I must have been in my early 30’s when I first heard about the ceremonies women create to mark their assent to the realm of the 5-0.
These were tales I listened to while waiting my turn at the hairdresser’s washbasin. They were snippets of juicy conversations between girlfriends that grabbed my ear while I was reading the paper at a cafe.
The one thing these ‘Turning 50’ stories all seemed to have in common was the lavish detail of the celebrations. Apparently, the more extravagant and outlandish the better. Or so the story went.
The tales being shared seemed like trophies collected at a hall of fame for the exclusive members of Club 50.
I found myself listening to chatter that lingered on the finer points of lazy afternoons indulging in Tuscan delights. There were romantic accounts of lounging on deck chairs, soaking up Madagascan sunsets under wide brimmed floppy hats, shaded behind enormous dark sunglasses.
Or walking dusty Roman streets and sailing ocean-going yachts in Saint Moritz. Apparently, it was important to make a big splashy statement when stepping over the threshold into the second arc of your personal history.
Over the last year as the big event loomed ominously on my own calendar, I panicked. Listening to all these stories gave me the impression that I was supposed to go travelling to some glamourous location, spritzing on the divine waters of Lourdes, travelling the canals of Venice on a gondola, sailing off the coast of Majorca – or preferably all of these on the one big expensive trip.
I was even wondering if it were possible to become be a fully-fledged 50-something if you didn’t engage in an intercontinental rite of passage.
Maybe I could just let the moment slide by and no one would notice. I have done most things the wrong way around anyway – why not keep going? My brood has long left the nest and yet I find myself newly married. I hardly feel ready to be 30, let alone 40, and I think we can all stop counting there.
But then a card arrived in the mail. It was a formal welcome into the 5-0 club from my Federal Member. And a note appeared on my insurance when I logged in to renew – I have been granted a discount for turning 50! It seemed as if there was no hope of avoiding the reality – everyone else obviously knew about it.
I had planned that at this time in my life I would embark upon a complete departure from the shores of the southern antipodes and become lost in a culture of another kind – a permanent wandering of the Asian subcontinent perhaps, with occasional forays into Prague or Budapest, leading an ex-colonial existence in some alternative far flung realm.
Instead I got hitched and more connected than ever to Australia, and began to wonder if I really wanted to go travelling overseas at all, when this country pretty much has it all.
Of course this left me with the question of how to bang the big 5-0 gong, if I was not to follow the well trekked path of the travel trophies. If there were to be no camel rides to the sunset in Mongolia, no lazing with the penguins of Patagonia, then what? A quiet traipsing from one end of the life spectrum to the other without a whisper of celebration? Not even a hippy trip to Bali?
A celebration closer to home
After much deliberation, I made the decision to divert the funds allocated to securing my passport into the purchase of a kayak, so I could explore the lakes and beaches of the southern seas on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales – something I have often dreamt of, and never gotten around to doing.
To paddle solo, the correct kayak would need to be lightweight, ocean sturdy, and small enough to be maneuvered alone. I surveyed my Facebook contacts, and was given a range of advice, including what to take, styles to avoid, and most importantly, I was advised to practice falling into the drink and getting back on the yak as early into the adventure as possible.
We hired a couple of kayaks from a local beach store, and had a bit of a paddle. Things went well until I tried to get my water-shy rescue dog involved, and we both quickly ended up swimming beside the boat, rather than rowing on top.
I searched second hand sites, wishing to avoid contributing more junk to the environment. I found the ideal boat. The design was very long, with wheel mounted racks to assist moving from the car to the water. All advisers felt a boat that fits in the car would provide a lot more fun.
By now, the big 50th bang had been and gone and nearly a month had slipped by. It was high summer and all the boat shops were out of stock. My energy began to wane. I started disappearing into my thoughts, my doubts, my self-imposed limitations.
I was beginning to do a fair bit of nothing – and there was a voice singing to me that said this is what you are supposed to do – slow down, do less, it’s good to do nothing. Perhaps I would not get a boat after all.
On a whim we called into a camping supply store with kayaks in stock, and on sale. The weight of the design seemed great – but the length seemed the stumbling block.
The blokes disappeared in a huddle of nods and shakes. “Yeah, it’s going to have to go on the roof”, they declared.
Neither of us are skilled at tying to roof racks. I can’t even reach. Friends suggested various devices that assist with the upward haul – some that looked like they would crack your neck in the process. With a square shaped vehicle such as mine, the slide factor isn’t much of an option.
The salesmen brought out the selected ropes and tied the kayak to the roof, checking to make sure I was paying attention.
“Yep,” I said, feebly, although I wasn’t paying attention at all. When we drove to the beach the next day, I discovered I did not have the thumb strength to remove the straps – and nor did the camping store guy, who had dislocated his own thumb showing me how to strap it on.
After much haranguing the straps were removed and my partner stepped out of the way to allow me to attempt the first dismount. A few slips and down she came, quickly dragged through the bushes to the shoreline with my inquisitive pound puppy in close tow. Into the water, paddles down, and The Lizzi Mark I was away on her maiden voyage.
Around the blue point of Bermagui Bay, down under the bridge, staying upright in the wind, steering away from the oysters on the rocks and paddling back to the shore. Ships a go.
Tying back on to the car was slightly problematic – again the straps were contraptions I could not master- lovely sweet little ratchet straps with gentle blue matching buckles beneath a soft film of plastic.
Not like the big mumma ratchets I had used in the past to slip an inflatable kayak onto the roof for the kids. It wasn’t a complete fail, I got the dog back into the car and the straps fastened securely – and we safely travelled home.
The ship-of-roof-rack-doom did in fact fit into the car at an angle. So off I went down to the beach for the second launch. The waves were big and the crowds were full, so I returned home, ashamedly, without attempting adventure.
My partner suggested I go find another spot, so I went out again. I took a side road at the bridge of Corunna Lake and toddled along the dirt road, narrowly avoiding mulching a thin black snake.
I found a level place to dismount, pulled the kayak out of the car, and nosed her into the water. Life jacket on, keys secured – email sent to my partner as a safety message, letting him know where I launched.
Then I read the cautionary notice printed on the boat – WARNING: never go boating alone. Here goes all or nothing then. I slid the nose in over the mud, walked her out a few paces and we were away.
Am I really doing this?
That’s when the fear arose – I’m actually on the lake, I’m actually doing it. I have spent so many summers inland where the freshwater has no submerged sharks or sting rays or tentacles of octopi lurking in the depths.
Here by the sea black beds of waving reeds slid by beneath my hull, reminding me of my daughter’s warning that the bull sharks get into the estuaries when they’re small, growing too big to get out – gulp. Don’t fall in, never fall in.
Now the silence comes, and the quietening of the mind, the solitude. This great body of water, jumping and twitching, it truly is alive! The falcons soaring on the updraft, the dark patches in the shadow of the trees as the paddles slice the watery mirror.
I’m careful to avoid bottoming out on the tidal flats, not wanting to leave the boat for fear of plunging into the sand and dislodging what lies beneath.
The quiet descends on me like a shroud of sleeping clouds. I paddle over acres and acres of shallow gurgling reeds, heading towards small eddies and jumping fish. I seek out the darker coloured streams of the current, where the fathoms drop away and the paddling is smooth and long.
The water seeping into the boat from the blades refreshes me as I see that a pair of Speedos with a long sleeve shirt will do little to protect long white plumes of leg, lavishly exposed to the sun.
Two black swans take flight up ahead in tandem. A submerged log harbours two long necked egrets who wait until I’m within cooee to raise their wings and swoop swoop swoop into the sky, crossing the crescent moon as she arks up over the beach.
The flathead and trevally scurry beneath me as I paddle closer to the eastern extreme of the lake, and hear the roar of the surf hollering on the other side of the bar.
The lone fisherman would rather me not paddle into the deep current before him, but it’s the only choice I’ve got without getting moored on a shallow bed of reeds, where burrowing water snakes might catch me should I sink my foot into the softness before the shore.
I cast my eye around for a better place to launch next time, as I row back to where I began, land my kayak smoothly on the banks and return home, transformed.
The true voyage of discovery
My pond-less-paddled adventure of turning 50 is complete, although the full extent of the journey has barely begun.
It’s certainly an experience I can return to over and over as I steer my own version of a gondola crossing unchartered seas, with even more time to do so now that I have shelved the cost of the postcard-perfect international romp.
I’m home and garaged, glass in hand, with my own version of the rite of passage into the next 50 years of perpetual escapade surging through my veins, enticing me to awaken again and head back into the sea.
I look back to the celebratory tales I have heard, and feel content that the inner journey is always the true voyage of discovery, and always preferable to the path chosen by others.
Whichever way you decide to go, make a firm decision to paddle your own way.
About the author: Elizabeth Walton is a freelance writer, musician, photographer and educator. Elizabeth has contributed regular feature stories and photographs to The Australian, Huffpost, Penguin Books, The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Ozarts magazine, Reuters, Timber and Steel as well as newspapers and magazines in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. Her music has featured on ABC radio and her live performances have been heard at many Australian music and arts festivals. Her photojournalistic book on the revival of Gulgong Festival is available by contacting the author via her Facebook page here.