Life (and death) on the edge

Life (and death) on the edge
Favorite photo-op stop in Tamarama on the Bondi-to-Coogee Coastal Walk —PHOTOS BY GISELLE GOLOY

SYDNEY—On the premise that the best way to explore a place is on foot, Sydney in Australia fares well on travel experts’ lists of most walkable cities in the world. Road quality, safety, convenience, and the wonders of nature are among their indices.  

There’s a range of walks to choose from—bushwalking, dog-friendly circuits, wilderness hikes, off-the-grid trails, city tours around world-famous sights. With a shoreline that stretches some 240 kilometers, dotted by about a hundred beaches, the harbor city’s best bet would be its foreshore and coastline walks, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the ocean and unlimited fresh breeze.

As though that were not enough, Sydneysiders show there’s a lot more to do by the water—watch a movie in an outdoor cinema, have a wedding, view centuries-old Aboriginal rock engravings, lift dumbbells or kettlebells in an outdoor gym, play lawn bowling, to name a few.

Among the dozen or so seaside courses, one best exemplifies this: the highly popular Bondi-to-Coogee Coastal Walk traversing 6 kilometers of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. With a difficulty level of easy to medium, a few steep sections and stone steps, it takes two to three hours to complete one way, depending on the number of times one stops to rest and take pictures.

World’s largest outdoor exhibit 

A section of “Sculpture by the Sea”

Two unique features set this walk apart.

Ongoing till Nov. 7 is the annual Sculpture by the Sea, the world’s largest outdoor exhibition mounted on spectacular headlands along a 2-km stretch of the walk through three beaches—Bronte, Tamarama, and Bondi.

Opened last Oct. 21 after a two-year pandemic hiatus, it features 100 works of Australian and international artists. It is free of charge.

One of this year’s works is that of Naja Utzon Popov of Copenhagen, granddaughter of Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House. She is the first recipient of the Friendship Society of Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand’s Danish Artist Award. Her work, Continuum 2021, is a series of handmade white porcelain bells hung from a cliff.

Another highlight of the exhibit is the set of sculptures by Ukrainian artists, which will raise funds for Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion of their homeland.

Sculpture by the Sea was established by David Handley, who drew inspiration from an outdoor sculpture park in Prague. Returning to Australia in 1996, he left his law career to pursue his vision. The first show was held in 1997, said to have been put together largely by volunteers who shared his interest in giving art more exposure.

“Benoit” by Bruno Catalano
“Spellbound by Shadow” by Peter Tilley

Handley originally planned to include paintings but could not guarantee that the works would survive changes in the weather. Over the years, some sculptures had been damaged by huge waves or vandals.

“Early Light” by Morgan Jones
“Global Warming” by Ukrainian artist Nikita Zigura

A similar seaside exhibition has since been established in Cottesloe Beach near Perth, Western Australia, and Aarhus in Denmark (the first Sculpture by the Sea outside Australia).

Graveyard by the sea

The other unique feature on the Bondi-to-Coogee Walk is permanent: the Waverly Cemetery.

Waverly Cemetery is located on the cliffs at Bronte

The graveyard by the sea is located on top of the cliffs at Bronte and is one of the oldest cemeteries in Sydney. The Waverly Municipal Council opened it in 1887 when “social attitudes towards death and burial had shifted … and society now desired picturesque, garden-like spaces…” according to its website. 

Notable Australians are among the 90,000 interred there, many of them literary figures such as poets Dorothea Mackellar and Henry Lawson (also considered Australia’s “greatest short story writer”).

A showcase of Victorian and Edwardian monuments, the cemetery has a rich history, which is kept alive through 90-minute walking tours conducted every Saturday morning by the Friends of Waverly Cemetery volunteers. Revenue from tickets goes to the upkeep and restoration of monuments.

The Friends of Waverly Cemetery is pushing to get it on the National Heritage List as a protected icon, like the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. 

Tourists walk through the seaside graveyard.

Especially for nonresidents, the Bondi-to-Coogee Walk would not be complete without a “detour” through the Waverly Cemetery. Gazing at the headstones and over at the crashing waves of the Tasman Sea below can be a uniquely moving experience. One imagines that the iconic scenery of life and death can summon the muse. 

How fitting that the inscriptions on the headstones of the two eminent poets are lines from their poems! From Mackellar: “I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea/ Her beauty and her terror—the wide brown land for me!”

Lawson is entombed in the same plot as his wife Bertha Marie Louise. The epitaph reads: “Love hangs about thy name like music around a shell. No heart can take of thee a tame farewell.”

There is another seaside graveyard on the other side of the globe, in Sète in France, and it did inspire poetry: Le Cimetière marin (The Graveyard by the Sea) by Paul Valéry. It is described as a meditation on death but ends with the narrator choosing life.

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