Delta bravo!

Kylies from the headland 2011

Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park

It’s lucky that travelling in reverse is just as easy as going forwards in Egg, my decrepit wooden kayak (currently held together with duct tape), because lately my paddles seem to be taking me back in time.  Back to old haunts and old holiday snaps, but also really really far back into the geological past.

When I took this photo of beautiful Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park in 2011, for instance, I wasn’t thinking “My, what a fine example of a barrier dune system in a wave dominated estuary!”

And  this snap from North Brother Mountain, taken on the same trip five years ago, demonstrates that I wasn’t paying enough attention to geomorphology at the time.  It’s not a bad shot of the 100,000 year old Pleistocene sand barriers that protect Watson Taylor Lake from the crashing waves of the Pacific.  But, in retrospect, I should have given the picturesque tree on the right the flick, and made sure I squeezed in a view of the mouth of the Camden Haven River.

Because, for the New South Wales anyway, this is a pretty special place.  As you can see in the pic below by a more geologically literate photographer, enfolded in the lake is a classic river delta – a rare sight in this part of the world.  It’s a mini-Mississippi, sloughing off its sediment as it flows into stiller waters, leaving muddy banks along the way and a cluster of little islands at river’s end.

watsontaylorlake

Watson Taylor Lake.  Bias, Gene. watsontaylorlake.jpg Pics4learning July 2004. 9 May 2016 <http://pics.tech4learning.com>.

Sad to say, I didn’t notice all this deposition and composition as I paddled down Camden Haven Inlet at dawn, skimming over the seagrass and the sand. Even when I got stuck in the mud – sorry, fluvial sediment – right in the middle of the lake. At high tide.  Next to a bunch of knee deep swans.  Sometimes I reckon I’m not the sharpest knife in the knifeblock.

Swans horizontal

Black swans smirking while I try to get afloat after running aground in the middle of the lake

It was only back at camp at Kylie’s, over a first reviving brew-up, when I stumbled on Rod’s Northern Rivers Geology blog with its intriguing story of the missing coastal deltas of New South Wales that I figured out what I’d seen.

Thinking back, I realised I’d been somewhere very similar just a few weeks ago, in another one of the New South Wales’ magical coastal lagoons.  Where Dora Creek – home of freakish panda-snakes – empties into Lake Macquarie, the very same levees march, both sides of the river, far out into the open water.

Dora Creek doesn’t have mangrove topped islands at its mouth, like the Camden Haven. Perhaps their beginnings were washed away by the waves that scoot across five kilometres of open water to scare the hell out of unwary kayakers.  In the same way storms, waves and the East Australian Current sluice river sand and sediment out into the Pacific or up the coast, leaving barrier beaches in place of river deltas all along the Eastern seaboard.

Island in river mouth small.jpg

Island in the delta

But in the sheltered estuary of Watson Taylor Lake I got to enjoy all the rare pleasures of a river delta.  Mosquitoes, for instance.  More than I’ve encountered anywhere, even my backyard, locally famous for its blood buffet and chubby and contented microbats.  With the mozzies come the mozzie eaters.

I stopped to take pictures of the wood swallows, but in fact, this little beach, at the very end of the Camden Haven’s levees, had almost as many birds as it had bugs. Honey-eaters in an array of colours: brown, striped and yellow-faced. Noisy friarbirds, mobs of them, bursting from the casuarinas to wheel and chatter. Wagtails and fantails.  Crested terns chilling out away from the surf.  A drongo (I’m not being insulting – it’s a gorgeous bird).  Not to mention a special treat – the rarely sighted fungus-faced thornbill.

And, as I wended my way through the maze of islands with the help of the handy map in my Paddlers Guide to NSW, an unflappable young sea eagle, rising majestically above the cloud of biters.   It takes a genuine love of raptors to continue taking snaps while half a dozen mosquitos are sucking on your eyelids.

But as RB just reminded me, if Australia’s eastern coast is wanting for river deltas now, it’s not always been so.   It was an enormous braided river delta, like the Amazon or the Ganges that laid down the golden Hawkesbury sandstone, a couple of hundred metres thick, right across the Sydney Basin, 230 million years ago.

Perhaps this is an approach to marketing I can put to the NSW Tourist Board. “Volcanos!  Dangerous megafauna! Epic braided river deltas! Go back far enough in time, and New South Wales has it all!!”

North brother reflection

Reflections of North Brother Mountain on my way back to the put in at Camden Inlet

More adventures on New South Wales’ coastal lagoons

Geomorphology and dawn reflections on a midwinter lagoon at Myall and Narrabeen Lakes

A paddle across scary Lake Macquarie to see the snake-pandas of Dora Creek

Encounters with eagles on Budgewoi Lake

Moonlit bay lighter real

Moonlit night on Kylie’s Beach

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

 

Death and good fortune on Cowan Creek

Since reading the poetic prose of H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s story of how training Mabel the goshawk carried her through wild sadness that followed the death of her beloved father, it’s been all about the raptors around here.

Easter at Speers Point meant ospreys relaxing in the late afternoon sun.

And yesterday, on Cowan Creek, the contractual obligation white bellied sea-eagle.

Juvenile sea eagle belly horizontal

Juvenile white-bellied sea eagle

Then, just when I’d resigned myself to a pleasant if uneventful paddle after three hours on the water, there was an explosion of action right off my bow.  Two birds in an aerial battle, tumbling and squabbling over a kill.  The loser flew off, disgruntled; the death-dealer pulled up in the bright morning sunshine on a branch over the river, and waited for me to get out my camera.

A new bird!  One I thought I’d never seen on any waterway.  A peregrine falcon.

It turns out I had seen these birds before, long ago and far away – a pair tussling with ravens over a ledge to nest on at Malham Cove in Yorkshire.  Cliffs (or, if they are hard to find, skyscrapers) are one of the essential requirements of this beautiful raptor.  RB reminded me that peregrines used to nest in the ventilation towers of the tunnels under the River Mersey and high up in the Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the enormous red sandstone building I could see from my desk during my decade as a Scouser.

Peregrines may be the most widespread bird in the world, living on every continent except for Antarctica and on many islands (although strangely, considering its status as a bird watching paradise, not New Zealand).  Its name is derived from the Latin for “the wanderer” although only five of the nearly twenty subspecies – those breeding in the northern Arctic – really migrate very far.

For all their capacity to adapt to life in the city – eating feral pigeons and nesting in highrises – peregrines are widespread but not really common.  Since they mostly prey on smallish birds, themselves often insect eaters, falcons bioaccumulate pollutants. The use of organochlorines in insecticides like DDT devastated their numbers in the second half of the twentieth century.  By the 1960s there were no peregrines in the Eastern US and the birds were declared an endangered species. Numbers have bounced back, in Australia and elsewhere, although they are still classed as  “rare” here.  And recent work in Europe and Canada has observed a new chemical – flame retardants – turning up in the blood stream of peregrine chicks.

Once peregrines find a good nesting site, it’s a keeper.  Apparently, a falcon skeleton found at the back of a cliff-top eyrie in Tasmania has been carbon dated at 19,000 years, which makes that spot the oldest known bird’s nest. As I noodled along the northern shore of Cowan Creek, I’d admired the 100 metre high cliffs of Looking Glass Spur, eucalypts halfway up the face finding impossible footholds in the sandstone.  I wonder if my falcon and its mate have a scrape there, high above the expanse of the estuary.  Peregrines don’t eat fish but hunting grounds by water offer the space for their deadly turn of speed.

I feel less disappointed by my failure to spot the raptor’s stoop or to capture the battle on film after I figured out what I was watching.  The fastest animal in the world, dropping  on its prey at nearly 400 kilometres an hour.  That poor bird clutched in its talons -maybe a galah, the favoured meal of the big-footed Australian “macropus” subspecies – never had a chance.

I watched for twenty minutes, as she plucked and dismembered her meal, unperturbed by the rowdy parade of jet skiiers, cruisers and powerboats.  Galah feathers drifted down from her branch, making a delicate trail of death across the bottle green water.

For a few dodgy moments, I thought the gobbets of galah might be joined by flotsam from my shattered craft as Egg was washed perilously close to oystershell sharpened rocks.  And, if I had the Bond-style rocket launcher I’ve often fantasised about while ploughing  through powerboat wakes on sunny Sunday mornings, fragments of several jet skis.

I’m guessing my peregrine was a “she”.  Females are a third bigger than the tiercels – the males – but I didn’t have the chutzpah to hurl a swiss army knife up the tree for scale.  The two mid-air combatants looked well matched – two males or two females. Definitely not a pair.  Since peregrines mate for life – up to 20 years – and often hunt cooperatively, it would seem to be unwise from the point of view of domestic harmony, anyway, to bicker over food.

In fact, Derek Ratcliffe describes exactly what I saw: “feet-grappling over disputed food items” which happens, he says, “at food-territory boundaries during the non-breeding season” (1993, 201).   It seems these battles are nearly always between birds of the same sex, although sometimes peregrines fight with other crag-loving birds as well.  RB remembers peregrines in springtime at the cliffs at Creagh Dhu, attacking ravens, stooping then zooming straight up to the heights to do it all over again.  Sometimes pairs of peregrines will even take on the great golden eagle over rare and valuable real estate.

So maybe there’s more than one pair of peregrines on that beautiful bit of country.  Perhaps I’ll see this magic bird again, or her mate, or her rival, until I’m as blase about a peregrine strike as a whistling kite soaring on a thermal. But yesterday, as I took my four hundred photographs while the peregrine peaceably disembowelled its meal, showing the equanimity that makes them the favoured hunting falcon, I felt truly blessed.

Peregrine in front of branch staring at me crop

Peregrine falcon watching the watchers

More stories about raptors in Berowra’s backyard (and mine):

The beautiful white morph of the grey goshawk in Bluetongue’s back

A hunting collared sparrowhawk in Nude trees and naughty birds

The whistling kites of Bar and Peat Islands in Two sad islands, three whistling kites

The many white-bellied sea eagles of the Hawkesbury and Lake Macquarie in Encounters with eagles

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

A bridge fetishist paddles to Brooklyn

I have a weakness for bridges.  Romantic trysts just happen to be arranged with the backdrop of the world’s first iron bridge.  Multiple crossings of the gorgeous Severn Suspension Bridge are absolutely essential for that work trip.  And in pride of place of the mantlepiece, of course, is a railway poster of the famous cantilever bridge over the Firth of Forth.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my paddles lately all seem to end up under what it pleases me to call Brooklyn Bridge.  That’s not its real name, mind, but since it starts  on Long Island and takes you through the thriving metropolis of Brooklyn (population 744) I think I can get away with it.

Brooklyn bridge and stone pillars plus boat.jpg

There was that morning jaunt from Parsley Bay, past the oyster leases and beneath the swooping welcome swallows, to the top of Mullet Creek, where the Newcastle trains disappear into the Woy Woy tunnel, once the longest tunnel in the southern hemisphere.

I’ve been lucky enough to go on on some beautiful railway journeys in my life – from Montreal to New York in winter, past above-ground swimming pools frozen like giants’ ice-cubes; from southern Thailand to Bangkok, looking out at the richest of tropical orchards woven into the jungle; between snowcapped mountains and sea on the West Highland line to Hogwarts Mallaig.  But I reckon this journey along Mullet Creek, not a place that will ever be immortalised in the baby names of the rich and famous, is my favourite.  There’s something about a railway line that leaves roads far behind, forging its own way along the empty shore.

Sunrise at Brooklyn

If you ask the driver, you can get off near the top of the creek at Wondabyne, the only station sans road access in Australia.  Every now and then, you see people jumping off the train and straight into a tinnie, zooming off to the shacks on the other side of the river before their fish supper gets cold.

For a few years in the late nineteenth century, while the first Hawkesbury River bridge was being built, if you were travelling north by train from Sydney, you would disembark at Long Island, board the double-decker paddleboat the General Gordon, and steam off to Mullet Creek Station, then just north of Wondabyne.  Now people hop off here to do part of the Great North Walk – a 250 kilometre walk from central Sydney to the beautiful beaches of Newcastle – or to wander up to Pindar Cave.  Judging from the smorgasborg of rusted out craft I saw in the shallow water at the top of the creek, it’s also a place where people take their boats to die.

Then there was this weekend’s jaunt, downriver from Deerubbin Reserve – a popular spot, right by the freeway, to fish or have a picnic for those who find the perpetual roar of traffic reassuring.  With the ever present possibility of a quick exit, I guess it’s ideal for the heavily pregnant or those who find their relatives a bit hard to take.  But I can’t really bag people for their passion for the internal combustion engine since I get all hot and bothered at the prospect of a paddle underneath (count ’em) three great big bridges.

This weekend’s jaunt took me past Spectacle Island Nature Reserve, under the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, natch, and around Dangar Island, swished along smartly by the current and the falling tide.

Have you ever been bored enough in an airport to try walking  the wrong way up a moving footpath?  Trying to paddle across the current to get to one of the beaches on the eastern side of the island was a bit like that.  It all seemed a bit too hard in the end, so I went where the river wanted to take me, downstream, floating just above perilous rocky reefs by off Bradley’s Beach and veering round the seagrass beds.

And then through the sailing boats, swaying and tinkling like expensive marine windchimes, to Sandy Bay, the best place in the world to be homeless.  The folks whose setup I saw there – a tarp flanked by a beached ramshackle boat and a solar panel – had no-one for neighbours but a horde of blue soldier crabs.  There was no sign of the human residents, but I now know what it’s like to be a celebrity, thousands of beady eyes watching and waiting on your every move.

Quite a few people live rough around Brooklyn.  “Good caves, a shower at Brooklyn Baths and walking distance to the bottle shop”, as RB commented with unseemly enthusiasm.  In the Depression, apparently, lots of people came to live in these parts for just this reason – shelter and a bit of space for chooks or a veggie garden.  I didn’t see a chicken run in Sandy Bay but Brooklyn does seem to have some kind of common flock, judging from these good looking fellas that we met down by the marina a while back.

I reckon the Hawkesbury estuary is Sydney Harbour through the looking glass – a parallel flooded river valley, bordered by bush instead of multimillion dollar apartments.  If the Harbour has its iconic Bridge, the Hawkesbury has its own engineering marvel – nearly three times as long, resting 50 metres and more deep in soft black mud.

The modern bridge is the second one to cross the river here.  The old bridge, finished in 1887, was the last link in the railway that spanned four colonies, connecting Queensland to South Australia.

Sir Henry Parkes, on the day of the bridge’s official opening, pronounced: “In this great system of material arteries which we completed today, we see the crimson fluid of kinship coursing through all the iron veins” (Sharp, 2001, 4).  Apparently the other grandees were a bit more underwhelmed by the prospect of a federated Australia, bound together with railways.  Nonetheless, the day after, the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald was headline was “United Australia”

Bridge silhouette 1

At the time it was built, the old bridge was the longest in Australia and had the deepest footings in the world – 180 feet below the high water line – though they still didn’t reach solid ground.

The Union Bridge Company from New Jersey won the contract to build it (on a pin-jointed truss system, as I’m sure you want to know), giving Brooklyn, the railway town that was set up to house the workers, its American name.  The tender being won by an American company was one in the eye for the old country, though it pleases me in some strange way that the riveted steel for the spans was made by Arrol Brothers in Glasgow, who also worked on the bridge across the Firth of Forth.

But the original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge didn’t last.  Its piers, filled with rubble instead of solid concrete, fractured under the weight of the trains that crossed here, the only  bit of duplicate track on the line.  The piles were starting to crack in the 30s, but the problem only came to light when a US railway geek doing a bit of light recreational reading of an engineering textbook spotted that the piles weren’t built to the original specifications.  The death knell of the old bridge, though, was the extra rail traffic of the war.

The piers of the old bridge remain, like golden castles guarding the river.

Castles 2

The footings of the 1887 Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge.  Or castles as I like to call them.

I’ve had a great time reading the fantastically detailed history of the building of the new bridge by Major-General Albert Cecil Fewtrell, the Chief Civil Engineer of the NSW railways, who supervised its completion.

There’s some entertaining reading between the lines.  When it came to putting the metal spans onto the concrete footing, it seems some fool had a plan to float the 1,600 tonne metal spans over to the pilings at water level and then haul them out with giant cranes perched on the piers.  But Major-General Fewtrell soon sorted them out:

“Consideration had been given early to the proposal to float out the spans at low level … The decision [was made] to revert to the high level method of floatation following the return of the Author from active service in 1943” (Fewtrell, 1946, 27)

The prep they did for the task of floating the massive spans from the construction docks – the cuttings still visible on the north shore of Long Island – onto the concrete pilings at high tide also gives you a sense of the guy.

A large board, representing the land and water at the site of the new bridge, was laid down in the southern tunnel. Model piers were accurately fixed in position in the “stream,” and miniature spans, pontoons, and equipment were used so that the men could practice in detail movements and prepare for emergencies.

Don’t you want to play with those 1/32 scale tiny cranes and miniature pilings?  I really really do.

Fewtrell thought that everything had gone swimmingly.  But the new bridge, the bridge that was supposed to last 200 years, is crumbling.  After years of delays, just this last week, work started on repairing the concrete footings and its rusting reinforcing steel. When I paddled past, there were huddled men in high vis jackets and mysterious icons dangling from the bridge deck – all the signs that a new engineering miracle is about to begin.  And I’m sure it’ll happen.

But at this stage, once again, I reckon it’s Hawkesbury River 1: human engineering 0.

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.