I had agreed to take my eleven year old daughter and four of her friends down to our beach house for the weekend. A rather brave move, in retrospect. I considered the weekend would be good for father daughter bonding. Our relationship, although very strong, had been strained somewhat from the fallout of stresses and strains that were occurring at the time in my marriage.
So I was looking forward to the weekend with mounting enthusiasm.
Our weekender, as Australians refer to beach houses, exists in a rather magical part of Australia, on the New South Wales south coast. The house itself is a treasure handed down from my parents, who crafted it with their bare hands from the forest that was there before. The house itself has been added to, modified and nurtured over many years and sits perched approximately 200 yards from the beach on a flat plateau that used to be coastal heath studded with cedar trees. The small enclave of no more than 100 dwellings clings to the edge of a large national park, now called Conjola National Park, but in those days it was simply Conjola State Forest, and this park stretches northwards along the coastline for over five miles.
The bay that encircles the area and opens to the Tasman Ocean, is called Wreck Bay, in memory of the many ships and sailors that foundered there in wild storms. The beaches are that beautiful golden yellow white colour so characteristic of Australia, and the white tipped waves rhythmically crash onto the sand, creating scalloped sand structures in patterns along the beach.
The area is quite remote, or at least it was then, and it was quite common to be walking on a beach with pristine sand and no other living soul in sight. As my sister and I used to go there almost every weekend as children, we were aware of the other souls, frozen by violent events, that perhaps watched our presence., but they never left footprints in the sand
On this particular occasion I shepherded the group of girls down the beach track. It was a hot day, and the pungent smell of eucalypt leaves and warm earth assaulted our nostrils. The air was filled with the noise of chirruping cicadas, which unnervingly rose and fell like the waves in the ocean, seemingly challenging our sanity and forcing many of the girls to hold their hands tightly to their ears to shut out the ferocious din. Emerging from the track onto the bright sand, the noise suddenly ends, as if washed clean by the surf. The girls break free from their trance. Laughing and giggling they skip along the sand, breaking the sparkling water with their toes.
They circle back towards me, clamoring to know where we were going and what we were going to be doing. I pointed northwards along the beach towards a distant rock cliff face that bisected the beach, and which appeared wreathed in spray. We will head to the magic cliff, I pronounced solemnly, and ponder the ocean's might. This seemed temporarily satisfactory to all, and so we headed in the general direction of the cliffs.
Along the way, which was about a kilometer in distance as the crow flies, we engaged in general banter about the area and I answered countless questions about various pieces of flotsam and jetsam that lay at the tidal zone on the beach. The conversation drifted to dolphins, a pod of which inhabited the bay, and the girls lapped up the stories of prior dolphin encounters with gusto. Although the dolphins were permanent residents, actually seeing them was rather rare, as the bay was over 80 km wide and covered a vast expanse of water.
We eventually arrived at the cliffs, and after stern instructions to be careful, we ascended the thin track that hung precariously to the edge of the cliff, and which lead further northward to the top of a wall that faced the ocean. The waves here are focused, and they roll majestically toward the wall with smooth glassy surfaces, only to rise suddenly in the air and dash themselves against the rock face, causing the whole cliff to shudder in the process. The resultant spray rises in the ocean breeze and cascades over the rock face, wetting us in the process. The girls considered this to be spectacularly good fun, with an added dose of danger, so we spent some time there enjoying the spectacle.
The conversation then drifted back to dolphins, and the girls were insistent that we simply must see some. I considered this an opportunity to add a splash of mystery to the event, and made up a story that dolphins could hear whistles, and so if we whistled intently, that perhaps they would come. They bought the story hook line and sinker, and insisted that I must do the whistling.
We stood staring out to see, and I adopted what I considered was a wise old man of the sea stance, and commenced to whistle a strange tune to the waves. The girls stared intently out to sea. I whistled ever more strongly, with my mind racing forward seeking a satisfactory end to the little episode.
It is then that it happened. The girls started screaming and whistling at the same time, jumping excitedly on the spot and pointing out to sea. For there, right on the point, was a pod of fifteen to twenty dolphins, porpoising in and out of the waves, and heading straight towards us. They glided through the glassy water, and ended beneath our feet, where they spun in a circle, seemingly engaged in a show, then as one they wheeled toward the open ocean and headed back out to sea.
I was rooted to the spot, quite stunned by the event, and then I caught my daughter looking at me out of the corner of my eye. She was beaming towards me, with a look of such adoring intensity that I will never forget it. As she glanced at the other girls, I could almost hear the words forming in her mind, 'I bet your father can't do that!".