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it ain't no day at the beach
and you thought sand in your shorts was bad
by jack bradley

Yanno…the Australian people can best be characterized as brave and resourceful. At least, that’s what I’d like to think. It's nicer than the alternative. However, "brave and resourceful" is quickly losing ground to "daring and foolish."

Now, before my Australian friends start to get their knickers in a bunch…let me add this: I’m including myself in that lot. You see, I am now a seasoned veteran of one of the most dangerous pastimes known in the modern world.

I went to an Australian beach.

I loved it, and I’m going back. But, kids: I do not recommend that you try this at home. Or, if you must, do so under the supervision of several large, properly trained adults. The beaches here are not like the ones where you grew up. In North Carolina, you have long, languid stretches of white sand, gently rolling surf, pretty shells, and lots of tiny crabs and cute fish to entertain you as you splash about.

Australian beaches are an experiment in Darwinism. I honestly believe that the reason so many adults in Sydney are calm, levelheaded, and blessed with an abundance of common sense is because they survived a childhood at the beach. The easily panicked, stupid, or reckless ones never make it back from that first mad dash into the waves. Heck, some may never have made it into the water. The seashells may have gotten them, first.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you? No way. The seashells here are gaudy, pretty, shiny things whose colors scream “Pick me up! Pick me up!” Of course, every animal except the human has learned that gaudy colors and bright patterns mean “Touch Me and I'll Kill You.” Such animals give these shells a wide berth. Not us. Such shells often contain an animal that can shoot a poison dart (I swear, I am not making this up) right into your hand, injecting you with toxic venom that does nasty, nasty things to your system. So you try hard not to step on them. And you never pick them up. Tourists here are frequently seen to pick up a shell, place it next to their ear, and then say “Wow! I can hear the ambulances!” before they keel over onto the sand.

So let’s say that Mum and Dad have properly prepared their tot for this particular danger, and have sent him off across the sand. Ooops! We forgot sunscreen! Now, this may not seem like a big deal in the Northern Hemisphere…but down here, it's different. You remember the ozone layer, don’t you? Well, it’s gone. One summer in the sun here makes everyone look like those little old ladies at the Tampa Kwik-E-Mart, all shriveled and leathery. Ten minutes in the sun here during midsummer can seriously burn you, and toddlers have been known to cook inside of a car in an hour…with the air-conditioning running. I’ve even resorted to using a shampoo with a sunscreen in it. I’ll never learn to like wearing hats, but I do prefer them to a sun-scorched scalp.

Okay, now we’re slathered in SPF 6587, we know not to touch the shells, and we’re off! But wait, before we send our little one out to play, did we remind him to stay between the flags posted on the beach? If he swims outside of the marked area, dangerous undercurrents could quickly drag him out to sea, even if he’s a good swimmer. The flags have to be moved each day to mark the safe place to swim on any beach, because Australian waves don’t play fair. They come from all different angles, and sometimes stop or start suddenly, no matter what the wind or weather seems to be doing. God plays dice with the surf at Bondi Beach. Because of this, you could safely splash about in the shallows at a given spot one day, and find that the next day that spot is full of shifting sand, churning water, and an undertow that would suck the paint off the hull of a rescue boat. Plus, the lifeguards on duty are volunteers. They watch the area between the flags, and little else. If you venture outside of that area, you’re pretty much on your own. Many folks have simply disappeared from crowded public beaches and no one saw what happened. Heck, a Prime Minister of Australia (the leading political figure of the country) named Harold Holt was walking along a beach one day in full sight of all his companions. He decided to go for a swim, dove in, and was never seen again. They never found him. Not even a trace. Now, honestly…can you imagine the President of the United States going for a swim and simply vanishing? (I know you may want to, but realistically it’s not going to happen.)

It happened here. In charge of the entire nation one minute, fish food the next.

Okay…our kid is now slathered in sunscreen, has been told not to pick up seashells, has had his beach safety lessons, knows to stay between the flags, and (presumably) knows how to swim. Should we send him in yet? After all…it’s getting late in the day, and the kids are growing restless. The answer: NO. We should check for warning signs, for it is possible that there may be box jellies or bluebottles around. These are two types of particularly nasty jellyfish that have evolved a very painful toxin with which to subdue prey and discourage predators. I recently read an account of a young man who ignored warning signs and went swimming in the labeled area, watched from the beach by his more prudent friends. Suddenly, he began screaming like a bandsaw on a blackboard. It's been said that there is no pain to compare to the effect of this toxin, and after reading this story, I believe it. The clincher was this tidbit: even after paramedics had arrived and doped him up with morphine, and he had collapsed into a state of shock…he kept screaming. Even sedated, he was still in incredible agony. They say that the human mind cannot accurately remember what a given pain feels like, but I’ll bet he could give it a pretty good shot. I bet he reads signs now, too.

Less painful but just as lethal is the blue-ringed octopus. This tiny little fellow sports a skin that can flash and change colors, and a shy attitude that usually keeps him out of sight. However (and I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald) “even heavily used public beaches will harbor hundreds of these creatures.” So, we also don’t turn over rocks, put our hands in crevices, or molest the cute little octopi should we run across them. One bite can send an infant or allergic person to an early grave in a matter of minutes, long before help can arrive. By comparison, Captain Nemo had it easy.

Back to the kids again. They now have all the basic information and protection: Stay where it’s safe, stay where it’s shallow, don’t play with or touch anything, and don’t be in the sun too long.

These instructions evoke an unpleasant picture: a slew of frightened, greasy children huddling at the water's edge, afraid to go in, and terrified not to. Hardly the case. Each weekend sees the beaches packed to capacity. Sydney is about the same size as Atlanta, but has over 30 different public beaches, and countless sandy coves and bays. On a summer afternoon (even in the middle of the week), they’re packed. Brave, or daring? Resourceful, or foolish? Well, every night during the summer, just after the weather report, they give the beach report for the day…how rough the surf was, where the best surfing might be tomorrow, how many people had to be rescued, and how many drowned.

A couple of weeks ago, they added this gem to the list of statistics: how many eaten. Oh, yeah. The sharks.

I’ll just sit here on the towel, thanks.

Jack Bradley
Sydney, Australia
Summer of 2001


Born the son of a circus monkey, Jack had to overcome the stigma of having an address south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Struggling against all odds, he finally got his HS diploma from some guy on the corner, and proceeded to attend NC State University, where his records are now the "running joke" in the admissions office. In February of 2000, he moved to Sydney, Australia, to pursue a writing career full-time. Jack currently has a husband but no wife, no children, and a dog with great fashion sense.

more about jack bradley


break with tradition
a tale of travel and teenagers
by jack bradley
topic: humor
published: 4.23.01

culture shock
where women glow, men chunder, and the spiders can kill you
by jack bradley
topic: humor
published: 4.26.00


adam kraemer
1.29.01 @ 10:06a

I think I figured out once that SPF 100 is technically tar.

jack bradley
1.29.01 @ 9:14p

I'm intrigued by the fact that something can be "technically" tar, but not tar. Or am I assuming too much, here?

jael mchenry
1.30.01 @ 9:15a

I think Adam was only suggesting that there was some math and/or science involved in extrapolating Sun Protection Factors. I suspect there is.

I suppose SPF 100 could also technically be wet concrete, balsa wood, or a big fat guy standing between you and the sun's rays.

By the way, Jack, "Wow! I can hear the ambulances!" is my new favorite sentence.

adam kraemer
1.30.01 @ 10:05a

That's, ummm, two sentences, Jael.

jael mchenry
1.30.01 @ 11:34a

Technically, yes.

You're no fun. You probably still think espionage can't be used as an adjective.

adam kraemer
1.30.01 @ 2:35p

Actually, my personal jury is still out on "espionage," but in my office we've decided that "garamond" should definitely be used as an adjective.

jack bradley
2.4.01 @ 7:23p

You have a personal jury? I thought you were supposed to get a jury of your peers? (Would that make it a peersonal jury?)

I think I just hurt myself.

jack bradley
2.4.01 @ 7:24p

Oh, and Jael: My sentence thanks you for its new status in your life.

What was your previous favorite sentence?

adam kraemer
2.5.01 @ 10:27a

Personal jury: twelve little men and women who sit inside my brain and make all my difficult judgement calls for me. I just wish the dogs would stop barking.

jael mchenry
2.5.01 @ 10:35a

I think my previous favorite sentence was "My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery."

Or "I ain't got no dog in that race."

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