Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

things about byron bay

Last weekend I went up to Byron Bay for another leg of the Travelling Film Festival. Byron is ten hours north of Sydney by car, but a skip and a hop if you’re flying and that’s what I did. It’s one of the most popular destinations in Australia, an alternative oasis famous for its music festivals and also for its otherworldly tropical beauty, amazing beaches (of course), and balmy climate. I was only there about 40 hours and really couldn’t form a judgment. But here are some thoughts and impressions.

Last tango — The trains to the airport were down on Saturday, and rather than catch a bus I decided to cab it. At Central Station the first taxi I saw zipped past where I was standing; without really thinking about it I jumped into the street and waved it down. When I got in, the driver apologized for missing me at first. I told him it was no problem; being from New York, I’m good at catching cabs. He laughed and said he was not surprised; he told me a story about another customer, an old lady in her 80s, who flagged him down with shocking vehemence, and it turned out she was a New Yorker.

We continued talking in an unforced way all the way to the airport. He was a charming and well-spoken older man from Hong Kong; his father was Irish and his mother Chinese. When he heard I’d been working for film festivals he seemed pleased; it turned out he was pretty savvy about films. He said he used to be a photographer and worked for various magazines. It’s always melancholy to hear a taxi driver talking about a former career like that. Could be me one day.

I randomly mentioned Midnight Cowboy in light of our conversation about New York taxis. I sort of gingerly danced around the fact that it’s about a gigolo, not knowing if that kind of thing would put him off or not. But then he asked if I’d seen Last Tango in Paris. He described visiting the building in Paris where it was filmed, and all the while I was somewhat amused to be discussing that film with a stranger. Then he asked if I’d seen Emmanuelle. Then 9 1/2 Weeks. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this. I countered with Eyes Wide Shut and tried to change the topic.

He told a story about how when he was a boy in Hong Kong, his father, who worked in theater, arranged an audition for him for a bit part in a Chinese movie. Grimly I wondered if it would turn out to be something X-rated. But the conclusion was that a young Bruce Lee got the part instead. He also showed me a wrinkled photo of him standing smiling with Muhammad Ali. I wondered if there was a secret connection tying Ali and Bruce Lee to Marlon Brando.

I shouldn’t make too much fun. He was a good guy, and I enjoyed talking to him. He might just want to tone it down a bit with the mature content.

Talking about the weather —  My flight landed at Ballina Airport on Saturday afternoon as the sun was getting low. I really enjoyed the shuttle bus ride from Ballina to my lodge just outside Byron Bay. The lush tropical landscape of the area (very different than that of Sydney) was pretty stunning at sundown. One leg of the ride ran along a height overlooking Byron Bay, immense and luminescent with the dark arms of the Cape and Tweed Heads embracing it in the dusk.

There were few other people on the shuttle, but one of them was a man who seemed to know the driver. I listened to the two of them talk the entire way. Both were about the same age, perhaps a few years short of retirement. They talked back in forth in a loud but cheerful and pleasantly rhythmic way. There’s something great about listening to people talk in a different dialect of your own language — especially if they happen to be older people who are less influenced by the media. You can understand most of what they say, but their unfamiliar cadences and tones are continually disarming. It’s a lot like listening to music.

They talked about the weather a good deal. That’s usually dismissed as small talk, but if you listen to someone who really knows something about weather it’s pretty fascinating. Both men had been farmers, or at least lived on farms, at different points in their lives, and they displayed a keen understanding of weather patterns. It was a pleasure to hear them trading expertise and anecdotes about southerlies, warm air rising, and fog so thick you could have walked on it. They went on to talk about a lot of other things, and I kept listening with interest. They had a way of sounding knowledgeable, whether the subject was local business, or cars, or the alternative music festivals of the area. I was impressed by a certain quality — I believe the old fashioned word for it is “wisdom.” I enjoyed what it indicated about the character of average Australians. As the shuttle bus rolled along through the tropical dusk, I felt a sense of satisfaction about living here.

In general I could probably listen to strangers talk all day. I’d like to get into writing conversations down and working them into stories or screenplays.

Slackness — I’m starting to realize that the service in Australia is going to be shit, and I should just get used to it. On Saturday night I went into town to have a beer and some dinner with my friend Merc, who had driven up from Glen Innes to hang out for a day. Merc is from Sydney, but has also lived in New York, and has his own perspectives on life in both places (which can be found at Postcards.21C, his blog). As we ordered our drinks and food, the poor quality of the service all around became a running joke. Again, no one was unfriendly or rude. But there’s this maddening tendency of waiters and bartenders to drop the ball in little ways, constantly. You’re standing alone at an empty bar, and the girl who’s working there just doesn’t seem to register you at all; she’s talking to a friend. When she finally comes around, there’s no smile or greeting. You order a local ale, and the tap is empty. She doesn’t explain or apologize, just leaves you hanging while she goes to look at it. She comes back and says it’s not going to be possible to have that kind of beer tonight. This is how it is everywhere you go.

As we drank our hard-earned beer we tried to analyze this nationwide epidemic of slackness. Don’t get me wrong; I think Aussies are as friendly, hardworking, and as sound as could be — as epitomized by my shuttle bus driver and his mate. But what is it when they get behind a counter? As I said, my Aussie wife thinks it’s because there’s no tipping here. I may start leaving cash lying around and see if it helps. But Merc reckons that deep down Aussies associate “good service” with “being subservient” — in other words it’s too much a reminder of colonial days — and will never really value it. So I should probably get it out of my head soon or I’ll go nuts.

By the time we got our check, waited fifteen minutes for the guy to come back, and had to take it up to the counter ourselves, we were laughing about it, so I’ll probably be OK. Anyway, my pizza was good, the beer was good, and the conversation was good. It was great to hang out and eat at an outdoor table on a balmy late-autumn evening in the tropics.

The most easterly, etc — The next morning Merc and I took a walk on Cape Byron, renowned as the most easterly point of the Australian mainland. In fact when you’re visiting, you get used to hearing this phrase all the time. “I’m going to Cape Byron tomorrow.” “Oh, great, you know it’s the most easterly point of the Australian mainland?” And indeed, when you get out to the Cape itself, there’s a sign saying, you guessed it, “The Most Easterly Point of the Australian Mainland.” Can we start abbreviating this as TMEPOTAM?

It had poured rain all morning, and the temperature had cooled considerably from the day before. But even with the overcast and the remaining patchy drizzle the Cape was duly spectacular. It’s quite a small and stubby cape compared to the epic glacial formations on America’s east coast, but its rugged heights were impressive — peering down at the sea a queasy distance below me, I realized it’s probably the highest height I’ve been on in Oz. The cape is built of some kind of rock besides New South Wales’ ubiquitous sandstone due to some very ancient volcanic activity in the area; the dark, rough, cracked stone seems to be perpetually crumbling into the sea. I marvelled at the electric aqua color of the water, which was unaffected by the overcast; it looked lit from within. There’s a beautiful chalk-white lighthouse dating from 1901 overlooking everything.

I enjoyed gazing out to sea from TMEPOTAM, amazed that there was no land at all between where I was standing and Chile, unless you accidentally blew off course a bit and bumped into Norfolk Island. Sadly none of the Cape’s famous whales were in sight. On the north side we had a terrific view of the Bay, a shallow, sandy curve stretching away for miles up to Tweed Heads. Twice we glimpsed a huge manta ray jumping out of the water not far from the Cape’s rocky beach. Not something you see every day.

OzyMex — Getting back to town, Merc spied a Mexican fast-food counter called OzyMex and almost jokingly suggested we try it. Just before I’d just been griping that there wasn’t any good Mexican food in Oz at all. With some arrogance I agreed to test my theory. But I could tell as soon as I stepped in that they knew what they were about. They had a bold, creative menu with all the right lingo (many Aussies wouldn’t know what a torta or a habañero is), and their house brand of hot sauce, Byron Bay Chilli Company, was prominently displayed on the counter. Next thing you know Merc’s talking to the owner, a bearded gentleman behind the counter, and of course it turns out he’s American, from southern California. So the jury’s still out on Mexican food in Australia, made by Australians anyway. But the guy was really friendly, told us the story of his business, had us try the sauce (fantastic), informed us that one of his flavors had won an international salsa award in Santa Fe, and in general was a great host without leaving the counter. (I wish he could train all of the town’s bartenders.) My quesadilla and nachos were awesome, and I bought two bottles of the the sauce and a chocolate chilli brownie. I’ll definitely be going back to this place.

Bohemian combo — I had a bit of a wander-around and did some shopping. As I said, Byron was formerly known as a hippie enclave; but it has become such a tourist destination that it’s gone quite upscale, and the shopping has become very serious indeed. The main drag and several side streets are clustered with shops and boutiques, with restaurants, bistros, and music clubs to match. There are some legendary outdoor markets in the area too. I think a lot of people come here mainly for the shopping. There’s still a strong alternative flair here; yuppies and tourists mill about shoulder-to-shoulder with hippies, surfers, skaters, punks and other feral types. Rather than thinking of it as gentrified or sold out, in fact I’ve always liked this kind of upmarket/bohemian combo: it tends to give a neighborhood a lot of variety and character and make it feel like anything goes, anyone is welcome, and you can get anything you want from independent music to expensive wine.

In one shop called Stoked (of course), I picked out a really cool, beautifully custom-designed T-shirt from a label called RVCA; when I asked the woman at the shop if the company was local, she told me it was American. Well I’ll be damned. Hadn’t heard of it before; what do I know about cool labels? Anyway, it turns out the company has a really interesting business plan involving artist collaborations; I’ll be keeping an eye out for their stuff now that I’m onto it.

The films — I saw two French films on Saturday and Sunday nights: Korkoro (Tony Gatlif, 2009) and A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009). Both address marginalized communities in France, but that’s the end of what they have in common. Korkoro is the story of a band of gypsies struggling to adapt their lifestyle to the changes wrought by World War II in occupied France. It’s by turns freewheeling and very grim, with dreamlike moments. Traditional gypsy music in modern arrangements forms a strong element of the soundtrack. (Director Gatlif is a musician himself.) I valued the film but did not love it; its tone jumps around a lot, perhaps intentionally, but that didn’t work for me; and it kept focusing on the characters I cared least about. But the production is rich, the music great, and I’ve never seen a more intimate portrait of these near-mythical outsiders, who lost 25% of their world population in the Holocaust. It made me want to read more about them.

A Prophet ended the festival on a grim note, as Sarah (in her last hurrah as TFF honcho) admitted in her intro. It’s the character study of a young Algerian in prison and the desperate means he takes to survive in a corrupt world ruled by gangsters. Audiard takes the Scorcese-influenced material and plunges into darkness, showing us a brutal world with no morals as we know them and little hope. Yes, these are clichés of gangster films, but Audiard has a way of making them raw and painful. I can see why the film has won awards left and right; in addition to the compelling plot and the jaw-dropping performance by Tahar Rahim, the visual design is masterful. Audiard paints a grimy, suffocating institutional hell with little incandescent light or color; and almost cruelly scatters a few achingly beautiful dream sequences as relief. Running through the film is a fascinating, subtle thread of Islamic mysticism, offering a flickering hint of a way of life outside the abuse and bloodshed. This is not a film to enjoy, but the skill and dark vision with which it’s made are undeniable.

What else?

Amazed by a clear night sky filled with constellations unfamiliar to me.

Saw Paul Hogan’s house. I think.

Watched two guys surf a wave in a sea kayak for a really long way, a couple of hundred yards from the end of the Cape right into the Bay, and resolved to try that at some point.

Had a great dinner with Sarah of the TFF and her mates.

Saw my first sugar cane fields.

Will definitely come back and stay longer next time.

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sketches of newcastle & wollongong

In the past couple of weeks, the Sydney Travelling Film Festival has appropriately enough given me an excuse to do a little travelling in my adopted country. I haven’t had a chance to get around much outside of Sydney — I have a whole continent to explore — and it’s a great thing to visit new places even in a small way.

Last week my wife and I drove to Newcastle (a couple of hours north of Sydney) to meet her parents, who live not far away on the Sunshine Coast, and attend a TFF screening of Masquerades, an Algerian comedy co-written, directed by, and starring the super-talented Lyès Salem. My review can be found at Feral Kid, my new page for various ramblings on film, music, and culture.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to write about Masquerades on this blog or the new one. This will remain a page devoted to my life abroad, travelling, and other thoughts about the world. But seeing this film tied into those concepts. On a simple level, it’s a terrific glimpse into the lives of Algerian villagers in the Aurès mountains, a place I know little about. Incidentally, with the World Cup fast approaching and Algeria taking part for the first time in 24 years (the only Arab or Middle East nation in the tournament), I know Masquerades will cross my mind again.

It also could not help but remind me of my time at the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi last year, an experience that’s inspired and shaped a lot of my thinking lately. And the Travelling Film Festival is all about bringing a little of that inspiration to the folks in small towns. It’s just great to be in a theater on a Sunday afternoon in a smallish town in Australia with a hundred or so other people and get into a funny and poignant film starring a charmingly moody Algerian comic actor in an England track suit. And to know they enjoyed it. (My wife’s parents loved it). This is the world I want to live in.

After saying goodbye to the folks, who were staying for another film, we took a walk. It was my first time in Newcastle. I was surprised to find out my wife had never been there either.

We walked down to the foreshore. Along the way I had to table my desire to visit the hobby store not far from the cinema. I’ve never seen a bigger hobby store: it has to stretch fifty yards or more, and judging by its huge window displays, seems to be filled with so many model airplanes and boats, Lego sets, Playskool toys, puzzles, board games, and action figures that I could probably spend all day and not see it all. In such places I tend to quickly forget I’m supposed to be an adult, and make pretty bad company.

It was yet another lovely day. My first autumn in New South Wales has been two months straight of breathtakingly nice weather: sunny, hot days; cold nights; clear skies with fluffy cartoon clouds highlighting that staggering antipodean blue. You might put on a sweater in the morning and get sunburned in the afternoon. I moved here for the great climate, but it’s captured my imagination in ways I didn’t expect.

The Newcastle foreshore is an industrial zone that’s been partially redeveloped with parks and recreational facilities according to the current worldwide trend. But unlike other urban waterfronts, Newcastle’s industry has not dried up: it’s actually the busiest coal-exporting harbour in the world. Ambivalent as I am about coal, I’m firmly in favor of mixed-use planning.

The foreshore is impressive: it stretches for a couple of miles along the harbour formed by the estuary of the Hunter River. There’s multifarious waterfront activity as far as the eye can see. Looking in the other direction, the park looks like a nice place to spend time. There are a number of older industrial buildings converted for public use or upscale commerce — standing in one area I saw three restaurants. I’m guessing it only gets better; one could walk all the way down the shore to the end of the peninsula and end up in Pacific Park — which I expect is a pretty awesome place to see the coast. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for such a walk. I’ll have to cover Newcastle in more detail later.

We made our way back, stopping at a café to have lunch before hitting the road. Here I managed to get in a bad mood. I’ve been warned before about slack service in Australia, especially anywhere out of the city. This was the case here. I don’t want to name the café or go into detail; my intent is not to be scathing, and no one was actually rude to us. In fact when they paid attention they were friendly. But the slackness was kind of depressing. There were four people behind the counter and they were apparently overwhelmed by the lunch shift. They somehow couldn’t keep up with clearing the tables or keeping their work station clean, they had run out of a lot of the things on the menu, and they just kept dropping the ball with service.

In these situations I always ask myself, am I just a grouchy New Yorker? I guess the simple answer is yes. But it’s frustrating when you know some basic organization could solve the problem. How did such a friendly nation produce such a lame service ethic? Amo blames the lack of a tipping culture. I hate to think a few dollars on a table is what motivates people.

To top it off, as we were finishing our lunch, we saw them turn some customers away, presumably because it was nearly closing time. The way so many businesses in Oz prioritize keeping regular hours ahead of serving people and making money continues to astonish me. It’s one of the major differences I’ve had to adjust to living here.

This past Sunday I went the other direction to keep up with the TFF. I took the train to Wollongong, a coastal town south of Sydney meant to be one of the most beautiful places in New South Wales. I’d been confirmed as a guest writer for Sydney Film Festival’s official blog, and gave myself the assignment of blogging about Middle Eastern films at the TFF. Today I would be seeing Amreeka, a narrative about the struggles of a Palestinian woman and her teenage son in adjusting to their new lives in suburban Illinois.

I was on my own, and spent the time on the train writing and listening to music. As the train rolled further south and left the suburbs of Sydney behind, the landscape became quite beautiful. As I said, autumn here is something else indeed. Everything stays green (eucalyptus trees don’t lose their leaves) and flowers continue to blossom everywhere. It seems a lot like spring. But the weather on this day was much cooler than the week before. Often lately there’s been a strange disconnect between the colors and foliage I perceive and the temperature of the air. Actually, forget autumn, forget spring — these are northern concepts — it’s another paradigm, a strong reminder I’m in a different world.

At a certain point I was looking out my window to the west and saw a horse ranch on a steep hillside. The bright green pastures and paddocks of the ranch ran up and down the hill in irregular fashion, divided by wooden fences, hedgerows, and woods, and framed by a range of rocky outcroppings behind. Spread evenly throughout these acres the horses were peacefully doing their thing, each of them covered in comfortable-looking horse-ponchos to protect them from the cool weather. There were no people or machines in sight. It looked like something out of a Richard Adams novel.

Soon after, as the train was pulling into Coalcliff, the vista to the east on the other side of the train opened up completely. Suddenly the train was running along the top of a cliff and the whole ocean was right there. Just then, Radiohead’s “House of Cards” came up on my iPod, as if by design. It’s one of my favorite songs anyway; but the way the distant blue horizon and white breakers far below rolling steadily past out the window were perfectly matched by its pulsating midtempo swing and swooning orchestral melancholy was almost too much.

Arriving in Wollongong, I walked to the theater. It turned out that Amreeka was well worth the trip. It manages to be weighty yet funny and heartwarming at the same time. (My full review of it can be found here.) The screening was quite busy, and the crowd appreciative. It was good to see these people digging a story about Palestinian Arabs having a hard time with racism wherever they go. Amreeka is not polemic, but is a good deal more provocative than Masquerades. And the characters being migrants to America was interesting to me of course. To some degree the sense of alienation and puzzlement over American culture depicted in the film would have been felt by the audience too, starting with the harsh accents of the airport security guards who give the mother and son a hard time. Many other über-American problems and quirks are addressed in the film from the Iraq war to White Castle, often producing chuckles in the audience. It was weird but kind of cool to sit alone and have my own perspective.

After the film I took a walk. My friend Charlotte is expecting my assessment of the place. Sorry, Charlotte! As with Newcastle, I just didn’t have a lot of time to explore. And I was a bit bored being on my own. But I headed down to the beach just to have a look. Along the way, a guy driving a big black SUV got impatient waiting for me to cross a street and swerved behind me revving his engine. I made a rude gesture as he pulled away, and a guy standing on the corner said, “You go and tell him mate!” I laughed and shrugged, but he repeated, scowling, “You go and tell him! Just fucking stupid.”

Looking ahead, I noticed the way to the beach was blocked by a rugby stadium. A match had just gotten out and hundreds of rugby fans milled about. Hmmm. Should I worry about rugby hooligans? I wasn’t sure what this scene would be like, so I minded my own business as I walked around the stadium and found a path down to the beach by the golf course.

The beach was really nice of course. But maybe I’m getting a bit jaded with nice Australian beaches. It’s just what I expect now. I walked along the bike path for awhile (the place gets props for having a bike path on the beach), then walked back up to the train station on Crown Street, clearly the main drag for shopping and hanging out, stopping to get a gozleme, my new favorite snack. (Imagine a Turkish quesadilla: fresh pastry dough rolled flat, filled with spinach and feta cheese, and fried. Yum.) Honestly, the main reason the Turkish place got my money is because it was open. Most all of the other shops on Crown Street were closed. It was the same syndrome I mentioned above. It was early Sunday evening but the place was dead.

I did appreciate that nearly everything one could want to do here was in walking distance from the train station: the theater, the restuarants, the mall, the golf course, the beach, the rugby stadium. There’s a large pedestrianized shopping area right in the middle of it. Pedestrian-friendly makes me happy. I’ll come back with company and try it again.

Next stop, Byron Bay.

easter swell

As we walked to the top of the rise and the long beach came into view, the first thing I saw was a flickering ribbon of white. On the borderline between the royal sky and the navy ocean, all along the horizon, right down the middle of my vision, a huge dark thing rose silently up like a living presence, a leviathan, before transforming itself to milky foam and sheer noise and energy and disappearing again.

Oh my god, look at the swell, I said, like a kid.

I was with my wife and her sister. It was the Saturday morning before Easter. Rain had been expected all weekend on the Sunshine Coast where we were staying for the holiday. But as often happens in that place, where the Myall River meets the bay of Port Stephens by the sea, the forecasts were just wrong. We woke up to perfect crystal skies with ridiculous little puffs of cloud soaring overhead and a wonderful dry, summery temperature. We knew the water would still be warm from the northern current. So it was off to the beach.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw Bennett Beach five years ago. Mile upon mile of pale sand meeting the surf with grassy dunes climbing up behind: not a building in sight from the horizon on the left to the big green headland on the right, under the infinite sky. Seemingly enough beach for all Australia, but Hawks Nest is just a small town and it feels isolated and empty, a hidden subtropical paradise. It’s one of the nicest places on earth; and I’m lucky to visit often because my wife’s parents live close by.

But I had never seen surf like this, not here, not on any recreational beach. On the day we drove Highway One through California last year there was a huge swell pounding the coast south of Big Sur. But looking down from a clifftop on a cold December day as big waves lash fiercely against jagged rocks is one thing — it seems like a distant alien landscape. Watching a ten-foot swell rise and fall on a crowded public beach on a sunny day is something else.

I stood at the weathered wooden fence by the parking lot overlooking the beach, looking at that swell. From the horizon forward to where the surf was breaking, big bands of dark and light blue alternated as the swell rippled the entire sea. As each wave reached the shore and began to break, it seemed to go into slow motion as it rose, serpentine, to its full height and curved into an amazingly regular extended tube, perfect, now frozen in time like Hokusai’s Great Wave. The sound as the foam ripped along the barrel for hundreds of yards was like an extended thundercrack. The bodyboard I was holding now seemed so lightweight. As I admitted in another post, I’m a total newbie with surfriding.

I don’t know if you’re going to be able to handle that, my wife said. I didn’t know either. But I tried not to show how impressed I was.

We went down to the beach and set up. I continued to stare at the incoming waves. Meanwhile the late-morning weather had become gently gorgeous in contrast to the tumult of the surf. It was a great day to be here.

It was almost comical to see such a vast beach with so many beachgoers hanging out in one fifty-yard area between the yellow-and-orange lifesaving flags. We could have been survivors of a shipwreck all huddled together. But it’s always a good thing for people to heed the protection of the lifesaving services; getting in the surf is a risky proposition. Potentially deadly rip currents, which can carry even a strong swimmer out to sea in seconds, are a constant danger, even on the most user-friendly public beaches. This is true anywhere, but especially Australia, where there is so much coastline and being at the beach is a way of life. A hundred Aussies drown in rip currents annually. You hear about the dangerous animals, but that’s mostly hype; only a couple of people are killed by animals a year. It’s the surf that takes lives with dreary regularity.

At other beaches, especially in the city, I’ve seen people disregarding the flags, swimming in and even taking kids into surf marked Dangerous by the lifesavers. But here, on this morning, whether because of the big surf or just incidentally, most of the punters were between the flags. The rest of the long, long beach was for the surfers. With such a swell, it must have been heaven for them. I sat and watched them awhile. I was reminded of footage I’ve seen of Pipeline and other famous breaks in Hawaii. I’m sure this was nothing compared to a truly world-class break. But I was rapt each time the swell rose and dozens of riders (evenly spaced along the lineup like beads on a necklace) slid into the drop down all at once. And I was filled with new suspense each time the barrel formed and one of them managed to get himself into it — willing him to glide all the way through. Whenever someone got a good ride in, you could hear it in the spectators on the beach, a ripple of approving ooohs and aaahhs.

There were a number of bodyboarders, outfitted with fins, out to tackle big waves. They seemed to be handling this swell pretty well. Or not. It seemed like for every one I saw race along the front of a wave, fins trailing a jetstream of white, or go over the top and get a couple of acrobatic spins in the air, I saw another absolutely swallowed, chewed up and spit out as the barrel collapsed. It’s always hard to tell at first if you’re watching someone get killed, or just taking a spill in the normal course of things. The wave crashes down, the boardrider is tossed like a ragdoll, you’re waiting for him to surface, hoping he didn’t break his neck — and everyone on the beach just laughs.

I turned my attention to the area between the flags. It was packed. I was amused to see families getting into this unbelievable surf with the same carefree spirit they would show if it was Walden Pond, laughing, beckoning to their kids, taking toddlers into the surging foam. As huge waves crashed into the kids playing, knocking them about like bowling pins, I couldn’t help but think that elsewhere they would be kept away from these conditions — danger, beach closed. But here in Oz it was a sunny Saturday and everything was golden, and folks were dragging their kids into it.

There was a big extended family setting up on the sand next to us, several kids and many adults. As they broke out their blankets and towels and umbrellas and eskies, they chatted and chirped in loud, musical Aussie fashion. They seemed to be catching up with each other; apparently some were visiting from out of town for the holiday. A glimpse into a genuine Aussie tradition, an Easter family reunion on the beach. A chubby adolescent holding a bodyboard and fins broke off from them unceremoniously with a couple of mates, looking like he meant business.

I’ve never seen a swell this big, one of the older women in the family remarked.

Aha! I thought.

There were in fact a couple of younger boys bodyboarding between the flags — no fins, going straight in on the smaller waves (there were no truly small waves today), which as I have mentioned is about my skill level. I thought I couldn’t really go without giving it a try. If these kids can handle it I can handle it. I suppose men hurt themselves or die on a regular basis doing all sorts of stupid things because they don’t want to be shown up.

Hey, Mum, Mikey’s caught a good one! cried one of the young girls in the family next to us.

I looked where she was gesturing, and caught a glimpse of the chubby kid as one of the barrels shattered in a flash of white and tossed him flailing headlong, fins in the air, as if he’d been in an explosion.

Go Mikey! his mother shouted, laughing.

I decided I was getting in, but without my board, just to see if I could handle it. The ladies still weren’t too sure about the surf, so I was on my own.

The first thing I noticed was the water’s warmth, how balmy and spa-like it was. Not sure why big motion somehow made me think it would be cold. As I stood at ankle depth, I felt the force of the water as it pushed its way onto the beach, and then was sucked back out again: jets of bubbling foam ran across the sand where the little kids were playing. By this time the safe zone had become very crowded — of course it was crowded, it was Saturday, it was a holiday, and the weather was awesome. The kids were grouped roughly by age, getting older the further out they were. As I ventured further myself, the bubbling and foaming became near constant, white water all around, like being in a gigantic jacuzzi. It was that pleasant too — but it was not relaxing.

I was about knee deep when a huge set wave came in, surging through the kids in the surf like floodwaters running through reeds. Shouts and squeals and laughter rose up as water poured over them, covering them up, knocking them around. As the water gushed against my legs, it nearly knocked me over. I righted myself just in time for it to come at me from behind as it made its way back to the sea. The next wave really did knock me down — or more accurately, knocked me right into a kid standing behind me. On the next set wave, I tried to duck dive, but was just pummeled back into the sand. When I got up I realized I was laughing too. Better writers than me have expounded on the playful nature of the ocean, how being in it is like playing with a divine childlike presence.

The noise made by the kids was repeated every time a new wave came crashing in.The swell would rise up, and they would start chattering and shouting with mounting excitement as it made its inexorable approach. There’s a big one! Go for it! Jenny look out!! Then it was rushing in with amazing speed and force, filling the air it seemed, and wherever it could not reach was filled with spray and the rushing sound and the screams and squeals and laughter of the kids. It was all part of it. The breaking waves and the yelling and splashing part of one big rhythm. Ecstatic communion just a few steps away from ordinary life.

Further out I got my first good look at one of the set waves as it broke. My amazement only increased with proximity. From here it seemed less like the wave was approaching, and more like it was happening. The surface of the water, the very surface of reality seemed to tilt upwards as the wave gathered itself and rose out of the sea, blocking the horizon completely. The sheer mechanics of so much water moving at once with clockwork regularity was stunning.

I also noticed again how impressive surfers are when you’re in the surf with them. From the shore you think, That looks cool, or, That looks fun. But from the water, watching them stand on waves that tower overhead, they look like giants, doing strange and wonderful things. No wonder it was considered the sport of kings in Hawaii.

I eventually decided I would not be bodyboarding this morning — not from being intimidated, but because there were too many kids in the safe zone. There was no way I was going in outside of the flags in this kind of surf. But I had a fine time just sitting on the beach the rest of the morning, watching those waves one after the other, watching the surfers ride them.

The next morning was Easter. We had decided to climb to the top of Yaccaba Head — the tallest point in the area, a relatively easy hike and a common destination for its amazing views of Port Stephens and the surrounds. We set out mid-morning; the weather was warm but volatile as ever. Clouds and rainshowers came and went, leaving sun and blue skies in their wake only to return an hour later.

To get to Yaccaba you have to walk along Bennett Beach for a mile or so. This is one of my favorite things to do in life. It doesn’t take long to leave more populated parts of the beach far behind, and then you are in a mostly deserted place with only the surf on the left, the dunes on the right, and Yaccaba ahead. But it always takes longer than you expect. You look up and realize the headland is much bigger than you thought: its majesty reveals itself only humbly as you keep walking, until it takes up most of your vision, a singular entity, its sandstone flanks covered with lush green growth in contrast to the arid dunes. And the strand that forms the only road to this place seems to be always increasing. Away from everything, moving forward but with no sense of time, the people you are with inevitably space themselves out so that everyone’s walking alone, in a sort of meditation. You only have the sand you’re walking on, the sunlight, and the sound of the surf. The sound! Here on the borderline, the sound takes up all your reality.

Especially this day. The swell was still as big as the morning before. No people in it. Well, a couple of surfers not far from the rocks at the foot of the headland, looking like seals in their black wetsuits; their isolation seemed to add to the tableau. No boats or any other craft. Not even that many birds. Just color, light, impossible movement, thunderous sound. The hike to the top of Yaccaba was memorable, but the walk along the beach was primal.

That evening I drove back to the beach alone. I wanted to try and get some bodyboarding in with fewer people around. And I was just a little obsessed with that swell.

I got there about four-thirty; the sun had started to set and a breeze had picked up; the air was actually a bit chilly. Hazy golden light suffused everything for miles. There’s nothing like autumn in New South Wales as I’m discovering. It looked like a beach in winter (something like, say, Montauk) but there was a summery richness to the scent in the air, an unmistakeably Australian balm, and indeed there were a few people swimming.

The swell was was still big as ever. If anything it had picked up, but the breeze (headed straight out to sea) made it a lot more choppy. There were a few people on the beach, most of them wearing jackets or huddled in their blankets. A group of livesavers in their yellow-and-red gear were hanging out together near their station, looking loose and jovial, no doubt getting ready to pack up for the night.

I was a little surprised that there were no surfers at all. None, as far as I could see, up and down the long beach. It was hard for me to decide if it was because of the headwind, or because it was just about time for Easter dinner.

It was weird but pleasant to be in water so warm when the air was that brisk. But again all of my attention was focused on the surf. In the evening light, with not many other people, and with the breeze going, it seemed fiercer than ever. The set waves looked like Cape Horn from this range. I realized I wanted nothing to do with the breakers and started riding the foamy stuff in the shallows. As I’d guessed it was pretty strong and felt like riding actual waves.

A couple of kids in wetsuits swam past me. I heard one of them call out, Don’t go that way! There’s a pretty bad rip over there! He was gesturing just beyond the flagged area, close to where I was. His tone was nonchalant in that Aussie way, but at the word rip I froze up a bit, and gazed out to where he’d pointed. I couldn’t tell a difference. I decided I was done for the day anyway. It was getting late, the breeze was cold wherever my skin was exposed to air, and there was hardly anyone left swimming nearby. It may not have been life-or-death, but this surf was nothing to be trifled with either.

I sat on the beach drying off, cold but enjoying the sunlight, still powerful even in fading. I gazed at the surf a while — in this epic light it looked like rolling hills of crystal.

I noticed two little brown-haired girls, perhaps three and five, run out to the water in front of me. They were both outfitted in pink wetsuits, like tiny surfer girls. They could not have been cuter. They ran around excitedly on the sand at the very edge of the surf for a minute, looking like pink sandpipers, before running back up to their parents, who were on a blanket not far to my right. It was obvious they had just been let loose on the beach and were overflowing with kid-energy. Their mom smiled and said a few words to them, adjusting their little wetsuits, and they were off again, pink streaks headed straight for the water. It was touching to see how keen they were to get in. I was a little surprised neither parent accompanied them, but decided to reserve judgment.

The older girl was first in, bouncing around in the shallow water, splashing with abandon, immune to the chill air. The younger one, not much more than a toddler, hesitated at first, looking a bit shaky on her feet, but soon joined her sister. They were bubbling and foaming with joy as tangible as the surf — splashing about, running, falling on their hands and knees, sitting as if in a bathtub, leaping up again. Now they looked like pink penguins. They were not remotely intimidated by the strong surf. The older girl stepped pretty far out into it a number of times. As the powerful waves rolled up onto the beach even the white foam was often moving the girls around as if they were pieces of pink fluff.

At one point the older girl was knocked down by the remnant of a set wave, a foamy wavelet nearly as tall as her, and carried a few feet from where she had been standing, away from the beach, toward the sea. She sat up again in water that was waist high for her, then got to her feet and made her way back to the beach. All part of the game for her. A few moments later another wavelet knocked her down again. This time I did not see her for a couple of heartbeats. The water was really churning right up to the shore. I leaned forward a bit, looking out for her. At the same time I looked over at the parents. I could not see that they were concerned at all. Soon the little head was poking out of the water again and the play continued.

As I watched, the scene became quite striking to me. There was basically no one else in the water. The beach was quickly being deserted as evening drew on. Just the two little pink things remained, bobbing about carelessly, by themselves at the edge of the whole dark blue ocean, the roiling white swell lit starkly from the front by the setting sun.

Now I really wondered why the hell the parents were not with them. I looked their way. They were relaxed, smiling as if their daughters were in a kiddie pool. I willed them to get up off their blanket and get a little closer to their girls, but they just sat there.

I looked at the girls again. They kept falling down, kept getting pushed around by the water, splashing recklessly further out than they should, disappearing under the foam. It was comical but hard to watch, like a silent film in which the child actors are doing absurdly dangerous things with no stuntmen or special effects. Anxiously I leaned forward again. It wasn’t just my imagination, because now the younger girl was straying to my left, tottering to the other side of the flag, out of the safety zone. This was just where that kid had pointed out the rip a few minutes before. Now it seemed I could see it quite well: a strangely glassy belt of water, eerily calm, disrupting the pattern of the breakers.

I really wasn’t sure what to do. I felt a dull sort of dread, but tried to shake it off. Not my kids, not my business. Then I saw one of the lifesavers, a stocky middle-aged lady, stroll down to where the little girl was playing outside of the flags. In a gentle, unhurried way, hardly taking her hands out of the pockets of her red jacket, she collected the little girl out of the water and escorted her back to the flagged area. Then she strolled back up to where the parents were sitting and had a few words with them, smiling the whole time. I fleetingly hoped it went something like, If you don’t feel the slightest desire or instinct to attend to those little girls when they’re playing in such rough surf, I take it as evidence you’ve been smoking cocaine and I will now call the authorities. Please remain calm until they arrive.

But it was probably something like, Look, keep ’em between the flags when it’s a bit choppy will ya? Ta. Yer all right.

Then she left them. The girls were still out in the water.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I got up, put my shirt on, collected my things, and left.

Note: The next day we were at an Easter Monday barbecue back in Sydney, with a bunch of kids about the same age running around the backyard. I described the surf I’d witnessed up north with somewhat wide eyes to our hostess, an old friend of my wife’s. She smiled and replied matter-of-factly, Oh, that’s what we call the Easter Swell.

This made my day. I knew the ocean’s currents move in patterns, of course; but I was pleased to hear an aspect of it is so reliable it’s identified with a holiday. A holiday, if you think about it, that jumps around the calendar from one year to the next. Nice to hear something about my first Easter in Australia was both lucky and quintessential.

heaven

Recently I’ve been wondering how to get more traffic on this blog. I’m all too aware that this thing doesn’t exactly have mass appeal. The entries aren’t short and punchy enough, there’s not many links to the rest of the blogosphere, not a lot of user-friendly buttons and widgets, and I’m probably too earnest and heartfelt in my subject matter. Not to mention long-winded and rambling. (Ask anyone who knows me — my sister, my best friend — I’m in constant, lifelong need of an editor.) I can imagine people, even friends, reading it and going, “Blah blah blah, the beach is nice, yadda yadda yadda. Oh, he doesn’t like spiders, boo hoo.”

So, I saw that WordPress published a handy how-to for getting your blog on the Freshly Pressed feature on their front page. I read it earnestly (like everything I do) in hopes it would give me a clue. Most of the critieria I’ve already fulfilled as well as I can. Original content, check. Nothing illegal, no slander, check. Images, check. (Hmm, must be more diligent about getting permission… but apparently WordPress might contact me in advance and ask me to get permission for any photos or art if they want to feature me.) No typos, check; I copyedit my blog obsessively.

The one thing I didn’t already have going is tagging. I’ve been reluctant to tag my posts because I think it clutters them up something awful. I think I’ll never be a full-on part of this world because of stuff like this: all of the blogging conventions, all of the columns and stray bits of information everywhere, the thingeys and doo-dads that in my opinion take away from the look of even well-designed blogs. I like to write, and I like self-publishing. I’ve never been much of a blog-reader and I guess there are things about it I just don’t get. (Mind you, I like multimedia — I’m not that clueless. I just don’t like clutter.) Curious, I checked the mighty Kottke’s blog for the first time in a while, and sure enough, there’s bloody tags on every post, not to mention ads and links (albeit done in his patented classic, minimal style).

(You know, it’s funny how automatically compelling that blog is. Just now I was looking at it while linking it here, and couldn’t help but stop and read the first two entries — about Stephen Hawking and time travel, and an upcoming sequel to The Dark Crystal. And with the latter he doesn’t go on for a thousand words. He simply says, “It couldn’t possibly be better than the original,” and posts a link to the original’s trailer that anyone could find on youtube. A light, expert touch.)

So, reluctantly I set about tagging all of my entries. I didn’t like doing it, but if it means more people might see and enjoy this blog then so be it.

One day I was looking at the featured blogs on Freshly Pressed and the word Australia jumped out at me. I looked more closely at the headline: “Dear Heaven, Suck It. Love, Australia.” Funny. But figuring it might offer some insight into how to get attention writing about Australia, I clicked on the link to the blog, Whiskey and Car Keys.

Yep, sure enough. Short and punchy. Rude humor. Links to pictures of scantily-clad women and Wikipedia articles about beer. A cute embedded video of a swimming wallaby. Ironic tags (“Cute Overload.”) There’s no doubt these guys (WaCK?) deserve fame and I don’t. They don’t even live in Australia and they got love for a funny post about how great Australia is. I should just give up.

For those too lazy to check it out, it features this video:

(Obviously this is also a way for me to latch onto the “embedding cute wallabies” mojo as a cheap way of trying to get some hits. Whatever — this video is REALLY CUTE.)

I was feeling pretty low after this revelation. Then I clicked around on this blog a bit and was relieved to discover this piece about the Shins and Garden State. It’s much more like one of my posts: long, meandering, and totally heartfelt in its rather dense thesis about music, commerce, and how Garden State sucks. (Amen. Thank you.) And it finds an excuse to post an image of one of the best album covers of all time.

So maybe there’s hope for me. Thanks, WaCK guys.

(Wait a minute, the Shins broke up???)