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What makes this beach different from all the other beaches I’ve featured in the ongoing project to visit all the beaches in my shire? If I can’t answer that question, and it’s not an easy one, I might as well stop the series now.

For a start, it faces east-west, instead of north-south which is the orientation I’ve come to expect of my beaches. On my reckoning, this means that the sun won’t rise over the sea, a disorienting fact on this stretch of the east coast. The stubby island just offshore with a rakish hat of trees is to the south; and the vista to Melville Point, a pale line of mountains, and a receding coastline, cove after cove, is to the west.

The beach is inhabited on this dull Sunday morning – people rock-hopping and sliding into a rockpool for a dip; walking their dog and their children along the sand; pitching a green and blue beach tent to keep off the recalcitrant sun; or, in our case, scrutinising rock patterns and the long flattish platform stretching into the sea; and seeking folds wherever they might be found. Or not.

The beaches are varied: tiny pebbles on the way to becoming black sand; larger rounded rocklets interspersed with larger shells than I’m used to; occasional narrow patches of sand with a backdrop of spindly bush, or cliffs with rock sheering off.

The colours are a rocky rainbow – many shades of grey, slate, ochre, cream, écru, tan, pink, pale crimson, maroon, palest blue -and an infinity of patterns: intersecting lines, meanders, scribbles, waves, veins, splotches.

A man-made rock-and-concrete pathway insinuates its substantial way across pebbly beaches, and masquerades as a rather peculiar dyke. We speculate about its date and its reason for being. It stretches for at least 500 metres and there is a serious amount of concrete, inlaid with quite substantial chunks of endemic rock: the rusty remains of reinforcement leach a pinky-apricot sunset into some of the rockpools. A few beaches up there is a WW2 concrete bunker: maybe there’s a connection.

This is a superficial view of Barlings Beach, merely what’s apparent to my aesthetic eye. There is far more in this strip of coastline than appears after a 2-hour scrutiny. For one thing, there’s a strong Aboriginal presence, which I learn about thanks to a local council site, (which includes the plan below) Most of the oral history is from the 1960s, stories mainly from members of the Nye family (one of whom was my daughter’s good friend at school), but it reflects traditions going back many, many generations.

In the 1960s Symalene Nye and her family lived at The Corner, near where the track leads down to the beach, in a humpy made up of an army tent, blankets and corrugated iron. She did the first phase of her washing in the creek and then boiled the clothes in rinso and pegged them out on a line of 8-gauge wire. She cooked on a stove of stone with a cast iron chimney: apple pies and stewed, braised, stuffed and baked rabbits. There were plenty of snacks close by: prickly pear, blackberries, red gooseberries and pigface. If you got thirsty you could chew casuarina seeds.

It was the job of the men and the boys to catch the mullet and tailor she salted. In the centre of the beach was a lookout where handsignals were used to show the whereabouts of the fish. Older men would carry boys across the channel to the deep hole near the island where bream and blackfish were trapped as the tide went out, and where they fished by kerosene light at midnight. The island was a place of significance for men, the place of origin of Lady Merrima, the Black Swan.

The grassland behind the beach was used as an airstrip for a fish-spotting plane. A message was dropped with the whereabouts in a sunshine milk can if landing was tricky. The same area was burnt to attract rabbits: one day, seven men caught 156 pairs which they sold to the CSIRO, the Australian government’s scientific research agency.

Just behind the fishing lookout were grounds used for traditional fighting between the Braidwood and the Moruya / Tomakin tribes. A Bora Ring somewhere along the Tomakin road is documented in reports held by the shire council.

Then, since I want to travel back even further to the Ordovician period somewhere around 450 million years ago, I return to my guide, Natalie Stokes, via her thesis, which I’ve used before when I wanted to find out about the Bogolo Formation, and from which I snaffle the geological map below.

This time, she offers me, not only a detailed description of the characteristics of ten distinct rock units, but colour coded plans, measurements, and compass directions. I’m comforted by mention of “outcrops”: I think I know what an outcrop is. I’m less comforted by colours: I know from experience how hard it is to name a colour accurately in a way that someone else will recognise. However I’m hopeful that on my next visit I’ll be able to orient myself, courtesy of the massive greenstone outcrop, ten metres wide. From there, I should be able, with patience and discussion with J, to locate black mudstone; a mixture of brown mudstone and bedded chert; a melange of black mudstone, quartz sandstone, and greenstone; a zone of intermingled turbidites, greenstone and chert; a scattering of disrupted chert outcrops; interbedded lithic sandstone and mudstone; clay-rich siliceous mudstone (grey-yellowish); outcrops of iron rich mudstone; and outcrops of lithic sandy-mudstone. Plenty of reassuring “outcrops” in this list!

Maybe I’m beginning to shape a plan towards geological understanding. First I visit a site and poke around. Then I read what I can find and try and connect it to what I’ve seen, hoping for maps and diagrams and measurements and colours. Then I return to the site with a clear list called “What I’m looking for”, a compass, a tape measure and the expectation that J will have a better understanding than me.