We live by the sea, although it’s really a bay, and Australians don’t really consider the beach to be one worthy of mention. I’m not even sure they would call it a beach. However, Middle Park beach is listed as a “thing to do” on Trip Adviser scoring a healthy 4 stars out of 5, although this does place it only 138th of 343 things to do in Melbourne. I also noticed that two of the 4 stars came from the same person. Regardless of it not being a picture postcard beach, living by it does create a different kind of lifestyle.
Perhaps unsurprising given their love of meat and barbecues, 63% of Australian adults are overweight or obese, 10% more than were in 1995. Yet, a friend who lives near me jokingly asked where all these fat people are because all we see are lycra-laden joggers, cyclists pumping their legs, skateboarders trying tricks, walkers with exaggerated movement, and rollerskaters showing their cool. The beach seems to attract people who are happy to be seen baring flesh and in fact may actually be there specifically for that reason.
In other words, the beach attracts people from the one-third of the population that is not overweight or obese. Apart from the night that The Proclaimers came to play in nearby St. Kilda and attracted hordes of people from a country that has an adult obesity rate of 65% – Scotland. It seems that you can take the person out of Scotland, but there is always a little bit of Scotland, its lifestyle and genes still in that person.
There are some Scots who come here to live a different life to the one in Scotland, a life outdoors. Australia loves sports and some say to an extent detrimental to other more culturally refined activities. Walking through a park in summer and you will see a few organised cricket matches being played. Autumn to Spring is when Australian Football rules Victoria and soccer is played in winter and watched in summer. The Irish diaspora have Gaelic football and hurling leagues and there are boot camps in parks and personal trainers barking at people on the beach.
There is an outdoor gym opposite my house and in the mornings I take my cereal bowl across the road and, humans being creatures of routine, I see the same people doing their morning exercise routine. There is the older, balding, white-haired guy who looks as though he wants to breakdown and cry every time his personal trainer pushes him to do one more squat, one more high kick to a pad or one more press up. I judge that he has had a health scare and is working his hardest to avoid dying – that can surely be only explanation for him withstanding his apparent anguish.
At the weekends there is a guy who turns up and impresses with his ability to do handstands, gymnastic type movements and core strengthening balance exercises on the pull-up bar. He appears careful to avoid sweating by taking time between exercises to puff his bare chest out and survey who was impressed by him. However, the most impressive balancing act I’ve seen was by a woman who did a Dirty Dancing type pose facing out to the sea balancing on the pull-up bar on her midriff only. I could nearly hear the song coming in with the waves.
The most serious exhibitionist is a man in his mid-40s who turns up with his own equipment and a ghetto-blaster in his bicycle trailer. Having cycled to this outdoor gym, he ignores all of its bars and poles, and sets about conquering his own set of exercises. My favourite is the spiderman crawl on all fours along the pavement whilst keeping as flat to the ground as possible. With his shades on and smile off, he gives the air of an off duty Kevin Costner in Bodyguard character for whom exercise is is a serious business.
I prefer a little swim in the surprisingly cold bay, which is best in the morning when it’s calm and you can look back at the city whilst gently bobbing in your wetsuit. In the afternoon you may see young men standing in the water doing their version of an ice-bath to aid recovery from football training, the benefits of which vanish with the first few beers that they have soon after. There are proper swimmers out there though who appear out of nowhere and then plough remorselessly onwards until being a dot in the distance.
Most of these swimmers are triathletes in training. Triathlons did not exist when I was growing up and until recently I would have said that only superhumans would be daft enough to attempt a triathlon, never mind complete one. And then you come to Melbourne and there’s a triathlon every other week and your colleague at work who doesn’t even use the stairs is doing one at the weekend. A friend tells a wonderful story of being on a stag/bucks party the night before a triathlon that he couldn’t do due to injury but whilst on this stag party, meeting somebody else who took his place. The chances of meeting somebody on a stag party wanting to do a triathlon the next day would be pretty low anywhere other than in Melbourne.
The triathlons do bring a surprising benefit though – silence and peacefulness. Every second Sunday or so during the summer, the road in front of our house closes due to some athletic pursuit such as a triathlon, fun run or sponsored walk. I wake up in the morning and before even opening my eyes, I sense that something is different. There is a quiet like when there is a carpet of snow soaking up any noise.
Being Australia, you would think that the main watersport would be surfing and it’s kind of true but not as you would expect. When the wind blows, which is often, the sky hosts a dance of kites blaring a kaleidoscope of colours. The kitesurfers race across the water, often jumping metres in the air, being pushed by a howling wind and yet always managing to remain untangled from each other.
Despite what I said about 63% of the population being absent from the beach, it is actually a place where all sorts of life becomes entangled with each other. There are families playing on the beach, old men walking together, and couples enjoying a romantic sunset. It is this entangling of different people doing different things that brings the beach to life – a life outdoors on show for us all to embrace.