Finally, it’s time to focus on the real reason that I’m here. I’m busting to explore the island and get a feel for the place. In the year or so since I first applied for this residency, my writing project has changed about four times. Now I’m planning to write a manuscript for a small children’s book which is set on a fictitious island in Bass Strait. When I first applied, I had just read ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent, and was taken with the idea of researching and setting a story in a place quite foreign to my own part of the world on the South Coast of NSW, Australia. I was thinking icy, windswept, cold and isolated. Iceland would be perfect but my writing to date hasn’t paid quite enough to fund a residency in Iceland so I had to think closer to home. As it turns out, I couldn’t be happier with the setting as it is distinctly Australian and at the same time, not one of the usual locations. I want the reader to wonder where it might be but I don’t want to openly state it. It also needs to be surrounded by water, powerful and far from a city or large community.
My main character is a ten year old girl and I want to write something that I would have liked to read at that age. My childhood was pretty feral, I spent all my free time and quite a lot of school term time (when the miners were on strike) at our camps and caravan sites in the bush on the NSW south coast. I don’t mean most of my non-school time, I mean all of it, at the exclusion of all else. Most families there had boys with the odd sprinkling of unavoidable little sisters, of which I was one, and we were always in, on or under the water, or playing games in the bush from daylight to dawn. We weren’t allowed inside unless it was raining.
The Dads fished all day and the parents ‘talked’ around the campfire all night. We lived in our swimmers and never wore shoes. We knew every inch of the place and spent our days catching baitfish, swimming, surfing, collecting oysters, twisting in the edge of the surf for pippies and fishing. I never once owned a single doll as a girl. We had boats, lots of boats and canoes and surfboards and fishing rods etc. I was driving an outboard when other girls were driving barbie campervans on imaginary adventures.
I realise now that this is a pretty unusual childhood but I also believe that young girls, if given a choice, would love nothing better than a free range life of daily adventure. I’m not seeing that reflected much in children’s literature though and want to write something around a smart and resourceful girl who can save herself. It’s not a feminist statement or anything deep, just a story that maybe my future grandchildren might like. I have no idea if there is a market for it and I don’t really care.
This place is perfect. It’s so pared down and pure. Children here still roam freely as I did and the landscape alone is captivating. I want to find out more about how kids pass the time here and have in the past. I also need to get a feel for the landscape, animals and any natural features that single it out. I’m taking loads of photos and notes that will hopefully fill in the blanks to the rough plot I have in mind and give it an authentic voice.
So today, after I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies for Helen in exchange for the broccoli, I went on my first hike. I walked around Trousers Point, which starts about two minutes down the driveway past the Mountain Seas entrance, deep inside Strzelecki National Park.
It took my breath away. The water is as clear and faceted as a perfect diamond in the shallows and azure blue far into the distance. The absence of sea life leaves the big round rocks clean and smooth. Painted with burnt orange lichen, the colours pop against the ocean. Up close, the rocks wink in the sunlight bouncing off confetti colours and jewel textures, inviting you to brush your hand across their surface. They feel cold, even after a day in full sun, and unexpectedly abrasive, like sandpaper. And dense. These rocks don’t flake off and wear like the headlands of home. They are impenetrable and formidable, almost alien.
The weather could not possibly be more perfect. The skies have cleared since my arrival and the days are warm and sunny. I didn’t think to pack sunscreen in my 22 kilos of luggage and can feel my face already burning. I bet Hannah Kent didn’t have this problem. Where is the tempestuous Bass Strait weather anyway? Not that I’m complaining, a few days of this would be very nice thank you very much.
Walking around Trousers Point, I found the exact beach I had pictured in my head; Fotheringate beach. (Well it feels like I found it.) It marks the boundary of the property and is one of the most photographed beaches in the world. It is covered in sea grass at the moment, which perfect as it happens because so is ‘my’ beach. Apparently it only happens at certain times of year for a few days and comes and goes with the wind, not the currents. How timely.
Pleased with my day’s work, I perch against the lee side of a rock and take it all in. A splash catches my eye and I wait, watching for more. A dorsal fin breaks the surface about 100 meters off shore and then another and another. Dolphins. At first glance they look a little like mermaids slinking away under the topaz water. What if they were? Merfolk are also part of my story. What if they are here to let me know that this is the place? Historically, arguing with mermaids never ends well so I decide to go with that. This is the beach.
I wanted this place to talk to me and it is. I’m listening Flinders Island, you have my full, undivided attention…