Every summer, on Boxing Day, my mother and I would travel to the NSW south coast to spend a blissful two weeks in the shack at Coalcliff. Even getting there was an adventure. My grandmother’s car had to be left in a car park and all clothes, food and other necessities carried across a bridge over Stoney Creek, along a track and up some stone steps. The shack was one of hundreds of similar dwellings on a hillside overlooking the beach and sea. A simple reinforced canvas rectangle with one bedroom it was graced with louvred glass windows, striped awnings and a stone courtyard facing the beach. Mobiles of cut glass tinkled in the sea breeze and the constant roar of the surf made for a soothing background as I drifted off to sleep in the fold up bed. We thought our shack was the best and prettiest of all the cabins on the hillside. It even had its own toilet.
I remembered being really difficult one day when my grandmother was looking after me. She had asked the teenage daughter of a friend to watch me on the beach but as soon as I saw her looking the other way I gave her the slip and ran back to the shack. Now that I have grandchildren of my own I can imagine the terror they felt when they scanned the beach and sea looking in vain for a little six year old girl. When they finally found me hiding under a bed in the shack I was given a belting followed by a glass of orange cordial.
My parents never holidayed together because of the demands of their business but I do recall one occasion when my father came to Coalcliff in his truck. It was quite a surprise to me that he could swim and dive. He took my friend and me by the hands and jumped with us in the waves. An extra large wave took away his false teeth which were never seen again. The next day we drove up Macquarie Pass in the truck and my friend was returned to her family, her fair skin covered in sunburn.
A Christian group of men and women provided entertainment for the children holidaying at Coalcliff. We made huge words on the beach out of flowers, threaded popcorn in long strings in the hall and walked through the darkness with lanterns on poles over our shoulders on New Years’ Eve. I don’t remember making any friends and I detested the folk dancing in the hall and refused to take part.
I didn’t know at the time that the shack was my grandmother’s escape from her unhappy marriage. During the week she worked in her Frock Shop in Mortdale but whenever she could she left the poisonous atmosphere of home and visited her hideaway. Some years later, all the shacks were removed and now there is only the Surf Life Saving Club where once hundreds of holiday makers packed the hillside. On the southern side million dollar houses look out across the ocean, the rock platform and the ocean baths. The Seacliff Bridge winds around the edge of the cliffs where once rock falls closed the road and the Coalcliff Coke Works is just a rusting ruin.
Until I travelled the world I thought all beaches had yellow sand, rock platforms at each end, a lagoon, surf and ocean baths. To me this is still the definition of a beach..