Into the woods or down to the sea again

By John Lewis

It's that time of year when the lure of a break from routine becomes more than attractive — it becomes a downright necessity.

Unless you're a Trump supporter — everyone needs a breath of fresh air and a chance to break out of the cage to make their world great again.

You could wear a red cap with a slogan and carry on dreaming from the couch, but it's not the same as actually getting up and doing something different.

I always face the same dilemma: head to the woods or go down to the sea?

For some, there is a third option: find a mountain.

But mountains are mysterious, very steep and they may have goats.

Inevitably, I end up by the sea.

There is nothing quite so lung-filling, arm-stretching or soul-expanding as walking on a wind-blown, deserted beach with a long-haired dog that barks at birds.

If it has crashing waves, a few rockpools and shipwreck stories so much the better.

Your dreams expand as the horizon disappears and worries float off your shoulders like hollow driftwood.

I grew up in an English seaside town with a 13th-century church sporting a leaning tower and a forlorn graveyard with unreadable headstones near the grey sea.

People told stories about a false grave that smugglers used to carry contraband rum and guns from ships moored in the Bristol Channel.

As a 10-year-old I read too many Robert Louis Stevenson books and I scared myself half to death by peering into damaged graves at night to find the secret entrance. Then I grew up and discovered the terrors of sex and alcohol and Black Sabbath and I peered under my bed a lot.

But the seaside smuggler stories stayed with me.

So it's down to the lonely sea and the sky for me next month as we head to Johanna off the Great Ocean Rd for a few days.

We first discovered Johanna more than 20 years ago when I was a fresh, young, wild colonial boy. It was the perfect hideaway with no development — no bars, cafés, budgie smugglers, Jet Skis or neon airbeds.

Just a sandy track through some tuffeted dunes leading to a lonely beach.

We were there a couple of years ago and nothing much had changed.

Johanna Beach is on the Shipwreck Coast and named after a brig wrecked nearby in 1843. So naturally, it has its own eye-popping yarn.

Apparently, the brig Johanna was carrying cases of liquor, which the crew, being hearty sailors, desperately tried to retrieve.

When several drowned in the attempt, one doughty survivor hiked off to Port Fairy and said to the thirsty locals "there's a ship packed with free grog just up the road".

No-one knows if he was trampled in the rush, but the Port Fairy blaggards managed to cut the Johanna in half, leaving one section to drift and break up on the shore.

They then spent six weeks drinking, yelling and fighting in a debauched frenzy made worse by heat and exposure. End-of-season footy trips weren't a thing yet — but obviously they're in the Aussie DNA.

Every man but one went blind from exposure and fly bites. The story goes that he led them back to Port Fairy with a stick.

Now if that's not a tall tale, I don't know what is.

There's still half a ship full of grog off Johanna Beach somewhere, so I reckon that's worth a return visit.

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