Hillsborough near Mackay got a mention. This relatively small beach, surrounded by a national park with steep, walkable headlands, is inhabited by kangaroos, often seen on the beach and in the water. We’ve been there twice, the second time (left) it rained.

Farmer, who is now Tourism Australia’s global beach ambassador, wrote a piece in The Guardian Weekly in which he did not mention Australia Day once, although he believes beaches form an integral part of our national identity.

Even if you don’t belong to the majority who believe it is important to celebrate Australia’s place as a first world, mostly tolerant democracy, you could at least look to some of the nation’s virtues. A quest for the ideal beach is not a bad way to appreciate living in a spacious, mostly convivial and civilised country. Since 85% of us live within 50 kms of the coast, it is an inevitability that most of us will spend some time at one of the 11,000+ beaches catalogued by Brad Farmer.

Within an hour’s drive of our well-populated coastal strip, one can find a surf beach, a beach where the snapper are running, a flat, shallow beach suitable for small children, a (long) stretch of beach where dogs are allowed off-leash and so on.

Those of us who like to combine bush-walking with beach-going can have the best of both worlds in places like Cape Hillsborough or Noosa National Park. If you’re not fond of crowds and looking for some splendid isolation, you can clamber down a makeshift track to a small rocky beach and just enjoy it; sketching, writing poetry or just contemplating (until the tide comes in).

However, you can see how beaches can become crowded at peak times. Sydney’s Bondi Beach (2nd) somehow made its way into a list of the world’s top five most crowded beaches. The others are Ipanema (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Coney Island (New York, US) Brighton Beach (UK) and South Beach (Miami US).

Tourism Australia research reveals that 75% of inbound tourists nominated visiting beaches as their number one choice of experiences. Occasional media reports of bluebottle plagues, shark attacks and crocodile sightings never seem to dent visitor enthusiasm.

Farmer, a beach enthusiast since he started surfing at 24, recommends choosing your beaches discerningly, based on all the elements you are looking for. In our case, a long, windswept beach where the tide goes out a long way is an ideal beach upon which to let dogs off the leash. Of course it must be a designated dog beach and owners must carry poo bags at all times.

He suggests that, increasingly, people are looking to combine their beach holiday with a digital detox. To do so, one must seek out the unfashionable, hard to get to beaches with poor Wi-Fi. As Farmer says (and perhaps he had Straddie, Bribie or Moreton Island in mind), they must be the beaches with “weathered characters with yarns as deep as the salt in their veins and a pristine natural environment”.

“These low-key, under-the-radar beaches are often the ones that create lasting, formative memories for our children and the beach child in all of us.”

So think of that on Saturday, while you are sun-baking, swimming, walking, surfing, fishing, playing cricket with a tennis ball or just simply walking the dog.

The lamb roast is happening on Monday.

Further reading: FOMM back pages

My friend Angela writes lively travelogues including this tribute to Queensland.

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