Monday, February 2, 2009

Our holiday

We've just had a week of blazing heat, a fitting end to the holiday season. My wife and I had a few days off (the first reasonable break since June of last year) at Port Albert, about fifty kilometres to the east of our home town of Foster. While we were there the load tripped out sections of the power grid (including where we were) due to everyone running their air-conditioners, while tracks buckled and other technical problems closed down a lot of the suburban rail system in Melbourne. We sweltered like everyone else but could at least walk across the road and go for a swim next to the wharf. It was OK, but in some ways like a foretaste of the end of the world as we know it.

Port Albert is a ghost port. It is one of the earliest settlements in Gippsland, and was a destination for goods and passengers when travel on land was difficult before the coming of the railways and decent roads. It also supported a fishing fleet. It has some charming old buildings, and the arty types who like that sort of thing have moved in on the town, renovating places into bed-and-breakfasts and a café which inside looks as if it's a transplant from Brunswick Street Fitzroy. But half of these places had For Sale signs and the café, also for sale, was closed without explanation.

The fishing fleet has dwindled to almost nothing. A few yachts have made their home at the port and there are a scattering of recreational vessels of various vintages. Amateur fishermen from out of town roll in with their huge twin-engined white-hulled toys behind bulky four-wheel-drives and cluster round the launching ramp.

The pub (the oldest continually licensed hotel in Victoria) is an unrenovated mouldering remnant with a certain shabby charm. We had dinner in the bar one hot, breezy evening in the company of a scattering of various well-worn habitués hunched over their beers. There's a very new and quite large upmarket restaurant on the rebuilt pier which brings in the well-heeled of the district from many kilometres away. I thought of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe when we had dinner there. It certainly seems to have little connection to the local community, which simply provides the ambience as seen through the wall of windows along the north side, where you watch the sun set over the town and the boats at the wharf to the west.

A short drive away was Manns Beach, a tiny cluster of fishing shacks and ancient, bent little houses on the edge of the mangroves. The place had Mad Max feel: dirt roads, old tractors under the carports, wooden boat hulls disintegrating on the mud flats, all hardly elevated above the surrounding lagoon. It was noticable how newer houses are on raised foundations as the place must flood regularly on high tides. The whole area between Manns Beach and Port Albert seemed hardly above sea level, even the farms some kilometres inland had creeks running through their paddocks which were obviously tidal.

It would seem that global warming will see the whole area slowly reclaimed by the sea, a gentle euthanasia.

By then the retirees who make up a large percentage of the place's population will have passed on. And the young people, the teenagers of the town, boys and girls, who came every afternoon down to the jetty to dive and swim (despite signs forbidding such hedonism) and who as the afternoon wore on, would climb the derrick of the pile-driving barge tied to the wharf and dare each other to jump from higher and higher platforms — they will follow their vigorous anarchic impulses and move on to where the grass is greener and hope springs higher.

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