Derrick at Kayak Quixotica has recently painted a picture in ‘Telling Stories’ of an American outdoors idyll on the Adirondacks complete with bears, plaid jackets and Dad teaching to read a compass. It’s an American fantasy, a romanticized legacy of early frontier life that strikes a chord in, presumably, white middle class Americans. It’s how certain Americans perceive the perfect transmission of the American psyche through a rite of passage that’s rarely lived out.
Australians also have these romances. The spirit of ANZAC is our most sacred. It’s a myth. This belief promulgates an idea that we are the successors of tough, fierce bushmen; expert horsemen, crack shots and brilliant soldiers. The truth is that the majority of the men who served in the 1st and 2nd AIF were urbanized coastal dwellers who had never fired a shot prior to the war. The fact that these men became legendary soldiers has nothing to do with the bush myth. Of course, the myth stems from an element of truth in men such as the Light Horsemen and from these the entire AIF received the ANZAC benediction.
So, Derrick’s post got me thinking about the real outdoors as it is in Australia. We have dozens of TV shows from the likes of Malcolm Douglas and the Leyland Brothers showing adventures from the Pilbara and the Kimberlies but only the tiniest fraction of Australians will ever visit there and only a few dozen will live there. However, tens of thousands routinely live the outdoor life along the coast. Surfers do this every day. The Surf Life Saving movement institutionalizes this life and contains within its ethos the seed of the ANZAC spirit. The surf clubs teach young Australians about the sea, the weather, how to read a beach, ride various craft and how to rescue people. When you’re a Nipper, you learn to wade in the surf, run in the sand and gradually learn the skills of a lifesaver. You learn how to treat stings from bluebottles, sunburn and heatstroke. When you’re old enough you are examined and put on patrol where you ride a ski, a rescue board and even a IRB or rubber duck. You become tuned to your beach and are now the repository of local knowledge. This is the real outdoorsmanship in Australia. We are a coastal people and learning to find witjuti grubs in the bush is nowhere near as important as learning to read a rip in the surf.
A few days ago I was reconnected with the surf club culture that raised me as a boy when we chose as our set-out point the boat shed for Swansea Belmont Surf club. Old clubmen were there washing down their skis as we were washing down our kayaks. They kindly offered us their facilities and I took the opportunity to ask advice on selecting different surf skis. The old blokes, who referred to me as ‘cobber’ which is just beautiful to hear, gave me the benefit of decades of life in the surf and regaled me with stories of local paddling legends like the eternal Archie Salaris, trainer of champions and a legend of the Hawkesbury classic, the Hooey brothers, past Swansea Belmont champions and many more. I was indulging in the mythos of a very real outdoors culture and I felt proud and glad to be a part of it. My father understood the need for this culture and took great pains to make me part of it. I would like my boy to be part of it too.
Of course, these days I ride a kayak but my reconnection with the sea is also reconnecting me with that legacy and I think I’d like to be like those old clubmen, never losing touch and always maintaining a link with a very Australian idyll.