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.
Walkers: Shaz, Trevor (Hong Kong), Lucas, Kim
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.
All photos by Vince Bicego.
Memories from the creek walk, by Laura Fisher
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.
… 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?
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.
I have eighteen images from the walk that we made along Towradgi Creek on Sunday 2 November.
In attendance: Kim, Lucas, Mailin, Laurene and myself.
This is not a description of the walk. More a set of minor observations linked to specific images. I’ll leave Laurene to tell the story, inasmuch as she traveled all the way from Melbourne to join us.
I will note, however, that on the basis of my complaints about the limited trajectory and pace of the previous walk, this time we walked all the way from the mouth of Towradgi Creek to the base of the escarpment. The creek continues on from there up into the forest, but it seemed appropriate to stop at a shallow crossing at the limit of the suburbs, with a broken foam surfboard lying on the rocks. I would have taken a photo of this arbitrary limit point, except by then my phone battery had died.
Here I must offer a confession and apology. During this walk, despite my stated objections to excessive documentation, I succumbed to the very same vice, taking all manner of well and poorly considered photographs and even directing my fellow walkers to repeat various actions so that our activities could be properly preserved. I must acknowledge now (between slightly gritted teeth) that there is no pure walking activity – that multiple forms and levels of engagement are possible. Walking itself is never quite itself. It lends itself to distraction. What emerges then is an ethical and aesthetic question concerning appropriate contours and dimensions of distraction.
Here is an image of all of us (except me) at the start of the walk:
I group the remaining images in terms of the following evolving categories:
- Pretty things
- Dead Ends
Fantasy (to imagine the creek in other terms)
A short way along the walk we entered a narrow strip of low, re-growth Casuarina forest. We came across sections of weathered stone (dumped concrete) and a low creek side citadel (storm water outlet):
We stood at what has been dubbed ‘Woti Cove’:
Of course we are not the only ones with fantasies. I have no adequate images to demonstrate this, but the other side of the creek, which is strictly guarded by its proud residents, contains numerous examples of fantastic relations: small piers to suggest that one is living perhaps beside Sydney harbour; little fake beaches to suggest that this is not a creek but the sea; cabanas, decks and bus benches to suggest a relaxed, convivial lifestyle that is unfortunately contradicted by all the many fences and ‘no trespassing’ signs.
Denial (to turn away from the creek, to not see it)
The other very evident strategy is to pretend that the creek is not there. Just beyond the fantasy homes are group of new homes positioned just beside the creek. A zone of rock and a dark drain marks a division between the neat brick walls, white fences and suburban gardens and the alien presence of the creek.
Or this place further up the creek:
Perhaps the fence is to protect small kids from drowning? But at what cost? Only if the owner stands on tippy toe and peers over the top of the fence is the creek visible. I can’t help noting the effort to tame the region just beyond the fence. The grass is mown neatly to the edge of the flat section of ground and then a small unruly border passes down to the water’s edge.
We encountered a strangely contradictory footbridge:
Here there would seem to be an effort to produce something boldly in harmony with the natural curves of creek and escarpment and yet this strip of steel creates a visual barrier to actually seeing the creek itself while walking across the bridge.
Pretty things (to enjoy the walk, to see stuff)
There were little things – fallen flowers (from the cockatoos):
We came across plants above and below fences:
There were meadows to frolic in:
Not sure if this counts as a pretty thing precisely, but we discovered a pigeon fanciers clubhouse:
Dead Ends (to put a stop to walking)
There are four main barriers to walking along Towradgi creek:
- Pioneer Road
- Railway line
- Memorial Drive
- The Princes Highway
They are a series of north/south links that run parallel to the coast and cut across the creek.
Of these the most fearsome and resolute is the railway line. Only Kim had the courage to cross this line and even then she could find no way back to the creek on the other side:
We were forced to backtrack, cross the creek and pass under the railway line at a bridge:
Detours (to find a way around deadends)
Later dead ends led us off into suburban Fairy Meadow:
We continued along more straight roads:
Lucas pointed out this small feeder creek with a large white duck:
We were charmed by the duck until we noticed the poisoned creek verge. I guess a bit of Roundup provided an ingenious solution to the awkward mowing problem.
Rediscovery (to find the creek again)
At the end of a long detour we found our way back to the creek and I was surprised again at its beauty – and that it still somehow manages to exist. I took this one last photograph. Then my phone battery died, though we still had some way to go.