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I spent a large part of the last two years driving, and an occasionally boating, along Australian rivers trying to understand our waterways for a book commissioned by the National Library of Australia. They asked for 10 rivers. In the end I explored nine and a river system – the Channel Country of central Queensland – in order to say something about our understated relationship to waterways of this country. I knew little about rivers when I started and quite a bit more at the end. But, as is often the case, the more you know about something the more you realise how much you don’t.

Australia’s rivers and creeks are complex; often dry, sometimes in flood, little like the perennial waterways of Britain and Europe well fed by rain and snow. They confounded the newcomers who colonised the land through the 19th century but were understood by the hundreds of Aboriginal groups who had established territories around these ribbons of life-giving water over thousands of years.

Murray River at Barmah Forest, 2016

I found one of the most poignant accounts of the European sensibility in Jill Ker Conway’s much-loved memoir The Road from Coorain, a story which begins on the author’s family pastoral property in far western New South Wales. Conway recalled the ‘magical’ transformation of the creek beds when the rains came: ‘Bull rushes shot up beside watercourses and the suddenly there were waterfowl round about… Trees sprang up as the waters receded around our house’. (p.32) The transformation suddenly made it clear why the first people there built their earthen ovens where they did. Norman Tindale's 1940 map of 'Aboriginal Tribes' shows this as Barindji land. Over millennia they had learned the lines of non-perennial creeks and useful waterholes, and consequently where the animals and edible plants would be found. For Conway it was a revelation.

The converse of the interloper’s imagination - that inside knowledge of Aboriginal people – is expressed in Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, set around a fictitious but plausible river in Australia’s far north Gulf country: ‘It takes a particular kind of knowledge to go with the river, whatever its mood’, she writes, ‘It is about there being no difference between you and the movement of water as it seasonally shifts its tracks according to its own mood.’ The usurpers couldn’t read those moods and built a town on the river banks, tellingly named Desperance. The river destroyed it, ‘just like that’. (p.3) It made me think of Gundagai, wiped out by the Murrumbidgee River in 1852.

My first stream was the Clarence which floods but never runs dry, at least in its lower reaches. This was the proverbial ‘big river’ of colonial accounts, a waterway that most resembles those big streams of immigrant memories; the biggest on the Australian east coast. Paddle steamers easily splashed up and down it from the earliest years of white occupation, first in search of the beautiful Red cedar (Toona ciliata), then to take up land for cattle and cane; sugar was easily planted on the wide river flats. Therein lies a lesson in the significance of topography for understanding history. In the process the great tangled well-watered forests and marshes that had sustained the Bundjalung, Gumbaingirr and Yaegl people for generations were cleared and drained.

For 40 kilometres or so the river is an estuary – what the geographer Colin Woodroffe has evocatively described as a ‘tongue of the sea reaching inland’. Sharks, dolphins, eels, prawns other marine creatures all move backwards and forwards along the ‘tongue’ between river and ocean.

Wreck of a launch and egret on the Clarence River near Grafton, 2016

An estuary is always a transitional place. And that gave me the theme for the Clarence chapter. Shifts both ecological and cultural have been so much a part of the history of the waterway. The shift from Aboriginal to European occupation is an obvious example of the latter; a transition of course brought about the force of colonial power rather than negotiation or treaty, as was the case across the country. The transformation of the ecology of the riverfront is obvious to anyone who has seen photographs of the pre-colonial forests around the Clarence. The historian Alfred Crosby famously coined the term ‘ecological imperialism’ to describe the transfer of plants and animals across the globe as Europeans colonised lands far and wide. Beautiful though they may be, the pastures and farm animals around the Clarence River are also manifestations of ecological imperialism.

The story of prawn fishing throws up another less obvious example of the link between social shift and ecological change. The Clarence is home to the largest fishing fleet on the north coast of New South Wales. Those vessels that trawl for prawns do so in the river and outside the heads. Their quarry are the school and king prawns. The local catch is high quality and commands good prices locally and in the insatiable Sydney market. And so it should – though it may sting the pocket on occasion I take solace in paying a real price – in this case for a wild resource that is sustainably managed.

A prawn fisher checks his nets before heading out on the Clarence River, December morning in Maclean, 2016

Fishing represents the last wild harvest in modern societies; because it is only in the sea that large numbers of un-farmed animals survive to be caught. But there is a threat to this wild catch in the Clarence – white spot disease. The source is cheap uncooked prawns imported from Asian farms, intended for human consumption but used as bait by recreational fishers. Infected raw prawns had a dramatic effect on the prawn farms of Queensland. Commercial fishers around the Clarence watch nervously for signs of the disease in wild stocks there.

Recreational anglers are being implored not to use the green prawns as bait and fines have been introduced if they are cast near river prawn farms. The competing interests of prawn farmers, wild fishers and recreational fishers are real and I suspect not altogether reconcilable. The estuarine tides of the Clarence are more than ever part of a global flow of organisms. I hope the information campaign works for the sake of the prawn fishers and the Clarence itself.

My book comes out next year.

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I recently had a holiday break at a favourite coastal place near Jervis Bay. It was one of the spots that got me thinking about the history of our coast a decade or so ago after many stays.

Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

Like most other places within three hours of Sydney, this little town is now well and truly on the holiday map for city folk so, by the time I got around to organising things, it was impossible to rent anything in the streets that I’m familiar with – wide ones with big blocks and old relaxed fibro.

But staying in a different part of town gave me another insight into the place. For the first time I was down on the main entry thoroughfare. My rental was a small bungalow – probably original fibro but reclad out front and so ‘coastified’ within it was a bit like a inhabiting a mini theme park. There were framed surf photographs from the Australia’s ‘longboard days’, not one but two longboards squeezed in as decorations, various bits of ‘word art’ telling me to ‘relax’ and so much artfully arranged driftwood and shell that it was difficult to find a spot for sun cream and keys.

White Australia’s collective love affair with the coast is, I have argued, only a little over a century old. But within that timeframe there are enough generations of accumulated memory to generate an aesthetic of somewhat mawkish nostalgia both generic in its bleached beachiness and specific in its references to the history of Australian surfing.

Judging by the amount of mowing and edging going on around my little shrine to modern coast culture, I guessed this was the centre of the owner-occupied - rather than rented – part of town.

The intensity of the grass trimming was intriguing, even if the noise was incessant. I was immediately reminded of Allan Ashbolt’s pessimistic portrayal of Australian suburban life which appeared in the literary journal Meanjin in 1966, part of a symposium called ‘Godzone’ exploring aspects of ‘God’s own country’ as Australia was sometimes described:

Behold the man - the Australian of today – on Sunday morning in the suburbs, when the high decibel drone of the motor-mower is call the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor mower beside him in the wilderness - what more does he want to sustain him.

Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

Ashbolt was a man of the intellectual left. For him the lawn mower was, in effect, the intrusive machine in the Edenic garden of Australian radicalism. Like the surburbia it helped to maintain, the mower reflected a deadening quest for conformity and respectability that was consuming Australian working ‘men’. It, and the gardens it created, sat counter to the labour movement led reform that had made this country one of the world’s most progressive societies - in class terms at least. The ‘motor-mower’ was a manifestation of false consciousness.

The manicured lawn also annoyed a contemporary of Ashbolt, the architect and social commentator Robin Boyd – but for aesthetic and cultural rather than political reasons. In his classic 1960 jeremiad, Australian Ugliness, Boyd wrote despairingly that ‘progress is measured by the number of acres transformed from the native state of sloppiness [ie natural bush] to the desirable state of clipped artificiality’. Boyd used the term arboraphobia to describe the contemporary attitude to native vegetation echoing, in turn, the blunt observations of historian WK Hancock who in 1930 wrote that white Australians ‘hated trees’.

Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

In recent decades the Australian suburb has been embraced by a less judgmental intelligentsia who see creativity and an authentic democratic culture expressed there. In terms of gardening there could be a degree of nostalgia here too. For the new suburbs of Sydney, at least, pay little heed to the need for private gardens. Bloated houses spread over as much of their respective blocks as planning laws permit. Shrubs are a low maintenance ‘designer’ afterthought. So anyone nurturing or growing anything outdoors must be a good thing. In this context, the well-tended blocks of Ashbolt and Boyd’s suburbia, or indeed present-day south coast settlements, could be examples of ‘creative suburbs’.

I must admit, I felt the power of nostalgia as I sat and watched the passing parade from the front of my little ‘temple’. Not wistful for the trim gardens outside or the surfing past celebrated inside but for the casual freedom of this re-creation of old suburbia. This little town is a place where people ride bikes without helmets and where children roam unsupervised. I suspect my  nostalgia was shared by the parents who bring their offspring here to delight in letting them head off to make their own fun away from scrutiny and electronic devices – just as they did ‘back in the day’. In the context of contemporary life, this old ‘suburbia’ is an added attraction of the modern coast holiday.

Yet the apparent casualness sits at odds with the obsessive pursuit of neatness and all the effort and the noise generated to create it. So while I wince a little at the stridency of Ashbolt and Boyd’s attacks from on high, the starkness of the ‘clipped artificiality’ of these coast gardens is still bewildering.

Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
The threatening 'sloppiness' of the bush. Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

There is a sense of place reflected here. But it seems to be one in which manicured gardens and trim facades are constructed as psychological and perhaps real bulwarks against the surrounding native forest and heath – a buffer of order where all beyond is alien disorder just as Robin Boyd suggested. Stranger still is the prevalence of the cultivated plants that evoke other coasts; Cocos Island Palms, exotic Hibiscus from Hawaii and Pandanus from the north. This is a confounding relationship to place and beauty for it suggests a need to sit apart from one’s habitat rather than within it. There is a need to make this specific place – glorious though it is - conform to some generic postcard version of ‘coastiness’ just as the décor of my holiday house did.

I was awoken on the last day of my break by the high decibel drone of a 'whipper snipper' outside my bedroom window. It was wielded by the owner, clearly offended by a few wisps of grass and oblivious to the possible annoyance his noisy obsession might cause. It was a Sunday morning. Allan Ashbolt would have felt vindicated and I was decidedly not ‘relaxed’.

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Shark on show Coffs Harbour 1915, From State Library NSW collection
Shark on show Coffs Harbour 1915, From State Library NSW collection

The response of authorities to the recent awful shark attack off Tathra Beach on the NSW south coast could not have been more different to the vigilantism of the West Australian government after the spate of attacks on that side of the continent. In the west, protection afforded the endangered Great White Shark was set aside with the support of the conservative Federal Government so that that species could be killed, along with other types, by baited drum lines or shooting. People’s absolute right to swim unthreatened was deemed paramount and this underpinned the renewed right to kill normally protected sharks.

There was none of that in NSW. Not even a hunt for the predator itself – a fish which all agreed must have been large.

Neither did the public urge a pursuit. Instead there was a wave of grief and dignified expressions of sympathy for Christine Armstrong and her husband Rob, both regular ocean swimmers. Rob concluded that the extent of the support was less reflective of the manner of his wife’s death, than the esteem in which she was held.

It was a significant distinction because there are few fears for Australians as perennial as shark attack. Aboriginal people regarded the animals with trepidation even as they were incorporating them in creation stories. The sea-faring British were well aware of the fish before they colonised these coasts. There was already, quite literally, an unsavoury association between sharks and ‘man-eating’ among sailors when the Endeavour headed out to the Pacific in 1768, ultimately to sail up the Australian east coast. Then Joseph Banks suggested that the crew’s reluctance to eat stewed shark was founded on ‘some prejudice founded on the species sometimes eating human flesh’.

Awareness of the threat of attack in Australian waters developed in the first months of the colonisation of Sydney Harbour. A wobbegong, which continued fighting for life after it was caught in 1788, was described as ‘voracious’. The newcomers noted the fear sharks inspired among the Harbour clans who had lived with the creatures for generations.

Convicts and the guards were warned off swimming in the harbour – the beginning perhaps of a tradition of Australian ‘life-saving’ regulation.

Over the following two centuries some 228 people were killed by sharks (Taronga Conservation Society Shark Attack Files, http://taronga.org.au/animals-conservation/conservation-science/australian-shark-attack-file/latest-figures)

As a fear-driven hatred of sharks grew concurrently, countless thousands of the fish were killed. A lot were caught for food but many more for fun; and quite a few of those out of vengeance. Recreational fishing burgeoned from the end of the 19th century. Game fishing was glamorous by the 1930s when American writer Zane Grey visited these waters and caught sharks and other big fish. Radio and TV celebrity Bob Dyer continued the association between wealth and catching sharks in the post-war years. There was even a sense of noblesse oblige as the rich helped rid the oceans of malicious creatures.

Photographs of slain sharks in this period share something with the grotesque photographs of lynching victims in the USA. Both typically feature a crowd around the cadaver, sometimes grinning, sometimes grim, but always sanctioning the debasement and killing of the monster among them.

It was recollections of this type of tableau vivant that novelist and conservationist Tim Winton evoked in his recent denunciation of the baiting of drum lines and by-passing of laws protective of sharks in his home State: ‘I remember enormous distended carcasses suspended from meat hooks and steel cables in jetties in Albany… Western Australia’. (Sydney Morning Herald 14 December 2013) Though admitting some attitudinal changes, Winton saw much that remained the same.

Winton’s anger prompted writer Richard King to characterise his pessimism as misanthropy. It ‘is important not to demote human beings from masters of the universe to spiteful monsters’. King’s attempt to understand the widespread protest against the Western Australian ‘shark cull’ was, itself, a strange piece. Though ultimately agreeing that we enter the sea at our own risk, King felt the need to dismiss the emotion of those criticising their government’s reaction to shark attack as part of a ‘cause celebre’, an example of ‘the politics of easy indignation’. (The Monthly, March 2014). ‘Precisely why this issue has gripped the collective imagination is a difficult question to answer’, he wrote. And indeed he didn’t answer it.

The shift in attitude to sharks has been quick. But so too was the change in our attitude to whales. Their dismembering was a tourist attraction when Winton was a boy in Albany in the 1960s. We had been hunting them mercilessly for 150 years before that. However within 20 years of Winton’s experience, Australians were helping to dislodge stranded whales along their coasts. There is now a near universal national revulsion at Japanese whaling in southern waters. Knowledge of the ecological disaster that whaling entailed has been joined with a moral disapproval at the cruelty of their slaughter. So, too, with sharks.

Perhaps, in Australia, our attitude to marine fauna follows with a lag that to land animals. Hunting is no way near as acceptable and widespread as it was the 1960s, let alone the 1860s when rambles routinely involved the shooting of anything that moved.  We were creating terrestrial parks a century earlier than their marine equivalents.

The latter are still very much contested. But debate over marine parks in the NSW state elections of 2011 suggest that some are also beginning to question the sanctity of recreational fishing – long regarded as an almost sacred right among Australians, and the last widely popular form of killing wild animals.

As with the shark cull in Western Australia, the Federal Government has clearly indicated its willingness to roll back marine park protection. It will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds.

The sense of an unmitigated right to kill has underpinned our attitude to nature for centuries. Coupled with the means and propensity to completely destroy entire ecologies, it has been disastrous.

If a bit of humility or ‘indignation’ - however ‘easy’ - leads to a questioning of this, surely that can only be a good thing.

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I’ve never understood the urge to cheer when something is destroyed, however spectacular the destruction might be. My feeling is that objects embody effort, skill and time – and sometimes a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. All that is worthy of respect and consideration, at least. There are some exceptions to this of course; not least the toppling of the statues of tyrants. The golden likeness of the brutal Enver Hoxha of Albania is a good example.

The demolition of the towering Port Kembla copper smelter chimney last week produced whoops and claps from the audience assembled to watch the structure come crashing down. Admittedly I didn’t grow up near what the Daily Telegraph (20 February 2014) referred to as the ‘infamous’ tower. My washing was never spoiled by it, nor did I breathe in its exhaust. Perhaps some of those who cheered were really glad to see the thing go because of the bad memories it triggered and what it represented – though it hadn’t been operational since 2003. Perhaps the chimney was something of a tyrant in its own right.

But reports also suggested there were those who shed a tear. Some worked at the place, others considered it a defining landmark. One man’s father helped build the stack and was too upset to see it destroyed. The chimney was just under 50 years old; built in 1965 it symbolised the post-war industrial development of Port Kembla. The copper smelter gave many immigrants their first permanent job. Indeed for a community that now suffers from chronic unemployment it was a very obvious reminder of a productive, even heroic, past.

‘A relic’s worth’, as the writer David Lowenthal points out, depends in part ‘on what use its serves’. If the retention of the chimney serves no purpose as a reminder, an icon, a focal point of community identity then I suppose its loss does not matter. Lowenthal goes on to say ‘everything surviving from the past has some value which is forfeited unless it is preserved’. I’m not sure, however, if that value or the depth of community feeling was much assessed in Port Kembla.

Retaining the obsolete industrial monoliths of the 20th century is fraught. They are often hard to re-use and expensive to maintain. Some are contaminated, though in the case of the Port Kembla chimney reports suggest that the asbestos had been removed. Size and retention cost are the reasons that the 60 year old Garden Island hammer head crane will be dismantled. Its removal will profoundly change the skyline of Sydney Harbour, cutting the last significant focal link to that waterway’s industrial past.

But at Catherine Hill Bay – a small State Heritage Listed mining settlement on the NSW’s central coast – the case for retaining the massive coal loading jetty may just have become stronger. It was not included in the Heritage Listing and was slated for demolition for the same reasons as Sydney Harbour’s hammer head crane. However, a fire in late 2013 that destroyed other heritage sites in the 130 year old town left most of the jetty intact. The local Progress Association and Lake Macquarie City Council hope the owner, Lake Coal, will fund its restoration. It is unlikely that any reuse can be found for the structure – it is too high to be used as a fishing wharf. But it has ‘symbolic’ value as a link to the origins of the settlement. And as one of the last of the long jetties that once extended like fingers into the sea from Byron Bay to the Illawarra it surely has state significance. Maybe the case can be made again as plans proceed to build the large subdivision just south of the original settlement. Maybe funds might be found through that development. For the jetty would be clearest reminder of Catherine Hill’s historical reason for being.

The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire
The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire

There is precious little industrial heritage left on the NSW coast. The phenomenon of sea change has so transformed towns that it is hard to imagine our relationship with the coast before the advent of surfing and mass holidays. Structures like the Catherine Hill jetty help offset that collective amnesia.

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Signs for the times: the mystery of the urchins of Gordons Bay and the case for multi-lingual signs in marine parks and reserves.

We treasure favourite spots along the coast. Surfers at north Narrabeen have long agitated against dune modification and other interventions that affect their prized point break. Elsewhere volunteers pull invasive bitou bush from dunes. This collective consciousness has been apparent since 1972 when the first marine protected area was created in NSW.

One of these, the Bronte–Coogee Aquatic Reserve, includes Gordons Bay, near Clovelly in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There locals are proud of the blue gropers which inhabit the easily snorkelled water.

But recently they have become concerned about the apparent demise of common sea-urchins (Heliocidaris erythogramma). The departure of the urchins is linked to the presence of a type of green microalgae (referred to strangely as ‘black algae’) and the two are apparent evidence of an ecosystem out of balance. Careless snorkelers are blamed for crushing the creatures as they walk out to deeper water and, as urchins eat algae, it would seem to follow that the algae is blooming in the absence of grazers.

However, recent Daily Telegraph articles (3 Feb 2014 and 14 Feb 2014) make the somewhat misleading distinction between marine algae and seaweed, talking about the former coating the latter because urchins are no longer eating the algae. Seaweed - kelp, strap weed etc - and algae are one and the same. Urchins eat algae such as kelp and can themselves be responsible for creating rocky barrens. Their population can rise and fall and rise again as food sources are depleted and recover.

It may be that the proliferating algae is a different type not eaten by urchins and the spread is caused by something else – possibly an overabundance of nutrient from run-off. There is a suggestion that spoil dumped after the recent dredging of Botany Bay may be affecting marine life.

Far more than any terrestrial environment, marine systems are in flux. It will be interesting to see what transpires at Clovelly and who, or what, is to blame for the absent urchins.

Elsewhere around Sydney, it is ‘collecting’ that is the concern. Long Reef, near Collaroy on the city’s northern beaches, has been an aquatic reserve since 1980. The taking or killing of invertebrate marine life is forbidden – as indeed it is at Gordons Bay. Yet people still occasionally wander out with buckets and take shellfish, presumably for personal consumption.

Australians have a long history of collecting seafood. For thousands of years Aboriginal people gathered shellfish, congevoi, urchins etc, as a mainstay of their diet. The Anglo-Australians who gradually colonised the coast from the late 1800s undoubtedly had a more restricted taste. Congevoi was just used as fish bait, but they too gathered rock oysters where ever they were found right up into the 20th century. Possibly the small groups of Chinese fishers who established camps at Port Stephens and elsewhere were more adventurous.

(For many years collecting for curiosity’s sake was also a popular past-time. Indeed the 1952 classic Australian Seashores, written by William Dakin, Isobel Bennett and Elizabeth Pope, included a section on ‘how and where to collect’ and some advice on how to kill the specimens one retrieved)

As terrestrial hunting has become marginal and contested, the sea and coast provide us with our last wild harvest. Most obviously this occurs with fishing, but crabbing and the trapping of lobsters are still ‘traditional’ features of many ‘Aussie’ summer holidays.

In recent years other groups have brought their own traditions. It is not unusual to see people from Asia and the South Pacific – immigrants or possibly tourists - picking over rock pools and platforms; just as the Chinese fishermen of Port Stephens almost certainly did in the late 1800s. In most cases this is entirely legal. There is a wide range of sea life that can be taken, even in habitat protection zones; from urchins to periwinkles to turban shells.

Information about collecting is freely available on the internet and there are sometimes signs on site – though strangely I couldn’t see one at the northern end of Long Reef when I visited last week. But surely it makes sense to have information out there that is multi-lingual and easy to absorb. Signs such as that at Port Stephens (picture taken in 2011) are great but the information is complex and for those who aren’t proficient reading English, this is daunting and, I suspect, disregarded.

Port Stephens Marine Park sign

Multi-lingual signs, I would suggest, may even give ‘non-Anglo’ groups some sense of owning the issue of collecting – or at least sharing the responsibility for managing it. It seems better to inform than blame. Small signs, perhaps with symbols, could be placed nearer sanctuary zones. These can be referred to quickly by others who might be concerned at what seems like illegal collecting. Fears, indeed, may be allayed.

And in those areas where clumsy and careless snorkellers are known to be treading on urchins, simple signs can specifically address that.

Below is a link to Undertow Nicole Steinke’s wonderful ABC Radio National documentary on our many relationships to the coast.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/undertow3a-stories-from-the-land27s-edge/5246012

 

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