There's something about the Australian summer - that endless loop of exaggerated hot days that melt into balmy nights. All it takes is a trigger - a sight, sound, smell - to press play on a rerun of summers past. For me, that trigger is the humble beach shack.
These archetypal, weather-worn, fibro shacks are commonplace throughout the country, made on the cheap and used as affordable holiday rentals. Arguably there is nothing special about their linoleum floors, shared bedrooms, sole showers, rickety furniture and large wraparound patios. Yet though unexceptional, these cheap, post-war constructions have become an Australian icon.
Our affection for these humdrum shacks has not been constant. They only came back into relevance in the last few decades after a proliferation of sparkly concrete mansions sprouted along the coastline. Today these have lost their allure: too new, too serious, too precious. Nothing compared with the careless comfort of an old, ramshackle shack, a symbol of the kind of childhood summer we've all had, full of family road trips, overstuffed burgers and mosquito bites. However, as with most memories, I'd rather relive the feeling than the actual experience. No one dreams about holidays featuring broken fly screens and precarious bunk beds. Instead, we want the Aussie shack life but with amped-up edges - the same age-softened details with added espresso machines, soft linens, surround sound and WiFi.
The Little Black Shack is an old fishermen's hut overlooking the Pacific Ocean, wrapped by the waves and camouflaged into a cliff face on Great Mackerel Beach near Sydney. The only way to get there is by boat, a no-frills wooden ferry named Myra, which takes about 30 minutes from Palm Beach Wharf. On board the hazy feel of summer holidays is underway. Everyone is packed for a go-slow sojourn, laden with groceries, beach bags and sun hats, provisions for the next few days. There are no shops where we're going.
"Get it, get it!" A chorus of shrill giggles assails us as we disembark from the unassuming little jetty. There's no need for alarm or calls for backup. Without even a sideways glance we know the reason for the din - a spider, snake, or in this case, goanna (monitor lizard) has languidly found its way into a front yard. Wet cossies are carelessly drying on the fence.
More than 80 years of exposure to the elements and termites had taken their toll – but nothing that 18 months of hard work, recycling, repurposing, reusing and rebuilding couldn’t fix.Jamie, owner of The Little Black Shack
"Trust us, it will be an adventure getting to the shack, but it will be worth it. And once you're there you probably won't want to leave!" the welcome email had warned. We walk from the boat to the southern headland of Great Mackerel Beach, managing our luggage and the midday heat down the biscuit-tinted sand and past the sleepy sunbathers, holiday homes and simple shacks that sit side by side. At the end of the beach we find steep, tall stairs, a narrow path and a bush track that leads to the Little Black Shack.
The dinky two-bedroom hideaway sinks back into the bush. "I first spotted the shack when I was a teenager via a television commercial from the 1970s or early 1980s," explains Jamie, its softly- spoken owner. "Fast-forward 20 or so years and I saw it was up for sale while on a fishing trip." It would have been easier to demolish and rebuild. "More than 80 years of exposure to the elements and termites had taken their toll - but nothing that 18 months of hard work, recycling, repurposing, reusing and rebuilding couldn't fix," Jamie recalls.
The slow and steady approach paid off - together with his wife Ingrid, Jamie has completely reimagined the humble beach shack. Everything from the rattily original wooden windows to an old builder's dining table has been restored with style and creativity. Nothing has been wasted - the gangway that helped to move in all the furniture and materials has now become two sturdy king- size beds. All the chairs are mismatched - some are salvaged from the side of the road while others have always just been there.
The effect is that of a higgledy-piggledy ship's cabin. Nautical shades of seafaring blues and creams blend with driftwood furniture to give a castaway edge. Seashells collected over the years are neatly sprinkled across surfaces. Trinkets and knick-knacks are placed in just the right spots. The paintings are from another age and all the books are second-hand. There's nothing cheap or throwaway and everything has an imperfect finish - in the kitchen, an espresso maker sits next to weathered chopping boards and vintage binoculars.
Although it's one of the smallest houses on the headland, the shack sits on one of the largest plots of land. The wide frontage stretches from the water's edge some 70 metres up through the bush with the vast Ku-ring-Gai Chase National Park behind. This means that it's gloriously private with a path down to the teeny-tiny private beach.
We are excited - so excited that there's a small kerfuffle. Do we slow down and have a leisurely swim or pick up the pace and kayak (there are two provided)? I win with a bushwalk. There are a few routes through the surrounding olive-green scrubland that lead to various lookout points and secluded beaches, but we agree to keep it simple and take the winding Mackerel track. We scuttle along the dusty, rocky path hoping to spot local wallaby but only disturb a plump goanna, who scurries deep into the bush.
Where our childhood shacks had at best a functional outdoor barbecue and at worst a short drive to shared facilities, here there is a charcoal grill next to a wood-fired pizza oven. There's also a herb garden sprouting rosemary, basil and lemongrass. The tang of sunscreen is still ripe on my skin as my friends fire up the outdoor grill. Giant green prawns turn into garlicky morsels, the overdone sausages are exactly how I like them, and my hot, chargrilled corn smeared in butter and parmesan is pure comfort. The syrup from juicy mango cheeks and sugar-glazed pineapples dries all over my face because napkins have no place at this table. We decide the stone terrace will be a sensational setting to drink the last of the chablis.
I wake to fuzzy, apricot sun streaming into my bedroom. All I see is ocean. My hair is a tangled mess from the day before and there are still faint delicious licks of salt on my skin. I feel happy and content - like my childhood days.