Thursday, 5 April 2007

The Coorong

The Coorong in South Australia is a magical place; the movie Storm Boy was filmed there some 30 years ago.

I was first introduced to The Coorong many moons ago, when my parents took my brother and I for a drive there one weekend, but I only became enchanted by The Coorong, after my class took our tenth grade school trip there; hiking and camping in the wilderness, for three tranquil and mystical days.

The Coorong is an isolated coastal spot along The Younghusband Peninsular – a virtual fingers width strip of sandy terrain that separates the Australian mainland from the Southern Ocean. So pristine, beautiful and remote is this spot, that one might think, upon visiting here, that one had slipped into a vortex of time; a black spot on the radar, or a parallel universe, where humankind simply does not exist, and one actually feels compelled in wanting to keep it that way.

Our school group, consisting of twelve students and two teachers, travelled to The Coorong in May 1988, which is late Fall in Australia. I remember the air being crisp, but the sky appearing crystal clear, thus enabling the sun to radiate through our fleecy layers; warming our backs, during the day.

The smell of the ocean sailed upon the breeze, as it travelled inland on a ship made of salt spray. In detecting its familiar scent, we knew the lure of the sea was close. We could feel it in the rumbling, fresh, south wind. We could see the signs in the plant life that were rapidly reducing in height; tall gums becoming scraggly mallee trees, which later transformed into a mass of salt bushes. We could even hear it; seagulls calling to each other in that lonely mournful way they do, as they circle and glide upon the wind.

Our first contact with The Coorong, upon exiting our bus, was to stand at the waters edge of a dark lagoon and board a tin motor boat in which to cross over to the other side, where we would slip into a world where the very concept of time seemed out of place.

I remember we pitched our tents just before dusk on the first day, while one of our teachers built a campfire. We prepared our food and ate together; faces glowing with the light and warmth of the flames. The horizon turned shell pink as the sun slunk behind the dunes, and we watched the full moon makes its nightly ascent, gleaming in the clear twilight sky, like a pearl.

Later, on that first evening, hastily blooming clouds moved quickly across the star littered sky, like black ink dripped into a glass of water. A storm sprang forth, but was so distant from our vantage spot, that we were able to sit, unthreatened, with the best seats in the house, witnessing the storm rattling and sparking across the land, like a battle scene - it passed quickly, sparing us from a drenching.

We awoke the next morning to yet another day of sapphire skies, and with heavy packs swinging rhythmically, like pendulums upon our backs, we scaled the first of a series of dunes. From the top, we heard the orchestrating waves crashing against sodden golden sands, a turbulent ocean expanded before us, all the way to Antarctica, and a succession of frothy white-caps crested and cascaded against the shore.

We descended down the frail face of a wind sculpt dune, green tufts of coastal grasses protruded randomly from loose soil. We appeared to be the only people on that lonely beach; our footprints trailing behind us like we were followed by a procession of barefooted ghosts – perhaps we were. I could feel the abrasive mix of ancient shells, pulverized stone, soil and other debris, massaging and tickling the heels and soles of my feet.

Pressed into the damp beach soil and scattered amongst the dry dune grasses were remnants of cockle shells; sand blasted and weather beaten, scorched white and brittle, like old porcelain; the inescapable effect of time and brutal coastal conditions. We came across a makeshift path and commenced our climb, it was not properly marked, but rather simply eroded by the movement of past visitors who knew the way – I wonder if they realised that they would be phantom guides for so many.

Near the top of the dune, in a shallow gully, was a wide pile of discarded cockle shells. We were told the Ngarrindjeri people had left them there. This knowledge made everything stand still for me, and only the sound of the eternal wind batting my ears, could be heard – yet more ghosts – they were everywhere. There were probably a thousand stories in the very earth we stood upon… every ground is sacred.

From there we travelled further inland where the plant life grew denser and the ground became solid and rocky. Our clothing snagged upon jutting twigs, protruding aggressively from the vegetation, and three cornered jacks spiked our tender, sand polish feet; forcing us to abandon our urchin-like wanderings, in favour of civilized footwear.

We arrived at our campsite an hour or two before dusk on the second night. I was a little disappointed in this spot. It was an official campsite, set within a clearing of large, densely packed shrubs and mallee trees. A couple of picnic tables were dotted strategically around the site, along with designated areas for campfires, and an intrusion of rule laden signs. It was plainly obvious that people had been here, and quite frankly, the convenience of facility, however rudimentary, was a blot upon the landscape.

While others busied themselves with the tasks of put up tents, laying out creature comforts and preparing creative meals from the array of supplies they had lugged around on their backs all day, my friend Karen and I hastily erected our tent and ran off to explore; food could wait, but the sun, already beginning to set, would not.
There was a steep dune behind our campsite, beyond the trees, tormenting us to climb its soft peak. A couple of guys joined us, and we scrambled to the top of that looming sand hill, where we were delighted to find a range of dunes set out before us. One of the guys ran back to camp to retrieve some garbage bags, after which we spent a good hour, sliding, jumping, rolling and cart-wheeling down the dunes and racing back up again, before the light faded significantly enough for us to even consider returning to our group. At one point, Karen and I stood atop one dune, while the boys stood atop its neighbour. The sun was at such an angle, with our arms outstretched, we four appeared as a string of paper dolls behind a calico screen, and yet not a single one of us were physically touching.

Exhausted, we headed back to camp and prepared ourselves the most convenient meal we could muster, since all others were just finishing up washing their dishes, and our teacher, who had been burdened with carrying his guitar the entire hike, would soon be calling us in for a sing along beside the fire.

Midway through our fireside warblings, a swell of tormenting clouds moved in once more. This time they moved with such alacrity that we became startled by a sudden, unprecedented clap of earth rattling thunder and simultaneous flash of lightening; pitched so close that the darkened landscape momentarily turned an ashen shade of blinding daylight, which prompted the waters of the now heavily pregnant sky, to break and empty its entire contents upon our little campsite.

Shrieking and giggling, we all scrambled to the nearest tent, wondering if the whipping winds might bring down our flimsy shelters, and the accumulation of unrelenting rain might set us all adrift, and we might find ourselves floating upon these makeshift canvas rafts, somewhere in the middle of the ocean, come morning; but we need not have worried. As abruptly as the storm began, it stopped – dead, almost as if someone had hit a switch. Dazed and confused, we all ventured outside our tents, muttering about the ferocity of the five minute storm, and the strange calm that had now gripped and hypnotised the stunned land. As the dark menace of clouds rolled southward, like a large swarm of threatening beasts, the perfect moon reappeared, and we all howled like wolves, to mark the irregularity of what had just taken place.

Most shook their heads, stunned, cold and wet from their dousing of storm water, and since we were unable to warm ourselves by the snuffed out fire, chose to go to bed, and huddle inside their swags, but the full moon reflecting upon a rain drenched picnic table, beckoned Karen and I to approach.

The pale concrete appeared luminous in the moon light. The pooled waters atop, gave it an ethereal, mirror-like veneer, almost like a porthole to another time. Perhaps it was, for Karen and I felt compelled to explore the scrub lands, with the moon our only guide. Things looked different in the night, a world consisting entirely of silhouettes and shadows. The shrubs that had appeared so tranquil, swaying gently in the daytime breeze, stood dark and motionless now, like looming creatures.

At one point we stumbled upon a parade of trees knitted together like a dark tunnel… oh how it beckoned us to enter it and walk through its guard of honour. So together, we eagerly entered the cavernous mouth of that tree line passage. The trees and branches enveloped us - swallowed us, and our witness, The Moon, became obscured by a tangle of thick, wild foliage. Then something suddenly felt very wrong, like a trick…like a terrible threat.

Karen and I simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks, not one step further did we dare to go. The tiny hairs on my arms stood erect and a shiver of alarm ran the entirety of my spine. Shakily I whispered, “I don’t want to be here anymore”…and with that both Karen and I ran back out of that “mouth”, the same was we came in, like they were the jaws of death, ready to snap shut, trapping and ingesting us forever.

We ran and we ran and we ran, and when we were spent, we stopped, heaving breathlessly and confused. Petrified, I demanded to know “what the hell was that?” Karen was crying. She was freaked out, but she had no answers. She did not know what it was…neither of us knew. Once we calmed down, we tried to reason what we had felt, because neither of us had seen a thing, no reasonable explanation could be found for our dramatic overreaction, and so we ventured back to our tent, promising to investigate in the morning.

In the morning, we found the spot of our distress, it was in fact a tunnel of trees, quite a natural little shelter, in fact, but the threat had passed. Karen and I walked the entire space and no sinister feelings sprang forth- it was a mystery, but the experience burned into me, like a stockman’s branding mark.

Later that day, we hiked to Hells Gate at Parnka Point. The timing of our arrival here was imperative, for we were required to walk across the narrow lagoon to the mainland, which was only possible at low tide. Once on the other side, the porthole into that sand drift land - with is curious weather; tranquil timeless beauty; its mystery and its ghosts, closed the door of privilege and secrets, behind us forever. We could still see the land we had just step away from, smell the sea air and feel natures elements upon our skin and whipping through our hair, but that something else; that something that had moved along with us throughout the camp, the unidentifiable …well, it bid us farewell, not sorry for our departure, and it remained there- where it belonged.
Submitted to Scribbit's May Write Away Contest.


Kathleen said...

What an absolutely MAGICAL posting! Thank you, thank you for sharing this event in your life and taking us along. It's a wonderful of your best works. I look forward to reading it again, and checking out all of those links. GOOD JOB!!!

Kimberly said...

Taking us along is right...your descriptions were so evocative. I touch my cheek and wonder why it isn't wet. Amazing!

shishyboo said...

brilliant writing!
I regret taking the Coorong for granted all those years now. It was always the "boring" bit of the drive from the South East to Adelaide, with badly sealed roads and nothing but sand dunes to look at.
You have exposed it's true beauty, I will appreciate my surroundings more next time I travel through there.
I did once stay in one of those ramshackle shacks by the waterside with my aunt and uncle and that was as close to camping I got there.
Happy Easter!

Remiman said...

This piece resonated with the lilt of poetry, so full of vivid imagery and tangible and tactile feelings. That hair raising venture into the dark tunnel of the unknown was eerie and i'm glad you hightailed it out of there. ;-)when you did!

Tracey said...

Apart being so moved by your amazing ability to write so evocatively, I am blown away by how you remember experiences like that so that you can tell them with such vividly... (Heck, I'm using all the words that everyone commenting has used already! because they are so true, so apt!!)

I have always harboured a desire to visit the Coorong, simply from reading Storm Boy (then seeing the movie). Now you've made that desire even stronger!

Susan Abraham said...

Dear Strauss,
Thank you for visiting my 2nd blog,which is purely literary and leaving a comment already for Sunday Scribblings. I was just fixing the links but have added yours in already.

As for The Coorong, I thought I'd keep this for a delicious Sunday read tomorrow and I'll slip in another comment to let you know my thoughts.

Thanks for your kind words, Strauss. :-)

Susan Abraham said...

How beautifully you write this adventure tale Strauss. And yet the location's moody storybook- remoteness captures a ghostly feel! And what surreal names roundabout too. :-)

Muse said...

You wonder what kind of undisturbed ghosts protect their secrets at night.

Great piece. So much use of imagery.

I've never been there, nor seen Storm Boy. Now I am wanting to do both... well except for the above mentioned ghosts.

A powerful experience. Thank you for sharing it.