A three hour drive through farmland ends on a peninsula, the southernmost tip of mainland Australia: Wilsons Promontory.
The Prom is a place you come back to. You can drive for thousands of kilometers in new directions, but it only takes two hundred heading south-east to reach sweeping beaches set against granite-faced mountains, coastal shrubland and marshes, heathland and woodland, tall eucalypts and bracken-dense rainforests – all nestled together on a raised peninsula about the size of Brooklyn.
You return to it because it’s easy: it’s close and it’s beautiful. The campground has a general store where you can buy ice cream and wombat pins and plastic wine glasses. The hikes are clearly marked, the paths well-trodden.
A thirty minute walk brings you to a vista overlooking Squeaky Beach; it’s another ten minutes down the cliff to learn that the sand really does squeak. The grains are all near-perfect, similarly-sized spheres of quartz – but why it should make a noise when walked upon is still just theory.
Sustaining awe is hard work.
A two hour hike along the coast takes you up the cliffs, over crests, and to the next stunning bay, after stunning beach, after stunning bay. It’s all beautiful – so beautiful, in fact, that admiring it becomes exhausting. You lose patience; you stop pausing; you keep walking.
Perhaps we are just out of practice. Admiration requires imagination. You must gaze out for so long that you see the earth for what it really is: a colossal rock. The most beautiful colossal rock humans may ever witness, and here we are, witnessing it.
But how many times in a row can I feel awe-struck and minuscule? I must keep walking.
We avoid boredom and imagination: we fall asleep watching television, we run with headphones, sit near the window on the tram to comfortably swipe and scroll.
Solitude has always been frightening. Bertrand Russell wrote in 1930 that “the opposite of boredom, in a word, is not pleasure, but excitement”:
As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom.
Walking in a dense forest, up a scraggy mountain, is easier than walking in the Prom. In the big forests that stretch across continental mountain ranges, we do not expect anything of the next kilometer, and we can become lost in the monotony. Everything we avoid percolates: our aging parents, old friends with whom we’ve lost touch, the fact that humans must endure time, that one partner will watch the other die. Then we reach the summit, we come to conclusions, and we take them back the same path down the mountain.
But in the Prom, we must move onto the next bay. The next one, after all, might be more beautiful. We can compare them all in the photographs afterwards.