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  • On the Edge
  • Ashley Hay (bio)

Cremnophilous genes run in my family: we seek out cliffs and edges, not only their geography—the drop they make, the space they open onto, the water sometimes surging at their base—but also the sweep of view from their precipice. When my parents were first married, they dreamt of building a house cantilevered out from a sea cliff over the rocks and ocean below, but they could never buy the block of land. Now, they live on their piece of coast—hanging to the side of a mountain—and I live on mine, as close as I can get to the shore.

It's an odd affinity: we're not much for either the adventures or the anxieties that usually leave people on edge, or on the edge. Nor are we great flag wavers, though this latent cremnophily may be something not just of our particular places but also of this nation—a community created on an edge, and still gripped by so many things unknown, unfinished, unpredictable.

When I was growing up, edge-dwelling was all about the sea. The water lapped in and out, its colour changing slightly with ebb or flow while swimmers and surfers pushed out beyond its movement—beyond the land just a little—and into the cool clarity of different shades of water again. But it wasn't the horizon, or what might be beyond, that was compelling. It was that narrow line where wet and dry collided.

I'm sixteen or so, and a friend celebrating the freedom of a driving licence takes me in his tiny grey-green Renault around the curving road that hugs the cliffs north of Wollongong and the beaches where we're growing up. The land chokes here, the escarpment butting into the coast and cutting off its plain at the peak above Stanwell Park. You can stand on the first cliff, made famous by kite fliers and hang gliders, and see the country's coast running away into haziness down to the south.

The drive feels precarious, a narrow track staked with signs about falling rocks, a wire fence making the flimsiest gesture of stopping them, the juddering drop to the ocean below. We're clutching the arm rests. But sweeping the car around the last of the curves, my friend says suddenly, "We're driving along the edge of Australia." [End Page 61] [Begin Page 63]

I've never thought about it like that before. We're tracing that thin black line on the map that marks the land from the water. We're driving on the edge: the blue sea on our right, and the whole of the continent pushing away from us on our left. And now the drive is not precarious but exhilarating.

I'm maybe twenty, and someone charters a ferry to sail the seventy-odd kilometres from Sydney and down the coast past Stanwell Park and Wollongong to Port Kembla. Here is the edge seen from further out: the way the road clings so tightly to that one fragile ledge carved into the cliffs; the way the escarpment rises so tall and sheer out of the narrowing coastal plain, our seemingly few houses pressed into it and the pool at our beach built out into the water, beyond the edge. It looks definite but diminished—the smallness of where we live shocking against the scale of its backdrop—and impenetrable. How had people conceived of scaling that mountain, of picking their way around those sheer drops?

I'm twenty-three or twenty-four and flying south along that same waterline from Sydney and further on to Moruya. The tiny plane follows the land's edge just far enough offshore to allow us to distinguish the depths and contours of the coast, fanning out from that pinched point at Stanwell Tops across a wide plain that takes in Wollongong, its suburbs, and the blue body of Lake Illawarra. Now I see the smallness of the coastal settlement contrasting not only with the backdrop of a 400-metre-high mountain, but also with the enormous vastness of the rest of the country, unrolling...