Twigs erupt, shattering the stillness. A man runs past.
My housemate Henry and I are off the beaten track at Middle Head, Mosman. Like water dragons lazing in the sun, we are perched on a rock overlooking the harbour. Cold beer settles in our stomach, vying for space with the shrooms we ate an hour ago. The drugs have already enhanced the landscape as if an artist has restored an old painting. Under a cloudless sky, the yellow flowers of wattle shrubs drip onto their green background. The steady ripple of waves on water turns the view into an Impressionist painting.
We bushwhacked to find this spot — naively believing that we would not be disturbed.
Intrigued, we abandon our esky and scattered belongings and follow this man into what resembles the Garden of Eden. We pass through a natural archway. Branches twist and twirl above our heads in perpetual dance. Entering a clearing, we startle a shirtless man on a rock. He runs off but pauses metres away, watching us as we stand on his rock. Sticks crack in the undergrowth near us and the footfalls are too heavy and too destructive to be a bird or an animal. Our conversation flows and billows in the wind. But I see Henry looking over my shoulder. As I turn, the shirtless man steps back into the bushes, disappearing from view, his eyes flickering like candles in darkness.
I sense we are intruding. Maybe it’s the near empty beer bottle in my hand. Maybe it’s our raucous laughter and animated conversation. But the shrooms override any sense of danger, making the experience more palatable and encouraging us to go further into the bush. We push on.
A man falls out of a bush, almost stumbling into Henry. He averts our gaze, says nothing and takes off. We turn a corner to an old white naked man lazing on a beach towel, champagne bottle in hand. Let’s call him Steve.
‘Cheers boys’, Steve chuckles, gesturing towards my beer bottle. He makes small talk as if he’s waiting on a coffee order and not butt naked in the bush with it all hanging out. I wonder first if he is homeless, then if he, too, is high. “The beach is that way,” he says, pointing forcefully.
It clicks that we must be approaching Cobblers Beach — a designated nudist beach at Middle Head.
When we start heading in another direction, he tells us we are going the wrong way. But we are more interested in escaping the labyrinth.
The bush bristles like the coat of an echidna. Shadows flicker. On the outskirts of my vision, lone men lurk. Some of them hurry past, saying nothing. It’s like there’s an unspoken code — some form of etiquette we are oblivious to.
I yearn for the bottle of rosé in our esky. (Later we find it safe next to a couple of crusty middle-aged hippies smoking a joint).
We can’t retrace our steps now. That would involve passing by Steve again. As much as I have a burning passion to know what the fuck Steve does for a 9 to 5, I can’t bring myself to exchange pleasantries again.
As we approach a rocky outcrop, the bush feels foreign. I don’t recognise the plants. They feel like introduced species, as if I have been transplanted into a Medieval fairytale. The bush is overgrown, deformed, frayed at the edges, consuming us. We lean into liminality. Pink and purple flowers sprout left, right and centre. The roots of a towering tree — a wooden cave — throw us into a pool of cool shade. Our surroundings are both nightmarish and beautiful as if the film Annihilation was a documentary and we’re edging closer to the lighthouse in the Shimmer. I half expect to turn the corner and find a witch casting spells. Instead, there are a couple of stones embedded in the ground like a naturally-made throne overlooking the harbour. I try not to think about what people might have done on this seat.
We have reached a dead-end. There is no choice now. We turn around. A man — let’s call this one Damo — sits on a rock, his elbow on his knee and his chin resting on his palm. We walk towards Damo and it’s at this moment that Steve strides towards the three of us, except, this time, Steve is jerking himself off while rubbing himself in lotion. Damo doesn’t flinch, even when Steve’s erect penis is centimetres from his face. In fact, he looks utterly serene, like he has accepted his fate. Perhaps in his head he’s sipping a banana daiquiri on a sunbed in Hawaii rather than in the bush with Steve about to ejaculate on him.
“It’s you boys again! Lost still huh,” Steve chuckles gleefully. There is a direct correlation between the intensity of our confusion and the intensity of his self-flagellation.
I don’t know where to look — anywhere but at his lubricated sausage.
Steve tells us he obtained the lotion at Chemist Warehouse and offers us some but I can’t imagine Steve actually wearing clothes and conversing with another human being without pleasuring himself. Maybe it’s just me.
At last, Damo emerges from his slumber, taking pity on us. “Don’t mind him,” he mutters, nodding his head towards Steve. Clearly, Steve is simply part of the woodwork here.
Damo begins to guide us out of this maze like a pilot bringing a ship into dock through a coral-reef filled lagoon.
Afterwards, sifting through some old newspaper articles and internet forums and posting on some Facebook groups, I realise that we accidentally stumbled across a queer beat — probably not the most healthy one — and there is a word for men who lurk near nudist beaches — ‘meerkats’.
When I converse with Marcel Smit, secretary for the Australian Naturist Federation, over email, he writes that lurkers like Steve “do not understand the true purity of naturism”. In his eyes, toxic behaviours in the liminal zones between clothed and non-clothed areas do not represent naturism (the term preferred over ‘nudism’). He agrees that ‘meerkats’ are a persistent issue at Australian nudist beaches, framing police as an effective albeit perhaps imperfect tool. “This can be a difficult task for the authorities due to the common misconception that nudity is something sexual. It may at times be a bit unclear for some to understand the difference between an undressed naturist and an inappropriate naked person at a nudist beach”, Smit states.
I am reassured. Smit’s words confirm that Steve’s behaviour transcends the boundaries of naturism, self-expression and body positivity, swerving instead into a perverse realm of exhibitionism and predation. But I worry about the capacity of naturist communities to self-police.
* * *
Henry spins around, red-faced, mouth wide open. Damo shows us another route out of this labyrinth. Later Henry describes to me what he saw — in short, a bit too much nudity.
At last we emerge from the shrubbery. A group of Mosman women in their activewear strut past, oblivious to the chaos in the bushes next to them. Before Damo leaves us, he suggests we check out Middle Head’s second nudist beach, Obelisk Beach, as if we haven’t already seen enough. In my chain necklace, Nike shorts and Tailwinds (Jailwinds), I assume I must come across as a budding naturist. I politely decline the invitation.