The shifting sands of Sandringham

I took a train to the bayside suburb of Sandringham to walk by the sea. From the station it’s a short walk, past ‘The Sandy’ hotel, to the low sandstone cliffs that run along the beach. There’s an Art Deco rotunda here, which looks more square than rotund. According to an information board nearby, it was nearly demolished in the 1980s, but the mayor decreed that the rotunda was to Sandringham as the Eiffel Tower was to Paris, and so it was allowed to stay.

I start walking south but it’s difficult to get any kind of flow going. I’m drawn to the beach, but the sand is too soft, broken up by numerous other footprints, and it feels like hard going. And so I switch indecisively between the beach and the sandy paths that wind through low scrub along the clifftops. The paths are indecisive too, meandering in and out of parking areas and viewpoints, emerging onto the concrete cycling path that runs alongside the road, or veering back down to the beach. At one point, the cliff path is fenced off where it has fallen off the edge of an unstable cliff.

A little further on, I learn from a sign erected by the Department of Sustainability and Environment that the sands of Sandringham are migratory, moving southwards in winter and northwards in summer – the opposite direction from the birds. Fortunately the Department has caught onto this errant behaviour and is keeping the shifting sands under close surveillance.

I keep dipping in and out of various trails set up by Bayside Council. There’s an ‘art trail’ with numerous interpretive panels showing landscapes of the area, painted in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of which were influenced by the impressionist Heidelberg school. The art trail compares the paintings with how the landscape is now. It most cases, it has changed significantly.

At a rocky outcrop called Red Bluff (much eroded since it was painted by Arthur Merric-Boyd in 1923), I stop to look at a sculpture which is part of the ‘Indigenous trail’. The sculpture shows a more dramatic landscape alteration, the Yarra River as it was in early Boon Wurrung history, when it flowed through land now covered by the waters of Port Philip Bay, 10,000 years ago.

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It reminds me of the acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of the land on the Bayside Council walks leaflet that I have with me. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these acknowledgements on government and council documents, but they always feel strange and sad, truncated stories with unspoken endings. This one particularly so: ‘We acknowledge that the original inhabitants of this land that we call Bayside were the Boonwerung people of the Kulin nation. They loved this land, they cared for it and considered themselves to be part of it.’ It is estimated that Aboriginal people loved the land in what is now Victoria for 47,000 continuous years.

I duck down into Half Moon Bay for coffee, and hang around for a while, watching the gulls, and the terns, and people coming and going. Out in the bay here is the wreck of the Cerberus, the first British warship to be powered solely by steam. It was commissioned jointly by the Victorian and British governments in 1866, and served as the flagship of the Victorian navy, newly formed in response to the perceived threat of Russian invasion. Its revolutionary design, according to the ‘history trail’ interpretive panel, with rotating gun turrets on a central superstructure, was the forerunner of modern battleships. Despite its significance, the Cerberus was scuttled in 1926 to serve as a breakwater. The Cerberus has heritage listing and is deteriorating fast, but preservation is prohibitively expensive. It has, it seems, been extensively reproduced in miniature though – I’ve since come across models of the Cerberus in three different museums.

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P1010296Just down the road is the suburb of Black Rock, which has a clock, standing in the middle of a roundabout. There is a little door at its base, presumably for the keeper of the Black Rock Clock to make any necessary adjustments.

From the clock, I follow a concrete esplanade, which turns into beach. I take off my trainers and commit myself to the sand all the way to where the beach ends at Rickett Point. Here, flat rocks have been sculpted into circles and waves by water, their forms accentuated by the late afternoon light. They look prehistoric. There are pelicans and black swans here, and big groups of gulls, clustered on flat rocks that barely surface the water.

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Back up on the cliffs, I walk alongside the road. A sandstone pillar, erected in 1962 marks the spot of the first white dwelling in the region. Nearby, an interpretive sign on the ‘Indigenous Trail’ describes the fear that the Boon Wurrung people felt when they witnessed the arrival of white settlers. The elders prophesised that the new white settlers would, “many years later”, come to understand the ways of the Boon Wurrung people. Another unspoken ending.

And then there’s another interpretive panel, this time about the Great Southern Hotel, opened in 1889, which stood imposingly on the cliffs here. On the other side of road is a fragment of a facade with a huge crane behind it and a sign advertising apartments. I do a double take, and realise that this fragment is, in fact, all that remains of the Great Southern Hotel. I go back for a closer look. The sign advertising apartments claims, laughably, that this is a restoration project, ‘reinstating The Great Southern Hotel back to her former glory’.

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Overwhelmed by the convergence of competing histories, I continue on, but there are ever more signs: signs forbidding motorists from parking on the ‘nature strip’ – a narrow earth-filled border planted with grasses; a sign offering a reward for tree vandals; a marker and panel commemorating the Heidelberg impressionists first coming to the area to paint.

I stop at a viewpoint and look down the coast ahead of me. Here, there is another panel from the art trail, a view of Alfred Coleman’s ‘Beaumaris Cliffs’, another landscape ‘visibly altered by the combined effects of man and nature’. But I will have to save the altered cliffs for another day, and so I leave the signs behind to catch a train back home.

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