So here are my thoughts on my experience of walking upstream with this fine gaggle of WOTI wanderers.
Last Saturday I set off to visit a place that I have never been to before, to spend time with and stay with people I had never met at their invitation, so that I could participate in a project that I really didn’t know much about.
These are my thoughts on this adventure.
I cannot think about this walk without framing it by the events that occurred before and after. The journey to Wollongong had been hot – I arrived in Sydney to a searing 35C heat ,and the city and me seemed to be melting into the pavement, but the air was full of the prospect of a storm and the landing of the plane with all its bumps and surges supported this prediction. I had lunch with an old friend at a pub in the Rocks and then headed off to take the train for what should have been a relatively uneventful 90min journey. Kim was going to meet me and the prospect of a walk or a swim was ahead as I got on the train. The train left Central ok but it drew to a hault and didn’t move. Then it would move a little, and then stop. Slowly we made our way to the edge of the city limits whilst I looked out at the familiar and yet strange NSW decreasingly urban landscape. Apparently, although I never saw it, there had been an almighty storm that had come through from the south and the signals were down. My 90minute ride became one that was more like 2.5hours in length. And amidst texts to Kim about slow progress being made, I held my book in my hand and spent my time reading daydreams as I gazed out the windows.
Finally I arrived at Thirroul and we sped off to Brogan’s house for a very congenial evening where I got to start to get to know Kim, Brogan and Lucas (the project leads) Mailin another walker for this event, and some of their extended network of family, partners and friends. It was a very enjoyable evening filled with easy banter about past walks, the Sydney to Wollongong bike ride that was happening the next day, approaches to lighting bbqs and rivers and creeks and their locations. As a stranger it was easy to feel at welcome in this company; and I felt that I was starting to get an idea of what Sunday’s river walk would be, but then not at all. A theme that was to develop further over the next day started to emerge – riffing between locations of rivers and creeks and their access, topography and modes of walking – in no particular order.
It took us a while to get to the river path on Sunday. First there was a car shuffle at the meeting place, a stop for a coffee, a return to the starting site, fixing of shoes (me) and then we are off. Well we started walking towards the starting point along the beach from the carpark to the river mouth. As we walk there is friendly teasing and recollections about what I think is the infamous first walk of this river. That was the slow one that took too long for some, but did produce a quite beautiful map and it seems slow conversations about details in place – or so I’m told.
As we walk along the beach I am trying to navigate my way into this past walk and to make sense of where I am. Despite a quick drive around a bit of Port Kembla that morning, I still have no real sense of where I am. But here, as we walk up the beach I find myself starting to take in what for me are the three key tropes of Wollongong – the steel works and port framed by beautiful beaches on one side and the escarpment on the other. The city, and the rivers we are talking about, inhabit the small space between up there, and down here. Trails from one edge to another.
Standing on the sandy lips of the creek mouth we turn our backs to the sea and start striding up the rivers edge. And I do mean striding – there is so much discussion about the slowness of the last walk that we seem to stride forward on a mission, and it is a mission that is being peppered by recollections of the past walk as much as it is about where we are now. Perhaps this is inevitable when we re-trace steps and just like the phenomenon that the way back from somewhere always seems quicker and in few ways familiar to what the journey torward our destination was – this tracing, or re-walking has a different rhythm for my companions than it does for me. I am seeing everything for the first time, they – my fellow walkers – are looking both in the now and through recollections. The conversation sways between past and present – mixed with observations and propositions – what would it be like… I wonder if… what’s that?….
Mailin often raises the topic that she is an interloper to this event and asks about rules – she is assured she is not an interloper – everyone is welcome and there are no rules…
In my own walking practice I typically explore the space between looking and noticing. I am really interested in the practice of walking through peripheral vision. This is a practice where you don’t consciously look but you note what is to the side or just out of focus and then turn towards it … or not. What engages the eye might be captured quickly on a phone camera – but rarely in a note book at the time. Peripheral practices are light ones – fleeting ones – ones to be pondered later, but not in the moment. And then what happens is that when I look back on a walk and my noticings after the event – I notice I am a creature of patterns. On this walk I found myself moving between my natural practice of waddling and documenting the places that I am moving through – and being an observer of a conversation ,and a series of practices, that were going on around me by this wandering crew.
At first glance it is yellow things – or is it wild flowers along the path that I keep seeing?
And as we go along we also stop and explore and photograph. In this case an odd remnant evidencing the presence of others like this hut which was found along the way. In this case the structure is fascinating but it is also come upon at a political point in the conversation. I am an uneasy about the idea of national flags in front lawns and a discussion arises about the lines between shared socio/political action and fundamental points of difference. Can we overcome one bias to engage in another shared activity?
And the yellow things just keep coming…
Although there is much focus in this walk about tracing rivers and creek lines through the urban landscape – it seems that we spend more time walking on the periphery of the waterways than being on the waters edge. We are near the water, trying to get near the water, have lost the water and come back to it again. But all the while we are wandering on the edge of paths – tracing a line beside a line.
All the time that we walk – we talk – they talk… these waterway chasers … they talk a lot about water and other things too. And now its not like I was expecting silence – but I can’t help but be struck by the role that the conversing is taking in this event.
From the beginning there has been a lot discussion about how this WOTI exploration has no rules. Anyone can walk, all are welcome, you can do as you please, we have set no agenda – just come and walk with us, or on your own. There are many sites and lines, and creeks and waterways in the Illawarra that are the contexts for Walking Upstream and although I learned a lot about the waterways of the region and the topography and unusual cultural practices of the locals – I can’t help but think that these walks are just an excuse to connect. The conversation, the hospitality, the good humouredness, and the reflection these are the things that I am meandering through. The waterways are the medium within, through or beside which connections are made – their watery ways hold and create the flow for what happens between the people and the locations and hence make the numerous winding places of the Illawarra.
When we return from the walk, I check the pedometer I am wearing –
9.2km of walking
17 flights of stairs
Towradji creek from the mouth to Tarawa
11.30 am – 2.30pm
3 colleagues, 1 partner & an almost stranger
Google tells me we the distance is 2.4km and we could have walked it in 32 minutes or driven it in 6minutes. I don’t think so.
Such computationally predicted itineraries deny the richness of possibility of grounded truth – of paths lost, of railway lines and freeways; of freehold dwellings and free will and sideways glances.
This for me was a river walk that’s focus was on relations – relationships between people, places, traces, blocks and paths.