Bondi Bay

The Australian Sketch Book  1838  James Martin

Then haste thee to thy sullen Isle,
And gaze upon the sea;
That element may meet thy smile—
It ne’er was ruled by thee!
Or trace with thine all idle hand,
In loitering mood upon the sand,
That Earth is now as free!
That Corinth’s pedagogue hath now
Transferr’d his by-word to thy brow.
BYRON

I once saw a very splendid print of the great Napoleon—standing on the shore of Elba in a contemplative mood, with the above lines engraved beneath it. The conqueror of empires—the humbler of kings—the child of fortune, gazing thoughtfully upon an element which all his power gigantic, unparalleled as it was, could not subdue—was a sight which I could not behold without emotion. He who looked upon mankind as his servants, and earth as his inheritance—he

Whose games were empires, and whole stakes were thrones Whose table earth—whose dice were human bones,

Standing on the verge of that ocean which his most strenuous exertions could not overcome, and on which his mighty armaments invariably proved fruitless and unavailing, presented a clear and instructive type of the vanity of human power. He who seemed a demi-god—an almost supernatural individual, when gazing on the heaving billows, saw that which was the means of checking his progress to almost universal power.
The bay, on the shores of which he was represented to be standing, brought vividly to my mind a scene which I myself have often beheld with delight. That scene is Bondi Bay—a place that amongst all the splendid natural beauties of which Australia can boast, is certainly unsurpassed. England, Ireland, America, and many other countries, can justly boast of their lakes, their mountains, their rivers and their bays, but there is not one amongst them, but would feel proud of the possession of a spot, so picturesque and enchanting as Bondi. This is by no means the language of partiality, prompted by a patriotic love of my country, but it is the result of a feeling the force of which upon inspection, not only those who claim this as their adopted, but also those who claim it as their native soil, must equally acknowledge. If there be among the number of my readers, any who may be predisposed to scepticism, to them I would recommend the propriety of immediately examining for themselves, and satisfying at once their remaining doubts.
I shall now give a short account of my first visit to this beautiful spot, and I will endeavour to delineate as faithfully as possible the impressions which the sight produced upon my mind. The narration, though it may not prove highly instructing, may at least be the means of giving information to some, and if it should induce but one single individual to examine the spot, I shall consider myself amply rewarded for my pains. And I feel convinced, that whoever takes the trouble to satisfy himself by personal observation, will at once acknowledge the truth of my assertions, and his testimony will but confirm my remarks.
Some considerable time since, when I was at school, after having been liberated from study on a Saturday (as was customary) at noon, and not having any thing particular to perform, a few of my school-fellows and I determined to proceed on the South Head road, for the very classical purpose of storing our pockets with five corners. With light steps, and lighter hearts, away we tramped over the hills with all that degree of enthusiastic pleasure, which similar excursions invariably produce within the youthful mind. The sea breeze blew freshly from the East, and the mid-day sun shone brightly in the clear autumnal sky of our Southern land. After walking about four miles along a hard winding road, we arrived on an eminence from which we obtained a splendid view of the great South Pacific Ocean. I never before then, formed any distinct idea of the mighty deep, for when I first saw it, the shades of infancy overclouded my faculties, and the wonders of the sea left no impression on my mind. It would perhaps be difficult for me to convey to the reader, any adequate idea of the sensation which thrilled through my frame, when I saw the dark blue expanse which lay extended before me, seemingly united to the sky. Robertson says of Balboa;

“As soon as he beheld the South Sea stretching in endless prospect below him, he fell on his knees, and, lifting up his hands to heaven, returned thanks to God, who had conducted him to a discovery so beneficial to his country, and so honorable to himself. His followers, observing his transports of joy, rushed forward to join in his wonder, exultation and gratitude. They held on their course to the shore with great alacrity, when Balboa, advancing up to the middle in the waves, with his buckler and sword, took possession of that ocean in the name of the king his master; and vowed to defend it, with these arms, against all his enemies.”

Although my raptures were not so great as those of Balboa, on beholding the great Pacific for the first time, yet, I did not gaze upon the noble sight that was thus suddenly presented to my view, without considerable emotion. The indefinite and crude ideas which I had before formed of the sea, now appeared to be inexpressibly ridiculous, and as on all similar occasions, it appeared strange how I could possibly conceive it to be any other, than it actually was. I stopped almost involuntarily, and looked on for some moments in attentive silence. So pleased was I, that it was some considerable time before I broke from the contemplative trance into which I was thrown, when I first attained the summit of the eminence.

The roaring of the breakers, and the voices of my companions, aroused me from my reverie, and we immediately descended towards the shore. A small cart track winding through the shrubs, led us to the beach, upon which we suddenly found ourselves, after having emerged from a thick grove of trees, with which, in one part, the water is bordered. I had never before seen an object so eminently beautiful, as that which was then presented to my sight. The tide was out, and the long snowy beach appeared like a broad level pathway bordering the ocean. Not a rock, or stone was there to break its evenness—all seemed as smooth as though it had been levelled with the most assiduous care. Nature had indeed performed much for this enchanting spot, and it was questionable whether art could do anything to augment its charms.
It was at the southern extremity of the beach that we emerged from the copse, and we had thence a fine view of the gigantic precipices, by which its northern boundary is terminated. The beach itself is nearly in the form of a half moon, and for the distance of a quarter of a mile, winds beautifully round, and ever and anon, receives the heaving billows, which come bounding on its surface.
If, of all the places I have seen, there is one spot more proper for meditation than another—one spot more eminently calculated to inspire the mind with lofty sentiments, and to call forth the latent energies of genius, Bondi Bay is certainly that favoured situation. Here might the poet, rushing from the haunts of man, the marts of commerce, and the din and bustle of a busy world, seat himself on some wave-worn stone, which has been washed for centuries by the ocean, draw inspiration from the scene before him, and leave to posterity the lofty sentiments which his excited imagination would create. Here might he stay the live-long day, without being tired with the monotony of the surrounding objects—idea upon idea, would crowd upon his fancy, and the longer he beheld, the longer would he desire to remain. Byron in his glorious Ode (as Jeffrey designates it) on the aspiration of Greece after Liberty, makes the Grecian bard exclaim;

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die;
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!

Sunium, or Helicon, or Parnassus, many doubtless possess many charms to captivate a poetic mind, but Bondi I feel convinced could for natural scenery, dispute the palm with any of them. It is in such a spot as this, that one might imagine Cowper to be situated, when he wrote the exquisite lines supposed to be spoken by Alexander Selkirk, in the desert Island of Juan Fernandez. Apart from mankind—exquisitely sensible of the impressions which the scene around might produce upon him—his eyes resting upon the silent solitudes of nature—and his idea of loneliness, augmented by the expanse of ocean before him, and the murmuring of its billows as they rolled in successively, and dashed in spray among the rocks, or covered the extended beach with one unbroken line of silvery foam; the poet might form a vivid idea of the situation of the man, whose lament he endeavours to relate. It may be under circumstances similar to these, that the splendid piece which Selkirk is made to speak, was produced; and it is very probably to the inspiration caused by a scene like Bondi, that we are indebted for this classic effusion of poetic genius.
But it is not to the poet alone that Bondi is valuable—it is not to the sons and votaries of song alone, that it is endearing—the philosopher—the moralist—the orator, each could find something to interest and instruct him in the beauties with which it abounds. Demosthenes, when he first conceived the design of becoming a public speaker, having naturally a weak, defective voice, is reported, for the purpose of strengthening his lungs, and rendering his enunciation more distinct and audible, to have gone frequently to the sea shore, and there, with pebbles in his mouth, while the waves came dashing and roaring to his feet, to have declaimed for hours together to the senseless ocean, with the same degree of earnestness and animation as though he were addressing the assembled sages and legislators of his country. Those who are accustomed to conceive everything uncommon as verging upon the ridiculous, might be inclined to look with contempt upon this proceeding of the prince of orators; but they who think seriously, and scrutinize minutely the advances of true genius, must admire the ingenuity and perseverance of a man, who blessed in no extraordinary degree by nature, and labouring under calamities, which in some respects placed him below many of his fellow creatures, invented an expedient, which, for its simplicity, many would be inclined to disregard; and exerted himself in a manner, which few would be possessed of sufficient energy to imitate, until at length he placed himself on a height of grandeur, from which he could look down, not only on the most distinguished of his contemporaries, but also on the most eminent men of every succeeding generation. Some future Demosthenes of Australia, may yet derive advantage from imitating the conduct of the great master of eloquence. And should there ever be any inclined to follow his example, Bondi is the spot they should choose for their rostrum. There standing on a jutting rock, might the embryo statesman fancy to himself, that he was about to address the assembled legislators of his country, on a subject which involved the welfare, not of individuals, nor of parties of individuals, but of every portion of the community. There might he give vent to all the various sentiments which tyranny, oppression, justice or virtue in the rulers of his land would be supposed to create. There might he thunder forth with all the vehemence of passion, denouncement against the oppressor and the tyrant; and with heartfelt gratitude extol the virtues, and laud the conduct of the patriot. There might he in a strain of eloquent and persuasive oratory, endeavour to impress upon the minds of his supposed auditors, the propriety or impropriety of adopting any particular regulation—and, finally, there might he learn how to watch over and protect the interests of his native soil, and successfully repel the encroachments of those, who dead alike to every sense of justice and of shame, would endeavour to convert it into a land of slavery and meanness—to chase away every thing that contributes to exalt or ennoble mankind, and involve Australia in an abyss of barbarism and ignorance, of the most humiliating and debasing description. The bubbling and murmuring of the billows as they came rolling in quick succession towards the shore, he might conceive to be the excitement and whisper of approbation produced by his address; and the loud roar caused by the long wave breaking upon the beach, he might imagine to be the simultaneous burst of applause which was to reward for former, and stimulate him to future exertions. Each succeeding wave as it rolled towards his feet, and broke in foam upon the shore, might add to his enthusiasm, until at length he would be worked up to that degree of animation which is the true, and only source of the sublime. This feeling he would carry with him amongst his fellow men—the recollection of it would excite his ardour on every occasion, and instead of the cold, heartless declamation—the somniferous oratory with which we are now pestered, we would have something worthy of being left for the imitation of our posterity.
Any person who has a few hours to spare, could not spend them more profitably or more delightfully, than by visiting Bondi. If he is a lover of solitude, he will find the place sufficiently lonely for his purpose; if he is an admirer of beautiful romantic scenery, he will there be gratified ; if he loves the ceaseless murmuring of the world of waters, he will be pleased, perhaps beyond his most sanguine expectations. In short, it will not be too much for me to assert, that any individual, whatever may be his disposition, whether he be lively or morose—happy or melancholy—whether he be young or old—ignorant or learned, will be able to discover something in this charming retreat, which will be capable of affording him the most heartfelt gratification. It is one of those peculiar spots on the surface of the globe, which, in the hey-day of youth, we can behold with enjoyment, and in manhood and old age, with unabated pleasure. There are many places, which, though beautiful in some degree, yet lose their influence upon the mind, when it has a long time been accustomed to them ; and when years have familiarized them to the imagination. But Bondi is certainly not to be classed amongst that number.
To those who prefer spending their leisure hours in extravagance and dissipation, and who in the whole course of their existence have never experienced the enjoyment afforded by gazing attentively upon the beauty and sublimity of nature, I would earnestly recommend a walk along the South Head road, to the shores of the Pacific. Intemperance and folly, rioting and drunkenness, how gratifying soever they may be to their votaries at the moment, invariably leave a sting, which is ten times greater than the transient pleasure they afford. They throw a dark and dreary cloud over the innate majesty of man, and insensibly and gradually deprive him of the glory of his nature. But the delightful sensations created by the beautiful objects which Providence with a liberal hand has formed for the enjoyment of his creatures, neither vitiate nor cloy—the more they are observed, the greater pleasure do they afford—and even the recollection of them is sufficient to excite the imagination, and cause the wondering mortal to raise up his voice to heaven in thanksgiving to his Creator for his innumerable bounties.
Let the bacchanalian go and seat himself on the lonely shore, and meditate—let him, if it be but for a few moments in his life, for once enjoy the freshening breeze—pure and untainted as the ocean over which it gently sweeps; and contrast his situation then with the scenes of luxury in which he is accustomed to destroy by degrees the blooming flower of existence—let him look attentively upon the deep blue sea, and contemplate its purity, and contrast that purity with his grossness—let him look around him, and survey and admire the calmness of nature, and then let him consider the tumult which rages within his soul—let him gaze upon the budding beauties of each wild, luxuriant flower—the blooming appearance of each vigorous shrub, and then let him reflect upon his own haggard, care-worn appearance—and, lastly, let him consider that it is not yet too late to reform his condition, and that though the period of reformation has been long deferred, he may yet, having bade a last, a final adieu to his former habits, live temperately and contentedly, and pass the remainder of his days in prosperity and peace.
The last time that I visited Bondi, I seated myself on a small tuft of grass, a few yards from the beach; and I shall never forget the ideas, that then crowded vividly upon my mind. It was early in the morning, and a light breeze was blowing across the waters, the surface of which was barely agitated by a gentle rippling. The undulating swell from which the ocean is never entirely free, had a peculiarly serene and beautiful appearance. In the distance I could barely discern an object, which I conjectured to be the sails of some vessel that was plodding its way across the unfathomable deep. By degrees it began to assume a more distinct appearance, and in the space of an hour, the white sails were clearly visible, and in a short time afterwards, the hull could be discerned. There are few objects that are capable of exciting one more, than the appearance of a large vessel just emerging from the horizon’s verge, and breaking gradually upon the sight. The beholder looks upon the object before him as a lonely wanderer that has just escaped from a trackless labyrinth in which he had been involved, and who is at length returning to enjoy once more the pleasures of society. He pictures to himself the various sensations which agitate the minds of the voyagers, upon first beholding their place of destination. All on board he considers are looking eagerly toward the shore, and scrutinizing minutely the land which they are about to visit.
I looked upon the gallant ship with admiration, and inwardly rejoiced in this symptom of our rapidly increasing importance. She was but one of the many—very many, who were perhaps at that moment sailing across the Atlantic, or the Indian Ocean, fraught with the produce of every clime upon the surface of the Globe. The spot where I then stood, half a century since, was deserted and untrodden, but now the luxuries of every clime, from the tropics to the poles—from the western to the eastern hemisphere, are wafted past it by every passing breeze. What though Australia may not produce in abundance every thing to satisfy the numerous, and daily increasing wants of its inhabitants! The extensive commerce which the wealth and enterprise of her citizens has established, will more than supply every deficiency, and furnish us with all those luxuries without which, experience and history convince us, no truly enlightened community can possibly exist.
Should any patriotic individual at some future period, stand at Bondi and watch the approach of some vessel from a foreign clime, while he rejoices in the increasing trade of his country, let him raise up his thoughts to the Great Disposer of events, and implore Him to avert from this smiling land, the horrors which luxury, when it passes a certain point, invariably draws down upon that community where it takes up its abode—let him repeat the lines of the poet:

O luxury! thou curst by Heaven’s decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms by thee to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own :
At every draught more large and large they grow,
A bloated mass of rank unweildy woe,
Till sapp’d their strength, and every part unsound,
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

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