The wonder, the horror – Reflections of a tragedy on Australia’s Sapphire Coast

Cold sand under your feet, first soft, then hard and wet like pavement before wading in to the foam. When the icy line creeps up to your stomach, you dive all in under the next wave. The cold burns, but you feel alive. You push on through the seaweed and out past the breakers. You check the rocks to your right to keep a safe bearing on them as you ease out to the wharf, the last of its kind on the east coast. You get in to a rhythm and the cold gives way to a general sense of well-being. The bubbles you breathe out crawl up around your ears and the rippled sandy bottom recedes away from you as it goes deeper and deeper, but always clear and in focus. The red cliffs guide you along with every breath as the Tailor and Bream school beneath you.

You make it out to the wharf and have a breather, take off your goggles, look around and suck it all in. Paradise, the Sapphire Coast of pristine waters untouched by tourism. Six hours from Sydney and seven from Melbourne, the hoards just don’t make it here. The fishermen on the wharf ignore you as you tread water beneath them and they cast their lines around you from up on high. Beneath you rays loom about between the pylons, ominous but harmless.

The cold seeps back in. You don your goggles and make your way back to shore, finding your rhythm again soon enough. Something catches your eye, a splash and a dark flash. Before the panic can set in you realise that it’s just another swimmer, a pack of them, old and graceful, as they slip on by you. I wonder if I ever passed Chris Armstrong on those few mornings I swam to the wharf and back. This was her morning ritual, so there is a chance we shared those same waters on one of those life affirming early morning swims. I proposed to my wife and married her looking over that same sea.

Why does proximity to these tragedies affect us so much more? Is it empathy for a fellow human being and ocean swimmer, or a selfish ‘It could’ve been me’? Is it both? It could be that this happened in the most special place I know — a place of peace, tranquility and the fondest of memories. Wild, untouched, timeless. It feels like it has always been here.

Yet, there lies the beauty and nature of our country. It’s high blue sky, the sea smashing against golden cliffs that hold fast with dense dusty bush and a red interior. Our country is full of a wonder that can turn to horror with no fault of your own other than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re aware of it, but only because tragedies like this remind us of it.

Rest in peace Christine Armstrong.

Matt Kendall