I spent Easter this year on the far south coast of New South Wales, in a small fishing town called Bermagui. The Sapphire Coast, as the marketing people insist we call it, is a serenely beautiful part of Australia, all the more so for the area being relatively undiscovered by tourists compared to the more popular Central and North Coasts of New South Wales.
Bermagui is half an hour’s drive east of my parents’ holiday house, about which I’ve written frequently on this blog. The last time I was in the town was two years ago, also at Easter; the Christmas before that my family and several old friends and extended family members rented a house overlooking the beach and spent a week in Bermagui, listening to the waves, breathing the salt-heavy air, and watching through the house’s telescope pods of Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) swimming back and forth through the waves.
The town – the whole region – is nestled in the kind of unspectacular but quietly beautiful scenery that is Australia’s particular specialty: the road approaching Bermagui cuts through eucalypt forest whose thin canopy allows sunlight to sprinkle down to the ancient cycads studding the sparse understorey; across the small harbour, still home to a significant fishing fleet, stands the monolithic Mount Gulaga, formerly known as Mount Dromedary; tea-tree covered dunes hide pristine beaches washed by the great Pacific Ocean.
It’s a town I’ve always associated with holidays. Whether Easter, Christmas, or just the odd weekend away, Bermagui is a town I’ve always visited when I didn’t have anything else to do. A sense of relaxation comes over me the instant I arrive in Bermagui or the surrounding area. It’s not just because of the beauty and quietness of the area, but also because of years of associating the area with simply not doing anything.
Yet even on holiday it’s difficult to be entirely at peace. As we all know, the one thing we can’t get away from is ourselves, and no matter how little we do or how far we travel the innumerable small – or large – travails of life will accompany us. They can seem a little less significant, it can become easier to delay worrying about them ’til another day – yet they persist. Even on holiday, it’s difficult to be entirely at ease.
Which should not be taken to suggest that I’d rather not be on holiday than be on holiday. I slip into holiday mode with startling ease: I eat what I like, I do as little as possible, and if I can let somebody else clean up then I’ll do exactly that. (My reasoning being that, as somebody who lives by himself, I do more than enough cleaning up already – though looking at the clutter filling my house, perhaps that’s not strictly true.) As much as I may miss the regularity of my daily life and all its routines and tiny rituals, going on holiday is something I do with great satisfaction.
A holiday on the coast has a particular quality. There’s a particularly beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson whose opening lines are “Exultation is the going/Of an inland soul to sea”, and as somebody who grew up in an inland city it’s I can’t deny that the coast holds a particular appeal. Unlike most Australians I could scarcely be less interested in swimming in the sea, or lying on a beach in summer, but the idea of being on the edge of the land is endlessly fascinating: between them the sea and the sky allow us perhaps the most tangible glimpse we can fathom into the enormity of the universe, and gazing at one or the other – or at both, at that point where they meet and the border between the two becomes muddled with distant hints of waves on the horizon – elicits in the soul a peculiar mix of levity and gravity, which is difficult to describe and more difficult still to resist.
More prosaically, going to the seaside allows me to glimpse animals of a kind that I wouldn’t normally get to see. For example, for longer than I can remember I’ve been captivated by Waders (Order Charadriiformes), those birds who each year undergo extraordinary migrations half way across the world and settle over summer along the coastline of southern Australia. Even a distant glimpse of a silhouetted Curlew (Numenius) can cause me to break into a broad grin. Fish, also, are something I search for enthusiastically when I get the opportunity, and I can remember those few occasions in my life when I’ve seen fish with unusual clarity.
On Easter Saturday Bermagui was blessed with exceptionally fine weather. Though there was a persistent wind – I heard one local say to a visitor that “Bermagui’s windy for three-hundred-and-sixty days of the year” – the sky was clear and the sun was warm but not uncomfortably hot. A holiday mood pervaded the town. On Saturday afternoon I found myself in the middle of Bermagui, and lacking a lift back to the rented house I was staying in with my family and several friends I decided to walk back – I didn’t have to be anywhere in a hurry, and it was a perfect day for a stroll.
Shortly after setting off I paused upon a small bridge, beneath which runs a narrow stream which connects Bermagui harbour to an estuary and a small mangrove swamp. Further on from that point there’s a much more significant bridge, over a river leading to a much greater estuary; but the bridge I stopped at was a modest affair, elevated only a metre or two above the water. I leant on the rail and gazed down, less in hope than in idle curiosity, and I soon saw swimming in the water several small and strikingly patterned fish.
They were cream in colour, and covered in dark brown spots, and they were wedge-shaped, large-headed with bodies that tapered quickly to the tail. As I watched two or three of them swam down the stream and almost into the shadow of the bridge, at which point they turned and faced upstream, swimming strongly to remain stationary in the water – I presume to catch whatever morsels of food may have been swept down the stream towards the sea. I have no expertise in the identification of fish but they seemed to my amateur eye to have something of the appearance of Pufferfish (Tetraodontidae), and it’s only now that I’m back home and can go onto the internet that I’ve been able to identify them with some degree of confidence as Smooth Toadfish.
I watched them for several minutes before continuing on my way, and as I watched them the most extraordinary feeling of serenity and lightness came over me: for those few moments that I was watching the fish my various small persistent troubles of my life were finally forgotten about. I was distracted, certainly, by thoughts of the fish’s species, and their behaviour, and whether I’d seen their like before – but beyond that, deeper than that, there was a profound and simple peace that came from simply observing those wild animals.
It’s something I’ve felt before, and I don’t think I’m alone in having experienced such a feeling: most people, it seems, take great and effortless delight in the presence of animals – even when those animals are witnessed indirectly, as through a television screen. There seems to be an urge within us to embrace the natural world, emotionally if not physically, as if we’re aware of having lost some connection; or perhaps it’s nothing more than the delight of an unexpected sighting (after all, an animal seen a dozen times, or two dozen times, or every week or every day, will capture our attention less and less until we barely even notice it any more). Whatever the reason, there always seems to exist in the world the possibility that we’ll notice an animal, and the observation will stop us in the midst of whatever we’re doing – whether because we haven’t seen the animal before, or because the animal is behaving in an unusual or striking way, or simply because for whatever reason we’re in the right frame of mind to really consider a long-familiar animal as if for the first time – and at that point it’s as if the simple act of observing an animal can lift us out of our own body. As if through some primal instinct to notice the living world around us, we rediscover that most essential of human traits: our sense of wonder.
Image sourced from http://www.underwatersydney.org/