Natasha Cica Where have all the beach shacks gone?

But this particular beach house turned out to be a better-groomed beast. Its ocean views to die for were accessorised by polished floorboards, fruits-of- the-sea themed interior decor and a state-of-the-art entertainment system. There was a dishwasher in the kitchen and downlights in the shining white bathroom. There was a real estate agent to manage rentals across high, low and shoulder seasons, an accountant to calibrate negatively geared maintenance, and a paid cleaning lady to sweep up everyone’s sand. Inside this beach house, everyone seemed strangely inert.

AS THE Christmas break rolled into summer holidays proper a few years ago, young children of friends started chattering excitedly about heading for their newly purchased beach house.

Those two loaded words from the mouths of babes proved to be spot on. The property in question wasn’t a shack, as I understood from my own childhood summers of the 1970s. Shack life back then was dagdom, a relaxed state of being that went way beyond mismatched old curtains and a scatter of thongs on worn linoleum. And shack time was dreamily detached from the way we lived back in town.

Down at the shacks — and there were many over the years, shared around between friends and extended family, or rented from strangers for next to nothing — the water came from tanks and the toilet rarely flushed. You bathed in the sea, you fished off jetties, you read books or comics, you played cards and scrabble and cricket. You threw away your watch and you barbecued without gas.

But this particular beach house turned out to be a better-groomed beast. Its ocean views to die for were accessorised by polished floorboards, fruits-of- the-sea themed interior decor and a state-of-the-art entertainment system. There was a dishwasher in the kitchen and downlights in the shining white bathroom. There was a real estate agent to manage rentals across high, low and shoulder seasons, an accountant to calibrate negatively geared maintenance, and a paid cleaning lady to sweep up everyone’s sand. Inside this beach house, everyone seemed strangely inert.

More strangely, they seemed to spend most of their time stuck inside it, somehow blocked off from the beckoning surf and adjacent bushland that had been key selling features of this rapidly capitalising asset.

If you go down to that beach today, you’re in for an even bigger surprise.

In the few intervening years, Australia’s beachside summer vernacular has swung even further away from the accents of my faded childhood. Today my friends’ incredibly and uncomfortably swank (to me) beach house is starting to look modest (to most). More scrub is freshly cleared and the cliffs are alive with cul-de-sacs. The salty air splits with the screech of power drills and there’s a gluggy whiff of pouring concrete and smearing render. The desirable new seaside dwelling of Summer ’06-’07 bristles with glass balconies and swells with multiple indoor garages, so supersized that calling it a McShack doesn’t quite do its owners justice: try Sea Palace or Sand Castle.

It’s an under-appreciated fact that today’s logjammed summer highway winds metaphorically back to Hawks Nest on the NSW coast. For more than two decades from the 1970s, the site of John and Janette Howard’s summer sojourn was a room in an unpretentious Hawks Nest motel — from memory, with a view of the car park, not the ocean.

Those who sneered at this as proof positive that the PM is a beetroot and iceberg lettuce kind of bloke, lacking any taste for the finer things in life, should now see the irony that one of the hallmarks of his era has been fostering a climate that makes older-style beach holidays rarer than a hawk’s tooth. Including in Hawks Nest, which with accompanying hamlet Tea Gardens has been buffed and luxed beyond many locals’ recognition.

I spent last week in a coastal corner of Tasmania not yet colonised by sea-changers hellbent on capital and cultural development — I won’t disclose exactly where in case you’re tempted to subdivide — in a borrowed, run-down shack that’s the stuff of my childhood fantasy.

Its concessions to the 21st century are one solar-energy cell and a Swedish composting loo. No TV, no email, no mobile phone reception. Oysters the size of fists on the rocks, squid dangling on the end of hooks, kids playing all day on the beach and in the bush. Peace and quiet in the right mix with friendly neighbours, dogs and strangers. And including at least one self-described mainland refugee — from Tea Gardens, no less, with some pointed warnings about how fast paradise can turn into a parking lot while you’re focused on things such as school lunchboxes and interest rates.

It might be daggy, it might be ’70s, it might be Joni Mitchell, but we both wondered this aloud — does it really always have to go, that you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone?

Natasha Cica is director of management and communications consultancy Periwinkle Projects.

This article first ran in The Age, January 10.