Words and images by John W Moyle

The lumbering dunes of this coast, if watched to the time of rocks, would shift like water. The new boardwalk leading to beach was buried by sand within the year. My grandmother says some middens have been washed away, the new beach stairs are showing their foundations and they’ve moved the lifesaving club three times to stop it falling into the sea — all in the months since I’ve been home. She hands me the book she wrote about the area, which I’d been asking for, and a local map drawn in early colonisation. It shows this coastline around Cape Paterson, the coast between here and Kilcunda where I’m heading later today, and inland to Wonthaggi — the coal-mining town I grew up in. I notice hundreds of rectangles on the map, the farms and mines portioning land like a butcher’s cut chart. I trace the thin lines of a stale coast.

I go for the walk I always do when I return home, looping round the shoreline in a circuit of tea trees, dunes, bays and cliffs. From my house a walking path cuts through the scrub and to the shore, but the dunes are crossed with tracks from rabbits, wombats, kangaroos, dogs, snakes and people — among many others. Our footprints become paths and their grooves give purchase to the wind blowing off Bass Strait, which over time turns grooves into gorges. A midden is uncovered and windblown in the middle of a vast sand crater facing the sea. Middens are mounds of shells and bones left from where the first peoples cooked and ate, in this area they’re the Boonwurrung people. The oldest shell midden found along this coast dates to 12,000 years, but their settlement stretches far beyond that. Middens are protected but frequently destroyed, some by inland developments that show how the coast was once shaped, others by walking tracks that carve the dunes and expose them to the weather.

Last year a little girl pulled a prehistoric eye-socket out of the rocks. It belonged to a long gone lizard. The first dinosaur bone ever discovered in Australia was on this coastline in 1903 and it’s known as the Cape Paterson Claw. Vestiges of when this coast wasn’t one but rather a vast river valley, its horizon tipped with high rift mountains forming the edge of Antarctica. This is before grass existed and when dolphins swam in Australia’s inland sea. Bodies would wash off flood plains and settle on the riverbanks to be covered in sand and mud, fossilising over time. So would the trees, slowly being pressed into coal. The first Victorian coal was found in Cape Paterson in 1826, because of this a rusted railway line lays submerged under rocks and twists out of cliffs at random intervals, a reminder of the early exports to Melbourne. My grandmother writes, “it was the lustrous, black, bituminous coal that put the Bass Coast area on the map”.

On my way to a friend’s house in Kilcunda I pass through Wonthaggi. I drive past my old house at Garden Street, a brick cottage next to a large timber factory. At the end of the small road there’s the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, now a “tourist mine”. After hours I’d ride my bike to the mine entrance and stare into the black hallway slanting into the earth. It was once the “the heart of the region’s social and economic development”, a statement I find strange coming from Parks Victoria. From 1909 to 1968 it supplied 17 million tonnes of coal to Victoria’s industries and railways. So much coal this area, at the bottom of the world, thought itself a bombing threat in WW2. As a kid I’d brace a pallet gun against our farms small concrete bomb shelter to shoot cans off a swing, and one day my grandmother told stories of shutters, chimney covers and headlight attachments used to hide the town’s light from the sky incase bombers came in the night. The mine has had a few recent collapses, but it’s been reinforced and now you can play laser tag in there.

An excavator fell into an old mineshaft when it was building the new Coles. I think about that as I drive through Wonthaggi’s main streets. Tunnels curl under “the east and west of a central basement ridge beneath Wonthaggi town” writes Geological Society of Victoria. Every now and then there is spontaneous collapse in a random paddock, a shaft 50m deep will swallow some grass and mud and a headline will read “What Lies Below?”

This place can feel trapping if you don’t have a car. It’s a place where a license is a right of passage and if you don’t get one when you turn 18 people think something’s wrong with you. The roads between towns run over bare paddocks where cows eat in any weather. Milk and meat is still a major export.

Our family’s farm is 140 years old. We have century old axes in our cupboard, still chrome and sharp. “In the great forests of Gippsland” write The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, colonisers starting large farms “virtually committed themselves to a generation of clearing.” Some bought 320 acres of “impassable forest and tea-tree” writes my grandmother, saying land selectors held to the expression “the taller the tree, the better the soil”.

My great, great uncle helped clear the land our family owned and eventually joined the Barnum and Bailey Circus in America as a champion woodchopper in 1910. When he came back in 1950 he asked, “Where have all the trees gone?” The land was bare and pastoral. They’d cut wedges out of trees and fell one into the others, pushing them over like dominos. Now the land is smooth and cut into paddocks, white and black cows cover it like salt and pepper. When I was a kid I used to think the sparse explosions of foreign pine were remnants of original forest.

The hills hum like a fridge. A deep whir while rabbits hop over earth covered in shrubs, native flowers and thick vestigial mulch chosen by the landscaping company. Ducks swim in a tarp-lined pond. I almost run over a raft of ducklings crossing the asphalt of the desalination plant’s carpark. This place caused so much environmental protesting the low-lying plant has been covered in an artificial landscape to camouflage it, but the unrest was more about its carbon footprint and environmental damage.

It cost six billion, built to swallow the ocean and convert it into fresh drinking water. Commissioned to 2006 when Melbourne’s reservoirs hit a low in the “millennium drought” and completed in 2012 when they were almost full, it droned in standby mode costing $608 million to run per annum until its first use the other year. Before it was here there were farms, seized by compulsory acquisitions. Forty percent of it is also built on old mine shafts. A government commissioned report warned the coal seams underneath could explode if drilled but it’s here now and no one died.

“Desalination is our insurance policy against drought and climate change and guarantees Melbourne’s water supply in times of low rainfall and emergencies such as floods and fires,” said then Water Minister Lisa Neville a local Weekly Times interview. The Productivity Commission said it’s an assurance against population growth and environmental crisis.

I don’t know why I drove out here, I think I do it sometimes to be freaked out by the simulated nature, the low scrubland giving a feeling of the uncanny. And maybe to think about the way the land has been cut, drilled, ploughed, re-drilled and then replanted according to needs — often of far off cities or countries. “The special task of environmental historians is to tell stories that carry us back and forth across the boundary between people and nature to reveal just how culturally constructed that boundary is — and how dependant on natural systems it remains,” William Cronon wrote in Paths out of Town when visiting the Alaskan mining town of Kennecott. These faux-hills were a forest, a farm, a coalmine and now this, a place to convert the sea into tap water.

I pick up a friend a few kilometers inland on the Kilcunda hills, the height gives a view of paddocks and towns to every horizon. From up here light on the rolling pastures is beautiful but can become less so the more you stare. “The English have a genius for incorporating industrial and technological change into their versions of both nature and the picturesque,” writes Jonathan Rabin in Second Nature. When I was young our school would replant wetlands with native shrubs and hills with gums and eucalyptus. Conservation is in people’s mind now, and ideas of destruction can haunt whatever beauty is in this pastoral scene. To me, the land looks beautiful but eaten.

“Life on this earth is an endless chain of parasitism,” wrote bacteriologist Hans Zinsser in Rats, Lice and History, a biography of typhus, “the plant does the work with its roots and green leaves. The cow eats the plant. Man eats both of them, and bacteria (or investment bankers) eat the man”. This landscape is one of supply and demand, of trade. The stories linking our family to this place are ones of labour, of work going at the time — whether it a farm or something underneath. Up here, I know I’m more related to modes of industry than the land itself, a connection simultaneously dependent and uncommitted. “If farmers exhausted the soil, they could move on to greener pastures and start again,” wrote Cronon of the abandoned mining and farming towns in Alaska, “the result was a dynamic, unstable system that constantly threatened to push beyond the limits of the ecosystems that supported it”.

We swim in cold water, it’s spring but the sea still holds winter. Our legs are numb until we start the ascent into the cliffs by a walking track. It follows close to the edge, waves hit the rocks beneath and some almost jump the six-story height. The sound of water thudding against the continent is exciting. We walk further than we planned, following a mown path emergency vehicles use to pass thick tussock grass topping the cliffs. We pass old mining equipment rusting in the grass. There was a small coal mine here too, starting in the late 1800s, its history is similar to other mining towns in the area, populations fluctuating with prospects. A lot of small settlements were eventually abandoned when the seams or soil stopped producing, but to some this coast still provides.

We walk until the cliffs feel unfamiliar and the day becomes dim. I slow down with a camera, taking the same photo of the cliffs now glowing with sea mist lit by the sun. We naturally start to part without realising. He walks on through the fog to the edge of the tallest cliff, the silhouette of his body small atop the strata.

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