What do you get if you cross a snake with a panda?

Darter from behind close crop shorter

The geometric art on the Australasian darter’s back

Things I learned from last weekend’s paddle from Lake Macquarie’s Shingle Splitters’ Point to Dora Creek:

1. When kayaking on the largest permanent salt water lake in the southern hemisphere, always remember fetch.  Fetch can defined as the distance of open water over which wave-creating winds blow. Where does the word “fetch” come from, I hear you ask?  From the cries of sinking kayakers as they disappear behind the white tops: “Fetch the emergency services!”

(Don’t be deceived by the apparent smoothness of the lake surface here – once the wind picked up I was too busy thinking about staying afloat to take any pictures)

Big lake

Heading across Lake Macquarie from Shingle Splitters’ Point

2. The lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ immortal song “The Gambler” don’t just apply to card sharks, but also amateur bird photographers.  “You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”.

Because the few seconds you spend checking to see if that wildly optimistic over-the-shoulder shot caught the hunting osprey mid-dive, will be ones in which the hungry raptor wheels around and splashes down again, right next to your boat.  And flies off before you can get the lens cap off your camera.

Osprey bum bigger long

Departing osprey

3. While adult Australasian darters are the most sinuously elegant of birds, poetry in snake-like motion, their offspring are actively disturbing.

What is it about these baby darters?  They’re very very fluffy.  Like a gorgeous soft baby panda.  A delightfully fluffy decapitated panda with the head of a snake. A sweet duo of snake-panda in a nest white-washed with guano. And they didn’t think much of me either.

In South America, they’ve found are darters in the fossil record that weighed 17 kilos – more than eight times as heavy as these not-insubstantial characters.  Just imagine how unnerving it would be in a kayak under that humungous reptilian chick when it let fly.

There’s no danger of modern darters – anhinga to give them their formal name – vanishing like their massive forebears. Like humans, darters like deep, still water not choked with vegetation, as long as there are overhanging trees to nest and perch on.  And they don’t mind introduced fish like carp and perch, so they’re doing better than birds that prefer marshy wetlands or are fussier about their diet.

A few weeks back, my brother and I watched with a fine male hunting from the shore of Lake Macquarie in the golden light of the late afternoon.  Even after the bird vanished below, we could follow its progress by the tiny fry that leapt from the water.  The sinuous head reappeared moments later, a fish impaled on its beak.  It took him a few goes, but finally he managed to flick it into the air and gulp it down.

I’ve seen plenty of snake birds, as they’re sometimes called, over the last couple of years as I’ve paddled around the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury and the rivers and lagoons along the Central Coast.  Familiarity hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for them – the males geometric abstracts, the females russet in the sun, their elegant necks holding poses as striking and absurd as those of modern dancers.  But I’ve never seen the young ones before.

Darters breed erratically, it seems, whenever and wherever conditions are good.  They will fly long distances – up to 2000 ks in the non-breeding season – and will nest inland when floodwaters linger.  Maybe the stretch of Dora Creek where I saw them is a regular breeding spot.  In one fecund tree I saw two empty nests, along with two brim full of snake-pandas and guano.   Or perhaps the vacant real estate belonged to other waterbirds, since darters seem to like to nest in company.  Down the river, egrets, cormorants and partly-fledged juveniles were hanging out on a branch together, not far from this perturbed looking male with his runaway egg.

One way or another, the younger chicks seem to prefer intimacy to solitude, finding comfort, as they crouched in their absurdly flimsy nest, in the softness of their siblings’ breasts and the predatory encircling of each others’ snakey necks.

Three darter chicks snuggling crop tighter

Juvenile Australasian darters snuggled together in what remains of their nest

 

The silver river

Deerubbin – the Hawkesbury proper- doesn’t normally look like this: not when I’m there, anyway.  I’m used to the view out our back window: the valley full of fog, the hilltops islands in a foamy sea.

Hazy foggy view from deck

Mist over Sam’s Creek

You know the fog will be spilling across the highway as you swoop down from the ridgeline before dawn.  But when you reach the freeway bridge that stretches half a mile across the  Hawkesbury, the wind picks up and the mist is gone.

But not this Sunday.  The cloud was down and the river was silver.

Pixillated tinnie in distance

Fisherman in the mist

I’ve wrestled with this mist before.

I can say with confidence it’s not freezing fog, hail fog or upslope fog.  For all the salt in the air, it’s not coastal fog – moisture condensing over cool water – not with sea temps a balmy 24 degrees.  And is it valley fog? Damp cool air might slide down the hills in the night… but Sunday’s haze followed midnight downpours not clear skies.

Having thought about it rationally and analytically, I can only conclude that this was magical fog, sent to stop me paddling all way to the secret heart of this part of the Hawkesbury, Marramarra Creek.

Mist over over mangrove saplings for horizontal shorter

Big Bay

I’ve nearly made it there before, as far as Big Bay, with its great lagoon full of mangroves and the riverbed chocabloc with critters. No houses on the ridgelines, no way in except by water.  In the 1830s a surveyor’s wife didn’t think much of it: “these dreary solitudes might serve for the abode of a misanthrope so utterly are they secluded from all approach and so entirely destitute of all comfort”.  But I’m longing to paddle all the way to the source of the creek, through country with an indigenous past even I can read.

But this time it wasn’t just the fog and the march of time that stopped me.  The birds were in on it too, perching photogenically on the wayside oyster poles, feathery sirens luring me away from my upriver odyssey.

So I’ll have to come back to Marramarra.  Maybe next time I’ll bring our full flotilla of mismatched craft and camping gear and stay overnight halfway up the creek in the old orange orchard.  The noisy kids should to  scare away the temptations of the sirens… and, of course, the silvery silence.   So perhaps I’ll follow Odysseus and bring some ear plugs too!

Related posts – other paddles on the Hawkesbury from Deerubbin Reserve

Two sad islands, three whistling kites: a paddle from Deerubbin to Bar Island

Of gods and mapreaders: a trip up Kimmerikong Creek in Muogamarra National Park

A bridge fetishist paddles to Brooklyn: paddles up Mullet Creek and around Dangar Island

Broken Bay at low ebb: a short jaunt around the oyster beds near Spectacle Island at the end of Mooney Mooney Creek.

In praise of sewage

“Cockle Creek? Ooo, I wouldn’t put in there” my sister’s mate, the local, said “They’ve been dumping heavy metals in that spot for years! And there’s the sewage farm up the river as well.  I’d steer well clear”.

I muttered to my sister as we walked away “What do you think? Are you worried about heavy metals and sewage?”

“Nah!  Let’s do it!”

Sunrise on Lake Macquarie

Sunrise on Lake Macquarie

The power of poo.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing a lot about it from my fabulous friend and colleague, Cath Simpson, at this very minute writing a documentary for Radio National full of plops and splashes.

Thanks to some bad experiences with cholera and typhoid, we modern city dwellers generally a bit iffy about human excrement. But the bacteria that dwell in and on us – our own personal ecosystems – seem to be quite critical to human health.   While I’m a huge fan of the toilet, poo is not all bad.  If you have a nasty case of Clostridium difficile, for instance – an infection that kills 30,000 Americans every year, often older people in hospitals who have had their bacterial ecosystems depopulated by antibiotics – a “faecal transplant” from a healthy donor is might well be your best chance of a cure.

If the much of Western world, with its convenient superphosphate fertiliser and cow-pat free central heating, has been a bit “ew” about excrement, one sub-culture has held the faith.  Bird watchers have never lost confidence in the value of ordure.

Cormorant diving crop for trim

Painterly pied cormorant fishing in Lake Macquarie

When Birdlife Australia asks “where’s your favourite birdwatching spot?”, do you choose an offshore island, fringed with white sand?  the lush splendour of the tropical rainforest?  Or choice number three, a sewage treatment plant? And you guessed it, the first comment is a ringing endorsement of the glories of the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds.

So I wasn’t really surprised at the new and exciting birdlife I saw up  Cockle Creek in amongst the drowned computer monitors, abandoned bridge footings and Impressionist riverscapes subtly enhanced by a discreet discarded tyre.

So many striated herons I got bored of taking photos.  White-cheeked honeyeaters.  Orioles.  Black faced cuckoo shrikes. White breasted woodswallows, showing off their 80s batwing styling.   Double-banded finches with their neat dress shirts, black ties and cummerbunds.

Why are sewage treatment plants so great for birds?  Well, wetlands are a particularly threatened habitat – a third of Victoria’s wetlands have been drained over the last two hundred years, for instance – and old-style sewage ponds offer alternative places for birds to feed and rest, especially during droughts.  With plenty of nutrients, the settling ponds of sewage treatment plants actually offer more invertebrate snacks than natural wetlands, and sustain a greater range birds. Christopher Murray’s research in Victoria has found that newer treatment plants – the dynamic sounding “activated sludge” facilities – that take up less expensive real estate than old-fashioned waste stabilisation ponds (and smell better) are less appealing from a waterbird’s point of view.

If the news on sewage plants is pretty good, I’m not so sure about the heavy metals. Cockle Creek really has been a dumping ground for cadmium and lead, among other things, from the smelter in Boolaroo, on and off for more than a century.  There’s black slag from the plant tucked away in all sorts of unexpected places around the lake shore and lead, zinc, mercury and cadmium lurk in the creek’s sediment, 70 centimetres deep.

The smelter closed down in the noughties and the site is still being “remediated” for housing.  Previous “abatement” strategies seemed to involve scraping off a few centimetres of topsoil and (after most of the local pre-schoolers were found to have worryingly high levels of lead in their blood) urging kids to  “Wash wipe and scrape – you’ll be right mate!”. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the streets closest to the “The Sulphide” were rented out on the strict condition that the household should have no children or pets.

There’s a giant Bunnings there already, though, amidst the rubble.  Perhaps the logic is that the visiting DIYers are heading home to put a mallet through an asbestos wall, so where’s the harm in throwing in a spot of bonus lead?

The local birds seem to be doing okay, though.  A pair of ospreys nest at the top of a Norfolk pine at Speers Point, where Cockle Creek flows into Lake Macquarie, and this last year they’ve had chicks.  Osprey are locavores and since they’re at the top of the food chain, anything toxic in the fish they eat ends up in their chicks.  Eventually.  It takes a while for our endlessly updated array of contaminants – from DDT to teflon, fire retardants and hypertension medications – to make it into the bloodstream of the baby raptors.

Osprey wings bent crop wide

Osprey with fish at Speers Point, Lake Macquarie

I’ll be back to Cockle Creek for sure, to see what the local sewage has in store for me.  Trying to tread lightly, and hoping not to feel too much lead and mercury squelching between my toes…

D in canoe at dawn small more waterReferences

Murray, C. G. & Hamilton, A. J. (2010). Perspectives on wastewater treatment wetlands and waterbird conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47(5), 976–985. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01853.x

Murray, C. G., Loyn, R. H., Kasel, S., Hepworth, G., Stamation, K. & Hamilton, A. J. (2012). What can a database compiled over 22 years tell us about the use of different types of wetlands by waterfowl in south-eastern Australian summers? Emu: Austral Ornithology, 112(3), 209–217. DOI: 10.1071/MU11070

Murray, C. G., Kasel, S., Szantyr, E., Barratt, R. & Hamilton, A. J. (2013). Waterbird use of different treatment stages in waste-stabilisation pond systems. Emu: Austral Ornithology. DOI: 10.1071/MU12121

Murray, C. G. & Hamilton, A. J. (2012). Sewage ponds a refuge for wetland-deprived birds. ECOS, 175. http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?paper=EC12418

Alhambra on the Hawkesbury

The last few times I passed by Bujwa Bay, on my way downriver from Berowra Waters, it was shrouded in mist.

But last Sunday, in the golden light of late afternoon, there was a revelation.

I’m familiar with the Hawkesbury’s sculpture parks and sandstone art galleries.  But the fact that Berowra Creek had well preserved fragments of an ancient Moorish fortress – well, that was news to me.

When I went home and told RB I’d seen something very like the famous stucco inscriptions of the Alhambra on a estuarine cliffside at the end of Berowra Waters Road, his comment was “You’re barking!”.  And he’s probably right.

After all, the Alhambra is an artistic jewel, a masterwork of European Islam, preserved over the centuries after the Moors themselves were driven first into the mountains and then out of Spain altogether.  Its delicate carved plasterwork miraculously survived Christian conquerors, dodgy architectural restorers, squatters and tourists.  And the sandstone of Bujwa Bay is just, you know, rock.

But I’ve been reading about “thing power” and it’s given me a whole new angle on inanimate objects.  “Thing Power!” – sounds like a killer bathroom cleaner that will sort out all the disturbing life-forms, named and unnameable, in your shower cubicle.

But according to Jane Bennett, its “a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new [that] buzzes within the history of the term ‘nature’ ” (2010, 118).  Electrons, microbes, minerals, waste, all busily making and shaping things, inside, around, through, against and despite humans and their fancy-pants plans.  She reckons things and people rub along or against each other in a pattern that’s “not random or unstructured, but conforms to the strange logic of vortices, spirals and eddies” (2010, 118).

Kooky as it sounds, this is not a bad description of how the Bujwa Bay Alhambra came into the world, according to a paper coauthored, in a way that pleases my penchant for magical thinking, by a geologist from Granada, home of the famous palace.

Honeycomb weathering like this happens in all sorts of porous rocks, around the world – from Antarctica to Jordan – and maybe even on the surface of Mars. It might seem like  hollows would form in weaknesses in the rock, but it’s not necessarily so. Blistering heat, frost, chemical weathering and rain are all in the frame – with maybe a little help from the odd patch of algae or lichen. But mostly it’s about salt and wind.

Salty water – in this case from seaspray – seeps into the rock and crystallises, making tiny fractures. If there’s plenty of water, salt crystals forms on the outside surface to form efflorescence, a mineral flowers blooming on a cliffside or a cellar wall or a garden fence.  But the real damage is done deep in the rock.

According to Rodriguez and friends, once a depression is formed in the rockface, wind eddies and swirls inside the concave parts of the stone.  Faster breezes mean more evaporation and a super-saturated salt solution, meaning more salt crystals and more fretted stone. Eventually the rockface becomes lacework, without any intervention by a rock lacemaker.

Alhambra rocks 1 crop long

The other name for honeycombed rock is alveoli.  It’s stone with lungs.  Made of mineral flowers.  Not alive (or mostly not alive – sorry algae) but doing complicated and beautiful things.

Not immortal, invisible, unfathomable.  In fact, as fathomable as the waters of Bujwa Bay at low tide, that is, knee deep to a heron.  Just exceedingly hard to grasp.

And that’s not just me banging my head against a corroding brick wall of “Salt weathering: a selective review” – the geologists are still bickering over exactly how it works. In Bennett’s (possibly slightly loopy) words, it’s vital matter, “hard to discern… and, once discerned, hard to keep focused on.  It is too close and too fugitive, as much wind as thing” (119).  Or perhaps, in this instance, both wind and thing.

tiny crab and shadow.jpg

A crab wondering what I’m on about, on a beach near Bujwa Bay

References

Jane Bennett 2010 Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press

Eric Doehne (2002) “Salt Weathering: a selective review” from Natural Stone, Weathering Phenomena, Conservation Strategies and Case Studies. Vol 205, 51-64, Geological Society Special Publication

Carlos Rodriguez-Navarro, Eric Doehne,Eduardo Sebastian (1999) Origins of honeycomb weathering: The role of salts and wind, GSA Bulletin; August 1999; v. 111, no. 8; p. 1250–1255

Huinink, H. Pel, L, Kopinga, K. 2004 “Simulating the growth of tafoni” Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 29 1225-33

Snakes vs whining teenagers

 

Tiger snake curled face crop longThis is what people who hate camping think it’s all about, right?  I suspect spiders, high winds and rowdy neighbours also make that list.  Yep, a big tick next to them too – it’s all to play for when you camp in the summertime in Wollemi National Park.

But Ganguddy, or Dunn’s Swamp, to give its inaccurate and charmless non-indigenous name, was just as marvellous this January as it was when we first visited this time last year.

Sunrise corner sky

Ganguddy in early dawn light

view from pagoda.jpg

View from the pagoda lookout

Yes, there were more reptiles – lethal and benign – but to balance it out, there was also less torrential rain.  At no point this year did it seem likely that the full set of adult campers, each clinging to a leg of the kitchen-gazebo, would take off and fly over the pagoda rock formations like a quartet of grubby Mary Poppinses.  It rained, but not inside any of the tents.  And the whining teenagers weren’t my delightful children but the feathered offspring of the camp ground locals.

Noisy friarbird getting food crop

Juvenile noisy friarbird wants a snack

It seems a bit unfair for such giant children to be demanding food, although Gisela Kaplan in her fascinating book “Bird Minds” suggests some evolutionary advantages to having hungry teenagers hanging around.  Apparently adults noisy friarbirds only feed the young’uns for three weeks after fledging -hard to believe this galumphing one was so close to being a fluffster.

But you can see where all that food goes.  You reckon your adolescent’s feet are big?  What about junior purple swamphen‘s clodhoppers?

Unhygenic as it sounds, the drop dunny seemed to be a particularly popular spot for a snack.  The baby grey fantails spent a lot of time looking deliberately cute there in order to get a feed.  If you were still uncertain about the superiority of the earth toilet, this little guy is a clincher I reckon.

The white-browed scrubwren also enjoyed loitering out around the toilets.  I didn’t see any juveniles, but then this one looked so stern, perhaps they were there but just too nervous to beg for tucker.

white browed scrub wren crop.jpg

Grumpy looking white browed scrubwren

The suspiciously touselled looking eastern yellow robin – a juvenile perhaps – had worked out that the best place for tucker is definitely the barbecue.

I’m not sure if the adult reed warbler had gone into head down, bum up, to feed some chicks, or if it was just going to extreme lengths to avoid facing the long-lensed papperazzi.  I was rather pleased when after two years of trying I finally got a picture of one, without even having to visit the Rylstone Guns and Ammo for a flame thrower to thin out that pesky, snap obscuring habitat.

And, miracle of miracles, I found an azure kingfisher without ADD.  I reckon I can put away my paddle now – 18 months of kayaking have not been in vain.

Kingfisher on stump 2 instagram square.jpg

At last – a sluggish azure kingfisher

The invasive gambezi minnows that fill this reservoir – built in the 30s as a water supply for a concrete works – seem to be an optimal snack size for the kingfishers – I saw plenty of them, along with a randy musk duck, the ubiquitous Eurasian coots and a pair of Nankeen night herons that alighted, mockingly, in the trees opposite the campsite, just after it got a tiny bit too dark for a decent photograph.  But there was nothing larger – no whistling kites, for one.  Judging from the frustration level of the fisherman in our party and the track record of these mosquitofish of outcompeting native rivals, I suspect there weren’t many more substantial meals to be had (on the bright side, possibly thanks to the fish, there weren’t too many mosquitos making meals of us either).

With all these LBBs – and all the fast moving ones I didn’t get a decent shot of – busy flocks of brown thornbills high in the canopy, white-throated tree-creepers spiralling their way up the tea trees, the baffling grey strike-thrush, the white-eared honeyeaters darting around in the dew drenched dawn – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the snake that sidled through the camp site or or the one slithered along the ironstone tops.  Let’s hope the top predators were more successful at catching the flighty little buggers* than I was.

Western country rocks

Rock formations near the dam

Sunrise over swallow rocks

Dawn over “Swallow rocks”

 

*Okay I know red-bellied blacks mostly eat frogs, which is why they were down by the reedbeds near the camp. But I bet they don’t object to the odd gormless yellow robin if it’s available.

* * *

There’s more info about the history and geology of Ganguddy in my previous post from here: In other sandstone country

Old hands

I know I live on, walk on, paddle through, someone else’s country.  Guringgai country, and sometimes Darug lands, since Berowra Creek, or so I read, is a boundary line between people of the coast and river people. Sometimes, I venture north of the Hawkesbury – Deerubbin – into Darkinjung country.  I try hard to remember that I’m an uninvited guest in this land, and that I know next to nothing about it.  Because it’s important to know what you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

But sometimes what you don’t know jumps out and smacks you in the eye.  It happened out on the water, on Smith’s Creek, a couple of weeks ago.

Smith.  It’s a joke name, isn’t it?  The sort of name you use to check into a hotel for a dirty weekend with a person who isn’t the one you’re married to.  A name white guys use to be anonymous.  “Yes, I’m John Smith and so is my wife”.

I’m sure Smith’s Creek is named after a really very important Smith.  After all, at one time at the turn of the twentieth century, Kuring-gai Chase – specifically the bit of bushland between Smith’s Creek and Cowan Creek – was considered a possible location for the capital of the new Commonwealth. Magnificent scenery and handy for getting back to Sydney, what?  You have to wonder whether the sandstone escarpments of Kuring-gai National Park would have been quite such an amenable environment for roundabouts as Canberra. All in all, I’m very glad it didn’t happen. Aside from everything else, I don’t think I could handle a close encounter with Cory Barnardi at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning.

So, as I say, there I was in “Smith’s” Creek, blessedly free of conservative crusaders and, indeed, showing little sign of human life at all.  In Apple Tree and Stingray Bay, the power boats were moored silently in rows like roosting birds.  Nothing stirred.

As I slipped with the tide towards Deerubbin, not a jetboat in sight, a wave of love passed over me for the sport of rugby.  More specifically, a feeling of warmth for the thrilling final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, broadcast to the sports fans of Australia at 2am the night before.  What a fine influence sport is on the nation!  How it improves the tone of the place!  All those worn out rugby fans, tucked up in their beds, or snuggled down in their bunks, dreaming of triumph or of despair, but more to the point, not, as yet, starting up outboard motors.

While the rugby fans were sleeping I paddled, more or less, back to Berowra, swaddled in fog that rolled down the valleys, smudging the pictures of my weekly sea eagle (curse it).  They slumbered on as I turned the corner into Smith’s Creek following the great big signs on the shoreline, papped some peeved looking cormorants, tried and failed to see any sign of rays in the sands of Stingray Bay.  In the stillness, I felt as if I was in a dream myself as I passed along sandstone cliffwalls, rippled and rainbowed, that slide down and down into the bottle green water, and beneath the smooth-barked gums that butt their way into solid rock a metre or two above a tideline line of oystershells.

The sports lovers were still sleeping when I had my magic moment – the one you wait for every trip – when moon and raptor met in the bright morning light.  So for all their shiny cruisers and thrumming engines, the rugby fans would have been no good to me at all if Egg the ancient kayak had drifted away, as it very nearly did, while I tried to find that damn whistling kite in what seems, through a zoom lens, like a very very big sky.  That would have been me, stranded in sparkling knee-deep water, with a ten k swim through the bobbing jellyfish, all the way home.

It wasn’t until I got back and uploaded my photos that I saw, in the corner of a picture, the ochre hand prints on the golden rock.  Who put them there and when?  I really don’t know.  Maybe someone not so long ago – the indigenous rangers of Guringgai take loads of school kids out to see the hundreds of carvings and paintings that are all over the park.  I bet a bit of print making happens here and there.  Could it be one of the people of West Head slain by smallpox – no accident it seems – just a few years after the convicts arrived? Surely not.  Someone in the time in-between, making their mark on country.  Still here, though many people were forced far away, as far as Yorta Yorta country, on the borders of Victoria.

I just don’t know.  Those hands told me, at least, to remember that I don’t.

Of gods and map readers

I’m running out of map!

It’s not a real cartographic apocalypse – a Ken Loach-influenced Dr Who episode in which all the world’s maps are stolen away by some evil alien civilisation heavily invested in NavMan shares. But after a year with my canoe, there’s not much unexplored territory on this part of the Hawkesbury.  I’ve nearly done with the alchemy of my Saturdays: transmuting ink on paper into trees and water and mist.

Maybe it’s my fading memories, but as I paddled just after dawn from Deerubbin to Kimmerikong Creek, I kept thinking of the west coast of Scotland.  Something about morning fog: the sea eagles appearing and vanishing; mist spilling over the ridgelines and pouring down the slopes like an evanescent avalanche.

I remember my first view of Glen Coe through the bus window, RB naming each hill as we passed.  What a gift, I thought, to know a place like this so very well.

I was at a disadvantage this Saturday: I forgot my map, carefully folded into its extra large, double-sealed “Hercules” zip lock bag and left on the kitchen table. Google Earth is one of those things that prove we really do live in the future.  And RB is always complaining about how rubbish Australian mapmakers are compared to the unsurpassable Ordinance Survey.  Even so, I still think maps make us into gods.

With a map you know what’s going to happen next: what’s beyond the next hill or around the next corner.  Geological maps and navigational charts are even better – you see into the depths of ocean or stare right through the surface of the earth.  Short of being an X Man with laser eyes or clairvoyant powers, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

If you’re going to claim someone’s country or rewrite its history, of course, a map is a magnificent weapon.

Of course, the untraversed parts of the map are the tricky ones, a little bit too far away from a put-in, further than the old easy jaunts.  So it’s through known country to the unknown: past the Whirlpool of Death and Bar Island’s grumpy whistling kite, beyond the verdant urine-fertilised fields of warrigal greens at Back Beaches, though not quite as far as Ant Hill Point (saving that excitement for a really slow weekend).  Just when you feel you are truly in the wilderness, with only cormorants for company, you turn a corner and there’s a line of houses that look like they’ve been helicoptered in from deepest suburbia.  I half expected to hear a solar powered leaf blower or hedge trimmer.

Just across the other side of Berowra Creek, Muogamarra Nature Reserve is deliberately kept something of a secret.  It’s only open to the public six weekends of the year, in early spring.  There is a field station there, and in the water of Kimmerikong Bay scientists have been testing those Qx resistant oysters I regaled you about a couple of months back.  The reserve was originally declared in the 1930s to protect the many rock carvings, hand stencils, scarred trees, middens and grinding grooves there: this is a landscape long and intimately known.  However, I guess National Parks are trying to stop this particularly lovely part of Hawkesbury sandstone with its 14 mammal species (including tiger quolls!), 900 plant species and 140 varieties of birds from being “known” in a biblical sense; that is, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed.

I hear that Cowan, the town that sits on the edge of Muogamarra, had a crime-wave a while ago.  Since no-one locks their cars, a street’s worth of gps’s disappeared in a single night.  A sign was put up in the window the general store: if all the missing devices turned up outside the community hall there’d be no need to call the police.  Everyone got their Tom Toms back.  This story gives you a hint of how the people of Cowan might view the official regulations preserving the sanctity of Muogamarra.  Since I was an incomer from Berowra, a good six kilometres away, however, I figured I was safer keeping my feet in my canoe as I wound my way through down Kimmerikong Creek, deep into the reserve.

The creek, looping from the cliffside on one side of the valley to the escarpment on the other, looks nothing like it does on the map, but exactly as it does from space, the shroud of mysterious grey mangroves slowly falling back as you paddle upriver, exposing the glint of the creek to a satellite’s view.

Google Earth may have imaged the mangroves of Kimmerikong Creek to its satisfaction but I know I haven’t captured it to mine.  Somehow my wan photographs of these flooded forests fail to catch the sense of invisible ferment, mysteries hidden between the hoary tree trunks and their reflection, the hush that hints at unknown things slowly emerging.  I imagine a wading Ent, striding and squelching towards me through the mire, hairy-legged with pneumatophores and flanked by an bevy of miniscule leaping fish, wearing a National Parks and Wildlife uniform and demanding payment of that $3,000 dollar fine.

No Ents this time, though, and no bird photos either.  I heard, I think, maybe 138 species of bird as I ducked and crashed through the overhanging branches, and didn’t see even one.  Perhaps I need to get up even earlier – 4 am? 3 am? – to capture the mangrove’s magic, as The Goat the Wrote does in his stunningly beautiful photos.  The stalwarts of the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic can paddle all night, so why can’t I?  111 kilometres in a one day – with that kind of stamina the folds of the map would open up like a flower.  Ant Hill Point here I come!

I’ll have to work on it.  This time there was no bonk, but the pied cormorants of Milson’s Passage looked on pityingly as I swirled downriver through the tidal race, kermit-armed, back home to my plans and my maps.