Adventure | 4th December 2020
The Great Escape
Writer and photographer Joel Johnsson, shacks up on the rugged and remote WA coastline and is reminded of the rawness and immensity of our natural environment
Lying in the darkness, listening as the sound of the swell surges in through the flywire screens, breaks against the back wall and rolls out again into the darkness, I think about why it is that I love shacks.
I love a good shack. I have a strange habit of seeking them out all over the world. They tend to take on the character of the landscape and their unique purpose, and no two are ever the same. In Patagonia and Tasmania, refugios and cabins are hikers’ hideaways, often outfitted with extra tins of food, odd shoelaces and tattered trail guides. Throughout the Pacific, bungalows constructed of split bamboo and palm fronds slough off the evening rainstorm while letting the tropical night breeze sweep out the torpor of the day. Spartan Scottish bothies feel absurdly luxurious against the miserable British weather, their utilitarian austerity speaking quietly, but firmly, of their agrarian heritage. In New Zealand and the Australian High Country, mountain huts provide refuge to fly fishermen and cross country skiers caught by unseasonable storms, but are typically only used for a night or two. The shacks on the remote coast of WA, clinging to the rugged coastline at the edge of the wide Indian ocean, have an altogether different purpose, and a slower vibe.
Red Bluff is the southern tip of the 300km Ningaloo Reef, a hulking bulge of a peninsula which stiffens its back against the south-westerlies that howl through for half the year. While the northern section of the reef is typified by protected lagoons and coral fringing the shoreline, the southern section is a surf coast, more rock than sand, where the constant pounding of the heavy waves carve out caves and archways that are studded with the fossils of ancient seas.
Backed by the crumbling walls of the bluff, a series of ramshackle shacks nestle in the protected lee of the cape. Some look as though they were cobbled together from the flotsam and jetsam washed up in the last storm. Others, like the stone house perched higher on the cliffs and looking down over the sweep of the bay, look like they have been there for generations, as much a part of the landscape as the windblown caves up on the ridge-crest where rock wallabies and goats sleep away the day.
These are not holiday houses, per se. You wouldn’t even call them cottages, although some call them ‘humpies’. An eccentric jumble of timber, shade-cloth, palm fronds, broken surfboards and corrugated iron, some of them don’t even have four walls, and sultry clouds of salt spray billow in through the permanently exposed panel which frames the beach when a gust swings around the cape. Sand piles up against one wall as the dunes drift and creep, softly burying the unyielding structure. They are typically furnished with nothing more than a cot or a bunk with a bare mattress, a rough benchtop or shelf, and an eclectic collection of ornaments left by previous visitors – shells tied into a makeshift wind-chime by the doorway; empty jars with the waxy remains of tea lights; a pile of surf magazines dating back to the 90’s; and paperbacks that have long lost their jackets, their spines broken, resigned to being forever half-read. There is no electricity, no running water. The windows are wooden frames that are covered in flywire which you prop open with a lump of wood. But they open out onto a view of one of the best surf breaks in the North West, an iconic left-hander which curls off the tip of the bluff.
Time here is measured in months and seasons, the days marked simply as swell or no swell. The broken boards which line the walls are testament to the power of what draws people here, and what keeps them through the long days of winter. In season (winter), there’s a little store that whips up mango milkshakes with fruit picked fresh from the fields around Carnarvon, the closest town (close is a relative term in WA – it’s still around two hours by road). When it’s closed, there’s always crays to be plucked from underneath the coral bommies that fringe the shoreline and cooked over the coals of a campfire. Days stretch out and slip away at the same time. A pair of boardies and a t-shirt carry me through a whole week. My Teva sandals carry me from the wave-washed rockpools and platforms to the jagged ridgeline of the bluff, the harsh sun fading the imprint of the straps into my skin even after they’re discarded on the front step.
The shacks are, at the same time, basic and more than enough. Cool and dark in the blinding heat of the day; airy on the balmy nights when your skin is crusted with salt, sweat and sand. But when the wind moans through the gaps in the slats and tugs at the hem of the sheet, they are just porous enough to remind us of the rawness of the landscape, and that we are a part of that environment, not apart from it. Their permeability blurs the boundaries between inside and out, between civilised and wild, between nature and ourselves. For all the comforts of modern houses, when we close up our windows and doors, we also seal off the moonlit voice of the night crickets in the quiet evening; the cool breeze that floods in ahead of a coming storm and sends goose bumps creeping across exposed skin; the briny smell of the ocean rising in your nostrils; the shards of sunlight streaming in through the gaps, tracing a sundial across the floor with pinpricks of light.
I love shacks for the same reasons that I love sleeping in an open swag under the stars. Not because I get a night of uninterrupted sleep like I do in my bed back home, but because, waking every couple of hours and peering up through bleary, sleep-slick eyes, I can chart the course of Orion across the night sky, and feel the stars wheel over my head, and for a brief moment get a sense of my place, small though it is, in the immensity of the natural world.
Written and photographed by Joel Johnsson - @aesthetics.of.adventure
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