Saturday morning and, after three days of steady rain, it felt like the world would never by dry and sunny ever again. Because the rain had been so steady the creek had filled slowly and wasn’t in one of its churning, angry moods; but it was still brooding and sullen, channelling down pretty hard. The muddy brown wash whipped along at a brisk pace and foamed at the weir.

November flow

By lunchtime – Hallelujah! – the rain had stopped. By one o’clock the sun was out. By two o’clock it was sticky and humid and the water level in the creek had dropped to a low flow. Jambo was stir crazy and so I took hm down for a stickybeak. By now the sky was blue over Blackbutt and so I slid down the banking for a walk. I’m not a risk-taker and yet this afternoon, after three days of rain, I walked down the creek. Was I fool?

Even when it’s dry I get comments about the dangers of walking in the creek. Australia has an ambivalent relationship with water, easy to understand in the land where “the creeks run dry or ten feet high”. When I first moved to Newcastle I had lots of weekend trips around the Hunter to get to know the place. I remember one Sunday when I drove out to Paterson where I was struck by the number of deaths by drowning recorded on headstones in the cemetery there. (You didn’t expect me to take my kids to the park did you?) Creeks in flood were – are –dangerous, and this danger is strongly embedded our collective memory. A friend who grew up in Georgetown told me that she was told never to go near the creek for fear of being swept away: being “in the creek” and being “swept away” were synonyms. This is a fear with real substance: on the day I stood at the parapet on Chatham Road taking this photo a toddler drowned in a stormwater drain in Bingara. It happens. People die.

I’m not a surfer or much good in the ocean; I struggle to spot a rip and don’t feel comfortable outside the flags. But I do know that if I’m paddling around at Bar Beach I have the support of one of the world’s greatest volunteer safety and information institutions behind me in the form of Surf Life Saving Australia. Yet we don’t really have anything similar for our freshwater creeks and urban rivers. All we have is the endlessly repeated mantra “stay away from the drain”.

Danger floodway sign

Would you let your kids play in the surf unattended? No. If you wanted them to be surf savvy you’d send them to Nippers, you’d go with them to the beach and you’d teach them the ways of the water. You’d educate them. And yet today I saw kids playing by the creek banks. It’s steep there and, when the moss gets wet, it gets very slippery. Once you’re in the creek it’s hard to get out, even if you’re a six-foot tall man. These were kids ten, eleven, twelve years old.

I’ve learnt as much as I can about the creek. Any decision to go for a walk there is made on my observations of the environment, on previous experiences, of the weather report (through the Bureau of Meteorology web site), and on information that I know about the creek’s catchment. (You can view a Council-prepared document on the catchment which has some useful information.)

Importantly, I’m scared of the creek. I watch it and I know that it watches me, waiting for me to do something stupid so that it can suck me up and spit me out. I love it down there and yet I know that the water wouldn’t hesitate to curl around my ankles, laugh at my terrified, scrabbling attempts to claw up the concrete creek bank, whip me off and under and away.

I have a dream of Newcastle’s “drains” being transformed into urban waterways with boardwalks and bird hides and stepping stones and water features but, on days like today when I see the kids goggle-eyed on the banking, that dream feels a very long way off. Until we have Freshwater Nippers we’ll never have a generation of adults confident and knowledgeable enough to know when to love the creek and when to avoid it.

Until then I’ll stay respectfully scared of the Styx. I don’t want it to be my passage to the Underworld.

2 Responses to Danger

  1. Neil Keene says:

    As a child we were always warned about “flash floods” of drains, but I never saw one. From my observation, drains as big as the one in Hamilton North fill slowly and gradually. I was wondering Mark whether you had ever seen a torrent of water suddenly surge down the creek, or any other stormwater channel? Trying to work out whether those warnings were alarmist or realistic.

    • Mark MacLean says:

      This was pretty much what I was thinking of when I wrote this post. Creeks do flash flood, but only those creeks with certain topographical features under certain climatic conditions. Most of the “child washed away in drain” stories come from unsupervised, crazy play near culverts during heavy rain events, the times when kids are most attracted to the churning froth. However, I felt obliged to write something that addressed that whole OH&S thing about the creek. The fear is strong and it is one of the first things that people ask me: “Aren’t you scared of being washed away?” Well, yes. But I take care, I keep an eye on the indicators. And, as you say, I’ve yet to see a wall of water of Biblical proportions come surging down from New Lambton.

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