I sat down on a bench by the side of the beach and looked out across the water. The night was deep and dark and black, with a sprinkling of stars overhead. In front of me the water of the sea was moving to and fro quietly, to the tune of the moon and the tide. Behind me everything was quiet; suspiciously so. The world seemed, while asleep as usual, just a bit more inactive than normal. Was it due to the pandemic that was ravaging the world? On the way overhere the roads had been completely deserted, a real joy to drive down: night giving way before headlights, closing in again behind. Stars overhead, looking down, icecold and disinterested.
A couple of nights ago we had sat here in this same spot, three of us, partners in crime, and had stared out into the night. We had spotted a multitude of satellites revolving around us; at one point there were four of them, all of them appearing in the same part of the sky, all of them spaced the same distance apart from each other. They travelled from left to right in the sky in front of us, then, just before they disappeared around a corner of the square universe, another two appeared from the exact same spot, the exact same distance spaced apart. It was intriguing. Who was watching us? The Yanks, the Russians, the Chinese? Our own government? It raised questions of exactly to what extent we are under surveillance, here on Earth, by whom, and for what purpose. Mind control and world domination spring to mind.
For a long time I sat there by myself, growing increasingly puzzled at the absence of other members of the crew, who had indicated their intentions of being here. Eventually I stopped thinking about it, and gave in to the beauty, peace and quiet of the night, of those couple of hours when all creatures traipse around as if on eggshells, holding their breath. I have had a long and intense relationship with the pre-dawn time. I used to sneak through the high, brown speargrass of the dry season in the dark verging on twilight, stalking the pretty-faced wallaby for my breakfast, along and around the banks of the muddy river. Staying well away from the water's edge, where old man crocodile was waiting to stalk me in turn, for his breakfast. Everything eats something. Other times I used to run barefoot through the red dirt, trees dim shapes by my sides, in exactly the right amount of twilight that would allow me to see the snakes curled up in the dust in front of me before I stepped on them; a sure-fire way to ruin a perfectly good day. When the tide dictated it, we cast off our moorings from the quayside in the dark before the dawn, to ride the high tide out through the bar to go and chase and catch fish for a living, the diesel engine chugging away steadily and reliably into the night, the smell of diesel mixing with the scent of the tide, oysters on the rocks, wet sand on the shore. There is deep peace and contentment in the Dark Dawn.
These days instead of hunting animals and fish I hunt waves. I am fascinated and spell-bound by their ephemeral nature, creatures of light and air and water, that cannot be held in the palm of a hand, cannot be tied down, cannot be shot, skinned or butchered, and provide endless and unlimited enjoyment when caught at the right moment, and exasperation and frustration when not. While they don't feed the physical stomach, they feed the human hunger for joy, pleasure and happiness. There is, on the whole, less violence and blood involved, unless, of course, a situation is mishandled, a wave is misread, and close and intimate acquaintance is made with rocks, sandbanks, fibreglass surfaces and razor-sharp fins, which does occur alarmingly regularly. In terms of violence, it does happen when the human beast gets too closely caught up with other human beasts and turf-wars and proprietary attitudes are brought into play on the water; but fortunately it's a rare enough occurrence.
Avoiding too much interaction with The Human Beast in the water is the prime reason for turning up in the dark of the night to chase waves. Our breaks here are famous and well-known, and eagerly sought out by people from all over the world. At any time other than Dark Dawn it can be very hard to get a wave. An additional, altogether much more grimmer aspect is lent to our pre-dawn exercises by the pandemic that is engulfing the world: in some countries people are dying by the thousands from an infectious disease, and we are urged to stay well away from other people, to try to control the spread of the virus causing the deaths.
Eventually a car well-known to me pulled up next to mine. I checked my watch. It was six am. I had been sitting there contemplating the world for forty-five minutes. Chief Switchfoot jumped out of his van.
'How are ya!'
'Yeah, not bad. Having a bit of quiet time.'
'What's it look like out there?'asked the Chief, myopically peering into the darkness.
'I kid you not.'
'The tide's still coming in, isn't it.' The Chief checked his watch. 'Yeah, it'll be high tide at six.'
'At six?'I frowned, and checked my watch in turn. 'It's six now!'
'Nah, it's five. Daylight saving time's finished, mate,' said the Chief, grinning with the knowledge that I got caught out.
'You're joking! Bloody hell!' I exclaim with feeling, adding 'that explains why it was so quiet everywhere all the way here ... an hour ago ...'
'Hahaaaa! Yeah mate, time to change the clocks!'the Chief laughs, happily entertained by my mistake, which, I now realised, had seen me get up out of bed at a quarter past three, only to sit here by myself looking out over the ocean for an hour, contemplating life at night. No wonder I had been a bit confused. So, fair enough, the joke was on me, and I laughed along, albeit on the other side of my face.
Before long others arrived, and we got kitted up and ready. Boards under our arms we clambered down to the sand of the beach, and set off. There was four of us at this stage: Chief Switchfoot, his daughter's boyfriend The Grinner, and the latter's dad, known as The Jockey, for his stance on his board when he's on a wave. He stands with his legs bent and bowed, ridiculously wide apart, leaning forwards and holding his hands in front of him, clutching imaginary reins and a horsewhip, gunning it in the Melbourne Cup on every wave, and, most importantly, looking neither right nor left but hellbent on chasing forwards and running over everything and everyone that has the misfortune of getting in his way. And then of course there was myself, The Baboon, proud owner of an unimitable and unenviable surf stance that points the bright pink ape arse high to the sky, due to an unusual and skewed sense of centre of gravity, combined with an unfortunately prominent rip at the back of my boardshorts.
We walked down the beach, sloshing through the water puddling up right underneath the bottom of the bank separating the beach from the carpark. It was an exceptionally high tide, and with every surge more water washed over the flats. The way the sand of the beaches comes and goes is spectacular, and never fails to amaze me. Fifteen months ago at this exact same spot the sandy beach reached down fully two hundred metres to the waterline, due to a huge build-up of sand. Traversing it felt like travelling through a desert. Now the water was hard up against the banks almost, and there was no trace left of that huge deposit of sand.
Overhead the sky was lightening up and changing colour. The blackness slowly faded out of the night, making way for pale streaks of pink, purple and light blue, interspersed with the first hints of orange. The newly-found light afforded a better view of the scene, and we made our way down to the end of the beach, near where the waves broke on a bank of rocks. Launching ourselves out onto the waves we paddled hard, riding the crests of the beach break until we had made it into the zone where the waves rolled up and started to bend forwards into a rideable shape.
There was no one else out, and we had the whole area to ourselves. In front of us, the end of the bay, leading into the open ocean on our right, there where the last spit of land, the final finger of rock, jutted out into the sea, signalling the end of the land, the last outrunner of The Cape. To our left, the inside bulk of the bay, shallow and even, given rise to some of the best waves in the world, clean, straight and above all long, running on for hundreds of metres. Behind us, a conglomeration of rocks, a tumble-down jumble of sharp edges and jagged lines, where the waves we would be catching would throw us onto if we went to far and showed ourselves too keen, and, above all, too stupid.
Waves rose up in front of us, we spun and turned, paddled and jumped, dropped and carved, and rode them out in ecstacy all the way to the rocks; dropped down on our boards and returned back to the take-off spot. Eyes scanning the horizon, scouting for changes in the pattern of the waves, trying to suss out where the best place would be for the next wave, an ever-shifting interaction of swell, drive, drift, current and tide. Before long we were joined by The Snake Catcher and The Uncle, who had been dragging their respective chains. And there, in that space between the land, the sea and the sky, neither in the water nor in the air, but somewhere in the twilight zone in the middle of them, we caught waves and rode along with the rise and fall of the ocean. Now sitting together, bobbing up and down on the water, now scattered, dispersed and out of sight, moving along with the pull of the sweep.
I arrived back more or less to where I thought I wanted to be for my next wave, and sat up on my board, happy with the last wave I had caught. I closed my eyes and leaned back. And as I was doing so, the sun finally broke through the surface of the water, rose up above it, and appeared from around the corner of The Mighty Cape. Feeling its rays on my face, I opened my eyes again, and looked it right in the eye. Its big round yellow eye with ragged edges of orange and dark red, starkly outlined against the hard blue sky behind it. It smiled at me, and winked. I winked back.
I could feel The Song rising up inside of me, bursting at the seams, dying to pour out into the world. There is, I will have you know, a Song for Every Occasion in this life. Human experience on earth is accompanied by, documented in, and given meaning to through Song. Traditional Aboriginal culture codified the very rules for human interaction with the world in cycles of songs, explaining both the origin of the world, humanity's place in it, and the state in which things needed to be kept for the world order to stay stable. It was humanity's duty to perform the songs, which, by the very act of performing them, MAINTAINED the world order. The link between the song and the very existence of all life was unbreakable, indelible, essential. If the songs ever failed to be performed, the world would collapse. The people and the animals would die, rivers would cease to flow, mountains would crumble and turn to dust, and the sun would cease to rise and shine.
Sure enough, when whitefella come down and shot and poisoned everyone, enslaved the survivors, outlawed their language, their traditions and their culture, and forced them all to speak English, the Songs ceased to be sung, and the world collapsed. The state the Murray-Darling River is in today is tragic and stark evidence of that. Banks are eroded, forest are in die-back, water is stolen and horsetraded by large corporations upstream, remaining puddles are poisoned and de-oxygenated, and fish, trapped in depleted waterholes, asphyxiate and die. Hundreds and thousands of majestic Murray River cod, yellowbelly and bream turned belly up, their rotting corpses covering the dwindling waterholes like a putrid blanket of death. Meanwhile, far away upstream, and in a direct line to numbered and untraceable bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, vast profits are made from speculative trading of water-access rights. The clicking of the numbers on the computer screens of stock exchanges is singing a new and different song, of bottom lines, balance sheets and dividends, and while fat cats in suburban mansions rub their hands and count their money, the country dies, along with the Old Song. Maybe the Virus will get them ...
There's a song for every occasion. Sunrise, to me, has only one song, immortal and eternal. I opened up my mouth, threw my head back, and set the song free. The words came flying out, like endless rain into a paper cup:
"Here comes the sun, doodum doodoo, here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right ..."
I lifted my face up to the sun, the better to soak up it's warmth, it's life-giving heat. Without sunlight and sunwarmth, we'd be fucked. There'd be no life on earth. My face creased into a big wide open smile, and I took a massive, deep breath of fresh, clean and above all warm air, drinking it down like a dehydrated lost wanderer in a desert.
"Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces ..."
I bent forwards, dragged my fingers through the water, scooped up two handfuls of warm, silky salty water, and splashed them on my face.
"little darling, it feels like years since it's been here ..."
Without water we'd be fucked too. No water, no life on earth. Life-giving fresh water comes form the salty oceans, where it's been heated up by the sun until it evaporated - leaving the salt behind - turned into vapour, absorbed into a cloud, lifted shifted, blown and sifted hither and tither and all over the show, pushed over land, driven high up over hills and mountains, until the cloud gets too heavy and soggy to hold on to all the water, and it releases its precious cargo of liquid gold, and rain falls all over the land, causing grass and shrubs and trees to grow, providing sustenance and food to all animals and critters, and giving them all a drink. Out here, on the water, mixed together in the blender of the rolling surf, of the breaking wave that rises up and crumbles forwards, were the three ingredients that enable all life on earth to come into being: sunlight, air and water.
"Sun, sun, sun, here she comes ..."
I spread my arms out wide, to embrace all of the sun's warmth, and the whole wide world, and a realisation came to me, an epiphany from out of the cold of the Dark Dawn: I'm fed up with the night. I want sunlight, warmth and daytime. I'm over scuttling around like cockroaches before someone turns on the light in the kitchen in the morning. I want to be able to enjoy the manifold pleasures of the beach: to see the sunlight sparkle on the water, to see underwater rays of light falling in streamlined shafts through the top layer of water, illuminating the sandy bottom, the seagrass beds, the turtles and the stripy fish. Fuck the cold dark night.
The sun continued to rise, coating the surface of the water in liquid gold. I wallowed in it like a buffalo in mud, happy as a pig in shit. Content with my new-found realisation, with my conversion from Creature Of The Night to Worshipper Of The Sun.
Time ran out and we made our way towards the shore. I caught a succession of short waves beachwards, then got stuck on the corner, where the rockfall forms a pointbreak of sorts, with one big rock sitting prominently way out in front of the others. We call it the Stone Of Destiny, because no matter where you take of from in that area, you always end up right on top of it. There is a theory that it is, in actual fact, a representative of an extremely rare type of mineral known as Fibroverrite, which is only ever found in minute amounts, and only in rocks in the middle of good surf breaks. Scientific experiments have found, to the bafflement of those buffins performing them, that this rare trace mineral Fibroverrite exerts a magnetic influence on surfboards made of fibreglass. Derived from the Latin 'findere', in turn from the Proto Indo-European root *bheid- "to split", it seems to have as its sole goal in life, if minerals can be said to have a life, the splitting of surfboards. This despiccable state of affairs is at times made considerably worse by the deplorable fact that occasionally, no one knows why, a Baboon can be observed sitting on top of the The Stone Of Destiny, bellowing out songs to woe the unwary sea-traveller, by hurting their ears so badly that tears fill their eyes, which causes them to not be able to see where they're going and, as a result, crash and flounder on the rock. In pre-industrial days this was a major cause of shipwrecks in the area, which sustained a thriving if highly illegal beach-combing industry and white-slave trade, and was the ultimate underlying reason for the building of the lighthouse on top of the Cape, to warn the unaware away.
In front of the Stone Of Destiny I caught up with the Snake Catcher, also on his way back to the beach, and also stuck there for a wave. We passed the time of day for a bit, observing strict Social Distancing rules, till, finally, a wave of sufficient calibre to take me out of there turned up, and I paddled, pulled in and jumped up. Only to see, right there in front of me, a gaping brown hole where the wave was sucking back and draining off the sand around The Stone Of Destiny, looming large in front of me, not two metres away, grinning at me like a Sumatran tiger that knows that behind you is a cliff with a sheer drop of a hundred metres, your goose is cooked and so is his breakfast.
With lightning speed informed purely by panic, not involving any skill or judgement, I threw myself backwards, flying high over the crest of the wave, landing in deep water behind it. I dived to the bottom, grabbed hold of a handful of sand, twisted around and yanked my legrope as hard as I could. I had been riding a board borrowed from The Library, a.k.a. the van of Chief Switchfoot, treasure trove of a hoard of boards old and new, for the last few weeks, since my own board had finally lost the will to live a while ago, and had gone into spontaneous self destruction, no longer able to face life with me on its back all day every day. Since that board in question had also, in point of fact, been borrowed from the Switchfoot Library, the last thing I wanted was for my current borrowed board to be smashed to fibreglass splinters. It's not a good look when you return something:
...'Here Chief, here's your board back, thanks for the loan.'
'It's the board. What's left of it. Oh, and here's a bit more of it, in this bag over here.'
It doesn't go down well.
I reeled the board in, safely away from the backwash coming off The Stone Of Destiny. Inspected its nose with trepidation. Heaved a sigh of relief. It was unblemished. Better return it soon, before it's too late ...
Back on shore we shot the breeze. Purchased hot drinks from a beach-side vendor. We found a picnic table overlooking the bay, and reclined in the warm sunshine.
But there were clouds blocking the sun, metaphorically speaking.
The whole world was in lockdown mode, scrambling to cope with the virus laying waste to every single country on earth. The greatest emergency the planet had seen for over a hundred years. Everywhere people were being told to stay inside, do nothing, not socialise with more than one other person at a time.
I looked around me. Here at our table there were four of us. Chief Switchfoot and Baboon on one corner, Snake Catcher and Uncle on the other corner. Were we keeping our prescribed distance of 1.5 metres away from each other?
On the track beyond our table, numbers of people in "active wear", work-out leggings and tops etc., were walking past, swinging their arms manically and pumping their fists, ipods and phones plugged into their ears, stealthily but steadily and inexorably causing irrepairable damage to their hearing. Streams of people from both directions crossed over and disappeared the opposite way. Surfers, like us, were loading and unloading boards, and, like us, passing the time of day. Some observed respectful distances, like us; others didn't even look like trying. In the carpark, the daily hustle for a spot was continuing unabatedly, with cars lining up one after the other, pushing and shoving each other, vying for a spot by the water. This carpark was the only one left open now, due to the emergency. With all other beach car parks in the shire closed, huge numbers of people were converging on this break. Surely that was the exact opposite effect of what was desired.
I shook my head. I wasn't at all convinced we were doing the right thing here. I got up, got a tape measure out of my car, and measured the table. Corner to opposite corner on the short side: 1.7 metres. Corner to far corner on the long side: 2.4 metres. Technically speaking, we were doing the right thing. As long as we leaned back far enough when talking to each other.
A cop car turned up, and as one we stood up and walked away, reverting, at least in my case, immediately back to an instinctive distrust of police and all authority, bred deep into me through long years of living as a bum in the long grass, where police harassment and brutality were facts of daily reality.
Guiltily we walked back to our cars, got in and drove away.
It looked like, for the time being, it might be a better idea to stick with The Dark Dawn rather than The Bright Sun, and avoid other people as much as possible. For the sake of everyone's survival.