For nearly four decades, 77-year-old naturist Garry Cornish has been soaking up the sun and swimming at one of South Australia’s few nudist beaches.

Key points:

  • Users of Pelican Point say they’re concerned about the future of the space
  • Pelican Point is jointly managed by the Berri Barmera Council and the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation
  • The SA representative of the Australian Naturists Federation says Pelican Point is one of four nudist beaches under threat

The shoreline of Pelican Point on Lake Bonney has long been his favourite designated clothing-optional beach. 

But the retiree, along with his fellow local naturists who make up the Pelican Point Users Group (PPUG), says rulings from the site’s joint managers over access during flood clean-up activities have led to frustration.   

“It’s pretty rotten … We’ve been completely locked out… There’s barricades up there and there’s going be a fine if we go down there,” Mr Cornish said.

“We just want to get back to normal. We get people from all around the world coming there [to Pelican Point].”

Garry Cornish wants to be able to continue to use Pelican Point as he has for decades. (ABC Riverland: Sophie Holder)

Mr Cornish has been a regular at the beach since 1985, first as a tourist and then as a local after moving to the Riverland from Adelaide in 2007.

But the River Murray floods of 2022/23 caused the shores of the popular Lake Bonney site to be closed to the public as authorities assessed the damage done to sacred sites, and identified safety concerns.

As an important cultural site to First Nations people, the River Murray and Mallee Region Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC) said it was crucial to protect and preserve Pelican Point.

The road which leads to Pelican Point is closed off, with signs forbidding entry. (ABC Riverland: Sophie Holder)

Mr Cornish said he and other group members of PPUG are seeking answers on when they will be allowed to use the beach again. 

“[We want them to] come to their senses and let the tourists back in the area. They spend the money. That’s all we ask for. We look after the place,” he said.

“Just take the locks off the gates and we can put our lock back on. That’s what we want to do.”

Tourist troubles

Adelaide naturist Hans van Bavel travelled to the Riverland in late September to visit Pelican Point but was surprised to find the site was closed. 

“We found it a bit confronting, when we didn’t think there was an issue … There’s nothing on [the council] website indicating the beach is closed.” 

Hans van Bavel says he and his husband left the region after finding they couldn’t access Pelican Point. (Supplied: Hans van Bavel)

Mr van Bavel said because of the lack of communication, he and his husband abandoned their holiday plans. 

“[The council] needs to step up their communication to the public – it’s not just for unclad people, the whole area off Pelican Point is a no-go zone,” he said. 

“There’s plenty of visitors from all over the world who actually really look for unclad bathing.”

Complicated history

The area surrounding Lake Bonney is joint-managed by Berri Barmera Council and the River Murray and RMMAC. 

An RMMAC representative said after the major flood had been through the area, it was important to preserve Pelican Point for the future.

In a statement, the organisation acknowledged the history of Pelican Point as a recreational area, and said it would seek to respectfully engage with people who use the space. 

“[We] emphasise a recommendation to withdraw support for public access to Pelican Point is driven by a strong cultural connection to Country and continued desire to protect and preserve all culturally sensitive sites across Country,” it said. 

Mayor Ella Winnall says Lake Bonney has huge cultural significance and council is working with RMMAC to re-open sites after the flood.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Landau)

Berri Barmera Mayor Ella Winnall said the small beach, jointly managed with RMMAC, has a complex background. 

“Pelican Point is one of the sites that requires a bit more care before we can work on opening it back up for public access,” she said. 

“To keep the lake open for everyone to enjoy, we need to respect that cultural significance and protect particular sites.”

She said the unclad bathing policy is still in place, and that it will be reviewed as part of a regular council process.

“It’ll go out to public consultation at the appropriate time and council will consider all stakeholders’ views when the policy comes to the council meeting,” she said.

Shazz Weavers says Pelican Point is one of four nudist beaches facing an uncertain future.(ABC News: David Frearson)

Not an isolated issue

South Australia representative of the Australian Naturist Federation, Shazz Weaver, said Pelican Point is one of four beaches the federation is working to keep open to unclad bathing. 

“We’re only asking for a few hundred metres of shoreline out of thousands of kilometres [across Australia], just for us to indulge in our hobby,” she said. 

“In Australia we’re quite progressive, yet in some ways we’re very backwards. Nudism happens to be one of them,” Ms Weraver said. 

“We’re working with the International Naturist Federation to try and find out how they were able to win over councils and governments.”

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