From the Dark Point car park on Mungo Brush Road, Garry and I hauled our rolled-up inflatable kayaks onto our shoulders and made the first of two sand dune hikes to the sea. Once we’d collected the rest of our gear on our second trip, we set about pumping up our kayaks and fastening everything in for our paddle to Broughton Island.
On a truly glorious winter morning, about 5 kilometres east of the mainland, Broughton Island floated on the glassy sea like a luxuriant Buddha. Garry and I quietly hoped the weather we were experiencing at that moment would prevail for the following two days and nights we planned to camp on and explore the island. The water was so flat you could have water-skied on it; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
From Dark Point (also known as Little Gibber Point) we had chosen to access the sea at the same location a millennia of past generations of Worromi people also did, to head out to the island on their bark canoes. An area in the dunes behind the rocky outcrop is fenced off as an Aboriginal midden site, where shifting sands over the years have revealed discarded shells, bones and tools. National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) note that “…archaeological surveys at Dark Point are significant to the Worrimi people of today as the findings enrich their oral histories, traditions and culture, and strengthen their links to their traditional lands.” Midden sites are often all that remains of Indigenous occupancy. These sites provide a wonderful snapshot into the bare essence of the lifestyle of the people who used to tread these lands.
Dark Point pokes out like a rocky pimple on a long straight stretch of sandy beach, so it seemed unsurprising to me that it was an important landmark and meeting place. But it got me thinking about middens, about how people leave their random waste behind to move onto the next day or stage of their lives. Respectfully to the traditional owners of Dark Point, middens are essentially human refuse. And we humans up to the present day are creating middens everywhere we go – arguably it’s in our nature.
There among Dark Point’s middens and pulsing sands Planet Earth felt as though it was shrinking and constricting. While the only person nearby was Garry, a claustrophobia swept over me as I thought of all the people everywhere cluttering our world with their mess and disarray.
After having a stretch and an excited giggle on the water’s edge we stepped of the mainland and began paddling, and with the features of the mainland obscuring in the distance behind, our spirits became as buoyant as the very kayaks we sat in. Being mine and Garry’s first time paddling to an island, my thoughts turned to the important issues for such an adventure.
I asked Garry “Who did you like most on Gilligan’s Island: Ginger or Maryanne?”
“Ginger,” he said after his usual consideration for such questions. “Who did you like?”
Then a gannet dived into the water off to starboard and some seconds later popped up with a fat neck courtesy of the fish it’d just caught and swallowed. We would be graced with the presence of these majestic sea birds for our whole time at Broughton Island.
The sound of the sea crashing over rocks grew louder in front as we neared our island destination. En route we stretched our legs at Coal Shaft Bay before paddling between Looking Glass Isle and a point and into a cove headed for Little Poverty Beach, where we chose to camp for the night.
Broughton Island is part of Myall Lakes National Park. At about 2km long and 125 hectares it is the largest of New South Wales’ coastal islands. NPWS alleges it is the only island off the NSW coast with sandy beaches to allow access to small boats. The island is a popular destination for sea kayaking and fishing; the closest mainland port is Port Stephens, approximately 15km southwest.
Once land-bound we pitched our tents, had lunch and a cuppa and then readied ourselves to investigate our surrounds on foot. For the rest of the day we wandered back and forth over the island, which Garry did wearing only a pair of socks. In the late afternoon Garry caught two Long Toms – one he kept for dinner, the other which somehow hooked itself near its bum, he let go – and I pottered and beach-combed. At early dusk we attempted a hike to Pink on Top Mountain: the highest point on the main island, but the infestations of prickly pear were so dense we gave up and instead walked back across to Coal Shaft Bay to watch the sunset.
Along the way Garry says “Have you got a pair of tweezers I can borrow? I think I’ve got some splinters in my feet.”
“I’m not surprised” I said “Why didn’t you bring a pair of thongs?”
“If I really need to I’ll find a pair somewhere on the island.”
I couldn’t dispute his logic – we’d seen all manner of flotsam and jetsam on the beaches. I reckoned Garry could’ve even found thongs in his size, left and right foot, in whatever style he pleased. There were coconuts too, which for a brief moment I thought might make a nice sauce with dinner; before I realised my own absurdity – I had no idea how to crack one open. What would Gilligan have done?
The sunset was beautiful.
(Photo: Garry Sonter)
So we had coconut-free camp slops for dinner: I had pasta with tomato paste and garlic and Garry cooked up his long tom, then he had a bowl of cereal.
Garry was getting over a cold and was taking antibiotics, but despite all my coaxing for him snort some saltwater for dessert (chiefly for my own entertainment) he was having no part of it.
After dinner we went for a night paddle within the confines of our sheltered cove. It was so tranquil. When we returned Garry spoke of watching schools of fish jump out of the water onto the rock-shelves beside his kayak. We postulated they may have been hunting for crabs or prey on the rocks or maybe they were startled by Garry’s torch or his paddling but really we had no idea.
And after waxing lyrical about all manner of topics, as people often do under clear, starry skies, I felt pretty tuckered out so decided to call it a night.
I went to bed with mixed feelings about our Broughton Island trip to date. I admit I’d certainly conjured my own romantic notions about paddling to a little island. Several romantic, windswept ‘island’ thoughts whooshed around in my mind, such as: Gilligan’s Island, among Robinson Crusoe, the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks, and all those idyllic Pacific Island postcard pictures you see in travel brochures. I thought for three days and two nights even though we were only 5km off the coast that I’d be visiting a place less tainted by the civil and societal trappings of the mainland.
And in many ways I was. Broughton Island has only a handful of fishing huts at Esmeralda Beach resided in by people from the Broughton Island Conversation Society. The wildlife and landscape is quite spectacular and there are no roads or cars to speak of. But I’d seen so many plastic bottles and so much rubbish washed up onto this little island, I felt as though we’d turned our whole world into one big midden, that not even Broughton Island had escaped our sloppiness.
Earlier that day, in an eroded gully along Providence Beach Garry and I saw a conglomeration of beer bottles and tins which looked as though they’d been dumped about half a century prior. (Later we learnt Providence Beach had a settlement of fishing huts in the 1940s and ‘50s which confirmed our suspicions.) Aside from obvious weathering, brand names and manufacturing materials of the time, that rubbish of yesteryear looked like any other modern rubbish – like a midden of mid-last-century. Have we learnt anything? It seems like we’re still leaving the same legacy in the present as we did in the past. For every bottle or piece of plastic washed up onto a random beach or floating about in the oceans there’s a factory somewhere manufacturing more bottles and more plastic. When and how does the conveyor belt stop?
I wondered if we’re really making our way down the road to embracing sustainability. When you think about it at a grass roots level the shift required in our current practices and activities is intrinsically large. We’ve been leaving our discards behind throughout human evolution. To me this was plain to see over the past and present with the middens at Dark Point, the dump on Providence Beach, and all our rubbish of today laying about the place.
I cannot see how our present rubbish will retain any of the heritage significance in the same way middens do for Aboriginal people – for Indigenous people a midden site is a link to the land whereas middens of our present times allude to an over-extended dominion of the same land. The Worromi people and other Indigenous peoples across the globe left their middens back in a time when the human population was miniscule compared to that of today. And their discards will break down insurmountably sooner when compared to the modern plastics we seem to dispose of so flippantly.
Arguably we have made progress towards sustainability – we no longer hoick our rubbish onto rotting piles in the streets as was commonplace in medieval times; and post Industrial Revolution, at least in developed countries where our consumption is significantly higher than developing countries, we use landfill sites and waste treatment plants. But again, a whole heap of our rubbish ends up in places where it shouldn’t. Are we ready to embrace sustainability? If we are, we need to sincerely admit it in our own hearts.
Despite all of these thoughts, I was eventually lulled to sleep by the swooshing of the sea waves.