Western Australia’s beaches are a wild joy11th December 2020
I was not really a swimming kid. That’s almost a sacrilegious thing to say when you come from Western Australia, which is not only the desert state but the coastal state, with more than 90 per cent of its population clinging to the red dirt borders of the cold, crushed sapphire of the Indian and Southern oceans.
WA has more coastline than any other Australian state – in excess of 12,000 kilometres – and more beaches: typically long and wide, with flat sea and scorchingly white sand. There aren’t many friendly headlands or sweetly curving coves; Broome’s Eighty Mile Beach is notable in extent but not in essence. WA’s beaches run like Euclid’s ruler: straight to the vanishing point in every direction.
I grew up in Karratha in the Pilbara, so we swam at Dampier, with the ore jetties in the distance and the shark fences marching down the sand, crossing the deep water like a person on tiptoes, then marching back out again, providing a three-sided rectangle in which to swim safely. Except on the day (perhaps imaginary) when a “baby” shark was swept over the fence at high tide and trapped among the swimmers. Did I imagine what happened next? A stubby-wearing/wielding dad (in my childhood, stubbies were both something you wore and something you drank) waded in and hooked it out, and everyone went back in the water.
The fact is, WA beaches are not a domestic joy, but a wild one. Even on a typical day – flat sea, flat land, flat cerulean sky without a single cloud – there’s nowhere else on earth I’ve been so conscious of creatures, unseen but close, that could kill me. The blue-ringed octopuses of the rock pools; the dugite snakes of the sand dunes; the shadows of tiger sharks and great whites out in the water. Not elegant, sinuous shadows, either, but big as camper vans: six metres long, weighing more than a tonne. At school we learnt that if a shark approached you, you should hit it on the nose or gouge it in the eye. At the beach, understanding the absolute irrelevance of this advice, we made children’s solipsistic deals with the forces of nature. If there’s no dog in the water, the shark won’t come. If there’s someone further out than me, the shark will take them first.