From Summer Camp to Solstice Swim
I was puzzled why anyone bothered with this popular beach when I first visited it one hot summer’s day during my first year in Hobart. There were a lot of uncertain people sitting in their bathers on the sea wall but swimming wasn’t an attractive proposition because the water came all the way up to the steps and slapped against the concrete in a discontented manner. I sympathise with the river now. It was trying to build a beach and this seawall, built without understanding, impeded it.
Yet this has always been a popular beach, even when, in the 1980s, it was barely there at all. An artificial dune was cultivated in the corner bound unnaturally with marram grass. This once magnificent beach had become a desultory shadow of its previous self and I think that those who still came here were in love with a memory. (It’s still a lovely spot when the sun is shining on it but it was overcast yesterday when I returned to take some more photos, earlier ones being lost in the uncatalogued innards of iPhoto.)
Before the convict ships arrived to set up camp Long Beach was called Kreewer and the Mouheenener had a summer camp in this sheltered spot. In those days the beach was wide and backed by small dunes. Picture a bark kayak, exquisitely woven dilly bags full of the jewels of the sea, children playing on the sand. The land was flat and shaded behind the beach, a great spot for huts as well as some easy hunting, and there was a handy stream.
Although the rivulets that flow sporadically down the slopes of Mount Nelson are not well known, Wayne Rivulet has a slightly higher profile because it still enjoys daylight along some of its course, beautifying the grounds of Fahan School before entering the river at Long Beach / Little Sandy Bay. It brings with it eroded dolerite from the heights, creating a delta of clay over which the once dense sand of the beach now sits as a thin sheen.
Having already succumbed to epidemics, the distress and fear that took hold at Kreewer is outside the comprehension of anyone who hasn’t faced the end of their world and all they hold sacred. The forests they tended, the trees that were their totems, were knocked down to make way for an alien landscape of farmland, divided up between fences that ran all the way down into the river. The Mouheenener, in a state of deep existential crisis, retreated and the beach became a popular destination for Hobartians in their strange clothing, who no doubt moved stiffly in the landscape not seeing the visual detail, not taking direction from the fragrance of the bush or hearing in the calls of birds the rhythm and events of the day. Shooting expeditions from town, well recorded by the Rev Robert Knopwood, had rendered the emu extinct and chased the frightened animals that still survived further away from European settlements. At that point the odd little handfish that moves about on its fins and inhabits the lower bays of the Derwent, still enjoyed an easy life in this beautiful bay.
The beach was so accommodatingly wide and so beautiful (see links to early photos below), that it served as a place to promenade, socialise and relax, and to enjoy the regatta that finally found a home here, or the start of a horse race. Enjoyment was yet again marred by disputes over right of way to the beach that reached a climax around 1910. There were petitions. There were meetings. The government was persuaded, buying up land to create the park, and a long jetty was built on the beach so that people could arrive by boat as the Tramway Company wouldn’t extend the line along Sandy Bay Road.
Francis Cotton, in 1880, noticed that the sea level was rising on Long Beach. He asserted it was the building works happening at Sullivans Cove and Norfolk Island settlers, including Maning and Fisher, considered that the sea had risen by about 50 feet in less than three decades.
There’s a more recent, curved seawall now, over which, in great storms, the sea breaks and which causes a significant wave to reflect back off it during high tides but there is a bit more beach than there used to be in the days of the old sea wall. This area is often a gourmet adventure because there are cafes, making it, in summer, a great place for an evening pizza or a day time coffee, or a place to come on a Friday evening to enjoy the summer market. From here you can walk north around Sandy Bay Point or south around Blinking Billy Point, the two sentinels of Little Sandy Bay and while the water in the bay is usually calm (unless the sea breeze is filling in from the south east), out beyond these two points gales frequently whip up raging white caps.
Sundown Park behind the beach was described in the 1800s as ‘the Hyde Park of Hobart’ and it’s occasionally vivid with small flashes of colour when eastern rosellas and swift parrots swoop between trees. There’s a crocquet club and a petanque piste, a playground and the playing fields. There’s a platform just offshore that swimmers can lay claim to and that is alternatively occupied by cormorants drying their wings. Kayakers launch from here and seek refuge as well when conditions on the river turn wild.
In the heart of winter, when snow lay deep on the mountain’s summit and gardens were white with frost, the most adventurous Hobartians rose from their beds in the black pre-dawn and found their way down to Long Beach for the Dark Mofo Festival Solstice Swim. They took off all their clothes and plunged en masse into the freezing water of the Derwent just on sunrise.
I’m sure it took their breath away.
When I arrived at the beach a good two hours after this, apart from footprints in the sand, there were no clues that this midwinter event had taken place.
I looked. I contemplated. I imagined the Mouheenener regarding this activity from the ghostly forest and the sharp gasp of the Rev Knopwood. Then I went home to a hot coffee and a warm bowl of porridge. The frost still lingered but my kitchen was snug with the wood fire roaring.
Other people’s photographs:
The closest to its natural state (post 1870)
Goc, N. 1997. Sandy Bay: a social history. Gentrx Publishing, Hobart
Leaman, D. 1999. Walk into history in Southern Tasmania. Lehman Geophysics, Hobart