Returning to a special place, only to find its magic gone

A pilgrimage to her cherished childhood holiday place of sand, surf, hot chips and sunburn has Ali Clarke wondering about the meaning of progress.

Feb 15, 2024, updated Feb 15, 2024
What happens when a seaside idyll becomes too popular? File image by Oliver Sjöström/Pexels

What happens when a seaside idyll becomes too popular? File image by Oliver Sjöström/Pexels

I’ve been thinking about the past.

Maybe it’s a product of lighting more candles on my birthday cake, maybe it’s the daily reminder of passing time in the shape of three, growing, hurly-burly kids.

Whatever the reason, I was prompted to take my parents and family back to the place where I once spent every holiday, the place where the real growing up occurred away from the structure and regimen of school terms.

Most of you would probably be familiar with Noosa. If you haven’t tried an Avoid-The-Adelaide-Winter pilgrimage there, it was the scene of Michael Clarke’s shirtless fight with his ex in a park.

For those of you who still don’t know Noosa, think Burnside by the beach… a mecca of yuppies, multi-million dollar houses and gelato shops that drain your bank balance quicker than those ice-creams melt in the Queensland sun.

Keep thinking of those expensive shops backing on to the white sand and then head waaaaaay south. Then you’ll be close to where I grew up.

My grandfather Mac had owned a shack at Mooloolaba since the ‘40s: one of those white weather-board ones with the blue trim, filled to the hilt with asbestos and surrounded by big frangipani trees.

The only shops were a fish and chippy, a dilapidated surf club and a newsagent opposite the caravan park. We looked at our Noosa cousins as up-themselves wankers with more money than sense.

Not like us.

Back then Mooloolaba was the sleepy hamlet where I learnt to walk and bodysurf. I would catch the odd suicidal Bream at the river mouth.

I was sent to the beach at sunrise and only allowed back for lunch. Mac would snooze to the ABC radio news and I’d be sent out again, coming back with a ravenous appetite and skin that in the ’70s and ’80s had a ‘healthy glow’ but would now quite rightly be called out as carcinogenic sunburn.

No matter how hard she tried, Nan couldn’t keep the sand out of our beds. With no screens, every night was a fight to the death with the waves of mosquitos that would whine like bombers through the dark hours, with your only choice to either cop the bites or cover yourself with your sheet and swelter.

Without even a fan, when the heat was too much, we’d end up sleeping on the kitchen floor.

Mooloolaba’s days as a sleepy hamlet have long gone. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Despite the innocence of youth, I still understood back then it was a pretty special place and we were incredibly lucky to be able to pack everything into the Toyota Corona and head to our “exotic” home away from home.

And so, more than 25 years after Mac died and the shack was sold, I wanted to go back; I wanted to take my kids with me to see what family time had meant to me and their grandparents.

I know it’s not uncommon for people to want to do this: psychologists talk about the power of returning to important places of our childhood both to satisfy nostalgic longings as well as to recover memories.

They say returning to a sense of place is one of the most powerful ways memories can be retrieved, often unencumbered by other conflicts.

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They don’t need to be life-defining or traumatic and it can reignite lessons long forgotten, while also cutting through the romance of nostalgia and correcting a narrative directed by another’s recall.

On paper that all makes sense, but for me it was a mistake.

And a big one.

The family shack had been bulldozed and replaced by apartments and a lap pool, the whine of the mosquitos drowned out by the whine of massive air conditioners.

What used to be a sandy track through the Cotton trees and Casuarinas is now a boardwalk so wide it can accommodate eight lycra-clad walkers and at least two Mountain Buggy strollers.

Even a walk down to the spit, the site of a family legend involving my uncles swimming across the breakwater and breaking all records as they were chased by a shark, has now been concreted and safety-signed. The most remote stretch of sand is now filled from sunrise to dusk with the obligatory blue and white cabanas.

The fish and chippy has gone, replaced by five swanky artisan fishmongers. Never again will a kid know the sweet torture of waiting for a serve of minimum chips in sweltering heat and near 100 per cent humidity, the only respite coming from licking the watermelon juice off their arms, after the owner’s wife has cut them a free piece.

In that moment, it was easy to understand why some rail against “progress”, why people push back as others push on, bulldozing, building, changing, developing.

This place I grew up in has lost the romance and the magic of what it used to be. Instead of being a place where you could find yourself walking alone on the beach, the only solitude you get is trying to find a car park after dropping the kids off at the stairs.

Development is always a dance between those who know a space for what it is and what it means to them and others who can see what it might become.

It’s also a movement accommodating new people who want a piece of paradise, something we had been lucky enough to enjoy thanks to a quirk of fate and my grandfather discovering this place long before the hordes from Brisbane and the southern states found its magic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of thoughtful and considered development and sometimes I think we can drown in the NIMBY quagmire, but this felt like too much.

It felt like what was important to my grandparents and the memories of that time had been altered. Now I have seen this new reality, I can’t unsee it.

I guess that while I might have been ready for a swim, I wasn’t ready for that.

Ali Clarke presents the breakfast show on Mix 102.3. She is a regular columnist for InDaily.

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