The smell of woodsmoke

At first light my husband and I went for a walk on the beach  Ever since we arrived we’ve been saying “We have to walk on the beach this morning.” Today, we finally got round to it.

At the north end, the neatly paved walk of manicured trees and bushes ends. The esplanade takes a sharp left-then-right turn, accommodating a block-wide stretch of remnant wilderness between itself and the sand. Walkers heading north have a choice: follow the esplanade inland, or walk on the sand, keeping the swamp on your left. We chose the beach. 

This little wilderness is swampy, creek-riven, and occasionally popular with crocodiles. They swim from an inlet one suburb south, up to another, one suburb north. But if they linger here, rangers remove them to a carefree life as captive entertainers, waiting to become shoes, belts, and handbags. The swamp may be named Deadman’s Gully, but it’s deadlier to crocs than men.

It’s a rough looking place. No tourist-pleasing set-dressing, none of your waving palm trees lining the beach to the north and south. Here melaleucas, sheoaks and mangroves are left to grow or rot, as it pleases them.

North and south of here, palms lean over the sea, teetering on the edge of a vertical sand face, roots exposed as the beach washes away. But here, the vegetation holds the sand close, creating a gently shelving beach with no abrupt transition.

Suddenly hubby pulled up short. He looked surprised. A little frightened.

“I smell smoke. There’s a fire somewhere near.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” I replied, “Not here.”

Years living on the Melbourne fringes have made us very sensitive to the smell of woodsmoke. But nothing to fear here. 

We’d met the same thing more than once, driving from Melbourne to Cairns, keeping close to the coast, staying in resorts, and taking frequent detours, seduced by signs saying “Lookout”.

Some of these detours were well-maintained, leading to pretentious cantilevered platforms, peppered with commemorative plaques, lined with informative display panels extolling local pant and animal life, flanked by discreet composting toilets.

Some were rough tracks winding uphill to graffitied slabs of concrete adorned with a vandalised bench or two, the promised view partly obscured by overgrown vegetation.
Some led to vast empty unshaded car parks, waiting to grill the tourists who never came.

Still others ended abruptly at a hedge of officious notices: walkers only; no vehicles beyond this point, including quad bikes, motorbikes and bicycles; warnings of perils ahead; stating required fitness levels; suggesting how long a ‘reasonably fit’ person might take to complete the walk; remarking on the steepness, the number of steps (and their state of repair), the lack of a handrail and other discouraging obstacles; finishing with a series of orders. Apply quantities of sunscreen and insect repellent. Carry plenty of drinking water (but bring the empties out with you). Wear suitable long sleeved shirts and long pants, tucked into socks (ticks). Wear a hat. Be aware of the signs of heatstroke (neatly enumerated).

Adding, for anyone who hadn’t already given up in despair – or possibly boredom – unsuitable for children: slippery when wet.

Sometimes, especially in the early morning, stepping out after a slow lurching drive up a rutted track (“Stop fussing, this is a 4-wheel drive, remember darling? This is what it’s for!”), there would be a whiff of woodsmoke. Tucked between the trees, a faded, mould-stained tent. A battered van with plastic taped over the cracked windows. An elderly station wagon stuffed with bags and boxes, a pair of bare feet hanging out the back. 

Once, in a clearing not far off the road, a young man showering outside a faded, peeling campervan sagging resignedly against a burnt tree trunk. Mingled fragrance of bacon and Rexona drifting through the trees. 

As we carefully made our way back downhill he overtook us, dressed in a sharp business suit, at the wheel of an immaculate Mini. 

So, smelling woodsmoke on our beach this morning, I said, “It’s nothing to worry about. It’s probably just someone living rough, cooking up a breakfast.” And was shocked that this seemed the most obvious answer. But after what we saw on our travels, I had little doubt.

Later, I wondered, is it really someone living rough, or just camping out? There was an aboriginal family on the beach a couple of days back, scooping clams out of the sand: could it be them? Does anyone know they’re there? Are they there by choice, or necessity?

It could be some smart young estate agent, saving madly to get his foot on the property ladder – once he’s paid off his ‘statement automobile’. Or a backpacker working their way round Australia in their gap year. Or just – just! – someone dong it tough. I’m not brave enough to go looking. But I do wonder.

Do they know about the crocs?

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)