Each footstep brings the sea nearer. Each footstep makes the sound of the waves grow louder. The horizon pulls closer and its importance grows. You cannot escape the pull of the water. The small island state of a larger island country continent is a good place to think about the sea.
By the time you reach the forth line of the national anthem you will have found at least two things. Firstly you will have found the word “girt” – a word that is not in common usage today, and may never have been in the past. It is apparently the past participle of the verb “gird”, which is the kind of definition that surpasses my understanding. But it means to surround – and the line in the anthem has Australia girt by sea.
The second thing you will have discovered is the remarkable prescience of the author of the song. Not only did he (for it probably was a he) recognize that Australia would be built on the resources that could be pulled from the ground, but also he noticed the importance of the sea. Even that most girt and seaward of nations, Great Britain, does not mention the sea in its national anthem until the third verse. Britain’s anthem spends a good deal time asking God to deflect assassins’ blades and counter the trickery of its foes before getting around to the fact that the sea may be of significance to an island. And for all the iconographic images of the Red Centre of Australia, most of us live near the sea; hemmed by the Great Dividing Range between mountains – or what is left of their ancient roots – and the sea. The myths may look to the inland, but the day-to-day reality looks to the sea, the beach and the waiting waters.
All afternoon the Sun had warmed the rounded granite boulder. Now, with the sun slowly moving away, the boulder gives up its heat to the air, and to me. Around my feet the crystal clear medium of the sea flows. At the surface, the interface between two worlds, light bends and refracts to paint abstractions of the rocks and plants below. Back and forth. Back and forth. A wave rhythm, a wind rhythm, sways. My stone becomes a point of stillness around which waves break, and the world turns. I wonder how many other eyes focus on this far horizon, at the end of this day, to take in the possibility of things and to wonder at the path to the future. Overhead Pacific gulls call and chase, a pair maybe? The sunlit upper slopes of the Hazards grows smaller by the moment; capped with a shrinking gold crown, wrapped in an ermine white stole of beach sand below.
Only half of the beach remains in sunlight. A Pied Oystercatcher walks in and out of the light and shade and, unusually for this sand loving bird, walks up on to the rocks. It lays its head to one side, and peers along the length of its beak into cracks and crevices, under stones and into shallow pools of water. Unbothered by wave splash or the call of the circling gulls it goes about its business as the world continues to turn and the sun sinks.
I feel the line between my fingers tighten and then fall slack. Seconds later it is pulled away by a sudden rush. A fish has snatched the unweighted bait, and now it bangs and bores on the end of the line. There is nothing between me and it but a tight line and a hook. This seems the simplest, purest, way to fish. Some people would say “but it’s only a wrasse” and I would shake my head and smile. The males are large and splendidly coloured, with a bright blue throat and a palette of paler shade on the flanks. The females are duller, a text book looking child’s fish. Before I bait the hook I crush the barb with a pair of pliers, and to release the fish I just invert the hook without even taking the fish from the water. I don’t embrace the idea that I have to eat all I catch. There is a bounty to be gained from the sea beyond simple consumption. The oystercatcher calls once to the setting sun, the top of Mount Amos has lost its golden crown. The mosquitoes emerge and I depart.
Small waves rattle off the rocks below the pier and roll back out to sea. A black and white dog sits in the morning sun. People shuffle their feet and wonder how close they can stand to the boat without out making it clear they really, really want to get on board first. We are invited to cross the gap plank, but the dog, the real owner, beats us all to the gun. We pick and choose seats, trying to make sure we get the best view of something not yet in sight. The coach captain of a tour group waves goodbye to his charges; do I see a look of relief in his eyes? In jokes pass between the group that insist that they are not on holiday – they are on a tour. The difference escapes me. I smell sea salt and sun-block. The dog runs laps around the boat, pausing to sniff hello to everyone. The engines kick water behind the boat as we leave the pier and move under the Hazards and away from shore.
After a while the engines cut and we loaf in a small bay directly below our rented home. I look back to where I looked out. The rounded boulder. The oystercatcher rock. The sickle of white sand scattered with fast anchored boats. This reverse brings a new and open view. The mountain’s feet clearly set in the water seem broader than when you walk and sleep upon them. They seem set further back into the land, with a sweep of gentle land between the top of the tide and the base of the steeper slopes. When you look up from below the scale is distorted and all you see is steep. On the sea, without the barrier of trees, you can see shape and scale in a way that is different from even a distant view on land. After a while I work out why it’s different – there is no fore ground. The sea stretches away from the boat, empty (but full of life) towards the shore. On the land the height is foreshortened, at sea the distances become a cypher. Things are near or far. There is almost no in between. We pull out of the bay and shrink into the ocean.
Tall cliffs cut upwards from the surf. They provide the visual anchor for the trip, which seldom stays far from land. The ship’s captain woofs a greeting and steals a seat at the back of the boat. The tone of his bark suddenly changes and he goes from being merely active to frantic. Now at the very front of the boat he barks and barks at the water. He has found dolphins; or maybe the dolphins have found us. Either way, the boat has company. Fins cut through the water, and pairs and groups of dolphins burst through the surface. People gasp and point. Cameras click. Children laugh and pull on their parent’s arms to look at a spot in the water where the dolphins once were. Some of these wonderful mammals keep pace with the boat, staying level without demonstrable effort. Others surf the pressure wave of the bow. They cut left and right, pull away and drop back. The back of the boat seems to be a no go zone. There are splashes as far as the eye can see. If this is not play I don’t know what is. There is no doubt I could watch for hours. Even the self-serving quest for that “perfect” picture takes a back seat for a while as I just watch. There’s no real need to do anything other than watch. But then the albatross arrive and the camera comes back to life.
Huge, grey and seemingly grumpy looking, these birds cruise, stiff winged over the peaks and troughs of the ocean waves. Unbelievable, and in spite of the advertising assurances, unexpected. With a wingspan greater than my height Shy Albatross reject their name and circle the boat. Some people keep watching the dolphins unaware of the birds. I try to watch both, but the albatross win. Birds overtake the boat with barely a wing beat – how do they do that? Pigeons with frantic wing beats may (or may not) outrun a stooping peregrine. In both cases the source of speed is clear – fear and gravity. But the albatross move past as if without effort. We stand still and they move past. Grace, power, speed, all combined in six foot of grey tone adaptation. Not perfect, but so close that only the keen eye of evolution can pick one from another. Human athletes could train forever, take whatever drugs they like, and still not gain the level of performance or grace shown by these birds. We bounce on unsteady feet in the boat as the birds pull feather-rippling turns above us and skim within a quill’s breath of the water. Their flight is rarely level, always fast. They are in their element, while I am almost helpless on an adopted, but alien, field. We may be girt by sea, but we will never be of the sea.
Disappointingly we are told we have to keep going so that we can keep to the published schedule – on a day like this I would have thought that the wildlife was the schedule. But we have a date with oysters and a cool drink in Wineglass Bay.
The wineglass is full of clear, crisp water. The blood of dying whales has been washed away by the turn of the tide and the turn of the years. What ghosts must sing here in the long dark of the new moon? A source of misplaced pride in the past for those who would turn back the clock and let the seas run red once more.
We play the Emperors New Clothes games of saying the oysters are nice – as if eating salt was a culinary event, but the cool beer at mid-morning is a delightful memory of teenage Saturdays long gone. The water below the boat is impossibly clear – the boat hovers on nothing and fish swim through empty space. Swallows leave the wooded shore to dash over the sea in search of food. People leave the warmth of the beach to wade in the sea in search of cooling current and gentle waves. We look up to where we looked down from the day before. The kids seem unconvinced that they were ever that far above the sea.
On the return journey we again meet dolphins and albatross. We pause and push the boundaries of the schedule to watch and wonder at the movement and the life. The waves slap against the sides of the boat rocking it in slight sympathy to its own rhythm. To regain a motion of our own choosing we burn oil and forget about tomorrow. The dolphins cut their own path, the albatross slice their own way. One can’t help but be impressed.
The shore side of the boat is crowded; the sea side largely vacant. And in the noisy wave washed silence I imagine I am girt by sea, passed by dolphins and over-flown by albatross. Familiar hills grow on the horizon. The kids enquire about lunch and the illusion fades. It’s true, no man is an island. You can never, truly and only, be girt by the sea alone.