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THE POWER OF THE COWRIE

13 May 2017

I’m not sure if it was just us, but finding a cowrie was like striking gold!

Winter on Victoria’s west coast is a beautiful, bleak affair. As a young lad, many chilly Saturday afternoons were spent collecting shells with my sisters at a beach near Airey’s Inlet. Mum would rug us up in brightly-coloured jumpers and set us loose along the shoreline. We resembled a freckly pint-sized troupe of Wiggles, roaming the high tide mark and poking among the rock pools - searching for the best shells we could find.

The rarer the shell the more highly prized. 

The rarer the shell the more highly prized. There was a well-defined hierarchy of shells. We’d turn up our noses at the limpet shells, ignore the snail-like ones, and reject most of the periwinkles. Some cone-shells were OK, as long as they didn’t have a piece chipped off somewhere, which they almost always did.

Abalone shells were more valued, especially the ones with vivid mother-of-pearl colours on the inside. Some of these poor abalone shells would be taken home and used as ashtrays, where that delicate colourful inlay would be blackened with the stubbing of countless ciggies. Being the ‘70s it occurred to no-one that this might have been a little disrespectful to the sanctity of nature.

Better than the abalone was the semi-precious ‘Painted Lady’– known more formally as the Australian Pheasant shell. Finding just one of these beautifully patterned, bulbous beauties made any outing a modest success.

But all these shells came a distant second to the cowrie. One single cowrie was worth a hundred Painted Ladies. I’m not sure if it was just us, but finding a cowrie was like striking gold – a giddy feeling of discovering something precious – so rarely did cowries seem to wash up on these southern shores. A cowrie cast a spell over its finder not unlike Gollum’s ring.

We’d take our shells home and sort them into three categories: Dad’s abalone ashtray stockpile, a random bowl of mixed shells, and the repurposed set of sewing drawers where the precious cowries lived.

Let’s now pull back from Victoria in the ‘70s, fast forward four decades, slide up the coast, Google-Earth style, and zoom back down through the clouds to a beach somewhere between Angourie and, say, Brooms. A middle aged bloke (that’s me) and wife, fossicking along the high tide line, poking around rock pools.

I’m a crafty cowrie hunter now – they’re a very buoyant shell so the bigger ones are often unusually high up the beach. But it doesn’t require too much skill to find a cowrie or seven here. 

Even my ten year old self would have a ripper strike rate on this beach. 

Even my ten year old self would have a ripper strike rate on this beach. Not only are there more cowries along this stretch than anywhere I’ve been, but they’re bigger, glossier and more varied. In fact if my ten year old self was magically transported through time and space to this beach I think he would faint from the sensory overload. It would just be too much.

Anyway, these days, most cowries get picked up, admired and placed back where it was. There’s only so many cowries you need to take home. But to this day, every time I see a cowrie on the sand, there’s still the thrill of finding something rare and precious.

I reckon my younger self (once he had recovered consciousness) would approve of this wonderland that’s become my home.

Fresh eyes, Gra Murdoch

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