Meet the Royals

Spoonbill looking back good portrait 2 wideTo be honest, I’m a republican more than a monarchist, but over the weekend I met one set of royals I have some time for: Royal Spoonbills.  They carry off the ceremonial garb beautifully without raiding the public purse for grog or helicopter rides, and their landed estates are mostly mud, swamps and reed beds, as opposed to, say 20 million acres of Britain’s finest arable land.

Royal Spoonbills are not uncommon birds – their conservation status is secure across much of Australia, and they can be found not just in rivers and coastal mudflats but  also in temporary inland waterways during times of flood, wading through shallow water, feeling for fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with their vibration-detecting spoon-shaped beaks. They’ve also made it to New Zealand, where their numbers seem to be increasing.

But I’ve only seen them on two occasions in my weekly outings on the Hawkesbury, at the same time – early morning an hour or two after low tide- and in the same spot, in the mangroves near the shambling boatyards in Mooney Mooney.  It’s place with a splendid outlook but it won’t be appearing on the front cover of Vogue’s Marina and Oysterfarm magazine.  Unless they’re doing a special spread on “2017’s best retro refits for your partially sunken houseboat”

Sea eagle at dawn long small

White bellied sea eagle at dawn over Spectacle Island

The perpetually roar from the freeway, the piles of maritime junk and even the unchained dog wandering round the quayside didn’t seem to bother the herons, the pelicans or the spoonbills.  The tidal mudflats fringing Mooney Mooney and the nature reserve at Spectacle Island  across the way must make for good pickings, and the stands of mangroves by the boatyard a safe place to nest, over the water.

I’m pretty sure this is a regular hang-out for them.  Spoonbills living near the coast are sedentary and often use the same nests from year to year.  My failure to spot them over the intervening period is, I suspect, more to do with cluelessness about the best tide time to catch them, rather than a sign they wander around a lot.

Like darters, they breed in colonies with other waterbirds.  The first time I saw this group (or to use the proper collective noun, bowl) of spoonbills, in September last year, they were in the company of another wader I’ve rarely seen on the Hawkesbury, an egret. And this time, as well as the ubiquitous white-faced herons feeding en-masse on the mud flats at dawn and then later in the shallows, there were a flock of the much maligned white ibises – or “bin chickens” as urban Australian call them disparagingly – hunting in amongst the mangroves down the way.

Pelicans shouting at each other crop small

Apparently this is a male pelican (in breeding colours) chatting up a likely female!

I read that juvenile spoon bills have even been spotted grooming other species of waterbirds.  Shortsighted?  Or just very very friendly?

This time there was no sign of the spoonbills’ breeding plumage, a 20cm long crest of feathers on the back of the necks of both males and female (although the crest on female, like their legs and beak, is apparently shorter than the males’).  October to April is said to be the breeding season, so I must have caught them, last time, just before they paired up and started thinking about the next generation.  It’s probably lucky I didn’t catch them any later in the year, since it seems they’re very sensitive to disturbance when they’re on the nest.

Birds do seem to be more chilled around a photographer gliding along in a canoe than someone stumbling in the undergrowth with a camera.  It is pleasing to have this observation, made on the water over the past three years, confirmed by a recent paper, entertainingly called “Up the Creek with a Paddle”.  According to its authors, Hayley Glover, Patrick-Jean Guay and Michael Weston, the FID (flight-initiation-disturbance) distance of royal spoonbills is 23 metres if you are in a canoe, versus 55 metres if you’re on foot.  Mind you, driving up to birds in your car is also scientifically vindicated way of getting (slightly) closer to them before they make a break for it, but unless you want your SUV bobbing in the water next to the Mooney Mooney houseboat, perhaps not such a good idea in this instance.

Guay, Glover and Weston, having presumably spent quite some time running loudly (with a tape measure) through the reeds towards a range of species and then ramming them (carefully and scientifically) with canoes, recommend a “set back” from waterbirds for boaties of about 90 metres*. Which is a long way, even if you have a good zoom on your camera.  But I think, at least for the next few months, I’ll give the spoonbills a wide berth and let them raise their babies in peace.

Spectacle island mud flats lines abstract long and thin small

Spectacle Island mudflats at dawn

References

Glover, Hayley K., Guay, Patrick-Jean and Weston, Michael A.  (2015) “Up the creek with a paddle; avian flight distances from canoes versus walkers” Wetlands Ecological Management,  23:775–778

Guay, Patrick-Jean; McLeod, Emily M; Taysom, Alice J and Weston, Michael A. Are vehicles ‘mobile bird hides’?: A test of the hypothesis that ‘cars cause less disturbance’. The Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 131, No. 4, Aug 2014

McLeod EM, Guay P-J, Taysom AJ, Robinson RW, Weston MA (2013) “Buses, cars, bicycles and walkers: the influence of the type of human transport on the flight responses of waterbirds”. PLoS ONE 8:e82008

Mo, Matthew (2016) An apparent case of interspecific allopreening by a Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia. Australian Zoologist: 2016, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 214-216.

  • Glover, Guay and Weston are undoubtedly bird lovers and did their research with the greatest sensitivity and care.  I just always find it funny / slightly disturbing to read about the things animal researchers sometimes do to expand the range of human knowledge.  Most poignant I’ve read in recent times: releasing migrating songbirds into a planetarium and allowing them to try to navigate by the stars…

 

Spoonbill fishing 3 cropped larger asymmetrical

Perhaps not a beautiful bird but certainly eye catching!

A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.

 

More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

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Backyard gold

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.

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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.

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.

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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

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.