The End of the Beach

At Mallacoota, Tamboon, and elsewhere, this summer’s unprecedented bushfires drove thousands to take shelter on the shore—and permanently transformed one of Australia’s “sacred” national icons.

Image by Holger Link, via Unsplash

On the Sunday before last, around midday, a combat jet crackled over Sydney Harbour. I heard the flypast—conducted ‘in support of Australia Day celebrations’—from the café deck of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I’d come to look at another, only marginally less vehement expression of national feeling, the painter Charles Meere’s famous Australian beach pattern. It hangs in the Captain Cook wing, adjacent to a fine view of Woolloomooloo Wharf.

Meere’s unabashedly stylised picture crowds its frame, and its little patch of sand, with a seminude settler fantasy of beauty, strength, and spirit. The bodies of its thirty-odd human figures are idealized, classically heroic, like so many Greek statues in form-fitting bathers. Left of centre, a brawny man is frozen mid-stride, chest out, eyes on the horizon. A boy sits atop the man’s shoulders, brandishing a shovel like a sword.

This summer, Australia has been reckoning with a different kind of beachscape. On New Year’s Eve, about 4,000 people crowded onto the foreshore in Mallacoota, a secluded little town in the southeast corner of the country, not far from the New South Wales-Victoria border. They’d been driven to the water by bushfires. That morning, the town was shrouded in a fug of smoke and haze so thick that it appeared to be night-time. As the day wore on, the atmosphere’s palette developed into a sort of ruddy gloom.

Huddling on the sand in near-zero visibility, locals and stranded vacationers reported hearing the roaring of the fires and the pop-pop of exploding gas canisters. Some were told they ought to get themselves and their loved ones into the water. ‘Like a warzone’ is how one local man would later describe the scene he encountered at his burnt-out home.1 A few days on, the only road in or out of Mallacoota remaining impassable, the military landing ship HMAS Choules began collecting evacuees from the waterfront.

Australia’s ‘unusually photogenic’ bushfire crisis has provoked an extensive and growing imagery.2 I’m arrested by one photo in particular, taken at Mallacoota Wharf by somebody taking shelter there. A person lies prostrate in the foreground. Behind them, people huddle together, stand around, sit at wharf-edge. Bodies are covered by blankets, hoodies, jackets, caps, masks. Most everyone who isn’t hunched over gazes into the distance as though on the lookout for something, though it isn’t clear what—the background is totally obscured by red murk.

Geoffrey Dutton wrote that, for white settler Australians, the beach was the nearest available thing to ‘sacred sites or temples.’Looking at Meere’s painting, this doesn’t seem like such a stretch: at the juncture of pseudo-classical form, masculine stoicism, midcentury mise-en-scène, and sandy strand, a kind of national religion is being born. But the events of these past weeks have passed the picture and all it means through a ‘fiery and transforming’ mirror and given us its warped, hellish negative at Mallacoota Wharf.4

This is the coast as site not of ‘freedom’ but of last resort.It is the sea-margin becoming a figure for a nation ‘in perpetual flight from danger.’6 It is the befogging of pleasure into sensory deprivation, if not literal hazard. It is the symbolic economy of shoreline hedonism in precipitate decline. It is the end of one idea of the beach.

Of course, as Meere’s painting makes glaringly obvious, that idea has always been culturally and historically contingent. Les Murray indicted the strand as essentially undemocratic, calling it the theatre of an ‘aristocracy of the body’ where particular forms and dispositions held court.And Claire G. Coleman has written recently about the ways Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Island communities enact their own diverse—and often distinctly ‘sacred’—relationships to coastal places. To say nothing of the fires, those relationships are already under violent and compounded pressures, Coleman explains, from sea-level rise, erosion, heedless development, and other forces besides.8

Thus one of the more excruciating of the ironies that radiate from Mallacoota Wharf. At just the same time that coastal communities are being driven to—and indeed into—the sea to take shelter from the heat, smoke, and flames, Australia’s shores are themselves becoming more and more precarious. ‘For a nation of coast-dwellers,’ observes Bronwyn Adcock, ‘climate change is much more than an inconvenient truth: it is upending’.9 As this summer has made viscerally clear, when we talk about beaches bearing the stresses of a warming planet, we are not only referring to threats from their oceanside margins.

‘Australia Day’ is the official name for the national holiday that fell two Sundays ago. (‘Invasion Day’ is a prominent contemporary alternative.) Once called ‘First Landing Day,’ it marks the anniversary of January 26, 1788, when Arthur Phillip and company made landfall, raised the British flag, and declared New South Wales a colony. This nation has a shoreside story at its core, one that has been predicated, from the first, on violence, expropriation, and the mythologies of terra and aqua nullius.10 On the beach in Mallacoota, the lucky country’s narrative arc was arrested and pinned face-down in the sand, between bushfire and saltwater. The edge is precious, and it is narrowing. How we inhabit it will make the difference.

1. Paul Johnson, ‘Bushfires in NSW and Victoria destroy entire towns on New Year’s Eve,’ ABC News, January 6, 2020, 
2. Paul Krugman, ‘Australia Shows Us the Road to Hell,’ The New York Times, January 9, 2020, 
3. Geoffrey Dutton, Sun, Sea, Surf and Sand—The Myth of the Beach (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985), 6.
4. I borrow this phrase from the transported convict Will Bryant, in Thomas Keneally, The Playmaker (London: Serpentine, 1987), 180.
5. Dutton, 13.
6. Livia Albeck-Ripka, Isabella Kwai, Thomas Fuller, and Jamie Tarabay, ‘“It’s an Atomic Bomb”: Australia Deploys Military as Fires Spread,’ The New York Times, January 4, 2020
7. Interviewed in The Beach, directed by Don Featherstone (Civic Square, ACT: Ronin Films, 2000), Vimeo.
8. Claire G. Coleman, ‘What will unite us when the beaches are gone?Crikey, January 28, 2020
9. Bronwyn Adcock, ‘Rising Tide,’ The Monthly, October 2019

Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Another recent article, ‘Expecting plastic: albatrosses and the discovery of “culture”,’ is out now from Green Letters.