Paper roads, private rivers

It’s been a long time since I have had a close encounter with a tinny.  Perhaps it’s being on the river for the winter sunrise, but I’ve been finding myself all alone on the water for weeks now.

Which is mostly – in fact, almost entirely – a good thing.  But rattling down the road to Mangrove Creek last weekend,  I began to have doubts.  Could I hear the sound of duelling banjos in the distance? Was I about to make an unplanned appearance in the sequel to Deliverance?  (This is not a film to select as a fundraiser for your local canoeing club, by the way)

What was it that was freaking me out?  Was it the bags slung over the heads of the traffic lights as I crossed an abandoned stretch of the Pacific Highway? The rubble-flanked track plunging down the escarpment into the rainforest, a lyrebird breaking cover  the only thing on the road for miles around?  The isolated tumbledown houses, walled in by rusted-out cars and half-drowned boats?  The total lack of mobile coverage?  Or the large signs at every turnoff: “Private property!  Keep out, city slickers, or you WILL be disembowelled!”

Yep, that’s it: that nasty feeling that I might be chased, possibly at gunpoint, off someone’s private land.  This particular stretch of river – owned by the Crown like most tidal waterways, surrounded on all sides by national parks and serviced by public roads – is particularly tricky to access.  Glenworth Valley, for instance, a patch of acreage between Popran Creek and the National Park of the same name, offers pony riding, quad bikes and guided kayak tours  to cashed up visitors (and very nice they are too, I’m sure).  But if you want to launch your own craft from there that’ll be $50, thank you very much.  Maybe as a nation-building project we should institute publicly funded zip lines so kayakers can hurtle directly from the towering if unprofitable sandstone rockfaces in the national parks to the miles and miles of marketable creeks below.

It’s not getting any better, either, in NSW anyway.  The current state government is selling off thousands of Crown roads – paper roads as they’re sometimes called, since they exist mostly on maps – sketchy unformed tracks or riverside reserves, sometimes illegally fenced off, across private land.  But flimsy and flyaway as they might sound, paper roads are routes in to rivers and other wild places to anglers, bushwalkers and kayakers.  And they’re being erased from the map, to the faraway ker-ching of cash registers.  Perhaps that was the noise I heard in the distance, not red-necks with banjos, after all.

Possibly because Shooters and Fishers’ Party hold two seats in the NSW Upper House,  anglers get a once-over at the Crown roads put up for sale before they go.  Perhaps we need to set up a Canoeists, Backpackers and Assorted Outdoor Types With No Aspirations to Kill Things Party to get a gander too…. Mmmm, thinking about it, maybe the CBAOTNAKT already exists

But, without the comforting presence of my local CBAOTNAKT Member of Parliament in a kayak beside me, I was distinctly on edge last Sunday as I parked up next to a semi-collapsed shed largely supported by a jumble of discarded oil cans, non-functional bicycles and rolls of ancient carpet ideal for concealing the bodies of trespassers.  Did this private dump signify total indifference or was it the rural property owner’s equivalent of the pile of discarded undergarments on the bedroom floor, mess in a place so private you expect no other eyes on it at all?  With the valley under a blanket of mist, I hoped I wouldn’t find out.

Stumbling on an apparently abandoned riverside caravan park in the fog didn’t reassure me either.  We all know desolate motels and the like are the optimal spot for a horror movie – leaving aside sororities full of nubile sophomores, of course (I think I’m fairly safe on that front).  There was a spooky stillness about the place.

And then some ducks took off with a clatter and the channel changed.  A pair of kingfishers chased each other, squeaking and swerving in and out of the mangroves’ eves and old blokes in shorts appeared out of kitchen doors, morning coffee in hand, to have a natter and a tinker with the outboard.

I love to watch the day unfurl from its cocoon of mist.    A silence shared with a white-bellied sea eagle; the hunting herons and the whirling swallows apparitions in the cloud.  Then the fog parts and the first wattle-blossom catches in the morning light.  Before you know it, the blue river is dazzling and it’s time to go home.

As I paddled the last few hundred metres to the car, I saw figures on the shore, and my heart sank.  I don’t know I was more afraid of aggrieved landowners demanding a handful of cash or a mob of ferals threatening to slash my tyres.

It turned out to be a trio of local teenage boys not old enough to have a licence, filling in their long, long, long country Sunday with a walk along the river.  They were much more sheepish to find an adult in their hangout zone than I was to be there.  And I remembered: when you’re a kid, you have no private property – everything belongs to someone else.