When the Swimmer Reaches Shore

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I grew up in Whanganui. The city straddles the river from the mouth to the Aramaho railway bridge – about as far as a king tide pushes upstream. Upriver scores of Maori settlements flourished for hundreds of years before Europeans showed up with riverboats that rapidly eroded traditional fishing grounds. At school we were taught we were taught nothing of the history of the river. Back then industries dotted the river bank from the town bridge downstream to the port; timber tanalising, wool scouring, car wreckers, the gas works, soap manufacturers, leather tanneries, the 'works' – a rambling, turn of the century slaughter house and so on. A favorite parking spot after the movies was behind the bacon factory. Couples writhed on the back seats of Ford Zephyrs, Vauxhall Victors and Morris Minors while only a few meters away, the river slid by.

The waste from these factories– animal parts and chemicals – discharged straight into the river, as did the sewerage from the 30,000 or so city residents. It drifted downstream on the ebb tide, passing beneath the wharves where we fished for herring and spotties, and out between the moles that framed the river mouth. Depending on the weather, prevailing currents and winds, this waste was then sucked westward into the Tasman, or swept north, to flow parallel to the shore before being tossed up on Castlecliff beach. The dominant colours of the beach were shades of grey – from pitch black at the water’s edge to silver on the dunes where we would roam with bows and arrows, and where my sister once spied on a bikie piss-up and saw Blondie Saul, wrestling a man, half naked, wild, sweaty, their torsos caked with sand: iron sand, so concentrated you could lift it with a magnet.

In summer, swimmers coming ashore would scorch their feet within seconds. It was like fire walking. In winter, the beach was covered with driftwood, great hoary logs flushed downriver by floods – the legacy of generations of native forest clearance.

It was bleak and without shelter, but still we went there. The wind blew continuously. Cars got stuck. Then in the 70s, the council built a massive car park, spaces for several hundred vehicles, far more than what would ever be required. Decorated with a precise grid of straight white lines, a smooth bitumen pad reached towards the sea, its perimeter flanked by curved concrete slabs – bulwarks against the sand. But, like a cat, the sand crept in, innocuous at first, accumulating in little mounds topped with delicate rhythmic wave patterns. The mounds grew and became drifts: small dunes formed, and then, before the car park subsided from view, diggers arrived.

Structures built in a similar spirit to the car park in Whanganui dot the coastline of New Zealand. At the water’s edge these gestures in concrete, bitumen and steel mark a boundary between two worlds. One is solid and secure beneath our feet, the other is manifestly in flux. One, a place of familiarity and certainty, the other, mysterious, alluring, dangerous – depths in which our imagination knows no bounds.

Originally published as: When the Swimmer Reaches Shore
Griffiths Review 43, 2014 – Pacific Highways

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Castleciiff Beach, 1978

Castleciiff Beach, 1978