Most of all, it’s the people we remember
Sure, we remember places when we travel. Superbly sublime sunsets and views, funky towns, campsites strewn with rubbish, places where the heavy rain pounded the van’s roof and prevented a good night’s sleep, places with weather so good we wanted to sit up all night and watch the moon reflect off the water. Then, there are people. Here’s three vignettes about people encountered on a roadtrip.
LIFE is a series of encounters. People are there for a few minutes or a few hours, then gone. Forever.
Two girls in the rain
“We’re from Tasmania,” the slightly built one said. “We camp in a tent. It’s down there, at the far end of the campground. Fortunately, with this rain, it is a weatherproof tent”.
I encountered the two young women in the cramped camp kitchen. We were in the camping reserve at Coledale, a minor township fronting a small, wide beach below the forested escarpment on NSW’s Illawarra coast. The rain forced us into the kitchen that morning.
I stood there eating my muesli and boiling water for tea, there being no seats in this too-small kitchen which was almost as small as that in my apartment.
I guess they were in their early twenties, their very early twenties, these two young women microwaving baked beans for their breakfast.
The one doing most of the cooking said almost nothing during our brief encounter. It was the slightly built one who did the talking. She asked where I had come from.
“We’ve just come down from Katoomba. Been there doing a few day walks in the mountains”, I replied.
“Is it cold there?”, she asked. “We thought of going to the Blue Mountains”.
“Freezing these past few days”, I responded, recalling the high winds and cold. “Had ice on the car in the morning. But it’s no colder than you would be used to in a Tasmania winter. Where are you headed?”.
“Maybe as far north as Byron Bay”, she said. “After that we’re headed to Asia for a couple months. So we might go to the Blue Mountains on our way back”.
They were headed up Highway 1, traveling by car and pitching their tent at night. I thought them brave for making their journey at their age, then I recalled how I and my friends had made our own journeys, less-well-prepared than these two. The sight of them in their warm clothes, beanies and rain parkas triggered thoughts of people like them I encountered back in my younger years. People travelling around searching for something they didn’t quite know what.
If life is a continuum of encounters, this with the two young women that rainy morning at Coaldale beach was a meeting of strangers travelling in different directions, strangers who for a brief moment one grey morning were forced together by the relentless rain and by the need to eat.
The rubbish collector
His age? Somewhere in his fifties, I guess. His appearance? That unintentional style you encounter in coastal towns. Long hair. Scraggly beard of someone who finds shaving every morning too repetitive. Plain, worn clothes. Sunnies too, although there was only cloud and occasional rain that morning that lacked any sunshine at all. He was accompanied by an old, grey kelpie.
I thought he was carrying one of those spear guns divers go fishing with. It wasn’t. It was a tube with a pistol grip and trigger at one end which opened and closed a grip for picking up rubbish at the other.
“It got me into trouble”, he said in what Australians know as an ‘ocker’ accent. “I pointed it at someone and that landed me in court. They thought it was a gun. Now I have to report to the police three times a week. People are scared because of all this terrorism”.
I didn’t press for details, but I got the gist of how he felt about the incident. Yes, ridiculous is the word. It’s a reflection of the irrational fear so many people live with, a fear of the contemporary world. They feel victims of forces they cannot influence and feel a loss of control over their lives.
“I’m not a greenie but I don’t want plastics polluting the ocean”, he said in explanation of the device he carried for collecting beach rubbish. “The surf clubs should be out doing this”.
Surf. I pointed to the lone surfer out that morning of a rough and confused five foot swell, the end of the wild storm conditions and high winds that brought huge seas to the coast yesterday. He was out there, silhouetted against the grey-green sea, a wetsuit-clad figure on a shortboard. The man watched as the lone surfer tried to catch a swell and missed.
“I used to do that, surfing. It’s my knees that stopped me”, he said, pointing to his unidentified disorder.
He was, or used to be, a local. “That’s my bus over there if you can see it”, he said pointing to a carpark in the distance. It was an old Toyota Coaster minibus, the vehicle you often encounter on the coasts and highways, the vehicle of choice for so many traveling or living on the road. I never discovered if he was living in the bus or if he had a fixed address. My guess is the first.
We went out different ways, he back to his bus, me back to my minivan parked further along the beach. As I walked away I silently hoped that everything turns out well for this man and his dog, this man who is not a greenie but who in having the initiative to collect rubbish from the beach makes him the most practical sort of greenie there is.
Keith was looking through the publisher’s preview copy of his book.
“It comes out in August”, he told me.
His book is about the history of surfing at Port Macquarie, a surfing and tourism venue on the Mid-North Coast of NSW. That Port, as locals call it, became a famed surfing venue is on account of its long shoreline scalloped with the crescents of yellow sandy beaches. On good days, swells surging out of the Pacific crash in sprays of white foam. Sometimes, though, when those swells are not there, a languid sea glops disappointingly onto the sand or an onshore breeze flattens and confuses the sea.
We were in the Port Macquarie Surfing Museum, a museum not quite a museum yet, that is temporarily located in a shopfront on Port’s main street.
“This is one of those pop-up shopfronts”, Keith told me. “We have plans, on the wall over there, to build the museum on Town Beach. That’s probably a few years away.
“We have a volunteer roster here”, he said nodding towards Bob, a man perhaps in his early seventies, goatee beard, weathered-looking in the way that long-time surfers become, sitting at the table and taking life easy.
My first impression was that the museum was an enterprise of retirees, surfers who have lived in town for decades and who have found a new project. The young woman behind the computer, and Bob’s telling me that he worked at the local caravan park, put an end to that idea. Okay, not a retiree project completely, just mostly so.
“The book, the history of surfing at Port, is a local history of surfing here. There are old photos of the early years and more”, he added.
Keith is maybe in his sixties, tall, slim, hair cut short, clean-shaven, strong in that way that people get when they build their strength and endurance in the outdoors rather than developing that over-muscled physique of frequent gym inhabitants. Like Bob, Keith has the weathered look of someone who has spend a great deal of time outdoors.
There are people like Keith and Bob all along this coast. They inhabit small towns off the Pacific Highway and larger tourist towns. Many of them, those now in their later years, came to these places decades ago when they were young, when surfing had a reputation as a rebellious and edgy activity. Now, they are long-settled and established, reputable figures. On the surface, anyway.
Stories of the coast
Tributes, memorials or thong-exchange, these installations are about plastic waste
Most of all, it’s the people we remember
Just wood and cork
Troubled paradise: Byron Bay faces change
The forgotten islands, a Tasmanian journey