There are only white faces on the train to Cronulla. Frowsy haired surf-rats holding their boards, blonde schoolgirls doing their homework on the fly and pensioners heading off on a day out. Later, the only brown faces I see are a group of international students who have come to see the famous surf beach.
I have been going to Cronulla since I was three. Coming from a land-locked Melbourne suburb with one triple fronted brick veneer after the other, Cronulla was my dreamland. It had green lawns, swimming pools, an uncle and aunt who spoilt me and two cousins who surfed. No one seemed anxious or angry. Now, several decades on, I holiday there with my own family and find a different place.
I remember kookaburras at daybreak, the thud of the Sydney Morning Herald on the lawn and the cockatoos shrieking at dusk. In between, the snap of the lawnmower, the sounds of children playing, the warble of a magpie and the roar of the postman’s motorbike. I would cry when I had to go home.
Cronulla was then (and still is) the land of the millionaire. The odd Australian cricket player and rugby captain live on peninsulas running down to the Port Hacking River, along with Qantas pilots who fly all over the world but are deeply rooted in The Shire.
It’s the tradies who arguably rule the roost and make the most. Streets are lined with utes. Young buff men in blue, paint-flecked shorts, brown scuffed work boots and always with the latest iPhone in the back pocket. Sounds of drilling and sawing echo up and down the roads of the peninsula. In the evening, the tradies go back to their waterfront mansions and have a kayak session on the river before dinner.
In my friend’s apartment, an Australian flag is curled up in a corner. Each Australia Day, and on the anniversary of the Cronulla Riots he unfurls it and hangs it over the balcony.
It’s 6pm at the Cronulla RSL and time to stand for the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ and ‘The Last Post’. The entire RSL falls silent as we listen to the recording of the Bugle refrain. There is a voice-over repeating ‘At the setting of the sun’. The RSL chants back ‘Lest We Forget.’ It feels like church. Security guards mingle with the crowd, perhaps to ensure that everyone stands up.
My husband is the darkest skinned person in the RSL, and the only non-white person in the room. Later, I see a group of Asian women who tell me are hotel cleaners and spend their Saturday nights effortlessly winning the meat raffle. One of the women, Elly, wins a $200 meat tray. At home, she says, her freezer is full of meat raffle winnings.
Upstairs, the RSL is pumping. The glorious view stretches to North Cronulla and beyond to Voodoo. Families hoe into RSL tucker. Groups of gorgeous young girls at the start of their big Saturday night out. You graduate to the downstairs bar as you get older. This bar is quieter and has no view. The house band plays Fleetwood Mac and the dance floor fills up.
‘What’s that new restaurant?’ I asked my friend as we left the RSL, pointing out a new buzzing place just off Cronulla Street.
‘Have you been there?’
‘Wouldn’t eat there- even if you paid me.’
I see him, wrapped up in his Australian flag, face blacked out, sitting on top of a car. He morphs back into the grey-haired, middle-aged man he is.
It is only my aunt and cousin left now in Cronulla- my uncle left years ago. The perfect family divorce. My other cousin lives overseas. My aunt remembers when one of the neighbours kept a couple of cows. Both the cows and the neighbours are long gone. Location scouts have knocked on her front door asking her to use the mid-century house for filming. A few years ago, the National Trust approached her to get the house classified. With an eye to my cousins’ inheritance, she said no.
Down by the desalination plant is a long straight stretch of road that local drag racers used to use for burnouts. The new Greenhills estate gleams pristine and white on top of the sand hills – not unlike the wizard’s Castle in Oz. Most of the sand hills are gone, given over to development.
At 7am, the walkers are out. Women with high ponytails and super tanned legs, wear neon running shoes striding along like they own every piece of this precious Shire Land. In the case of a lucky few, they have bought properties from Woolooware Road down to the waterfront to give them precious water frontage.
We swim in the South Cronulla Ocean Pool. It is a little lake of calm—safe from the waves. My husband flicks something with his foot and it breaks up into little bits.
‘It’s a turd,’ he said, climbing out of the pool very fast.
Back at the shoreline, an old man told us to watch out for stingrays as someone had got bitten. ‘They lurk along the bottom, the sand hides ‘em’, he said.
The shine goes off Cronulla a little bit when it is overcast. The gorgeousness is just a bit tarnished. The pavements are wet and no one is on the street. People retreat indoors and get that little bit anxious waiting for the sun.
‘You brought the Melbourne weather with you,’ said the man in the coffee shop.
It’s 11.30am and the grey and purple-haired ladies head for the RSL in ones and twos. It’s a pensioner special at lunch with some pokie tokens thrown in. Shift back forty years and they were the bright young things heading out on a Saturday night.
We double back to look at the Bali Memorial. Nearby, an Indian family shivering in the offshore wind are on a picnic rug scooping up aloo gobi with rolled up nan bread. I see a couple of surf-rats give them a backward glance and they both laugh. It’s thirteen years since the Bali Bombings (2002) and ten years since the Cronulla Riots (2005)
I remember when I was eighteen and sitting at Wanda beach. Over the loudspeaker system (used for lifesaving announcements) was the sound of long drawn out burps. Between the crash of the waves and 2SM from the transistor radios, the burping continued. It was a slow Sunday on the beach for the lifesavers. That night I had gone to Northies to see The Radiators. I was as sweaty as hell singing along with the rest of the crowd to ‘Gimme Head’ and I felt I was with my people.
But now, several decades on I am not so sure that I want to live here anymore. Yet, Cronulla is my second home. It harbors the closest family I have, and it holds dear memories of holidays with my mother and time spent with my cousins. But the Cronulla I knew when I was young is largely gone, or maybe it is me who has changed. I no longer look at it through rose-colored glasses. I may not always like what I find there. The underlying racism is still there; you don’t have to dig very deep. I see it in my own family—watching my friend with his Filipino wife. I can understand why Muslim people are wary of visiting the area. I can understand why local people are fearful and wish to stake their claim—although I do not condone it.
Yet, with all my conflict and doubt I still love the place. Maybe it’s the yearning for the past as I am growing older. In the RSL last Saturday night when I stood up for the Ode of Remembrance and listened to the mournful cry of The Last Post, I felt a sense of community and solidarity. But not my community any longer perhaps. Two days later I flew home, and there were no tears as the plane banked over Botany Bay and headed south.