When we started our walk the vegetation was low salt marsh, a magic mat of pastel colours. Now we are on the edge of sand dunes covered in marram grass. The dunes hold back the wind. It is peaceful here. The estuary sand exposed by the tide is firm under our feet but the storms of the last few days have carved into it. Concentric lines of low cliffs cross our path. At one point, where the outgoing tide has swept into a small bay, we have to jump. A section of sand cliff follows us.
The sea lions we have come to see are in front of us – a safe distance, we hope. The dominant male has lifted his bulk out of the water. The sun strikes his back and gleams across to us. He is looking our way. We feel his stare. There is no doubt who is in charge here.
Behind him his extended family twist and turn in the channel. They play – and it is play, an endless game of tag. Bodies break the surface – a flipper here, a head there, a sleek black back. One teenage star almost leaps clear. The older females swim leisurely by. Others lie on the beach. They feign sleep but are awake enough to flick sand over themselves.
As we stroll past, four heads appear at the water’s edge. We can’t tell whether they want to play or to make sure we leave. Whatever . . . they have a reputation, we keep going.
We round the point onto the beach and the weather takes charge.
The wind strikes our faces. It sucks the breath from our mouths, our noses. Surprised, we stagger under the impact and lean into it. Hats are pulled down over ears. Collars are turned up and coats zipped, hands plunged deep into pockets.
The wool muffles the noise of the surf, but it’s still the surf that grabs our attention. The sea is in chaos. Foam and spume and spray lift into the air at each gust of wind. The spray seeks out what little flesh is exposed. Gulls whirl and swoop, their cries torn away. Little pied stilts, their long thin legs impervious to the wind, totter along the waterline. The only solid object is the remnant of a wreck. It stands fast while all around is confusion.
We know the expelled male sea lions are here somewhere. Each keen to be first to spot the next one, we peer along the beach. A spray-filled haze hides the far end but nearer we find that the wreck is not the only immovable object it seems. A great lump of fat lies in the sand. Longer than either of us, heavier than both of us, it . . . well, it just lies there. From downwind we creep closer. We can smell him – a pungent animal smell from the sea. We shuffle closer . . . and closer. The sand makes it difficult to tell his head from his tail flippers. Then we find out . . . he sits up, we leap back. Not interested, he settles down again. We breath. We act casual. We walk on. No fear . . .