I spent all my summer holidays here as a kid, but my family has been visiting this place long before I came on the scene. In fact, Mum has set up camp in the caravan park for 50-odd years. And now each January, she’s joined by my four sisters, brother, and their respective families for an annual seaside love-in.
As I throw a few emergency snacks into the front seat, I remember how Mum would load up the car on Boxing Day with everything we’d need for our summer holiday. Like a life-sized game of Tetris, she’d stuff the roof racks and every hidden crevice of our red Torana with food, clothes, bikes and our haul of Christmas presents. Doonas and pillows were the last to go in and were tucked into the back seat to form massive armchairs, ensuring complete comfort on the hour and a bit trip, which to a bunch of kids who rarely traveled this far from home, felt like forever.
A left turn at the roundabout and we’d launch into chorus – “we’re in Portarlington, we’re in Port-aaaaaarling-ton“. The car would tip over the crest of the hill and hurtle downwards like a rollercoaster, revealing a vista of glistening sea and the promise of endless beach days and water handstand competitions.
That ‘hill’ looks like more of a mound these days, but so much of Portarlington still looks the same. Like so many seaside towns, it is unchanged, suspended in time. The crayfish raffle still happens at the pub and the carnival sets up opposite the beach, pumping out Vengaboys like no new music was made after 1998.
This fond predictability, year-on-year, created some pretty deep-set traditions. Certain rituals are still followed devoutly to this day. Without them, it just wouldn’t be a proper Portarlington holiday.
The most steadfast of all would have to be a visit to the hot donut man. Perhaps it’s the strong scent of pine trees that line the foreshore, or the fresh sea air, but donuts never taste as good as when you eat them at Portarlington, walking along the pier at night. Murmurs of someone going on a donut run still rouse a thunderclap of excitement around the campground. Orders are taken and donuts are bought by the bagful – delicious parcels of fat, sugar and dangerously molten jam.
I shouldn’t feel so sentimental about food sold from a van, yet my earliest and most favourite memories are going out for donuts, cocooned in blankets and drifting off to the pram wheels rumbling gently along the planks of the pier.
A lifetime of good memories could be made in just a few summers at Portarlington.
On really warm nights, when our aluminum caravan felt on the verge of combustion, Mum would take us down to the beach to sleep. Cool sand that moulded to our bodies and crisp sea air had us nodding off in no time. I often expected to wake up in the same spot with seagulls nibbling at our toes, but by some miracle of teleportation we always woke in our own beds, half relieved, half disappointed we didn’t camp out all night.
A whole new world of adventure opened up once I learned to ride my bike. I could scoot down to the kiosk within minutes to spend one and two-cent pieces on Sunnyboys and Wizz Fizz. If Nan came good with a few gold coins, we could ride up a bit further to the in-ground trampolines – one dollar for 10 minutes. Safety wasn’t that big in the ’80s, with tattered strips of paisley carpet the only thing protecting us from the springs. Odd bits of old carpet would fly into the air with every acrobatic jump, showing glimpses of the dark pit of dirt underneath – a sight frightening enough to limit my trampoline repertoire to a gentle ‘bum-tummy-bum’ routine.
Eventually, as a teenager, even the promise of unlimited Wizz Fizz couldn’t hold my interest in Portarlington. The calm bay, dotted with paddling toddlers, didn’t quite fit with my ethos of ‘destroy the waves, not the beaches’, as printed on my favourite Rip Curl t-shirt. And we always seemed to stay a bit too long, outlasting almost every family there. One by one, canvas annexes that served faithfully as lounge rooms and bedrooms, were swept out, dismantled and folded with the speed and ease of putting away a bed sheet. Caravans were towed, exposing patches of discoloured grass that multiplied across the campground as it got closer to the end of January.
It wasn’t until my 20s that my interest in Portarlington returned. And in the last two years since taking my son there, I realised how defining this place is for our family.
Perhaps it’s this same feeling that draws my siblings back to Portarlington each summer. To make the pilgrimage 5000kms from the Pilbara and eight hours from Canberra.
I love that in a family separated by vast differences in age and postcode, we have, at one time or another, shared these unique Portarlington traditions. That my son will delight in eating hot jam donuts or watching the mussel boats dock at the pier, just as I did as a kid. That these memories will connect him not only to me, but to his aunties, uncles and cousins too.
These small holiday rituals are the tiny brushstrokes that alone are insignificant, but together, shade the contours of our family portrait. And what an interesting painting it is.
I can’t wait for next summer, to revisit these old traditions with my son and maybe create some new ones.
See you there, hot donut man!