On a Friday afternoon in late spring last year, a young woman tumbled 15 metres off a cliff top at north Coogee, in Sydney. Within minutes a rescue helicopter had arrived and paramedics were running down the snaking path to the rocks below. Police cars pulled up on the grassy picnic area while sightseers strolled over. Despite all efforts to revive her, the girl died. Initial reports said that the 20-year-old had scaled a safety fence to get a better view, but according to friends she simply slipped on grass in an unfenced area. "It's just a freak accident," her distraught father said. "She's a very careful, smart girl. She's not a risk-taker."
I know about the paramedics, the police and the sightseers because I was there, sitting under a tree with my nephew. I didn't join the commotion. Having lived at the headland for five years, I've grown used to the machine-gun whirr of rescue helicopters. To my mind the incident was tragic not because it was remarkable, but because it wasn't. Once every two weeks, the New South Wales Police Rescue Squad is called to a cliff accident in the Sydney area. Sometimes people have taken their own lives; less often, they have been pushed; many cases, however, are genuine accidents involving otherwise prudent people. In April 2004, a man died after falling from a cliff in Tamarama; in September 2005 and March 2006, two men were badly injured after falling from cliffs at Coogee; in April 2007, a teenager died after falling from a headland at Avoca; and in January 2008, a man suffered spinal injuries after falling off a cliff at Palm Beach.
There is a curious connection between such calamities and our relationship with landscape, in particular our pursuit of a picturesque view. When people fall, we're told they were looking at the scenery or trying to take a photo. We have all felt that irresistible urge drawing us to the edge to take a look. "Cliff accidents happen all the time," says Peter Yates, the chief pilot of the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service - because "people want to see wide-open spaces. They want an uninterrupted view of the water." But seeking a pleasing spectacle often carries with it a very real danger, to which we have grown blind. As we look out at magnificent oceans, mountains or bush, we don't think we might fall off the precipice and be killed.
In the past, people's appreciation of the picturesque in nature was linked with their attitude to safety. Three hundred years ago, the English taste for landscape favoured not rocky cliffs but pastoral scenes. In the 1720s, Captain Birt wrote of the Scottish Highlands as "monstrous excrescences ... rude and offensive to the sight", their "huge naked rocks" producing "the disagreeable appearance of a scabbed head". He preferred "a poetical mountain, smooth and easy of ascent, cloath'd with a verdant flowering turf". During the eighteenth century, the English idea of the aesthetically desirable place was redefined, according to the art historian Peter Bicknell, in terms of a Romantic sensibility. Whereas Birt recoiled from the affective power of the Highlands, it was the ineffable attraction of such landscapes that led Dr John Brown of Cambridge to write, in the 1750s, that "the full perfection of Keswick consists of three circumstances, Beauty, Horror and Immensity united."
This transition in taste, from the classically arranged pastoral picture to the Romantic landscape, was partly due to a newfound sense of safety. The historian TB Macaulay wrote in the mid-nineteenth century: "A traveller must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills. He is not likely to be thrown into ecstasies by the abruptness of a precipice from which he is in imminent danger of falling two thousand feet perpendicular." Jagged cliffs became worth seeing, and seeing out from, at the same time that people began to feel relatively secure in nature. Nowadays we may still go to the precipice to witness the sublime but, unlike the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tourists, hikers and landscape artists who were alert to potential dangers, perhaps the perils have grown invisible to our eyes.
In Sydney, the peculiar rock formations aid the deception. As Peter Yates explains: "When you're standing at the edge of a cliff, you think the cliff drops away in a straight line beneath you, but it doesn't. I fly along the coastline and I notice how the cliff faces jut out." The topography of Sydney has been shaped and defined by Hawkesbury sandstone, a rock full of vertical planes of weakness laid down around 200 million years ago. Most cliffs wear away fastest at the top, forming a gentle slope, but sandstone cliffs exposed to waves break apart on the vertical joint line in chunks from below. The lips of Sydney's cliffs are thinner than we think. A tourist was killed in Avalon in 2004 when, standing on what he thought was solid ground, the cliff top crumbled beneath him.
Local councils know the dangers, and stretches of the coastline are fenced, especially along reserves and places of public access; but councils won't always fence an area where there is a dedicated footpath and a significant buffer between the path and the cliff edge. Bright yellow signs dot the cliffs at Coogee: Beware. Unstable rock face. Stay inside fence. And in the fenced and unfenced areas there are diagrams of the same human figure, arms outstretched, falling from the crumbling lip: Danger. Do not go near the edge.
Despite councils' efforts, we are not deterred. In Coogee, a wooden fence trims the edge of the headland, with fresh railing at the spot where the girl died. On bright days I watch sensible-looking 30- and 40-year-olds slip through, or around, the white panelling. As they stand or sit and look out to the horizon, I doubt they feel like delinquents or daredevils. They're just looking at nature. Unfenced areas inspire even less caution, as they offer an unimpeded journey from neat suburbia to what feels like the edge of the world.
"One hopes people have common sense," a council spokesperson tells me. The problem is that the sensation we enjoy at the precipice is completely irrational. When I walk to the tip of the headland, it isn't just the vista of blue that beckons me but the feeling of the edge itself. We don't stand on the precipice just to watch the rolling force of the ocean or admire the gaping valley of gum trees. We feel pulled towards it. "It's the urge," Jeffery Deaver writes. "That strange desire to step off into space. No reason. No logic." It's the urge to look at and feel the landscape, but also to move into it and let it swallow you up.
In his memoir Hoi Polloi, Craig Sherborne describes the Rose Bay North flat where he lived as a child. It was there one morning that he saw the ball, the dog and the boy: how the ball bounced toward the edge of the cliff face, and the dog followed it over; and how, without pause, the boy yelled and sprinted over the edge after them. Ran straight off it. "His echoing voice rebounds once around the rock walls then the gully resumes its flops and gushes of ocean below." In that final moment, perhaps the visceral tug of salt and sky pulled at his young muscles and made him believe the Earth would cradle his flight.
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