This guidebook, which is a Solo Waterways of the Illawarra (SWOTI) sub-project of the larger Waterways of the Illawarra (WOTI) project, aims to document all the major and minor waterways that run into the sea between the Hacking and Shoalhaven rivers. Probably not really possible, but worth a try.
Our approach is methodical. Avoiding the ad hoc approach adopted in the larger WOTI project, we subdivide the Illawarra coastal region into 7 sectors and and aim to explore each thoroughly, starting at the northern end of each sector and moving south, numbering each creek/waterway as we go.
Here is the sector map:
Here are the sectors:
A: Bundeena to Stanwell Park (Royal National Park)
B: Stanwell Park to Thirroul (escarpment close to sea)
C: Thirroul to Wollongong (northern suburbs)
D: Wollongong to Warilla (steel works and southern suburbs)
Proceed walking south along the coast (or close to the coast) until a waterway is encountered. It is up to the walker to choose what constitutes a waterway (in heavy rain there are many more potential waterways).
Photograph the waterway (ideally at its mouth to the sea).
Walk up the waterway, recording the route followed. Swimming and boating are also permitted (although not usually adopted).
Follow the line of least resistance. Follow the waterway itself or any nearby route that roughly follows the path of the waterway (define as convenient).
Follow the creek until it disappears. Note this point of disappearance.
No requirement, however, to actually reach the point of disappearance on any given walk. It is permitted to stop and turn around for whatever reason. This reason for turning around must be provided.
Document the waterways encountered in this guidebook.
Walks can be re-experienced and continued.
Solo walks are permitted and encouraged, but not required.
I just completed a longish walk today in sector B, documenting all the waterways between the southern end of Stanwell Park and Clifton. It was raining so all the creeks and minor watercourses were running. There were even small waterfalls beneath the Sea Cliff Bridge. This experience suggests the need to consider how we define a waterway.
We are deliberately vague. We adopt a circular definition. A waterway is whatever we regard as a waterway. Most obviously a waterway is a permanent creek. It will appear as lagoon on a beach. It will wind away from the coast in a visible creek-like manner. While these iconic waterways are fairly common, in actually walking a sector we discover all manner of more uncertain waterways – minor tributaries flowing into larger creeks, drains beneath railway lines, trickles of water down rocky cliffs. Are these also waterways? Do they also deserve to be numbered, explored and documented fully? The problem here is in attempting to combine both a humanly legible conception of a waterway and a more nuanced, accurate and open ended one.
Not everything appears as a waterway, but in fact everything within a particular catchment area is at least potentially a waterway. The smallest dripping leaf is a waterway. Catchment areas are fields, not lines, yet we are searching for lines – both obvious and neglected ones. For my purposes, I will focus on the more apparent waterways. Where these appear minor, I will deal with them in groups as a collection. Rather than obtaining a distinct number they will be designated via the overall collection number plus a unique alphabetical suffix ( I am hoping that I will not find more than 26 minor waterways in a group, but who knows). Particularly minor waterways will not be recorded at all. Today, for instance, I encountered a number of long retaining walls with many small drainage holes. Each of these holes could be regarded as a distinct watercourse, but this is to veer too far from our common sense understanding of the term. It is to simply make the point, once again, that catchment areas are fields, not lines – nonetheless it is lines that concern us.
These intermittently water-filled lines are discontinuous, hybrid things – in places scribbling down to the sea and at other times focused into concrete spillways and drains. Roads and railway lines transect the waterways. Industrial and suburban development renders them as repressed things, hidden away out of view. Yet despite this, water must somehow find a way down from the escarpment to the sea. In order to control this flow waterways are abstracted and materially reconstructed. Portions of them are rendered as tunnels, pipes and drains. When this happens there is no longer such confusion about what is and what is not a waterway. These artificial waterways are exclusively waterways. Linear, tubular, constructed of steel, concrete and brick, they are oriented entirely towards directing water efficiently towards the sea.
We willingly explore all manner of waterway. We do not privilege the natural or disparage the artificial. We recognise that every waterway is an assemblage. All we request is that we can follow a waterway – that we can pass along or beside it. We leave it to the next generation of WOTI practitioners to crawl and squirm through more inhospitable lines.
WOTI ran a walk for participants in the EcoArts Australis 2nd National Conference (14-16 February, 2016). A group of about twelve of us started at the Lagoon restaurant and wandered up Fairy Creek, discovering thriving weeds, multiple creek branches and miraculous drainway passages between railway lines and roads. One of our guest walkers, Eva Hampel, wrote the following:
A small coastal creek: degraded, weed-banked, a little creepy, in places almost impenetrable. Thickets of lantana, littered with flood-deposited plastic refuse, time and again bringing us to a halt. But still in some places almost intact casuarina swamp forest with native grasses, beautiful soft couch as an understorey, and the sound of the breeze soughing in the needles overhead. Makes you think: how beautiful must this place have been in pre-European times? What a luxurious, well-supplied living room it must have been when only Aboriginal people lived here – rich with fish, shellfish, tubers, native spinach and other native plants, with fresh water plentiful nearby, and soft grass on which to sit and feast.
For how long did this idyllic environment survive European settlement and the disturbance of agriculture? For quite a while it must have remained beautiful: a place of refuge for wildlife, for Aboriginal owners a setting for continued occupation (where allowed – that history is not pretty), for European settlers a place for picnics and swimming; shaded, wind-protected, and with deep still pools, waterbirds, and quiet reflections. But gradually the weeds would have moved in – and with industrialisation of the area, the neglect of peripheral spaces: behind the factory, beside the road/rail/driveway, bordering the parking area; weeds have been allowed to grow unchecked, and the degradation is almost complete.
And yet what a treasure these passages could be! These are ribbons of largely public space, reaching from deep in the coastal suburbs to the surf beaches: see them as ribbon parklands, perhaps a cycleway, at least a creekside track. Large-scale weed clearance would be needed, but once the worst was cleared out, local groups would likely be roused to their defence, once they became a public asset, a path to the ocean. Even now hardy dog-owners manage to navigate them in parts, graffiti artists use drainage tunnels as canvases, and hideaways have been built here and there, despite a vague sense of threat and possible sinister things. These are spaces that people value – if some are brave enough to inhabit them now, how many more would use them once the sense of potential threat had been removed?
Should this be a call to arms? Could the local Council, perhaps cash-strapped, certainly with priorities firmly set on ‘front-of-house’ spaces – like roadways, established parks, formal sports playing grounds – be encouraged to view these spaces as assets, local spaces for local people, along with the beaches and escarpment which are iconic local attractions? Is it just the idealist in me, blended with the compulsive planner and landscape architect, that cries at the lack of vision and waste of this approach to such spaces?
Can art change the world? Well, certainly it can build a groundswell for action. I think this is a call to arms….