Brick paver Peter Nicholaidis believes he has one of the best backyard views in Australia.
“I only have to walk outside 15 feet and the water is right there. You’d have to be on an ocean liner just about to get this view.”
Mr Nicholaidis’s weathered blue beach house is one of 178 distinctive shacks perched on a jagged section of Perth’s coastline overlooking Cockburn Sound.
Beach shacks of all colours and designs dot the coastal settlement of Naval Base. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
In an unusual planning quirk, the salty air and aqua blue water is juxtaposed by thick smoke plumes billowing from a towering alumina refinery right next door.
The Naval Base shack community folk are boxed in by a heavy industrial area and are located within the Kwinana buffer zone, which was created in 1992 due to air quality issues.
But Mr Nicholaidis is not phased.
“It’s simple living — there’s no electricity, no running water,” he says.
“There’s always something to see, somebody kayaking, people fishing — quite often you’ll see stingrays, dolphins, even schools of salmon come past.
“Word gets out and everybody comes out to the front to have a look, it’s just magnificent.
“The rat race stops here, you can just chill.”
Locals say while the aluminium refinery is close, the smoke does not bother them. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
Nicole O’Neill’s shack has been passed down through five generations of her family.
“My kids today do exactly what I did 30 years ago and what my parents did when they were young as well,” she says.
“We still go out on the boat, we snorkel, we swim, we fish, we enjoy the sunset, we have family dinners — all of those things are the same.
“It’s this really beautiful, simple way of life that hasn’t changed in 50 years, while the rest of the world has moved on.”
Fears new port will kill Cockburn Sound
The Naval Base shacks date back to the 1930s. They are one of only a handful of remaining shack settlements in Australia and the only one left in the Perth metropolitan area.
But locals fear plans to construct a new outer harbour shipping port just south of Naval Base will kill off their treasured lifestyle once and for all.
“Cockburn Sound is a massive part of what is unique about the Naval Base shacks site,” Ms O’Neill says.
“There is a real concern that if the outer harbour was to go ahead in the future, Cockburn Sound and the Naval Base shacks site will be compromised as a result, and we will lose a piece of history that we can never get back.”
Cockburn Sound is recognised as an important marine sanctuary for dolphins, fish, crabs and sea lions. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
Retired construction rigger Allan Nelson has leased a shack for the past 40 years and used to run the local general store with his wife.
He says despite the heavy industry already present in the area, a full-scale container port will cause irreversible damage to marine life.
“If you kill off the seagrass, then Cockburn Sound becomes a desert — nothing lives,” Mr Nelson says.
“If there’s no little fish for the squid, the crabs and the snapper to live off, there’s no life.
Locals are united in their opposition to a new port at Cockburn Sound. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
“In 20 years’ time you’d come here standing on the beach say to your kids, ‘there used to be dolphins in Cockburn Sound but we decided to build a port and now there’s no dolphins’.
“We used to catch snapper in the Sound, heaps of them. Now there’s no snapper.
“What do we do? We’ve got to stand up and say no at some point.”
Allan Nelson is concerned about what environmental impact a new port will have on Cockburn Sound. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
It is an opinion echoed by most of the community.
“I’m no specialist but you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that if you have that much shipping traffic it would have to impact somewhere on this environment,” Mr Nicholaidis says.
A State Government taskforce exploring the viability of a new Kwinana port has said there is “no doubt” constructing and operating the facility would put pressure on Cockburn Sound.
In it’s latest newsletter, the taskforce says it takes its responsibility to help preserve Cockburn Sound for future generations very seriously and is working with independent experts in marine and environmental science to achieve a positive environmental outcome.
Allan Nelson’s shack is typical of those dotted around Naval Base. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
Living in a unique balance
There are hopes a formal recognition of the Naval Base shack site for its heritage values will protect it into the future.
The site is listed on heritage registers for several government and independent agencies, including the City of Cockburn, which has an agreement with the shack lessees that expires in 2022.
The site was also identified as the likely starting point of the European settlement of the wider Peel region in 1829.
In 1954, a cluster of beach shacks was the only development in the area. (Supplied: City of Kwinana)
In 2019, massive industrial development dominates the Kwinana Industrial precinct. (Supplied: City of Kwinana)
“It’s extremely important that we preserve the shacks, the way of life, the site and the environment,” Ms O’Neill says.
“The people here have lived at one with the natural environment, living in this really unique balance.
“They’ve always thought about the fish stocks, the plant life.
“Many people thought of the shacks as squatters, but here since the 1950s there’s actually been arrangements, there’s been leases in place with the Government.
“That actually gives legitimacy to the site.”
Disconnecting from modern life
For those who visit frequently, the biggest drawcard is the simplicity of shack life.
Fremantle teacher Donna Buckley says the appeal for her is the disconnection from technology.
Nicole O’Neill with her son Nathan during a stay at the Naval Base shacks. (Supplied: Nicole O’Neill)
“My life is high stress but then you come here, it’s simple, you’re living off the grid,” she says.
“The kids have no iPads — they’re just playing, they’re outside, they’re riding the scooters around, everyone is active.
“At home I’m in a constant battle with devices, but here that problem doesn’t exist.
“There’s no Xbox here, they’ve got the beach, they’ve got friends, they’ve got bikes.”
Although the shacks are uniform in structure, each has its own quirks. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
Retired cray fisherman Barry Matthews says he hopes even after he’s gone, his friends and family will be enjoy the same lifestyle he does.
“Everyone loves the shacks — the people are good, friendly people,” he says.
“It is a lovely environment, it’s a one-off champion place to be.
“It would be a shame to see it go.”