Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Winter in Walpole

Good morning ... and now I shall present A WineDark Sea's inaugural GUEST POST. 

I am throwing opening the publish button (but not the password, heh) to my blog for the WineDark month of May, because
a) sometimes I am lazy
b) the pointy, bastardy and bloodied end of my PhD means I run out of juice here occasionally and
c) sometimes I am lazy.
Oh okay, one more thing, d) I really want to share some south coast yarns other than my own on the blog. So ... Michelle, Boy Wonder, Nemo, Anne, Crispin, Ciaran, Rellie, Kyabla and others, bloggers or not, if you would like to share a story, a painting, a photograph, a rant or a poem on A WineDark Sea during May, I'd just love you to join in. Go on.

The first guest poster is Tim from the Pole. That's Walpole for the uninitiated: a wild little town nestled between ocean and tall timber. Tim is a field biologist who manages the fragile equilibrium between life and style in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Fire away Tim!

I’m not a local. I wasn’t born here. A number of years ago when we moved south I was teased by locals who said “you won’t survive the Walpole winter, you’ll be gone within two years if not sooner”. On the contrary, it’s the winter, not the summer that keeps us here.  In fact I’ve now been here longer than anywhere else I’ve lived as an adult and the gypsy urge has been suppressed by the south coast. 

Aaahh…..bliss, a cold front blowing up from the Southern Ocean on a Sunday afternoon in June. The sort of weather that sends tourists packing and locals strolling off to the wood shed or pub.  Some ‘south coasters’ do the opposite. Invigorated by both the weather and the solitude that winter brings, we go to the beach.  The air has that clean sharpness that may bring hail. Maybe some bruised vegies and another power cut will result but there are plenty of candles so it’s a small price to pay. The holiday homes that surround us have been vacated so we can hear frogs, owls, mooing and the distant rumble of a big swell. 

It’s rough, bleak and splendid as I stand high above one of my favourite nameless wild south coast beaches watching the weather unfurl, Windy Harbour fuzzy on the horizon. A mate and I had our weekly fish here recently. My wife likes to call it “Tuesdays with Gary”.  We saw an elephant seal. He popped up his massive grey head with black bulbous eyes from behind a dune and bellowed at us. We were startled to say the least and giggling tried to hide our fright, but we also felt truly privileged. It was a David Attenborough moment. We both stared at it for some time mesmerized and speculated in silence about what this animal has seen in its sub-Antarctic life. Diving deep in dark, cold waters for an hour at a time hunting for squid, rays even small sharks. 

It’s the rips and king waves however that makes it dicey on this beach, not the fauna. I need that alone time and on a day like this where else would you want to be? Somewhere outdoors but not walking under the karri in this wind. Some would say that’s nutty. You should be in front of the fire with a red wine and a good book, maybe Facebook, maybe a milo. Well perhaps later.  

I think one of the attractions of the south coast is that looking out to sea you know there are no people. Perhaps not at all till Antarctica except for maybe a crew on a distant ship beyond the horizon. You’re on the edge of the abyss. If there are no boats or swimmers, there are no people, simple.  That seems evident, but where you have land, even in the most isolated and secluded mountains, deserts or forests, people often turn up. I’ve experienced this working in the bush as a field zoologist. Someone will surprise you by appearing in harsh and isolated areas, when you were convinced of your solitude. Many people find a remote and unoccupied beach, especially in squally weather, a forbidding place. 

I see it as a chance to watch the kids rugged up, or more often not, bounding along the beach, all shrieks and cartwheels. They’re stamping the first footprints into the sand after all the holiday visitor’s trails have been smothered and washed away. It’s like we’ve discovered a new beach, a clean slate. The kids return beaming, one with a petrel skull the other dragging a netted buoy.

I’m not sure when I developed the small coastal town attitude about space and privacy on the coast or when a visitor’s presence began to diminish the experience. Now a special spot is ‘ruined’ because someone else is there. Crumbs! What have I become?  In an overpopulated world, this is a selfish attitude and we’re all quite spoilt down here. I also realise that the elephant in the room is that I’m as guilty as anyone else of having my presence on the beach affecting someone else’s desire for isolation. This desire to be the first to the beach may sound like competition but it’s more than that. 

It’s not just about getting to the deep water hole for a fish before anyone else snaffles it or discovering the lone nautilus shell, but about immersing yourself in the landscape with spontaneity, unhindered by people. 
It’s deciding to follow meandering plover tracks from the shoreline to the dunes, to see if you can find that exposed and elusive camouflaged egg without walking over someone’s towel or through their fishing line. 
It’s seeing the dark glint of a fossilised shark tooth in the sand while trying to ignore the flash of a smashed stubby. 
It’s about finding that dried seahorse, tail tangled in seaweed, nestled up to a tiny leather jacket with a background of kelp, sponge and blue bottles like a miniature museum diorama or a seafood salad. 
It’s noticing the succession of beached and bleached cuttlefish bones. Some standing half buried in the sand like self-made headstones. It’s then puzzling over the tell-tale imprints of the mystery toothy predator that ended its life. The ragged slashes of an unknown shark, the conical holes left by large fish, dolphins and seals, with only size and pattern left to tell them apart. 
It’s picking over the frame of a grouper, peg-teeth gaping at the darkening sky and wondering how old it is. A fish that could have been swimming out there since the 1950’s. These seemingly fragile relics must be tough because the only way onto this particular beach is via a gauntlet of immense, top heavy and dumping waves. Hence the absence of surfers.   
Although I despise it, even the rubbish washed up here is curious. A half-drunk bottle of plum wine from Japan, a tube of “Lucky” cigarettes from China and a carton of chocolate milk from Saudi Arabia. There’s a long piece of barnacle encrusted bamboo as thick as your leg with saw marks on it – I wonder from where it's drifted. This marine debris is a reminder that the ocean connects us. 

A post-gale stroll is the winters highlight. It permits for a slightly macabre exploration of sea life that regularly succumbs to the violence of the weather, such as a dead seal pup or stranded whale. It allows for ‘poking with stick proximity’. A chance to be familiar with wild animals usually hidden or distant. A wreck of shearwaters. Aptly named as the lifeless birds do look like a fleet of little weather beaten boats, lying miserably in the sand.  Some with wings blown upright, flapping in the gusts like torn sails. The point is, these quiet, often lone and isolated walks shake you out of your routine, clear the head and enliven. This experience for me is diluted when there are visitors prancing around.

What is the solution to a desire for solitude in wild coastal places? Either move away somewhere even more remote, or adapt, share and embrace others in these places. Basically just get over it. I can’t do the former with a young family so I’m accepting the latter. 

In fact this week, as per last, I’m taking a bunch of school kids out to a remote beach with Gary Muir, a renowned local educator, to find tracks, scats and other signs of native animals on the beach as part of their science curriculum. It’s anything but solitude, it’s a cacophony of excited chatter and squealing but a step toward triggering a possible life time of ecological interest for young minds, and it’s rewarding. They loved the dead seal. 

Perhaps I’ve turned the corner. I’m even stopping to chat to beach combing and fishing tourists. I don’t give away secrets but at least I offer advice on what fish are moving or good fossicking spots, in the hope that sharing a passion for the south coast will engender respect in them for the landscape.  

One day I might even look forward to summer. 

Tim Gamblin


  1. Beautifully done Tim. I could feel the grey blustery wind even as i read along. well done.

  2. Very descriptive Tim; and it sounds like a really ace patch of beach.

    As someone who now lives in the city, I miss the isolation and the quiet. And the birds. Oh, how I miss the birds.

  3. Beautiful, Tim. We moved down 18 months ago, and also get teased about winter, but we moved for relief from the unrelenting heat of Perth (among other reasons), and I adore the winter. My youngest and her schoolmates are off on a Bibbulmun walk this week, and will be doing a tour with Gary. I'm rather jealous! We also found a dead young seal down at Parry Beach a few months ago, my girls were fascinated. Just life, and death, up close and not at arm's length. We love it down here and never want to move back to the city.

    1. Thanks Alex,

      Sounds like you've had a few good walks down here too. Yes the birds are pretty special.
      A couple of young sea eagles are around the Nornalup Inlet at the moment, they're feeding on the shearwater wreck.



    2. Thank you Mermaid as well,

      Glad you enjoyed it and sounds like you're living in a similar landscape. I still head out on Gary's boat frequently on days off, doing the dishes in exchange for a free trip. I get to snorkel with the rays at the other end. Hope your kids have a great time with him and the Bibb walk, glad they love the beach relics too.



  4. Thanks Tim, I enjoyed reading that..

    1. Thanks Ciaran, appreciated.


  5. Great post Tim. I go through similar agonies re tourists and wanting my space. One on one I am very helpful and friendly, but as a collective I really don't like them at all.