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Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Corso in winter

There was a river running through Manly once, back when the land was younger, when the sea level had been sucked down as water was drawn into the northern hemisphere glaciers.  The ancient river rumbled its way along from south to north in a deep valley, running more or less parallel to the coast we know today.
From Griffith Taylor, Sydneyside Scenery, p. 86.
In places, the old river approached the sea that lay just to the east, but still it followed the line of least resistance, pushing north through the jointed sandstone until it poured into the ocean via Broken Bay, some thirty kilometres up the coast.  The river was in a rut, a deep rut it had carved for itself, and there was no escape from that rut.

The river would only be set free from its course when the northern ice melted, letting the sea flood in over the low range of hills along the shore, making islands of the higher peaks, and filling the old valley with sand, dividing the river into many smaller streams.

All along the coast, streams that once added to the old river now flowed directly into the sea, washing the salt from the sea sand as it piled up, making a home for the first tough and adventurous plants that were poised, waiting to invade.  The roots of these early plants tied the sand down, more sand blew in, and slowly, beaches and sand spits grew into low sand hills.

These sand hills had to struggle.  As the vegetation built up on the slopes, wild fires would be started by lightning, destroying the plants and giving the howling winds a grip.  At other times, wild storms would drive the sea into the low hills.  The crashing waves would hiss and viper through, drowning the animals, poisoning the plants, pushing the sand before them and flattening the dunes.

In places, the waves would drive all the way through, reopening the old river bed to admit the high tide storm waves which would foam into the harbour on the other side of the dunes, turning the land-locked headlands back into islands again.  Then the storms would ease, and the whole slow process would start over again, building the sand dune communities up again.

All that has changed now.  Civilisation has come to the river bed, human occupation with its massive infrastructure of roads, drains, utilities and buildings that do not grow back again after a storm.  Dour and determined engineers have thrown up walls and barriers to hold back the sea, to thwart it when it attacks.  No sea, they have sworn, will ever again dare poke its nose into the thriving tourist centre of Manly, seven miles from the centre of Sydney.

Manly Cove was a small bay that got its name four or five days before Sydney itself, based on the white invaders summing-up of the local residents when they came looking for a place to settle in 1788.  Then the searchers sailed away to find a better anchorage for ships at Sydney Cove, and they made their town there.  You could sail to Manly in an hour or two, but it was a two-day journey by road, so Manly was left alone until the 1850s.  Until then, the sea was still able to break through into the harbour from time to time.

Then came steam ferries that crossed the harbour in forty minutes, a ferry wharf, settlers, developers, buildings, tourists and holiday-makers, and the beginnings of a seaside dormitory suburb.  ‘The Village’ of Manly was carefully marketed as ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’.  People who did not live there dreamed of it, and came to swim at safe harbour beaches.  In this century, they came to surf at the three ocean beach sites that lie along the wide ocean bay, once it was legal to do so, and the final nail in the civikisation coffin came with two new bridges around 1930, linking Manly to the city by road.

The Corso began in the 19th century as a simple street over the flat low sands that linked the roaring ocean and the placid harbour, but soon the sandy path was lined with shops.  Later again, it became a road carrying heavy traffic and trams.  Now it is mostly pedestrian plaza, with people, shops, a few illegal bicycles, skateboards and roller bladers, chairs and tables, trees and shrubs.  Everything that remains is geared to the tourist trade.

The tourists have been here ever since the 1850s, thronging the area in the summer, but when winter bites, the temperature falls to 15° Celsius, and the cold southerly blows in off the harbour, commerce slows, and the locals can outnumber the tourists again.  We come back into our own.

There will still be grandmothers with offspring to mind and days to kill, there will still be budget-conscious Japanese tourists who surf the winter seas in wet-suits.  And when the waves get too rough, they flit around with cameras, excitedly snapping the quaint natives.  All three of my children rode through their first two years in a ‘papoose’ on my back, and all three have been preserved in innumerable Japanese photo albums as samples of curious customs and local colour.

Like any tourist trap in the off-season, the Corso has a certain lonely raffishness in winter, but it also has a certain charm.  My writing cycle leaves me with a large free gap in the morning, every second Friday.  As soon as I can, I get down to the shops to pay bills, post letters,  and generally attend to some minor domestic chores.

A part of my fortnightly ritual now is the outdoor cup of coffee at 9.30.  I relish this time away from everybody, just me and my notebook as I plan the next two weeks.  All along the pedestrian area, there are tables and chairs: sit in one of the chairs, and somebody will come bustling out to take your order.

The coffee is good: it has to be, with so many outlets, and the service is fast, if only to move on the profitless non-customers, thoughtlessly wearing out their seats and tables.  They recognise no ‘regulars’ here, for the staff turnover is too high, but I see many of the same people each time I sit and watch.

The toddler with his grandmother, who always stands in front of the busking flautist, listening intently; the old man in a conservative suit and tie, almost hidden behind a wild white two-year beard; the young girl with pencil-thin legs, dressed all in black who surreptitiously sketches people, probably hoping somebody will notice her working and want to buy the sketches, but they never do; and the quadriplegic newspaper seller in his electric wheelchair; they are always there.

So is the fat skinhead in the torn shirt who nods his head to some distant drummer living in his iPod, nodding so hard that his ear rings sometimes tinkle, and half a dozen other walking wounded and unemployed.  They are the fixed scenery of the winter street.

Then there are the interchangeable Japanese, trotting efficiently to and from the surf beach with their short boards with the wicked samurai-sword-sharp fins.  There will usually be a scattering of Scandinavians wandering through but never stopping, for they are budget tourists, often a five-year-old will confidently sail by on roller blades, too young to be molested by the Council rangers, and sometimes there used to be Manly's famous skateboard riding dog, if the rangers were out of view. I think he's gone, now...

The soundscape is varied, with loud rock music from a sports and surf clothing store, and buskers — the flautist, a banjo player near the pub, a classical guitarist, and further along, there used to be a puppeteer whose puppets dance to the Irish tunes that come from his cassette player (he seems to have died).

The weekends are quite different, even in winter.  With greater crowds, the busking numbers will swell to include bagpipers, a dijeridu player, or a group of Morris dancers,  but on a weekday, the birds and the small children have the area to themselves.

Just after ten, a wave of people rolls up the Corso as another ferry load of trippers washes through from the wharf on the harbour.  I look sourly at the gulls and pigeons, picking over the food scraps, the wrappers and papers that drift along in the winter breeze, and I begin to long for the cleansing ocean waves to roll through once more, from ocean to harbour, sweeping all before them.

Then I know it is time to go.  But I also know that when I return in a fortnight, the old magic will have spread across the surface again, so I can sit in the sun, muse, and drink another flat white in peaceful reverie.

1 comment:

  1. It's worth thinking about what will happen, as sea levels rise. That old river bed is still there...