I love exploring beaches. Collaroy is the longest on Sydney’s North Shore and my favourite even in mid-winter. The rock pool at the southern end is fifty metres long and I squeeze out a kilometre swim, alternating my awkward freestyle, a mediocre backstroke, an impressive breaststroke and – my own invention – feet-forward doggy paddle. Lifeguards have been known to dive in to rescue me during most of my strokes but none is there today. Surf is hammering over the wall and spewing waves across the surface of the pool. I love the feeling even though I end up drinking a few litres. It’s mid-afternoon as I shiver my way out of the water to jog past the Norfolk pines to Narrabeen, at the far end.

“Only ten laps today Mark?”

“Yeah, I’m frozen. The whale grease didn’t work today.”

“You’re getting weak. Happens when you hit your twenties. It’s thirteen degrees. Perfect mate!”

I jog on the spot under the cold shower, thumping down on one foot then the other to shake the salt out of my ears. Brush the ice off my skin. Finding a patch without graffiti pushing against the surf club wall to stretch my leg muscles. I feel sure someone is standing right behind me – hot breath on my neck. Remembering my combat training, I transfer my weight and lunge back with an elbow expecting a groan and the thump of a pole-axed body hitting the concrete.

Nothing, not even a dog, but I see some more old friends shuffling across the sand.

“Hi Mark. You OK?”

“Thanks Don; just doing some warm-ups.” They don’t believe me but smile anyway.

The king tides have dragged sand out to sea and left three-metre cliffs on a normally flat beach. Running on angle is tough on my back but is balanced by jogging both ways or seeing my chiropractor. Property owners are nervous. They’re paranoid about the undermining of their beachfront properties and are petitioning the local authority to put up a sea wall to protect them. Some on the authority are more inclined to use public funds to buy the houses under threat and turn the area into a community park – cheaper than a sea wall which creates stress elsewhere.

Feeling cool in my tight Speedo swimmers – affectionately known as ‘budgie smugglers’ – I squeak through the powder sand then break into a jog, taking care to avoid the dog droppings kindly left by owners who have perfected the art of turning the other way as their animal defecates. Holding the same unused plastic bag day by day, they believe they convince people they do the right thing.

The sun has two more hours of its shift to complete before clocking off, but already a towering apartment block makes a shadow on a long section of the beach. It feels much colder there. I always greet other joggers but the replies are mixed and impossible to gauge. I plan to talk to my friends about a points system with a prize for an exactly matching response. Here, I’ll try this girl.

“G’day. Great time to run.”

“Good afternoon, perfect.” Very English reply but Aussie accent.

Try again with Mr Muscles,

“G’day, water’s cold.”

“How’re ya going?” in return.

Not working so far. Try again with baldy,

“Hi, nice day.”

“G’day,” from him.

I blew it! Should have stuck with “G’day.” Will try again later.

Fronting the sand, the houses are an eclectic mix of traditional bungalows with masses of lawn and garden, through tasteful modern homes blending into the setting with their native gardens – to monstrous block houses occupying nearly all the block, paving the rest and usually in hideous bright paint colours.

There’s a nice figure up ahead, wading out from the shore to the surf. Still breathing pebbles but legs warming up I can motor a bit more now. Using the water’s edge to keep my size twelves from overheating and increasing the heart rate by fighting through the wet sand.

I run because I love the sensation. The freedom to do it anywhere, any time. No equipment; a moving meditation. Best in the rain but great in the sun. Focusing my awareness on the sensation of the sand under my feet, the spray from the surf and the movement of my arms. Quieting my inner voice. Solving problems I didn’t know I had until I stop, and getting into perspective priorities and problems. Living in the present as I concentrate on my breathing, which is slippery, smooth.

The girl is now swimming naked in the surf. Privately, not self-conscious. I avert my eyes, then stare. Great sight, but brief as I fall into the moat of a magnificent sand castle and a child screams in anguish.

“I’m so sorry. Can I help re-build it?”

“No worries mate, I was looking at her too,” his dad said, with a chuckle. “The tide will flatten it in a few minutes, anyway.”

I accelerate and move into overdrive as a blue heeler dog plucks up the mermaid’s dress and rockets along the beach.

“Come back! Drop it! Stop!” and I feel a stitch in my right side. The dog does stop, drags the dress along the sand and into the water and bolts away as I make a lunge. “Great game, nice doggy. Want a kick up the bum?”

Three times we play the trick until almost at the Narrabeen rock pool. A master’s commanding shout, a whistle and ‘Bluey’ is gone, leaving the wet, sandy rag to me. There’s still a whiff of perfume but is slimy from the dog’s mouth so I swim with it in the pool and shower with it before the return run.

Now where was that sand castle? The sun is lower and almost blinds me at this angle. Wouldn’t mind a surf myself which I normally do if there are no jelly fish ‘stingers’ dead on the high water mark. There she is. Whoa, hasn’t realised her dress has gone. Might be hard to explain and I stand there foolish and feeble.

“Excuse me.” I try to look only at her face and her feet as she surges out of the water.

“Hello.” The accent is Northern European. The figure is staggering.

“The dog took your dress. I chased him.” I hear myself sounding breathless. “I washed it. I hope, I mean, is it? Do you think…?”

“Thank you.” She holds out her hands. “May I put on now please? We can talk afterwards.”

There were some teeth tears but it fitted much too well and she smiled exquisitely, squeezing the water from her hair.

“Do you live here?” I ask.

“No, I visit from Sweden. Care for the children. Au pair. My family is in house in Northbridge. I will travel the bus.”

“I live in Cammeray; close to Northbridge.” I offer, “Would you like a lift?”

“Thank you. You are kind.”

I often find interesting items on the beach.