Queensland, Australia: The Beach on the Other Side

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Whitehaven Beach is without footprints. Without debris. Without cigarette butts or the shattered styrofoam of drinking cups. It is without the lazy, slicked-up bodies of sunbathers parked for the day, for the week. It is without sounds, save the wind and the whisper of ice-white sand blowing overitself in rivulets like a horizontal waterfall. There was one thing — a cuttlefish bone half-buried, yellow-white and half-filled with sand, the exact size, shape, and color of an endive. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I first saw it, only the appearence of an endive on a beach on a remote Australian island where the flow of people and things, of anything foreign to the terrain, is strictly controlled, seemed dubious. A little sci-fi. As though you’d be just as likely to see a fire hydrant or a bike helmet planted in the middle of the beach, the sand falling into its metal-plastic man-made crevices.

But Whitehaven Beach is, somehow, like the surface of another planet, the silicate sand so pure under your feet that it squeaks when you walk across it. It is illegal to beach comb, illegal to take anything with you — including the sand itself — when you leave. Boats can only get so close, so visitors wishing to stay for a precious few hours, or maybe a night or two camping on its shores, must tumble shoeless down the metal steps into waist-high waves, hauling their bags, their camera phones and purses, over their heads.

I arrived seasick under cloudy skies with my hair sticking up in every direction and a flannel shirt thrown over my bathing suit, unsure how to regard winter in Australia. The landscape was summer paradise — green trees, white sand, blue water — but the air and the clouds and the choppy seas weren’t so sure. Maybe I was cold. Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I needed sunblock. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I was going to keep lunch down. Maybe I wasn’t. The beach, you see, is near a place called God’s Washing Machine, where the currents spin into whirlpools that are strong enough to knock boats off course, if they haven’t already been discombobulated by waves as tall as houses.

I was grateful, finally, to have my feet down on the strange sand after two hours of bobbing all the way there from my home base on Hamilton Island. Hamilton seemed the opposite of Whitehaven Beach, a place up to its ears in a raucous swarm of humanity, of kids screaming in shallow swimming pools and neon-crowed cockatoos stealing the half-empty sugar packets right off your saucer.

After all that, after dropping my bag on the sand — leaving it to be pecked at by a flock of crows who were fascinated by its shining buckles — all I wanted was to walk. To feel solid earth under my feet, although the ground on Whitehaven Beach shifts and displaces with every step. I wanted to walk until I fell off the edge of the earth. That’s what I thought. Because that’s how the beach looks when you’re standing on it, like the runway to another dimension, a bright half-moon of sand fringed with trees that seems like you could reach the very end on foot until you try to do it. I only made it about halfway and I was alone, my footprints disappearing in the wind, reburied, as soon as I put them down.

That’s when the sun came out. And I thought, let the boat leave me here. Let me be lost. Let my family wonder what happened on a beach on the opposite side of the earth where there is no wifi, no cell phone service, no way to post your selfies. Let me be fully left behind to blow away, a pile of dust as fine and clean as the sand.

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Travel generously provided by Visit Queensland.

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