Here are some pics of the opening of our exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery on Friday 27th October. The Welcome to Country was given by Aunty Barbara Nicholson and the opening address by Joshua Lobb. A big thanks to both!
The show is comprised of works generated through the practice of walking upstream along creeks.
Friends have also contributed to this exhibition, including some wonderful photos by Vincent Bicego, who also wrote the catalogue essay, and a video by Hayden Griffith, who deployed a drone and a helicopter as well as on-ground camera work to document the Allans Creek/Byarong Creek system.
In the lead up to our exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery, we have been trying to learn more about some of the Aboriginal stories of the local creeks.
As part of our project, there will be a tour with Les Bursill in late January. Les is a Dharawal historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, and publisher, and he will walk with us up Ooaree Creek (near Gerringong), details here.
In the meantime, we thought it would be a good idea to have a look at some of the books that have been published about the histories of the Illawarra, to see what we could find about Aboriginal relationships to the waterways.
For this task, our friend, the artist Clementine Barnes took on the job of archival researcher. Here is a brief account of what she learned from some of the books that are available at the University of Wollongong library:
Aboriginal Histories of the Waterways of the Illawarra.
– Some notes by Clementine Barnes
Researching Indigenous Australian histories is a challenge. Many of the available documents explaining the history of the Illawarra region and the changes brought about by European colonisation merely ripple the surface, and a murky one at that.
Lucas met me at Central Station one morning a few months back and gave me a heavy bag of books. Subsequently, I set about reading each book from cover to cover in the hope of finding something of substance. The main thing I am left with from my research is the reality that Indigenous Australians do not record natural histories in the same way as the Colonials who invaded so-called ‘terra nullius’.
My blog post is a bit of a miscellany of things I find noteworthy or relevant. It is my hope that others who read this will be able to share some interesting insights into the Waterways of the Illawarra (WOTI) so that this digital space will consequently become a creative common of information on the WOTI.
Artists including Augustus Earle, Conrad Martens, John Skinner Prout, George French Angas, Eugene von Guérard, Nicholas Chevalier and were some of the first European artists to venture to the ‘south side’ to document the natural environment of the Illawarra region , yet as you can see in the images included with this blog post, their view shows a romanticised, picturesque landscape – an amalgamation of natural and introduced species.
I read in the publication A history of Aboriginal Illawarra Volume 1 Before Colonisation, written by Mike Donaldson, Les Bursill and Mary Jacobs, that the two major Indigenous groups of the Illawarra region were the Dharawal and the Dhurga. The Dharawal clans spoke one language, the Dhurga spoke several different dialects. ‘Dharawal people are distinguished as fresh water, bitter water or salt water people depending on whether they occupied the coastal regions, the swamps of the plateaus and inland river valleys’ .
The waterways, rivers, lakes and coastal waters of the Illawarra were important sources of food and spiritual significance and like most ‘early settler’ stories, the first European invaders would not have survived without the assistance of intimate Indigenous knowledge of the region. Merriman Island in the middle of Wallaga Lake – is ‘Umbarra’, the black duck – the totem of the Yuin nation: “Totems play an important part in daily life, affecting with whom people could associate, the ceremonies they could or could not perform and attend, and what they could harvest and eat” .
It has been interesting for me to learn about totems and the beliefs surrounding them, something I didn’t know much about before, having spent the majority of my school years in New Zealand. It’s a poor excuse, seeing as I have spent the better part of my adult life in Australia and I wonder why it is that I didn’t know more about this before now.
I find totems interesting as they reiterate the interconnectedness of Aboriginal culture. This has been an opportunity for me to learn why colonial perspectives were so at odds with the Indigenous World View – as demonstrated in the 1880s, when the colonial government decided that many of the animals vital to the life force of Indigenous Australians were noxious.
The Waterways of the Illawarra today would be unrecognisable to the early Indigenous community due to a few different factors. Many middens were destroyed in the 1860s to make lime and would consequently give Shellharbour its name. “The public camping grounds at Bulli and Windang are sited on middens and at Port Kembla one midden runs 600 meters and takes in Boiler’s Point and the Northern End of North Beach” .
This is nothing new in the history of colonisation – a tailoring of the landscape to make way for ‘progress’. This alteration, evident on a physical level through the construction of dams, weirs, fish traps, the bridging of streams and through the construction of roads and railways – impacted the waterways of the Illawarra, modifying the structure of the bird and fish life, carving into and covering over Indigenous song lines, dreaming tracks and personal histories.
There is some sort of strange irony in the fact that many camping grounds in the Illawarra region sit on these middens – sites of Indigenous history now inhabited by temporary dwellers and dwellings.
You know where an old couch belongs? In a creek of course. What can be more witty than its homely form – its ludicrous, puffy bulk – half immersed in water. Indeed one can almost imagine the couch getting there on its own, making its way silently through the suburbs to this reservoir of comfort. The creek holds the couch quietly, calling on it to reflect, which it does for a time until wilds nights put an end to meditation and drag it out to sea.
Today we planned to walk a section of American Creek, from the bottom of O’Briens Rd Figtree up to the top of the creek near the Mt Kembla summit. This involved some elaborate car shuffling: we parked two cars at the Mt Kembla summit carpark, then all got in the third car and drove back down to the bottom of O’Briens Rd. I chose this section, as I often walk the tracks in Mt Kembla and have been aware of American Creek, as it runs alongside and criss-crosses Cordeaux Rd, which is the route up through Mt Kembla village to the summit carpark. Also I wanted us to end the day with a walk up the summit track to the splendid vista at the Mt Kembla lookout.
American Creek flows into Allans Creek, not far inland from the steelworks. Allans Creek is the emptying stream for a number of creeks and it runs out to sea through the steelworks. I hope we can walk the section between Allans Creek junction and O’Briens Rd in the near future; looking at Google maps, this may involve large detours away from the creek.
Picking up the creek from the Princes Highway/O’Briens Rd junction, we fairly soon crossed a footbridge to the southern side of the creek. There is quite a lot of open green space in this section, so the going is easy. Here the creek is a deep, wide cut through the surrounding land, with steep banks. At present there is water flowing along the bottom of the creek. The profile of the creek suggests that there are big flows at times. It looks like there had been a fair bit of erosion from the recent rains. There is a distinct floodplain around this waterway and the grass is spongy with damp soil underfoot.
We found a discarded brazier in the bush, so earmarked it to collect on the way back, to be used for Lizzie’s 40th birthday celebrations. It was in good condition. Fairly soon our way was blocked by an electric fence bordering a paddock, so we skirted around it, along the back of Figtree Private Hospital. After walking through the grounds of a nursing home, we were back on the floodplain. There were a couple of private vegie patches on the floodplain – discreet colonisation of the spacious public land and a practical use of the rich alluvial soil. A man was tending one of the vegie patches. It was fenced to keep the feral deer out and it had a charming windmill ornament made from tennis ball canisters. We stopped to chat and he told us that the flooplain gets a drenching on average once a year from flooding. He also suggested that we turn along Brandy and Water Creek instead of following American Creek. In his view Brandy and Water Creek promised a more pleasant, bucolic experience than the suburban environment that American Creek runs through. He promised that the Brandy and Water walk was also highlighted by a waterfall further upstream, though he had never been there.
A decision had to be made. At the junction of the two creeks, Lucas and I played rock, paper, scissors. This went in favour of Brandy and Water Creek. We headed north west along this creek, also bounded by fairly open space along its lower reaches. Soon the creek runs along the back of the hitherto unknown (to me) suburb of Nareena Hills. The houses are quite large and there is a new development of even larger houses on the western side of the creek. Trevor, who is visiting Australia from Hong Kong, asked me if the owners of the houses are rich. I said that they may not be rich, but they would be ‘comfortable’.
Eventually the open land closed in. We took a foot track through a thick stand of coral trees and were eventually stopped by the size and number of thorns. Deer clearly inhabit this area. Aside from the numerous deer footprints, we encountered the stench and corpses of two deer today. Brandy and Water Creek, though not without some rubbish and pollution, was in some ways one of the cleaner-looking creeks we’ve walked.
We didn’t reach the fabled waterfall, turning back to make time to drive up to the Mt Kembla summit track and walk to the lookout in the early evening. The sun was setting, leaving a soft pink hue across the sky over the horizon. Lucas wrote a haiku in the visitors’ book at the summit. We picked our way back down the track in the near dark.
Today it was Vince, David, Eva and me, walking on a wet Monday. I had been wanting to walk Cabbage Tree Creek, as it is one of the branches that run off the lagoon at North Wollongong Beach. In February we had taken the Fairy Creek branch, to the south west. Cabbage Tree Creek is hard to follow in the first section, as it is contained in a concrete channel which is sandwiched between the Uni’s Innovation Campus and Montague St. It turns sharply westward at the north end of Montague St, running underneath a bridge. We picked the creek up by leaving from David’s place in Fairy Meadow, heading across the railway line and over the freeway.
After skirting around the Fraternity Club and crossing the Princes Highway, we picked up the creek from the Cabbage Tree pub carpark. At this point the stream looks fairly insubstantial, flowing along the bottom of a large concrete channel.
Like most of the other creeks we’ve walked so far, the creek feels assaulted by human intervention, redirection, rubbish, weeds and general neglect.
Not far upstream the concrete stream forks. We take the right hand fork, as I’m fairly sure that this fork is Cabbage Tree Creek. David comments that it is liberating to walk without a map.
There is quite a lot of public green space near the creek between the highway and Balgownie. Strange that it’s recognised as an area for recreation when it is so degraded in the lower reaches. Yet there are a few areas of bush regeneration. And of course the obligatory ‘creek loungeroom’.
As with some of the other creeks we’ve walked in the region, it becomes more creek-like as you walk further upstream.
There is quite a bit of erosion in parts beyond the concrete channel. It looks like the recent rains may have played a part.
One of the highlights for me was the green area at the back of a row of houses which has been converted into a creekside recreational space, complete with putting green and outsized golfball sign.
Then the Shetland pony.
The pony’s paddock blocked our way along the creek, so we had to do a detour on to the streets. By the time we reached the Balgownie shops we decided to head back, agreeing to pick up the creek again next time at Donnan’s Bridge.
Being proud of myself for identifying a kangaroo apple plant and eating one, but being very glad to swap that bitterness for the taste sensation of half a passionfruit from the vine opposite, foraged by Lucas.
The joy of discovering those tunnels, and a few of us briefly trying to harmonise in there. I thought for a moment about the relationship between the graffiti on its walls and the creek walk – two kinds of creative activity that share some kind of illicit (?) quality in public space: hanging out in places we ‘shouldn’t be’.
Watching Kim attack the lantana. It all had a really adventurous feel, like a Vietnam war movie, until I saw the geometry of the fence through the thicket, and then the romance was over. I still have forearm scratches from my efforts. We talked about needing a machete – I have always been captivated by the sound of the word machete, I think because when I was a kid I never knew what it was but knew it was dangerous.
There was something very moving about the little camp set up just after the bridge. The way some pillows and belongings were wedged in tree branches created the sense of a tenuous domesticity. When had they been there last, and when would they return?
The rubbish at the beginning part of the river was pretty frightful, I was frustrated to not have a means of collecting it. Next time! Gumboots and gators next time too maybe.
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….
It has taken me almost two months to write about our walk along Mullet Creek largely because my impressions of the experience, rather than free-flowing, remain clunky and turgid. But perhaps this is apt – so physically fragmented and dislocated was the tract of land we walked that day.
From our meeting place on Murra Murra road, overlooking Purrah Bay Park, we walked to the mouth of the creek where it meets Lake Illawarra, and then upstream almost as far as its intersection with the Princes Motorway. A large detour through suburbia – during which we crossed several tributaries of the Mullet – ended with a late lunch by the creek proper before our return walk along Valley Way and Kanahooka Road.
To walk upstream from the mouth of a waterway should of course be only as challenging as its ‘natural’ aspects dictate: the incline of the terrain, the compactness of its vegetation. And yet a good part of our time alongside the creek was spent negotiating barb wire fences, potentially electric fences, eroded channels, cement boat ramps, and a perfectly rounded grassy hillock (presumably sculpted from land fill). The creek itself figures little in my memory. As such, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mullet Creek was like before it was infringed upon by modernity.
A quick internet search revealed that at least two paintings were made of Mullet Creek in the nineteenth century by visiting European artists – by Conrad Martens in 1853, and by Valentine Delawarr in the later part of the century. Their dark palettes and absence of man-made subject matter epitomise the romantic sensibilities of landscape painting at the time.
In my initial contemplation of these pictures I was inclined to think they were of locations further upstream from any point we reached on our walk, as the vegetation depicted seemed too lush for an estuarine environment. But contemporaneous sketches of the greater Dapto area, made by George French Argas, testify to the already compromised nature of this part of the Illawarra. Stripped of much of its original vegetation, land had been quickly divided into a patchwork of farming properties. A close inspection of Eugene von Guérard’s famous oil painting, View of Lake Illawarra with distant mountains of Kiama, 1860, suggests that some of the largest intact forests in this area were at the mouth of Mullet Creek; so it is quite possible that we walked in the footsteps of Conrad and Delawarr after all.
For romantic landscape painters arriving from Europe in the colonial era, Port Jackson offered little in the way of desirable subject matter. So alien was its sandstone soils and dry sclerophyll vegetation that artists sought out the sublime vistas of the Blue Mountains to the west, and the lush rainforests of the Illawarra to the south (Organ 1993). It would not be until the advent of en plein air – championed by the Heidelberg school in the later part of the century – that a painting style would popularly evoke Sydney’s unique character. And yet, as Impressionism remained an intrinsically bourgeois predilection, both in subject matter and execution (Hughes 1980, p.113), it was arguably the harbour’s modernisation that made it so evocative. With its industries, steamers, sailing boats, and beach goers, the harbour had modernised as both experience and spectacle. What proved taciturn for the Romantics was made expressible only because it had been completely transformed.
I emphasise this idea of modernity, and the way it has been engaged with visually, because as I think back to our walk along Mullet Creek, and look through the photographs I took, those most prevailing characteristics of the modern epoch – fragmentation and alienation – cannot be ignored. Never have so many people lived along Mullet Creek, yet the fences and storm water channels that almost bifurcate this waterway emphasise the disconnect between each property and the individuals that reside there. If you were ever in doubt about the official status of your whereabouts, ‘private property’ signs (trespassers will be prosecuted) are readily at hand to remind you.
This is only emphasised more as one moves further upstream, as horse paddocks give way to newer housing estates. With land in the Illawarra now at a premium, the gaudiness of these ‘McMansions’ is matched only by their claustrophobic proximity to each other; the faux grandeur of their colonnades and balustrades operatically unveiled to the cacophony of barking dogs. Here, the Illawarra escarpment is the mere cornice of a white room offering unimpinged views of a plasma TV screen. Only the occasional tributary – either highly manicured into ponds, or eroded channels marking the boundary of one paddock from another – indicate nature is still nearby.
My point, of course, is that it is difficult to reconcile any part of Mullet Creek we might have walked that day in September with the aforementioned nineteenth century visions of Conrad or Delawarr. Whatever had initially inspired the misanthropic eye of the romantic painter is now largely gone. The once exotic vegetation that attracted artists to the Illawarra is the very same phenomena that lured farmers and graziers – the forests for their timber, the rich alluvial soil of the coastal flood plain for its agricultural potential. As such, while landscape painters might have been lured by the region’s ‘natural’ beauty, many of them made their living by documenting its eradication: picturesque property-scapes, commissioned by land holders, testify to the process by which unruly nature was brought to heel by western civilisation. The irony of this situation was not lost on the artists themselves. Commenting on the intensive logging taking place in the region, von Guérard wrote:
“Unfortunately the progress of settlement is necessitating the destruction of these magnificent forests, which in many instances clothe a rich chocolate soil of especial value to the farmer … [S]tately giants [are] rapidly falling before the pitiless axe of the hardy pioneers of civilisation.” – cited in Mills & Jakeman 1995, p.28
Vestiges of any original estuarine environment along Mullet Creek are represented almost totally by copses of Black she-oak. Prominent and more naturally dispersed at the mouth of the creek, they then trail in almost single formation upstream – somewhat reminiscent of the tree-lined canals of Europe. At this time of year their golden brown fruit were in abundance, and they glistened in the spring sunshine as if sprinkled with gold dust. These are the sights from our walk that most pleased me.
At one point we stumbled across a ramshackle tin shed that looked directly out onto the creek, its sole contents being two ragged deckchairs. With a view of the opposite bank, lined with golden she-oak, it pleased me to think that even such a haphazard approach to modern leisure meant that a few residents had, at least sometime in the recent past, been able to appreciate the subtle beauty still discernible along this waterway – albeit a mere shard from a now fragmented picture.
Hughes, R 1980, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, British Broadcasting Corporation, London.
Mills, K & Jakeman, J 1995, Rainforests of the Illawarra District, Coachwood Publishing, Jamberoo.
Organ, M 1993, Conrad Martens and Illawarra 1835-1878: In search of the Picturesque, Illawarra Historical Publications, Wollongong.
Yesterday Brogan took me on a northern suburbs coastal walk to show me what he’s been up to lately, sneaking off to do SWOTI walks (Solo Waterways of the Illawarra). So I dismantled that acronym by joining him. It was a wonderful walk that I’ve never done in all the time I’ve lived in the Illawarra: picking our way along the rock platforms and scrambling around the rocky headlands from Coalcliff to Wombarra, then back along Lawrence Hargrave Drive above the cliffs.
The outward journey is spectacular and beautiful in parts. Looking skyward to see the underbelly of the Sea Cliff Bridge, coming across small waterfalls pouring down rocks to the beaches, densely vegetated gullies, thick seams of coal banding the cliff walls and of course the pounding sea and stiff southerly pushing against our flesh.
Wollongong’s mining history is here too: abandoned mineshafts nestled in the rock and old bits of wood and rusted metal which were once part of the Clifton jetty structure. I’m guessing it was used to transport the coal by sea directly from the mine. One fascinating building, decidedly more contemporary, is a small rusty tin shack tucked into the scrub above a beach. Sort of like a fisherman’s dugout with door, plywood floor and storm window, but on closer inspection an apparently handy site for sexual exploits, with a fully illustrated account written in texta on the door.
Brogan marked the waterways he thought noteworthy on a topographic map. This area is so steep that the sight of water coming off the cliffs is common; whether it is coming from a small creek or just seeping from the vegetation on the clifftop is often hard to tell. Once you get up to the road these waterways are often obscured by houses. They are directed eastward by culverts, pipes and drains, while westward they disappear under driveways and lawns, or sidle along gardens.
This brings me to the title of my post, WOTSANOTS. This acronym signifies a one-off splinter activity: Waterways Of The South And North Of The State. The challenge of this activity was to document all named waterways on the road trip I did out to Broken Hill and back recently. The journey out went via the southerly route (there is no direct route from Wollongong to Broken Hill), through places such as Wagga Wagga, Hay, Balranald, Mildura, Wentworth, then up to Broken Hill. I deliberately made this trip a circuit, returning on the northerly route via Wilcannia, Cobar, Nyngan, Dubbo, Bathurst, Katoomba then Wollongong. With a little notebook, I recorded each creek name while driving (not a recommended practice) and ended up with one hundred and thirty three names. This required some alertness, as it is easy to lapse into reverie when driving such long distances and to forget to observe closely. There seemed to be a fairly even spread of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal names to these creeks and rivers, some with delightful titles such as Talyawalka Creek, Run O’ Waters Creek, Poison Waterholes Creek, the Bogan River and my personal favourite, the Great Darling Anabranch.
Many of these creeks were of course dry. I was struck by two things: on the journey out, there were far more creeks in the first part of the journey where it’s hillier. This made sense to me, as the Great Dividing Range would surely generate many waterways. Yet on the way back, heading east from Wilcannia, there were many named creeks (completely dry) in the very flat western landscape. This made sense too in its own way, as these creeks are part of the Darling River floodplain area and would all be activated by floodwaters flowing down from the north.
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?