Beach life in Altona is great, apart from the hacksaws and cactus thieves

Beach life in Altona is great, apart from the hacksaws and cactus thieves

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Altona was a revelation when I first arrived. Drawn into new territory when shooting a short film, I slowed my car to the intersection where Millers Road meets the bay and a panorama of glistening blue opened in front of me, broken only by a handful of black swans, lazily sifting seagrass in the morning sun.

Was I still in Melbourne?

Altona feels a world away from other Melbourne suburbs. Credit: Luis Enrique Ascuri

Altona is an island of sorts, only 20 minutes from the CBD. Separated from other suburbs on all sides by Kororoit and Laverton Creeks, wetlands, and heavy industry, no one really drives through it – only to it. Even the trains only pass through 50 per cent of the time, thanks to our single track line.

Five years after that first visit, my partner and I were drawing a circle around the city as we pondered our next rental. An ad with two crummy photos depicted an old two-bedroom flat with garage for $290 a week, right on the Esplanade, overlooking the beach, pier and park.

“Well, it’s either going to have hundreds of applicants, or there must be something seriously wrong with it”, I said, so we didn’t add it to our inspection list. But as we finished up at another disappointing place nearby, it lingered in my mind.

“Let’s just drive down for a look.”

Only two other people were at the inspection, and the place was a classic rough diamond.

The first time someone told me they were moving to the western suburbs, I screwed up my nose. Yes, I was a snob. I grew up in the south-east, and my primary association with the west was the stench of the abattoir that used to engulf one end of the West Gate Bridge. Thankfully, the abattoir is now long gone, and after eight years in Altona, my snobbery is dead and buried too. I’m a proud westie.

However good you think it might be to live beside the beach, believe me – it’s better. There’s nothing quite like the wide expanse of changing clouds and tides. It’s home not only to people, but also pelicans, swans, oyster catchers, cormorants, herons, spoonbills, egrets, stilts, terns, and a healthy population of seagulls. On still, hot nights, a faint rustling sound can be heard – thousands of tiny crabs clicking away in the wet sand.

The first morning in the new flat, I woke at 6am to a cacophony. As I would quickly learn, the park by the pier is used so heavily in summer that the electric barbecues require daily grinding with a power tool to restore them. A pressure washer through the public toilets, beach-combing truck, and percussion from the bin collections complete the seasonal orchestra tuning up in the morning. The screeching tyres of hoons mark the end of a day’s performance.

Altona is an island of contrasts. Weekdays are low tide: locals-only, with a sprinkling of in-the-know tradies looking out to sea as they eat fish and chips. But on weekends and sunny afternoons, it seems like the whole of the west flows in; a high tide of humans, dogs, cars and kite surfers. The otherwise sleepy suburb springs into vibrant, colourful life. Australia Day is a blockbuster, as is Waitangi Day, and any other occasion where Tonga or Samoa win a rugby match. Then a cool change whips through and the tide flows out again, leaving behind a maze of dog poo, and mountains of rubbish in the park and on the beach.

Our community is curiously contradictory, and all on show in the suburb’s Facebook group. Some people are really passionate about the environment, while others complain about a fourth bin being introduced. The horror of being asked to sort our rubbish! We have an exceptional theatre troupe, our own short film festival, and an arts society. On the other hand, someone took a hacksaw to the “Seaborn” sculptures at the pier, and another stole the cactuses from our roundabouts.

Someone feeling optimistic about our prospects for gentrification has opened an indie supermarket. Bananas hang from hooks and milk is sold from a tap into refillable glass bottles. I love it, but I’m also glad that change is slow here. It’s still a seaside village where courtesy buses make well-worn tracks from the golf club.

There is one change I’m hoping for, though. Altona is home to no fewer than nine fish and chip shops and eight pizzerias, but not a single pub. No such thing as perfection, I suppose.

New shoots still draw me to new places in every corner of the country. But every time I fly, I crane out the window, looking for the strip of sand and the Norfolk pines that call me back home.

Rose Damon is a freelance video director and producer.

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