IIt’s a few hours from Goldfields, where I live, to Rye, where my boyfriend Frank lives, but also a few decades away. For a Brit like me, this Victorian coastal town is like wandering through the pages of Puberty Blues – and exactly how I imagined Australia, before moving here.
Most of the Mornington Peninsula (or Ninch, to locals) could do with a long facelift, but Rye – particularly the back beach area – is an enclave that has retained its wild, woolly roots. Traders who moved here in the 1990s for the surfing lifestyle are now sitting on properties worth over a million, but most aren’t moving – and neither are their children.
Serving the area there is a short retail strip, including a milk bar, bottle shop and surfboard shop. Dundas Street Milk Bar is an institution for its hot fries and gravy, but also for its resident one-legged seagull, Lefty. Inside, you can buy fishing bait (mostly for the benefit of co-owner Mark Watkins), Point Break merchandising, and surf wax. They sell Big M flavored milk, but they also got progressive with Soy Boy. On a whiteboard are printouts of the best surfing months, the data Watkins has been collecting for 20 years and which has caused much argument among customers.
“We all have an idea of when the surf is good, and I would have said February, but it’s far from the best,” Watkins says.
Great surf spots go by names like Gumboots, Snatches, Head Injuries and Spooks. Watkins says few are secret these days, but some are too fickle to be mastered by non-locals. And even he is warned if he strays from his usual territory.
“There’s a couple I go to, west of my house, and in a joking way, I’m going to get, ‘What are you doing here? Do you have your visa? he says. “If you’re a foreigner, good luck.”
The is intense localism here – diehards sport ‘3941’ postcode tattoos, others ‘Rye or Die’. You might also spot the odd ‘Fuck you, touros’ sign on the beach tracks, but the localism isn’t limited to Rye. Frank points out that he had a similar greeting written in surfboard wax on his car window once in Portland. There are apparently so few coastal towns whose barefoot culture has not been diluted by gentrification, that those who live in these pockets can be protected.
“It’s not that easy to get to know people here,” admits Watkins. “I’ve seen people move in and then come back to Melbourne because basically if you don’t play golf or surf or fish you’re going to struggle.”
Watkins estimates that seven out of 10 homes on his road are vacation homes, but he finds new construction harmless. They are not volumetric constructions and they tend to be set back, concealed by the tea bushes. In addition, local trades are getting to work. While a recent Guardian article detailed huge rent hikes on the Mornington Peninsula, people I speak to here say their children are often moving back in, or crowding into open-door flatshares, or building at one end from their parents’ block.
For me, growing up in a boring satellite town of London, the goal was to leave home fast and never come back. It was the same for Frank, who grew up in Vermont, an eastern suburb of Melbourne. But here, children tend to come back boomerang.
Frank’s 20-year-old daughter Stella went to WA for two years and noticed some subtle differences upon her return.
“Every car on the road was a traditional battered car,” she says. “Now you park at the portage and there are $100,000 cars everywhere and wedding photo ops.”
I should explain “carry”. It’s a parking lot behind Rye Ocean Beach where locals often back out and cook snags. As Zepp Heyes, a 19-year-old pro skateboarder, told me, “It’s almost like our generation doesn’t have a phone. No one says, ‘We’re going to continue’ – everyone is having a blast. If anyone’s not in the parking lot, they’ll be at Dundas Street Milk Bar.
Zepp moved to Noosa a few months ago but has already been back to Rye twice; once for his father Drew’s legendary Ninch Fest, a music festival in its sixth year that has a distinctly non-corporate vibe. “It’s a reunion party, the sickest time,” Zepp says. “My girlfriend had never experienced anything like this and she absolutely rocked it.”
During the closures, Mornington Peninsula Shire Mayor Despi O’Connor called for the area to be annexed to metropolitan Melbourne, but the pandemic has barely affected socializing in Rye. With only one bar worth frequenting and the town too remote to bother, socializing instead focuses on house tours and beachside chats. And it tends to be intergenerational.
“It’s like we’re all the same age,” Zepp tells me. “Dad sends us a different song every week that he discovered. We’ll be like, ‘That’s sick!’ and send it back to him.
Her father adds: “We tend to put a lot of effort into our music, surfing and partying because that’s the lifestyle we’ve chosen rather than our career.”
Heyes Sr, a glazier, bought his block in 1998. The house is an ever-evolving construction of recycled windows, timber and mosaic panels, with a water treatment plant and an energy system solar.
“A lot of people are like-minded that way,” he says. “We will always go to demonstrations against the exploding of heads and so on. You are really aware of your local environment, and the wider environment as well.
For some, however, Rye has become all too common. Amy Hackett first stopped here to surf in 1980, aged 15, when the population was largely Italian, but moved to Phillip Island. Back then, she befriended the area’s legendary surfers and surfboard shapers – many of whom were immortalized on the Salt of the Peninsula podcast – and joined the Peninsula Board Riders at a when women’s surfing competitions were an afterthought.
“There weren’t a lot of women surfing because it wasn’t as accessible as it is now. It was raw,” she says. “In the water, I became famous for a drop-in because if I didn’t stake my spot, I’d be out the door.”
Every girl has a surfboard these days, and she’s noticed 80s and 90s fashion resurfacing. “It’s funny to see them adopting it as if they had invented it; I burst out laughing,” she says.
But the kids are fine. As Frank points out, with such a small pool of friendships and dating, etiquette is vital.
“Everybody’s partying here, but inside that looseness there’s order,” he says. “As soon as anyone crosses a line here, they get arrested by young and old.”
His 22-year-old son Luca is living at home at the moment, but he’s been working in the snow and in Byron Bay, and is soon off to Spain (all with pals from the Ninch), which Frank thinks is a good thing. “At least for a while,” he said, “because is a little [of an] island peninsula, and there is a vast world there.