Beaches in Australia are central to our culture. They’re as much a part of our way of life as going to the footy, firing up the barbie, or getting a lift to the pub in the pouch of a kangaroo (of course that happens here!).
Because going to the beach embraces so much of Australian life, when you behave differently to the locals, you really stand out. Here are some useful tips to help blend in beachside.
What you’ll need (and what you won’t)
You can go with as little as a towel if you like. And your bikini/swimming shorts. These are called swimmers in New South Wales and bathers in Victoria.
Or you can take a great big beach bag, a huge beach umbrella, a tent, the works.
But essentials include:
- Thongs – laugh all you want – it’s not what you think it is. This is what we call flip-flops, but we’re not about to start calling them that. Or ‘jandles’ like New Zealanders do.
- Sunscreen – waterproof if you like. The Australian sun is very harsh and we recommend wearing SPF 50+ in Australia. In fact you can rarely buy sunscreen under SPF 30+ as we take the sun very seriously.
- Sunglasses – aka sunnies.
- A hat – sunscreen will only protect you for a certain time. You’ll need some shade so cover yourself with a baseball cap at the very least.
- Beach towel – this needs to be big enough to lay down on.
- A bottle of water – it’s hot here and dehydration’s not a lot of fun. And if you go in the ocean, it’s nice to get rid of that salty dry mouth you end up with.
- Something to change into – this doesn’t have to be a ball gown or a tux. A sarong is perfect for the ladies, and gents, a t-shirt or a singlet top is perfect.
- Some bars and cafés along some beachfronts don’t like semi-nude patrons. It’s also good to have something to slip on if you’re getting too much sun.
- A good book.
You won’t need:
- Lilos and floatation devices at surf beaches. They’re very hard to get out past the breakers and when you do, there’s a chance you’ll just float off. Save them for the bays and harbour beaches.
- Jewellery & big earrings – Australian beaches are really low-key – and we’ve got a few friends who’ve lost their wedding rings in the surf, so be careful!
- Big music systems – a little speaker if you’ve got some good tunes is okay, but the sound of the ocean’s much better.
- Ball games are ok – but not on busy city beaches.
Setting yourself up
When you get to the beach, case the joint first before you dash for the sand. If it’s busy, try and spot a nice empty bit of sand to set up on. In Australia, all our beaches are public land. In other countries, private beaches mean limited access to certain points of the shoreline. Not so here. You can go anywhere you jolly well please!
When you see a spot, roll out your towel and anchor it down with your stuff. A shoe on the corners of the windy side will reduce towel flappage. If you’ve got enough things to put on each corner, even better.
You’re things should be safe when you go for a swim. Obviously don’t take anything too valuable or your life savings, as thefts do occur. But 99 times out of 100, you’ll be fine.
We always try and pick a spot near a landmark. A colourful beach umbrella, an igloo tent, the lifeguard tower. This helps us find our stuff again when we come in from a swim.
Food and drink
There’s nothing like a beach picnic. In fact it’s one of the rare occasions I’ll succumb to eating off the floor like a dog (here are our thoughts on picnics btw). It’s nice even to have a little pot of fruit you can munch on while you’re drying off after a dip.
Different beaches have different facilities. Some, like the city beaches in Sydney, have cafés, bars, restaurants and shops right off the beach. This means you don’t need to bring anything more than your cash card.
Lots of Australian beaches have public barbeques you can use. Bring your steaks, bangers, prawns, veggie kebabs and sliced haloumi and cook up a storm. Some of these barbies are free to use. Others you’ll need to feed with 20¢ coins.
If you’re going to use the barbeques, remember to bring stuff to clean with. It’s very bad manners to leave a public barbeque dirty. Some paper towels and those alcohol wipes should do the trick. Oh, and you’ll probably need a little pot of cooking oil too.
Australian beaches are all alcohol-free zones, so if you bring a six pack to the beach, be prepared for the fun police to come and tell you to either chuck it or move on. Unless it’s a really busy day like Australia Day or New Year’s Eve, you should be okay though.
The beach is a place for people to relax and chat. However, noise carries across the sand. If you’re dishing dirt on someone, keep your voice down. You never know who might be listening!
Some people like to bring radios or docking stations to play music on the beach. Great idea! But if it’s busy, watch the volume or my alter ego Angry Bastard might pay you a little visit!
Surfing and surf culture
If Australia’s famous for anything, it’s her surf culture. We’ve produced some of the greatest world class surfers in history, and the list of surf brands filling shops internationally is longer than 8 Mile Beach.
If you’re in the Gold Coast, make sure you head to the Surf World surfing museum. It’s a great little museum dedicated to educating people about the history of surfing. Exhibitions like the historic progress of surfboards and the sport, memorabilia donated by surf legends and some incredible surf photography are highlights of this interesting Gold Coast gem.
Entry is $10 for adults, $5 for kids and $20 for families. All proceeds go towards keeping the museum open – it’s the only museum in Australia that’s run completely by volunteers.
Swim between the red and yellow flags. Every patrolled beach in Australia – that means beaches with surf lifesavers manning the beach – employs the flag policy. The red and yellow flags you see at the water’s edge tell you where is safe to swim and the zone the lifeguards are patrolling.
If you swim outside the flags, you’re open to a number of unpleasant risks. Strong rips, sandbanks, rocks and – worst of all – surfers. If a surfer doesn’t see you and runs you over, the fin on their board can cut you open and their board is hard enough to knock you out cold.
Swimming between the flags means there are no surfers and that you’re in the lifeguards’ field of vision.
If there are no flags, either the beach is not patrolled so you’re swimming at your own risk, it’s too late in the day and the patrol has gone home or conditions are too dangerous. If the currents are too strong, there should be signs saying so. Do not swim if you see these signs.
There are two types of ‘lifies’. Lifeguards are paid by local councils to patrol their beach (these are the guys from TV’s Bondi Rescue fame) and undergo regular training and accreditation.
Surf lifesavers are volunteers, and are members of surf lifesaving clubs. It’s not easy to tell the difference between the two at first glance, and it shouldn’t worry you either way. Both types are there to help.
They have a number of other roles apart from saving drowning swimmers. They’re also there to advise about swimming conditions (water temperature, rips, tide times etc) and to provide first aid, including treatment for jellyfish stings, and security. If you think something’s been stolen or you see someone behaving dangerously or suspiciously, go and talk to one the people in the red and yellow.
Rips and dealing with waves
Rips are dangerous currents that can pull you way out of your depth and carry you out to sea. After waves have washed up to the beach, the water drains back out to sea through channels. These channels cause a lot of water to move very quickly away from the beach. This is a rip.
If you find yourself being pulled out to sea in a rip, don’t panic. Don’t try and swim directly back to shore, you’ll never make it.
You have two choices:
- either relax, let the current carry you until the rip dissipates then swim back to land
- or swim parallel to the beach across the rip and then make your way back to solid ground.
If you find yourself in a rip or in trouble in the water, hold one hand up in the air. This is the signal for the lifies to come and help. Splashing around won’t get their attention as quickly.
Dealing with big waves
There are a lot of big surf beaches in Australia. For a lot of visitors, it’s very confronting to have to deal with these giant waves for the first time. Getting hit by a wall of water is not a lot of fun, especially if it rolls you over and drags you along the sand.
When you see a big wave coming, you have three choices: over, with or under.
- If you think the wave is small enough, you can dive over it. Not the best option because, if you misjudge it, you’ll end up getting smashed.
- If you time it right, you can sprint swim towards the shore, catch the wave and body surf for quite a way! This is awesome, but takes a bit of practice.
- Diving through the wave or ducking under it is your best option. Make a reasonably shallow dive into the middle of the wave and lie horizontal in the water until you feel the wave pass over your feet, then bob up to the surface. Easy.
Alternatively, pinch your nose and duck down under the breaker to avoid getting rolled. Make sure you duck deep enough though or the wave will grab you by the head and take you for a ride!
There are some unpleasant things in the ocean you should be wary of:
- Be careful of submerged rocks. Swimming between the flags will keep you safe from them.
- There are many types of sharks in Australian waters. Very few are a danger to humans. Shark attacks are rare and usually happen between dusk and dawn when light is low. Some beaches here have shark nets and spotter helicopters.
- Sandbanks form with strong currents, which can also mean rips. Avoid standing on or swimming near sandbanks. They shift and move very quickly, and rips can break them up and carry you off.
- Stingers (or jellyfish) are quite common along the Australian coast. In the tropics of Queensland, there are some horrible types of jellyfish that can cause excruciating pain and death such as the box jellyfish and the irukandji jellyfish (pronounced irra-kan-gee). These are either very rare or non-existent in cooler southern waters.
However, you’ll find bluebottle jellies everywhere around Australia. They float on the surface of the sea and drift with the wind and tide. They’re actually a colony of creatures attached to a weird blue air sack and their stingers trail out beneath them into the water.
Bluebottle stings are pretty painful and will leave long, raised red marks on your skin. If you do get stung, go and see a lifeguard and they’ll give you some stingaway which nullifies the pain. Alternatively, wash the area in warm water or white vinegar. Lots of unpatrolled beaches have a stinger kit of vinegar by the paths leading to the beach.
Image by MicRo-Photography on Flickr.
When it’s time to go, make sure you take everything with you. The beaches are public so leave your part of the beach the same way you left it. Please don’t leave cigarette butts in the sand. They’re gross and can harm sea life if they get washed into the ocean.
If the beach is busy, don’t shake your towel off too hard or you’ll cover people in sand. Pick your towel up, fold it sandy side in then give it a couple of careful shakes.
The majority of Australian beaches will have either a shower or foot tap (or both) to rinse off any sand and salt. Feel free to use them!
Wearing flip-flops (we call ‘em thongs!)
In Australia, we love wearing thongs (stop laughing!) We wear them everywhere – the beach included.
Wearing them in the sand is not so popular though. Reason being, as you walk, you flick sand up behind you all up the backs of your legs and also all over the people you’re walking past. Very annoying.
Don’t wear sneakers to the beach. My brother moved to Queensland a few years ago. I think he still wears socks and trainers to the beach. He stands out like a sore thumb!
The most important thing to remember when you’re at an Australian beach is to have fun! We’re blessed with some of the most incredible beaches in the world and we’re proud to be able to share them with each other!
What are your top tips and observations for blending in with the locals on Australian beaches?