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.

Two sad islands, three whistling kites

It’s 7 o’clock on a midwinter Sunday morning.  It’s five degrees C.  And I’m about to go canoeing.

The thought that I may be slightly mad has passed through my mind.  A key motivation for hauling myself out of bed before sunrise was to try to get a better look at the whistling kite that hurtled past me into the distance last time I put the kayak in at Mooney Mooney.  And as I’m standing in my innovative Milan-style long-johns and wetsuit combination, what do I spy, perched in a dead tree right above the car park, but a whistling kite, defrosting in the first light.  Tempting get that pic and hightail it back to bed.

But no, Bar Island is calling me.  I’m heading back to the spot where I first decided, on a boatie camping trip just up the river at Back Beaches, that my mental health demanded the purchase of a cheap canoe.  And halfway across the river, when the first rays of the morning sun hit me, I feel truly blessed.

Bearing in mind my favourite quote from Antonio Gramsci (“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”), I started out my jaunt by heading across to Olga Bay. Last time I was there, a magnificent white bellied sea eagle swooped through the golden afternoon sunshine and snatched a fish from the briny right in front of the boat.

Unfortunately, convinced that the Hawkesbury was going to sweep me out to sea, at the time I had my head down, as I blasted my way across the river.  The David Attenborough moment passed while I was fumbling around in the dank reaches of the canoe for my much abused camera.

Needless to say, the sea eagle didn’t do a repeat performance, though that Australian darter that I pursued heartlessly from perch to desperate perch up the Wyong River last weekend had an unpleasant surprise on that therapeutic holiday to a little hire cottage on Milson’s Passage that the doctor ordered.

Bar Island greeted me with the green flash of (what I think was) a sacred kingfisher watching from the mangroves as I clambered awkwardly (camera-less, of course) over the slippery rocks to the shore.

To be honest, I found it a gloomy place, weighed down by history and hemmed in by trees.  They’re important trees – casuarina glauca for the glossy black cockatoos and red ash which, according to the informative signs, feeds the copper jewel butterfly.  Perhaps I’ve been living with a Scotsman too long.  I have started to share his culture’s love of denuded landscapes and the sweeping views created by sheep, deer and industrialisation. We’ve dubbed the accompanying fear of excessive greenery “wood psychosis”.  There was a bit of wood psychosis going on in Bar Island this weekend.

And then there’s visible colonial history of the place.  St John’s Church was built on Bar Island in the 1870s, and the grave stones of some of the sixty or so European settlers who are known to have been buried there remain, along with reminders of the troubled history of the Hawkesbury as a brutal contact zone.  “A difficult time” as the plaque commemorated Sarah “Granny” Lewis carefully puts it.

The best spot to be on Bar Island on a chilly winter morning was, not coincidentally, the wooden seat near the midden on the northern tip of the island.  The midden’s metres deep, accrued over thousands of years of shared oyster eating by Darug, Darkinjung and Guringai people, whose country meets here.

And not far away, the resident kite and her nest, were also basking in sunlight.  RB has been working here, on and off, for three years, and the nest has been there for at least that long, renovated and extended each season.  The kite wasn’t moving, despite the clumsy paddling and clicking camera.  It’s her island now, and she knows it.

I thought I was smart, timing my trip upstream with a rising tide.  I wasn’t feeling quite so clever heading downriver again as I tried to take a racing line across an sharp S bend, with the current and the tide battling it out all round me.

First I ploughed exceedingly slowly, on that perfectly still day, through a stretch of strange standing waves.  And then I found myself swirling through a sequence of weird vortices, that churned up silt and the occasional jelly blubber.  I read Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans a while ago.  She concludes, to put it bluntly, that we should enjoy fish while they last, as the jellyfish, floating around in the oceans since the pre-Cambrian, are on their way back with a vengeance, thanks to acidified, over-fertilised and over-fished oceans (not to mention climate change).

Since then I see every jellyfish as a portent of doom.  Given this slightly apocalyptic worldview, after about an hour and a half trying to escape this turbid hellhole (okay, it was about ten minutes) I began to worry that one of those whirlpools were going to suck me down into the bowels of the river, just the icefloes in this extremely spooky youtube find.

Needless to say, I survived The Whirlpool of Death.  In marked contrast to many of the people who went to live at Peat Island, which I paddled past on the last leg of my route home. Built to detox alcoholics early in the twentieth century, the site was used for over ninety years mainly as an asylum for people with mental illnesses or learning difficulties.  From all reports it was a horrifying place where inmates were caged, neglected and sexually abused.

The last residents, treated somewhat less brutally than those who came before, left in 2010, and the site is now padlocked and empty, awaiting redevelopment into a 250 berth marina and suite of five storey apartment blocks.  Because there’s nothing that says “high density living” and “brownfield site” like a place with national parks on all four sides.

I spotted one last whistling kite – in fact, a whistling kite actually whistling – in the Norfolk Pines on the island.   And in the distance, somewhere out of view, the elusive sea eagles, honking away like a pair of castrati ducks.  I know it’s sentimental in the light of these grim tales of the river, but I hope the birds are still there when the jet skiiers come to stay.