In late summer the red soil baked hard and smooth, like cast iron. As a little kid padding along it burned the soles of my bare feet and radiated a distorting shimmer. A scent like molasses wafted off Bladey Grass taller than me, and a salty plume thick enough to taste floated up off the sea. This is the place that I always come back to in the associations I make in life. All paths I take eventually return to this long gone bit of dirt track. The sounds of my childhood, of surf washing the beach, the rustling of the grass, the sigh of sea breeze through the pines my father had planted; all these memories are at the centre of my life’s orbit as fresh as if it were yesterday. Whenever I see that shimmer of summer heat again, or hear the sadness of wind in cypress, or catch a whiff of molasses then the memories of that bit of dirt track come flooding back. Today, the place, the people, the life, the pines, none of it remains, except in my memory. Sometimes I wonder whether in death my minds eye will return to this smooth red dirt and the sound of the sea, to end where my life started.
There were other smells as well, depending on where I happened to be. Decaying sea life hinted at the shells being collected and the death of their hapless little builders. Glass cabinets showed the pride of everyones trophies; every house had a showcase; collectors were crazed about it back then. These days there are no more specimens to be looted, the corals of the inshore reefs are all dead and gone, and the shell life all gone with them. Any time I glimpse a shell or a bleached piece of coral in a tourist shop now I can’t escape my memories of Bingil Bay.
The scent of cypress pine oozing it’s distinctive oil from the timber framing of our fibro cottage, the ‘shack’ as we called it, never fades from memory. There’s one little monochrome photo taken from out in the boat with an arrow pointing to ‘The Shack.’ Cypress Pine is termite resistant and termites built lovely hard mounds from the red soil but they’d eat any cellulose but cypress was resistant. The shack perched on the cliff top overlooking the Coral Sea, only ten yards back from the edge. It was one room, a few windows, a door without any verandah or porch, some double bunks for us kids and a bit of a kitchen. Coming down from Innisfail on the weekends and entering the Shack I’d be bowled over by the smell of the Cypress timber, as pungent as an Orthodox Liturgy at Easter. The scent of Cyprus has never lost its allure for me; maybe that’s why I like Russian liturgies.
I remember sitting on the edge of that cliff out front, eating mangoes with my feet dangling, looking down at the narrow dirt road that ran along the edge of the beach. Feathery native grass and a few scrubby trees clung to it, and coconut palms and remnants of the original forest waved up. My mother made a bit of a scene; I took it that I was meant to be self reliant and avoid falling so I did my bit and didn’t. I could see Dunk Island and the Barnard Islands out in the shining blue of the Coral Sea. To the south there was Clump Point and in the north past the rocky headland was Garners Beach; it was panoramic. In bad weather I could see storms and squalls and I have memories of a cyclone once. There was a little coral reef just offshore. I’d sit in the back of a wooden dinghy as my brothers rowed around the bay. I’d be very attentive because I could see how deep the water was, it was really clear and I had no ambition to go overboard. I remember seeing the little coral garden gliding below the boat, exotic and other-worldly. The main reef was King Reef, half a mile off Murdering Point. We could see it from the shack; on the lowest tides of the year you can still walk out to it except that its dead now; first the cyclone of 1918 that wiped out the Cuttens, then sediment and nutrient enrichment off the cane was the end of it.
My father, the Shire Engineer, built the ablution block in around 1954; it still stands today.
All the little inshore reefs are still standing there like dead sentinels, all covered in algal growth fuelled by sediment runoff coupled with Nitrogen and Phosphorus from the expanding cane industry. All this I remember, and all this is now gone.
My ambition is to make a documentary on the loss of the Great Barrier Reef; the working title is Killing Coral.