Category Archives: Creek Walks


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.

Sunday Towardji River Walkphoto 1

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.

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Standing on the lip of the mouth – one way inland towards the rising escarpment – the other way out to sea

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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.

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At first glance it is yellow things – or is it wild flowers along the path that I keep seeing?

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There are also moments of interaction  such as the documenting of the documenters

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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When we return from the walk, I check the pedometer I am wearing –

9.2km of walking

12690 steps

17 flights of stairs

1910 calories

Towradji creek from the mouth to Tarawa

11.30 am – 2.30pm

5 people

3 colleagues, 1 partner & an almost stranger

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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.

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Dead Battery

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:

Between the flags at Towradgi Beach
Between the flags at Towradgi Beach

I group the remaining images in terms of the following evolving categories:

  • Fantasy
  • Denial
  • Pretty things
  • Dead Ends
  • Detours
  • Rediscovery

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):

Remnants of an Ancient Civilisation.
Archeological remnants
Low Citadel

We stood at what has been dubbed ‘Woti Cove’:

Bold creek explorers
Bold creek explorers

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.

Creek, what creek?
Creek, what 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:

The creek and escarpment in steel
The creek and escarpment in steel

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.

Steel and concrete
Steel and concrete

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:

White bloom, red bloom
White bloom, red bloom

There were meadows to frolic in:

Kim, of course
Kim, of course

Not sure if this counts as a pretty thing precisely, but we discovered a pigeon fanciers clubhouse:

Lucas was thrilled to discover the Towradgi Pigeon Club
Lucas was thrilled to discover the Towradgi Pigeon Club

Dead Ends (to put a stop to walking)

There are four main barriers to walking along Towradgi creek:

  1. Pioneer Road
  2. Railway line
  3. Memorial Drive
  4. 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:

Kim jumping the fence
Kim jumping the fence

We were forced to backtrack, cross the creek and pass under the railway line at a bridge:

Beneath the railway bridge
Beneath the railway bridge

Detours (to find a way around deadends)

Later dead ends led us off into suburban Fairy Meadow:

A long detour
A long detour

We continued along more straight roads:

Along suburban streets back to the creek
Along suburban streets back to the creek

Lucas pointed out this small feeder creek with a large white duck:

Duck and poisoned creek verge
Duck and poisoned creek verge

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.

Returning to the creek
Returning to the creek

Duck’s Head

brogan and cath forging ahead
Cath and Brogan forging ahead: Towradgi Creek, October 2014. Photo: Lucas Ihlein

I should have known from the outset that this was going to be a slow walk in which we did not go very far.  First there was the large roll of drawing paper that Kim removed from her bag just at we reached the beach, indicating a significant commitment to mapping the details of our walk.  Then there was the duck’s head poised pathetically on the sand between the mouth of Towradgi Creek and the sea.  The number of photos that we took of this head – before we’d scarcely taken a single step along our journey from sea to escarpment – indicated a through concern with every small, accidental feature of our walk; a concern that would necessarily affect the nature of the walking, slowing it down, shaping it more as a whimsical environmental survey than as a walk.

I should explain that I have nothing against engaging in surveys.  Furthermore, conceiving our project as a series of surveys makes good sense.  If nothing else it is well suited towards producing all kinds of data and artefacts that lend themselves towards being assembled into an art exhibition.  But conducting a survey is not quite the same thing as going for a walk.  A survey may involve walking, but it is not directed towards walking as such.  Walking simply becomes a means of locomotion that assists in making observations and obtaining samples.

My interest and aesthetic commitment to walking is different.  I am interested in it precisely in terms of the tension it engages with processes of representation.   Walking entails a willingness to let things slip by.  I am simply walking.  If I take a photo or pick something up along the way it is always positioned as a brief interruption to a process that entails continuing, rhythmic movement.  On the whole I am more interested in recalling walks than in recording them, and in recalling them I am always aware that the experience of the walk itself escapes.  This is an essential and compelling part of the process.

I must also confess that for me walking is a means of negotiating a relationship between my inner world and the wider environment.  The dialogue this involves is not primarily social.  Very often I go on walks alone.  It is a form of private experience that forces me, at the same time, to engage with aspects of the world beyond myself.  I am very aware of how this corresponds to aspects of romanticism and the dramaturgy of bourgeois identity, but can hardly deny or altogether resist this ideological conception just by acknowledging its historical basis.  This is not to say that I am unwilling to walk with other people.  I often enjoy doing this (and often find myself longing for a companion), but it never quite engages with what captivates me in walking.  My issue then: I must somehow come to terms with walking with other people up creeks.  It is not quite the walking I know.

Actually it is not just dealing with my fellow walkers that is the issue, but also having to engage with the various land owners whose properties abut creeks.  While Kim and Lucas, bold souls, are happy to walk through all manner of fenced and unfenced, dull and fanciful, overgrown and carefully tended creek-side backyards, I am always keen to avoid such trespasses wherever possible.  While they are precisely intent to explore the boundaries between the creek as public property and the uncertain proprietary delineation of a backyard, I am much more focused on discovering the easiest pathway upstream.  The fewer the backyard encounters, the fewer the physical and institutional impediments, the better.  I have no other wish than to flow upstream like impossible water.

I guess a particular problem for me with our current mode of walking is that it does not holistically walk along an entire creek from the sea to the escarpment.  I am aware that our path will often be blocked, that our creeks now are complex spaces involving all kinds of legal, concrete, tin and weed-infested barriers, but I would still like to try to walk their entire lengths.  Our current mode of walking is too slow to accomplish this.  In several hours we managed to walk roughly 1.2 km up Towradgi Creek (shown in orange on the map below).  I’d hoped we’d walk much further than that – to high up in Tarawanna where the creek begins (shown in green below):


So I am proposing another strand of WOTI practice, one that genuinely involves walking (according to my evil and misguided conception of the term) and that may even, at times, involve solo walking events, which will of course be properly described here – demonstrating due regard for the social nature of our project.

I am distinguishing then between two branches of the WOTI project: SWOTI (Surveying Waterways of the Illawarra) and WWOTI (Walking Waterways of the Illawarra).  The latter includes a sub-branch, SWWOTI (Solo Walking Waterways of the Illawarra).  I am aware that these acronyms may confuse project members and participants, as well as the wider public, but believe that they are ultimately useful in terms of designating real differences in orientation and approach.

I would include a photo of the duck’s head, but did not take one.

In Lieu of Walking

I found some links:

  • Here is a pdf of a book on the early settlement of the Illawarra.  Interesting how the focus is mainly from 5 Islands south and how much emphasis is placed on describing places (land allotments) in terms of their bordering waterways – Mullet Creek, Macquarie rivulet, the Shoalhaven river, etc:  illawarra_settlement
  • Found this oral history site on Lake Illawarra (with Warren Burt as VO!)
  • Mullet (the film):

And I had some thoughts:

People living on Illawarra Creeks, risking flooding, land slippage, etc.  Do they do everything to deny their precarious status?  Do they have faith in the the integrity of their land and the contemporary engineering of storm water drains, etc. or do they have an apocalyptic imaginary – stories of rising water levels, of terrible flooding events?  Does the flow of water soothe and reassure them or does it frighten them?  Are they happy with where they are or would they prefer to be elsewhere?  Are they curious about the creek?  Have they wandered its length?  Are they interested in where it comes from and goes?

So we could perhaps consider the variety of ways that people live next to creeks, the ways in which they manage and imagine the correspondence of suburban order and creek-side existence.

Good to attend an auction of an ‘awkwardly positioned’ creek-side house.  How is creek-side identity negotiated, imagined and marketed?  I recall, Lucas, how you thought better of buying a house in Thirroul that was positioned beside a gully/creek and how I have bought a house beside a creek on two occasions, but now, like Kim, live on a slight hill.

As an example of all this, I think of two houses on Collins Ck in Woonona.  The map of Collins Ck suggests quite misleadingly that it stops just a few hundred metres inland:


But the satellite map demonstrates that it runs much further:


My interest is in the branch that runs to the south just inland of Grand Pacific Drive and then snakes across to the Princes Highway.

On opposite sides of the Princes Highway are two creek-side houses:


Both properties are run-down.  I am particularly interested in the one labelled Lot B because, unlike the one located on the other side of the highway, it does nothing to separate itself from the creek.  Instead it seems to descend into to it – to have established its identity precisely in terms of being low, dark, green and persistently wet.  The property runs all the way to a turning circle dead end and is completely over-grown and unruly – but people live there, right beside the highway and yet completely immersed in the creek.

Since I lack all social graces, the two of you would be great to tease out the background to this place – to knock on the door and ask how they have come to live in this way.  I even imagine something like a formal sociological survey with multiple choice and short answer questions.  We could ask them, for instance, “From which direction will the apocalypse come?” and “Do you hear voices of despair late at night?  Do they come from the creek?  How regularly?”

Anyway, I offer these thoughts in lieu of doing any actual walking.

Walking Upstream – WOTI walk #2

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Brogan wasn’t available today, so Lucas and I resumed the exploration of Hewitts Creek in Thirroul.  We started from the mouth of the creek at Macauley’s Beach again.  As we crossed the footbridge over the creek to begin the walk, we came upon a large group of walkers who had ambled from North Wollongong to Thirroul.  We ended up in a conversation with a fellow from the group.  He had a GPS in his hand and was quite excited – he explained that cartographically, the earth is divided into grids of 100 square kilometres and that it just so happens that the grid line which is the 00 easting coordinate intersects with the footbridge about two thirds of the way across the bridge.  It was a momentous occasion for him, so we watched as he passed this significant point on the earth’s surface.  Who would have thought? Continue reading Walking Upstream – WOTI walk #2