Ramble: “To follow an irregularly winding path of motion or growth”- the internet.
Join a Region X guide for a paddle through the nexus of memory and imagination. Let our themes be nature, adventure, our problematic relationship to the modern world, and anything that crosses our path along the way. I promise no continuity, chronology, or proper grammar. My only promise, as I give to guests on the water, is that you will get wet. Read this between your own journeys, especially when at work or when you should otherwise be doing something else.
“Who gave this guy a password to my website?” – Josh Waterson, Founder, Region X.
Our first destination is the South Coast of New South Wales. It’s a mouthful, but the abbreviation to ‘South Coast’ is problematic. If you’re reading from India or China you might think I’m talking about the South Coast of the Australian continent. Perhaps that’s where you’re reading from, having taken such vague directions.
For Rambler purposes, the South Coast means the NSW coastline between Sydney and the Victorian border.
It’s composed of a string of national parks, sleepy rivers and estuaries, beaches, bays, and cliffs. Small towns that straddle what firefighters refer to as the ”i-zone”, the interface between suburban and rural. Where every summer, residents of the eucalyptus frontier watch for red moons and smoke on the horizon.
The South Coast lies within a Bermuda Triangle between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
A place where wandering city folk disappear to, and whose life thereafter is shrouded from the view of the perpetually distracted metropolis. Prevalent among these city refugees is a chapter of wise retirees, who specialize in getting up before you and walking the waterfronts and country streets in the pre-dawn haze. Others are wealthy holiday-housers, lights off and driveways empty except on summer weekends. Mingled with these urban escapees are canny investors, snapping up property in response to the growing migration from the city and its broken promises. Alongside the city interlopers is a dynasty of shire-bred locals, going back generations of farmers, fishermen, tradesmen and gold-rushers. To be considered ‘local’ to the South Coast, your arrival must precede the memory of the person you are talking to.
But at the time of writing, population density is still low enough that the downtown skyline in most towns is still only a few stories high, and you can still see the sands of the Milky Way beyond the street lamps.
Our tourism agencies claim the South Coast to be “unspoilt”.
This is generally true, especially compared to the casino-bound, beachfront apartment kitsch of the “Gold Coast” tourist hub in Queensland – our Northern antithesis. But, like all places of interface between modern humanity and the natural world, the integrity of the surrounding environment is contingent on ecologically and aesthetically sensitive development, boundaries, and limitations. And this is not assured. The “unspoilt” South Coast is compromised by mining leases in freshwater catchments, out of sight but connected to the national parks, drinking water supplies and the ocean via streams and rivers. Logging continues in our state forests. Sport hunters and gun dealers hold significant & undemocratic influence over Eurobodalla Shire Council, and push for annual arms fairs in public buildings and special hunting rights in national parks. Developers and fast food franchises are always poised to build – some towns have let them get a foot in the door, others have not. Fishing trawlers are banned in the Batemans Marine Park, but recreational fishing is popular, and there are not enough fisheries officers to monitor our sanctuary (no-take) zones, or keep a close eye on quotas. The universal tension between conservation, ecotourism, sustainable agriculture on the one hand, and “development”, heavy industry, and more casual exploitation on the other, is very much alive here.
The usual consumer habits contribute to litter, marine debris and emissions. The general public is also complicit in the despoiling undertaken to supply, power, feed and drive us (although those impacts are mostly felt ‘elsewhere’). Like everyone in the busybody world, we the people of the South Coast need to curb our individual footprints, both in both our backyard and global habitats. But it strikes me that those impacts incidental to individual consumption are not equal to the special interests of industrial representatives. I am speaking of those who actively seek to exploit finite resources with high-impact methods in sensitive environs for their own profit, and for whom the beauty of a place, the health of the land and the future prosperity of all species, are just collateral damage.
Despite all of these pressures, the South Coast remains a place of quaint beauty. Of green pastures in river valleys, farmer’s markets, tangled forests, of sandy and pebbled beaches to ones self on a weekday, whale migrations and dolphins playing in sunset waves. It’s home to a boggling array of marine, mammalian and avian species iconic and obscure, some thriving, others endangered. The climate is temperate, although that too seems to be losing its balance, with shorter, milder winters that can barely conjure a frost (where once I broke thick ice in horse’s troughs). And longer, hotter, drier summers, punctuated by damaging storms and sudden floods. But, so far, life goes on about as well as it can in any partially regressive geo-political climate. As is a rite of passage for my (Western) generation, I have lived, worked, and traveled through much of the world. And this is still among the best places to leave the highway, to explore the national & marine parks (a truly long-term project when you realize the breadth of the wilderness beyond the towns). To be re-introduced to elements and the seasons, or even to settle – not that my generation is inclined to the latter. The towns are more than tolerable, small enough without much – if any – sacrifice to the all-mighty convenience of goods and services. Some restaurants & cafes boast local supply chains, and/or organic fare. I think of it as the yet-unspoilt South Coast.
We should also consider that “Unspoilt” is a relative term. Compared to pre-colonial landscape, everywhere accessible by road is long-gone from its pristine state. But never should existing impacts be used to justify further ‘progress’. That is the way to environmental bankruptcy, and is an ethical equivalent to the argument, “She has already been abused, and she is used to it, so what does it matter?” And that is the logic you will find in an Environmental Impact Statement produced by an industrial interest for some unsustainable, high-impact, marginally viable, and almost unanimously unwanted project, to secure approval from their gatekeepers (I’m thinking of a gold mine near Major’s Creek). The first thing a company will cite in their truncated descriptions of the sought-after place of operations is historical damage – by an earlier form of their own industry. They do not mention the surviving beauty of a place, its interconnectedness with every form of life in its vicinity (especially downstream), or the extent to which it has recovered from past abuses. They are excited only by the degree to which it has already been spoiled. At present (June 2017), the gatekeepers to industrial development – incumbent ministers and state planning authorities with executive power seem entirely under the spell of ‘already spoiled’ logic. The approval documents themselves echo the proponent, citing existing damage to a landscape to justify the rubber stamp.
But our representatives needed little convincing. When it’s time to build my chain of casinos along the South Coast islands – the Tollgates, Montague, Broulee Island – with jetski access, and seafood restaurants with their own trawlers, I’ll skip the facade of hiring an ‘Environmental Consultant’ to compile an assessment under the guise of impartial science. I’ll submit 300 pages with ‘jobs and growth’ written in various fonts. It’s a sure thing.
Investors, developers, mining companies, hunters, and plastic bags have all discovered the South Coast.
But where are those who seek the beauty of our myriad beaches, the expanse of wild forests and rugged cliffs just inland? The South Coast is in danger of being discovered for every purpose except the eco-tourism for which it is ideally suited. Despite being comfortably inhabited and known to various exploiters, the South Coast is barely known to the new generation of traveler, who seeks to leave the highway and actually experience the natural landscape. Let’s change that.