Sunday, 30 December 2012

Christmas at ‘The Bay’

Christmas in Australia is very different than in most parts of the world and while it carries with it much of the same snowy imagery, the hot weather ensures that it is generally celebrated outdoors. Each year the Christmas Day news service broadcasts the usual stock standard story about tourists from the northern hemisphere spending their festive day at the beach. This is usually accompanied by footage of bikini clad ‘Brits’ wearing Santa hats and holding a glass of champagne in one hand and turkey drumstick in the other. The truth is that I can never actually remember having Christmas lunch at the beach (far too much sand for us), but like many other Aussies, we would eventually be drawn to the ocean in the days following Christmas to enjoy the relaxed seaside atmosphere or more likely to seek the cool ocean breeze as respite from the heat of the day.

The most popular of the coastal spots in South Australia is Glenelg, which is simply referred to by locals as the ‘The Bay’. The name harks back its original title of ‘Holdfast Bay’, which was given by the pioneer settlers in 1836 and although it was re-named shortly afterwards, the tag has stuck and the area itself has continued to develop into the premier beachside suburb of Adelaide. As Christmas coincides with the proclamation of the colony, Glenelg has become the place where thousands converge each year to enjoy the celebrations and in particular to witness an event called ‘The Bay Sheffield’. This two-day gathering remains the state’s most prestigious running meet, which has been held annually in the basin shaped park of Colley Reserve since 1887. While Jules and I have lived in Adelaide for most of our lives, I am embarrassed to say that we have never actually attended, however this year during our visit back home, we thought that it was about time we rectified that situation.

Still slightly bloated from consecutive days of eating ham and turkey sandwiches, we were keen to enjoy a casual stroll along Jetty Road, the main shopping strip of Glenelg. This is where the expansion of the popular suburb began many years ago, with some lovely Victorian and Art Deco buildings still remaining and of course the familiar sight of the tram rolling back and forth from the centre of downtown Adelaide. As we walked, we reminisced about memories of the area; the old cinemas that lined the street, the many restaurants that have come and gone and the old trams fondly referred to as ‘red rattlers’. These days the area has expanded in all directions, but particularly along the coast and toward the picturesque marina that now boasts some of the most expensive houses in the state. Seaside pines and palm trees provided much sought after shade as the sun shined brightly and the temperature continued to rise. It was time to get a tub of frozen yogurt (the trendy alternative to ice cream) and head down to Colley Reserve.

Being the final day of the event, the carnival was now in full swing with most of the events being run and won, however it would be past 6.00pm by the time the male athletes would take to the track for the main 120 metre race that the carnival was named after …‘The Bay Sheffield’. By this stage the mounds that surrounded the track were full, held back by only a small, dainty white picket fence. It has always been a free event, so as the major race drew closer, people arrive from all directions. The lovely thing about this race is that you can still get relatively close to the runners, much like a good old-fashioned country carnival. While there is some prize money involved these days, the event harks back to the old days of amateurism, allowing virtually anyone to enter as it provides a handicap system in order to make each race competitive. Yet in the end the cream always rises to the top and the finalists are inevitably the best runners from throughout Australia.

After much fanfare, it is not too long before the runners have each donned their coloured vest and are poised on the starters blocks ready for the gun. Ahead of them are roped laneways, similar to those seen in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ that depicts the events of 1924 Olympics. This is not by any stretch the Olympics, but for local prestige it is just as important. As I looked around the ground, I realized that there are not too many places in the world were this type of carnival would ever happen, let alone just a few days after Christmas … it was truly unique! I’m was however quickly startled from my daydream by the bang of the starters gun and look to see the athletes rocketing off down the track. In a blink it is all over, with the runner wearing red lying on the ground totally exhausted, but with his arms clearly raised in victory. Former Olympic runner Josh Ross was the only runner to begin the race from ‘scratch’ (the full 120 metres) and while other runners had several metres head start, he had managed to lunge over the line to create local history, as the only non-handicapped runner to win the race in 126 years.

It may have been our first Bay Sheffield, but we had chosen a good one with glorious weather, a festive crowd and an historic victory. I guess these are the sorts of events that we have tended to take for granted over the years, while tourists continue to travel half way around the world for such experiences. However, this year we appreciated it just that little bit more, having left the wintery conditions of Japan just a few days before Christmas. So as the sun continued to blaze on this glorious December day at 'The Bay', there was nothing left to do than to head home for a quiet beer and yet another turkey sandwich!

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