For more than 30 years, nudists have been getting their gear off around Melbourne. Here's Metro's guide to the best clothes-free beaches. Luke Buckmaster reports.
AT FIRST glance, Sunnyside North Beach in Mount Eliza looks like any stretch of coastline along the Mornington Peninsula, but the sand and water here attract a special class of beach-goer.
Head north-east from the car park and follow the sand as it curves to the right, walking over the rocks or along a narrow-beaten path etched into the neighbouring dunes, and you'll start to notice a few differences. First-timers might find it strange here, even confronting, but the atmosphere is relaxed. The words "letting it all hang out" come to mind.
Sunnyside North is one of four official nude beaches in Melbourne, where visitors are legally entitled to grace the sand wearing nothing but their birthday suits.
Finding the beach can be tricky; it isn't accessible by road and there are no signs. After gathering directions from a woman who "used to peek over the rocks as a child", The Age eventually encountered the first nudist, who lay on the sand with an Esky obscuring his nether regions.
"They tend to put nudist beaches in the most difficult and awkward locations to get to and as far away from civilisation as possible," says Barbara Rolfe, 33, an IT test manager who took up nudism with her partner three years ago.
Rolfe frequents nude (or "clothing-optional") beaches in summer and nude swimming pool nights in winter. She says a wide variety of people share her passion for living au naturel ? from lawyers to hippies to the very straight-laced.
"It attracts people from all walks of life and from all age groups," she says. "For me being a nudist is about the freedom to be able to be myself (and) to be happy with my body to the point where I don't feel I have to hide it."
Nakedness and liberation is an association widely echoed within the nudist community, but self-empowerment tends to mean little to those who campaign against public nudity. Pro-nude organisations such as Free Beaches Australia Incorporated claim their shores are constantly under threat from the nudity naysayers: councils, property developers and religious lobbyers.
In 2005, former Surf Coast Shire councillor Ron Humphrey launched a concerted but ultimately unsuccessful effort to revoke the status of Melbourne's nude beaches, claiming the areas surrounding them were hot spots for indecent behaviour.
One of the beaches in question was Point Impossible in Torquay, which was granted clothing-optional status in 1983 and is by far the most accessible and easiest to find nude beach around Melbourne.
Turn off The Esplanade, head about a kilometre-and-a- half down a coarse gravel road, then walk along the path over the dunes and the beach awaits ? a kilometre of oceanic clothing-optional coastline marked clearly by signs at both ends. Here a spacious expanse of kelp-splotched sand extends, at low tide, to more than 40 metres in width, and rows of sunbathers lie on the beach's angled edge next to the dunes. The Age observed a gaggle of curious teenagers hovering around the entrance to Point Impossible, weighing up whether to venture further.
Werner Jacob, president of the Australian Nudist Federation, believes the problems nude beaches face are shared by every beach.
"The same rules apply to any beach you go to. The only thing different we're doing is taking off our clothes," he says.
Rolfe argues that nudism is a magnet for controversy mostly because people unfairly associate it with sex and erotica. "They see any inappropriate behaviour that goes on and they want to close the beaches. They don't appreciate what it actually means to be a nudist," she says.
"When you're completely naked you are not sexy unless you are posing. It's not until you actually start putting clothes on that you get sexy. It is a perception that a lot of people get wrong."
Campbell's Cove Beach, situated just out of Werribee, summons little enthusiasm from even the staunchest nudist. Potential nudists are advised to visit the other beaches first: there is little sand here, no waves and often no people. Paul, a long-time nudist, says Campbell's Cove "is a crap beach. It's really poor. Nobody really goes there because nobody likes sunbaking on the grass and swimming in seaweed."
A popular favourite, according to Barbara Rolfe, is Southside Beach (also in Torquay). Southside has been clothing-optional since 1986 and is situated in a cove, so visitors can be shielded from the wind on gusty days.
Accessible from Bells Beach car park at the end of Point Addis Road, Southside is nestled in a half-circle of steep and rugged mustard-brown cliff faces, where paragliders often careen through the air, soaking in lofty views of the coast and the bare-skinned beach-goers below. When the tide is high a lot of Southside is covered with water.
The idea that a beach can be there one moment and gone the next is, in a different sense, a fear that permeates throughout the nudist community. In-the-buff advocates such as Rolfe fear that one day the authorities will insist nudist beachgoers bring their bathers with them.
Rolfe encourages curious parties to experience nude beaches for themselves but issues a stern warning to all potential newcomers.
"Everything can burn," she says. "You most definitely have to put sunscreen on everywhere."
The bare facts:
THERE are four official nude, or "clothing optional", beaches in Victoria: Sunnyside North (Mount Eliza), Campbell's Cove (Werribee South), Point Impossible (Torquay) and South Side (Torquay). Unofficial nude beaches also exist in Hastings and East Gippsland.
Arguably Australia's best nude beach is North Swanbourne in Western Australia, which is about 20 minutes out of Perth. Every year North Swanbourne holds a summer sports carnival where in-the-buff participants grace the sand to compete in events such as Best Bum, Pass the Bucket and Four-Legged Race.
Samurai Beach in Port Stephens, NSW, also hosts an annual competition (the "Nude Olympics") and features Australia's only legal nude campsite.
Receiving official clothing-optional status in 1975, Maslin Beach in Adelaide is Australia's oldest official beach for nudists.
Free Beaches Australia promotes guidelines for etiquette on nude beaches, featuring instructions such as respect the privacy of others ("allow others to have space ? don't stare"), respect the property of others ("if your bum is bare, cover the chair") and no overt sexual activity ("be lewd, not rude").