… by Mick Douglas
2pm Saturday and I am writing exactly one week after setting out to walk upstream, a week in which much rain has flowed. This creek apparently passes through the town’s fenced-off major steel works site before entering the sea, so we start at a nearby more accessible location a little upstream, the Figtree Westfield Shopping Centre. Amongst common brands, materials of cool efficiency, controlled air and lighting systems, I scan for a drink fountain from which to fill my bottle, wondering what relation such waters might hold to the creek I am yet to meet. Walking and no fountain found. Gliding over terrazzo-like surfaces, past display counters and back-lit plastic signage, through shadowless spaces and a-temporal atmospheres, through automatic sliding doors to exit into the asphalt carpark, heading wests toward the escarpment onto a concrete road-side pavement that quickly delivers us to a small bridge. Now this must be the creek! Look left, look right, upstream and downstream. Byarong Creek! Look left, look right, choose your timing between traffic and cross this four lane coastal Princes Highway. The aura of consumer environments begins to fade, with exception of a stray beer can and confectionary wrapper here and there. Now it is all shades of green and brown and yellow tones with flickers of reds and blues from flowers and foliage. The four of us are walking upstream but I’m still wondering where the creek went down stream – past or under the shopping centre complex; on toward the steel factory, the management of which I am told espouses that the creek is good, so good that ‘there are sharks in it’. I presume that for the steelworks, the creek was once a dual-purpose source of water-cooling and a conduit for waste disposal, perhaps being originally sited near the creek mouth to the ocean for just such purpose. Maybe claiming there are sharks up the creek keeps some away from wanting to nose about? I only saw the behemoth shark of commodity capitalism where we started out from.
‘Now we are free’, I jest to myself, feeling like we are ‘walking upstream’ as I’d expected, but secretly now I’m primed for surprise and contradiction. Walking thin green strips beside the creek, along suburban roads and homes, past small tracks that dip down the small embankment to the waters edge, signs of children and dogs, and… . Really? I’m told there are wild deer that venture down from the escarpment woods at night. ‘Keep an eye out for that scat’ I note to self, trying on the diligent bushwalker. And where is that soapy liquid that she is hosing off her shiny black car going to end up, I wonder? The ends of concrete pipes reveal themselves periodically, and then larger concrete junction boxes covered by steel grills at ground-level. Four of us stand atop the grill-lidded pit, looking down to see pipes entering at different angles. How do our slightly bemused gazes compare to those of the lizards whose paths we just crossed? There is material here that flows and abruptly stops: the waters, this walk, our thoughts, bits of matter… . A man who worked for a different city’s public works authority once told me that he and his work-mates would go down to their favorite litter catchment pits after a rain and seek out the coins and notes that had washed from the street’s gutters. I suspect Wollongong has never been that flush, though the increasing settlement of Sydney-siders settling here and taking up the commute might be changing things, building the passage of people and things and resources up and down the coastal corridor as mighty as the perpendicular flows from escarpment to sea. But then I learn that on the inland side of the escarpment is the water catchment that is piped north into Sydney’s mains water supply.
The managed, suburban creek-side paths give way to over-grown goat tracks – well, more likely paths made by rabbit, dog, deer, scrambler. Is this the creek or is that the creek we are walking? One man amongst the project artists has traversed this creek before, and is stepping ahead a little, playing the frontman. She who suggested that we walk this creek has now joined us, halfway, in the territory where gentle plain begins to meet the foot of the escarpment. Let’s call her the compass. Talks of other walks and trails and creeks and willingness to proceed further upstream have met us. The questions ‘how far’ and ‘how much longer’ first enter conversation as uncertainty begins to rise with the terrain. No longer local council maintained land or grassy meadows, the vegetation is thicker, the possibly true and false names attributed by the artists to what we encounter is more difficult to discern, signs of water flow more regular, and the ground more variable as the actual path of waters meeting materials is now the very path we follow step by step. Pauses are gently held by the muse, the third collaborator of this walking upstream project, who temporarily investigates the moment, who captures an image and sound here and there, who introduces the notion that this opening may in fact be a ‘worm-hole’ that leads to another space and time, ‘a portal’ adds the frontman.
Now meet the black stuff. It’s crumbly to the hand and foot, stratified in layers, light in density and on occasion rounded by water into hand-sized pebbles. This is the black coal of the escarpment, that, so I was told earlier in the morning, Captain James Cook saw over two centuries ago from the decks of his ship Endeavour, lighting up ideas of what here might afford white settlement on this land, ideas of heat and power and forging a way ahead. Layers of time, long time, are stacked and shifted and ruptured in this country. Steelworks must have played a big part in making country town into satellite city. Frontman tells us ‘it’s not that far, but there’s a bit of scrambling over boulders – is that ok?’ A blockage ahead, or just a minor obstacle, a difference to negotiate? The steelworks is facing losing out as just a processor of iron ore for a globalised market. Shall we move around to the left or to the right, stay in the base of the stream’s path whilst our feet can still manage to stay dry, or will we scramble up the side embankment a little? Different footwear products are demonstrating their virtues and weaknesses. I profess some attachment to the ‘Redback’ boot, made in Western Australia, playing the tenuous link to what I have as a place of original, whilst getting more into the challenges of clambering up into this gulley stream, where a bounty of fig-like fruits have dropped onto the ledges and pools at a junction of two tributary streams. Bats and birds would meet here too. And we meet the decision to follow the north stream, now requiring a bit of help from each other for a leg-up, a steadying hand, a tip on where to place feet and hands to move upward, again, and again. And slip downward a little. In between boulders, nowhere to quite place a foot or to grip a hand, but able to reach to a fellow hand ahead and ingloriously be dragged chest and groin over the higher boulder till the feet can find a more horizontal face.
There is probably an hour and a half of light left in the day, and with nuts and bananas and plums energizing along the way, there is little to question but go up and upstream. Till the only other sounds of human habitation heard for the last hour come within ear’s reach, young voices, upward to the left over the embankment, coming from … wait for it, the Kumbayah Mt Keira Girl Guide Camp. We are clearly not alone, other versions of life in the area are well before our day, not least that of the first inhabitants which remains so unknown to me. With a sense of pleasurably-tired satisfaction we reach a grassy flat, a couple of accommodation-type buildings, a group of teenagers and some men whose dress and build conveys that they are camp leaders, and perhaps Army Reserves officers. A camp insignia marks the buildings, presenting an abstracted human figure poised in a wide-legged action-ready stance, bent knees and outward arms, almost like a Hindu deity set into the outline of a clover-leaf. We meet an even larger and more abstracted version of the insignia in the form of a sculptural gateway to the camp, under which we walk to exit the camp, and to exit this pursuit upstream. There must be another kilometer or more climbing up further to the top of the Illawara escarpment. There must be so many more streams linking ocean to escarpment. So many more versions of walking upstream through layered opportunities for embodied, emplaced, materially enmeshed enquiries.
I ask of my shower later that night below the escarpment in Bulli, did your waters flow down from the escarpment as I walked up? Did we meet half-way?