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.