Black Gems on the Beach

Sarah: Imagine you’re on Yorke Peninsula, a scrubby, unrefined corner of South Australia. Dead kangaroos on the roadside. The occasional emu. You drive to the end of a rough, gravelly road. It’s cool but sunny. You park the car at the base of a hill, and wander up a sandy pathway towards what you presume must be the ocean. You reach the top of the path, and the gusts of wind and salt coming off the sea take your breath away. The ocean is bright blues and greens, the wet sand so shiny it makes you squint. You shift your line of sight about 100 metres from the shoreline to see two jagged poles jutting out of the water. Must be a ship! And then you notice a placard in front of you. The text reads:


Fill your beachcombing bucket with tokens of another place and time.

Stranded on this pristine white beach are chunks of 3-million year-old coal, castaways from a place thousands of kilometres distant.

With rough seas, the coal is released from the sunken hold of the steamer ‘Willyama’, which ran aground here in 1907 whilst en route from Newcastle, NSW to Port Pirie, SA.

There actually is no such sign*, but I wrote this piece after an inspiring workshop coordinated by Interpretation Australia, run by Susan Cross, last week^. These 50 words were developed over the course of the day, my best effort at capturing the pleasure I experience collecting pieces of coal with my children at Willyama Beach.  Every trip to this special place, we skip along the sand and imagine what it must have been like to be shipwrecked here over 100 years ago. I aimed to make other people want to do that too.

An earlier version was nowhere near as punchy:


Washed up on this pristine white beach are scattered chunks of coal which formed nearly 2000 kilometres away.

With rough seas, the coal is gradually released from the hold of the ship ‘Willyama’, which sank here in 1907 whilst travelling from Newscastle to Port Pirie.

By working through my piece of text, and based on lots of excellent theory and examples from Susan, I got rid of the passive voice (passive is evil!), introduced elements of the personal experience (use of ‘your’ in the opening sentence) and got the point across that these pieces of coal didn’t really belong on this beach, without giving a history and science lecture.

That’s interpretation! The art of creating powerful, appealing and memorable information which informs and inspires the general public. A new meaning to a term I was already familiar with. You’ll read interpretive signs in museums, art galleries, libraries, cemeteries, all over the place. And actually I think that what we often refer to as ‘science communication’ could also be included under the ‘interpretation’ umbrella. That’s why I’ve just become a member of Interpretation Australia, and I’m really looking forward to my first IA networking event in February 2012.

*the board that is really posted above this beach can be seen here

^Regan Forrest also attended the workshop, and has blogged about it here


  1. susan cross says:

    Hi Sarah
    I don’t think I saw your final piece of writing. I love it – it really captures the love of the place and its stories that I heard in your voice and saw in your eyes when you talked about it. Well done, you.

    Thank you too for this blog. I agree with you too about science writing and interpretation – that’s where I launched on this journey.


  2. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hello Susan,

    Thank-you so much for your kind words! Your workshop really had a very big impact on me. That following week I came over all inspired, and created some new freelance writing work opportunities and followed up some old ones too.

    Hopefully 2012 will bring me plenty of interpretive writing work!

    Hope your trip to Kangaroo Island was a good one. That too is a very special place.

    Best wishes,

  3. Vicki smith says:

    Hi, I have walked the beach years ago and found my handful of black gems, I was only a teenager and from a fishing family, just loved ship wrecks and history it self, I also have a long piece of wood that was washed up in front of the Willyama, jarrah I think and I think it was a stair way hand rail, I am 49 now and still love the stories and history

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