When my kids were little that cry, “Diggers!”, would go up whenever we were driving around town and we went past something big and yellow with caterpillar tracks or a scoop on the front. Invariably my son would look up from the comfort his scaggy, food-encrusted booster seat and look, with uncanny regularity, out of the wrong window. “Where digger?” “There! There! The other side! You’ve … uh. You’ve missed it.” Pause. “Bwaaaah!”

I still shout “Diggers!” every time I see something big and yellow with caterpillar tracks or a scoop on the front, but I do it quietly and inside my own head these days.

This thing, the thing that claws up the bitumen and hurls it backwards into a hopper like some Death Star tank, is particularly awe-inspiring.

Here’s one I tracked down in its natural environment, grazing in the park.

You can see that from the MacLean taxonomical perspective, “Diggers” is a very broad group that encompasses almost every large vehicle (i.e. those with big wheels, caterpillar tracks, a scoop or some large vessel on its rear).

I don’t know if it was just my family, but when the kids were little all things would be taxonomically reduced in this way, all species categorised by their broadest division or phylum. Thus, all small, flying creatures (except butterflies) were “bees” while all meat was “chicken”.

“What this chicken, daddy?”

“It’s pork.”

“Mmm. My like this chicken!”

I don’t know which road the above lot are tearing up but if you’re quick you too can get down Chatham Road and shout “Diggers!”

Blue poles


I wasn’t in Australia when Gough forked out $1.3m to buy a splashy, dripping painting by Jackson Pollock. I missed the Blue Poles controversy by a dozen years, not arriving here until 1985. In that time the world (your world, if you’re an Australian) had changed dramatically: you got out of Vietnam, had several tumultuous changes of government, floated the dollar, won the Americas Cup, put a woman in prison after her baby had been killed by a dingo. Heady stuff.

Strangely, it wasn’t really these blue poles that reminded me of 1973; it was a bunch of chokos scattered about the creek bed.

Maybe “reminded” isn’t the right word. Rather, they triggered a train of thought that took me back to a winter in the early 1970s in northern England.

These chokos had obviously been pinched by kids off some overhanging vine and lobbed around like hand grenades. (Well, maybe that hadn’t happened, but that’s what I assumed. I’m often amazed at how civic-minded Australians are compared to the British. Your roadside collections are never messed with, the timber collections are never set on fire. If this was in Britain …)

Anyway, the train of thought was off and running by now. Thoughts of lobbing stuff around, maybe too many nearly ripe apples pinched off trees or eggs from Harry Barker’s hen huts. Or snowballs.

It was about a mile walk from school to the bus stop, along rows of terraces, via the cake shop where you could get two stale cakes for a penny ha’penny. On snowy days we’d have snowball fights, but not horizontal ones. These would be fights with whoever was on the next street along with the snowballs being lobbed high over the roofs of the terrace houses to come hammering down like mortar shells on the street on other side – a big ask for a skinny-armed 12-year-old. At some point a bright spark would wrap a rock in snow and lob that over, starting a Cuban Missile Crisis-like ramping up of armaments. The snow around the rocks would get thinner and thinner until basically it was just rocks that were being thrown. Inevitably someone would get hurt or something would get broken.

I remembered other rock fights. Where I lived there were lots of abandoned slate quarries, perfect for making camps. Other kids would try to “take” them, with us chucking the sharp scards of slate at them and them back at us. Old barns were great for the same kind of gang wars.

We must have been absolute demons. If my son did any of this stuff I’d go ballistic!

I was coming out of the gasworks, where there seems to be an exceedingly large number of dead things at the moment.

Two young lads were sauntering past, a Coles freezer bag in hand. Now, I might not be the most worldly person but I knew that these lads had not been shopping for yoghurt. These freezer bags, with their padded sides and zip lids, are perfect for storing your Ironlak collection. We nodded cautiously at one another and I headed downstream while they snuck off up the Chaucer Street drain towards, I presume, the Broadmeadow rail yards.

A reminder that maybe not much has changed in all those years. Young males will still seek ways to put themselves in danger and generally annoy the rest of the world. As they always have.

Dia Mundial del Agua


Or, if your first language is English, World Water Day.

Or, if you’re Polish, err … what it says here:

Today, 22 March, has been designated World Water Day by the United Nations. When I hear “International Year of Blah” or “World Blah Day” I tend to switch off. These things tend to smell of focus groups and ideas dreamed up in offices on the twenty-second floor of some glass-and-chrome office in Zurich or Baltimore.

However, here’s something to make you think: to produce 1 kilo of beef requires 15,000 litres of water. Blimey. I’ve got an 800 gallon rainwater tank in the backyard, which I think is equivalent to about 3,500 litres. So that’s four and a bit tanks for a couple of pounds of mince. (Sorry about the Imperial measures; old habits die hard. If someone has a baby and I’m told that it was 4 kilos at birth I’ve no idea whether that’s normal, close to death or monstrously overweight.)

I haven’t done anything to celebrate WWD at the moment. It was too drizzly and miserable this morning, and Jambo was too fixated with the bunnies in gasworks. (Question: how many litres of water does it take to make a bunny?) But the sun popped out briefly. I suppose I could always upload this pic to the official UN Flickr site. Or I could just  do what I should do: log out and get on with my day’s work.

Due diligence


Occasionally the rain upstream is so torrential that the is turned creek the colour of milky coffee. This morning it was heavy with sediment, a slurry of washed-out topsoil from Kotara, New Lambton, Broadmeadow and beyond.

In spite of the rain it’s surprisingly littery. The litter seems mostly to be stuff discarded from the Newcastle Show on the weekend: balloons, drink cups and bottles, balloons, food wrappers, balloons.

And … er … dog baskets. Perhaps it was a rejected entry from the weaving section in the Hall of Industry.

On my way back from watching the ducks by the TAFE I got chatting to the young bloke from ERM, the mob contracted by Shell to carry out its “due diligence” work; that is, checking how crappy the creek is at any particular time. The tide was on the rise and we both laughed: he’d had one eye upstream worrying about being washed away by raging floodwater when – barzingah! – a tidal surge from Throsby Creek had him packing up his Eski and scuttling back up towards Chatham Road bridge.

And what was this? More hi-viz! A graffiti clean-up team was working on the bankings. Apparently there had been complaints from the good folk of Newcastle who, parking in Richardson Park for the Show, were affronted by a veritable gallery of horrid tags. Yuk! I can’t help thinking that, in removing one type of graffiti, we were getting another. Some clever artists have made an art form of reverse graffiti; in fact, you can still see a neat bit of reverse graffiti on King Street, sponsored by the Pride of Place Taskforce.

By evening things had calmed down, the hi-viz had packed up and gone home. I was walking under the bridge when Old Mate cooeed out to me. If he calls out to me that’s fine, but I never call out to him – it would be like barging into someone’s bedroom. But tonight we had a yak. Every now and then he comes for a walk with us, me and Jambo, and tonight was one of those nights. (That’s him, just about to hop over the beck.) We had one of our usual broad-ranging and eclectic conversations. I never know quite what to expect.

People often ask me about Old Mate. How is he? What’s he up to? Is he still there? I can assure you: he’s well, he’s up to the same old stuff, and he’s certainly still here. I like to keep an eye out, you see. It’s my due diligence.



Another milestone has passed. When my kids were little (like, tiny), and used to wake up (and us up) at 5 o’clock, it was a weekly ritual for us to traipse out to the front yard and wave at the bin man as he drove past in his big truck with the flashing orange light. It’s not something I particularly miss, but here’s a passing milestone that I do: the annual viewing of the Newcastle Show’s fireworks from our front verandah.

Neither of them even moved as the first Kaboom! rattled the window panes at 9.30 on Friday night.

On Saturday night I ventured out, alone, to get a few fuzzy snapshots. Low cloud reflected the reds and greens back down over Hamilton North. Freaked-out fruit bats chattered and circled around the Richardson Park fig trees and an acrid cloud of gunpowder drifted over the house. It’s a smell I love; it reminds of the spent shotgun cartridges that would rattle around in my dad’s jacket pocket after a windy, moonless night on the English moorland.

But that’s another story.

Indian summer


March, the first month of autumn, has been the best summer month we’ve had. Gorgeous, mild days with cool evenings and balmy breezes.* In the mornings the dew is heavy on the long grass; when the maintenance crews slash it a mist of dew and two-stroke exhaust fills the creek in most Turneresque way.

Jambo, the world’s nosiest dog, can’t resist saying hello.

But around and about there is a sense of “fattening up” before the real cold times arrive. In one evening I saw three different raptors in and around the gasworks: the grey falcon was back, causing the huge flock of delinquent Indian miners that hangs around there to go into a frenzy of squawking and clacking; then a brown falcon perched on a stand of dead lantana; and then the peregrine, up high on the storage tank. Their territories and prey range must overlap and yet they seemed content to accept one another’s presence. Perhaps the onset of autumn brings with it a sense of pragmatism.

The family of four ducklings are, remarkably, still intact. I think Ma Duck’s a bit over them, in the way that parents do become “over” their kids. In weeks gone by, when Jambo and I arrived under the railway bridge she would go into decoy mode, flapping up and down the creek with an “injured wing” to distract Jambo, while the ducklings (who had been grazing on soft grass shoots by Islington School) would quickly scamper down the banking and into the safety of the deep water. These days she barely quacks at them. “Oh, for God’s sake, you lot. Look after yourselves.”

This little chap turns up by the Chatham Road bridge fairly regularly.

He’s extraordinarily unfazed by human presence. At first I thought he was injured but I don’t think he is. Perhaps he’s a bird who likes to study humans. When he gets back to the group he’ll boast about this moment: “I got this close to a human today! I could have touched him – it was remarkable!”

Still down by the TAFE, the litter boom was busted for a few days. It lay coiled at the side of the creek like a massive, dead python.

The same morning I came across a young kid sloping away up the creek. When I got closer to where he’d been I found out why he was doing the suspicious crouchy walk.

I wanted to call him back, not because I was angry with him but because his tag was so utterly lame. In my best Victor Meldrew voice I’d bark “If you are going to vandalise the creek then at least do the best job you can!” I took a diversion and, when I came back, the cans were gone but the tag was still unfinished. Modern youth: useless.

The trees in the gasworks are covered in spider webs. The bigger webs look like guy ropes, as though they’ve been pegged into the ground and stretched tight to stop the trees from falling over. Dusk is the best time for seeing the webs and not walking dumb-headed right into them. Unlike this crucified dragonfly.

For over thirty years now, whenever I’ve seen a crucifixion, a painting or sculpture or icon, the image that has sprung to mind has not been that of Jesus but, annoyingly, that of Charlton Heston in the closing scene of that zombie flick The Omega Man. Hopefully now I’ll think of dragonflies.


* Of course, the day after I post this it rains buckets. Nothing to do with Newcastle Show, by any chance?

Different creeks


… different issues. Or maybe, the same issues in differently coloured wrapping paper.

A friend from Alice Springs days keeps me up to date with the news from Centralia. A popular quiz night question is “Name the river that runs through Wilcannia / Dubbo / Kempsey” etc.; it’s one that often trips people, but a good proportion of Australians know that it’s the Todd that runs through the middle of Alice Springs.

The Todd River still has its natural, sandy bed and its 500-year-old gum trees, thanks mainly to the foresight of Mounted Constable WG South who, a century ago, saved them from being axed by the newly arrived colonists looking for building materials and firewood. South wrote to the Minister for the Northern Territory “The trees are a great ornament to the place and it would be a great pity to destroy them”. The trees are still under immense pressure, these days from a suite of threats including sand mining, firewood collection and root impaction by vehicles, but South’s foresight has ensured that these beautiful old giants still guard the waterway.

However, the Todd River is, for many people, a place of short-term residence. As the major service town for the Red Centre, Alice attracts people from miles and miles around, people who often don’t have a bed or a room for the night. Among this group is some of the most committed and prodigious drinkers in the world. A recent collection by a small group of people found, in a 200 metre stretch of the river, the following small mountain of casks and bottles.

Check out the website of the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition to find out more.

Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles, USA, there have been concerted efforts over the last few years to rehabilitate the Los Angeles River (view a whole stack of articles via Planetizen here). One major advance was to have the entire 51-mile river recognsied as a navigable waterway by kayakers who made it from top to bottom; there’s a five-minute video on the Los Angeles Times website of the tours that now operate there. (If you have time to noodle around on Tinterweb then check out the blog of the LA Creek Freak people and LA Stormwater.)

The Planetizen site also links to articles on the Los Angeles City Council’s recent approval of an update to the Los Angeles River Implementation Overlay to encourage good quality river-centric development and to begin removing some of the concrete that covers the river and its banks.

It’s all food for thought, some of it heartening and some of it less so. But it is a reminder that waterways are living places that people the world over are attracted to, love and want to care for.

Just like Styx Creek. I mean, how nice is this?

Behooving moving


Last Sunday morning I was part of a group of 15 or 20 people who took part in a cycle ride with the formidable Dr Behooving (that’s him glowering down at me, below). Dr Behooving’s alter-ego, Steven Fleming, and his team of researchers at the University of Newcastle have come up with an exciting project proposal that sees car-free developments using empty post-industrial land in Newcastle’s inner city, with each site linked to the other (as well as to parks, public transport, schools and shops) through a cycle-way that follows existing rail and creek lines. No need for car parks! No need for any new roads!

Why didn’t I think of that?

My co-riders were an eclectic bunch of bloggers, cycling advocates, town planners and people like me, ordinary folk out for a ride in the sunshine.

Part of the loop took in Styx Creek. We pulled over, dropped in and I speechified for a while on what a brilliant and safe short cut this creek is. (From Maitland Road to New Lambton you can avoid having to cross four major arteries and dozens of the minor hassles that cyclists who use this city’s roads will be familiar with.)

I can’t half go on, can’t I?

It wasn’t just me gas-bagging. As well as the Doctor we also heard from David, one of the prime movers behind the Fernliegh Track and Bernard, who has helped secure funding for a bike-safe crossing at Hannell Street in Honeysuckle. I also got to meet a few people I’ve been following (in a non-threatening Internet kind of way), including showbag and the owner of that famous red sickle in the Bicycles in Newcastle blog.

Another new friend, Robert, also put me on to this fantastic story of a guy who caught a fish in Cottage Creek from his second-floor apartment. Ya gotta love this city!

Uh oh: change


There’s a saying along the lines of “You’ll know change when you see it because you won’t like it”. I was at my daughter’s school the other day as she collected her Year 9 laptop courtesy of the Digital Education Revolution (shortened form “DER”: no further comment needed). Her older brother’s been lugging this piece of landfill around for some time now. I don’t have a sense that the teachers have caught up with the best ways to use laptops in lesson plans (why would they?) and so his hard drive seems to be filled with games and movies swapped in the schoolyard.

But it’s the future, as we’re so often reminded. Even at primary school my kids were being told “The only certainty in your life is change” and “You may work in careers that have yet to be invented”. I don’t feel that these are necessarily good messages for young children but there you are: it’s change, and I don’t like it.

During the summer I went birding with a friend. We’re both 50+ but also both had iPhones with the Michael Morcombe birding app on board. This app is a brilliant innovation to my mind, one that neatly marries a need with a slick piece of technology. Back at the campsite, however, I felt uneasy. My friend’s daughter was scrolling through the app on her iPad, listening to bird calls. It’s how she was learning.

I learnt my bird calls (and here he draws himself up to his full rambunctious stature) by endless hours of birding, hours that were always pleasurable but many of which ended with a degree of disappointment; there was always the sense of having missed something or failed to make an identification. Because most birding is about what you hear, not what you see, the best way to learn is to go out (ideally with other more experienced birders) and keep at it until the magical moment when you actually get to put the call together with a confirmed sighting.

Having said that, my friend’s daughter will will be able to identify far more birds far more quickly than I ever could, so why I am complaining? Why don’t I like it?

Next to the gasworks the other day I heard a “slow, high, piercing ‘kieek-kieek-kieek'”. I had a pretty good idea what it was but the iPhone app allowed a neat confirmation. When the grey goshawk emerged from the lower trees behind a patch of lantana a black-shouldered kite came down to give it a hard time and so I had a visual confirmation.

So was what I did any different to what my friend’s daughter would have done? If there was any difference it was that she wouldn’t have had the endless disappointments of not seeing the birds that one hears but never sees, and surely that’s a good thing. And yet … bah.

The tides are high at about 8 am, which is about the same time that I take Jambo on his morning constitutional. With water still pouring down the creek it took a mighty effort to get the incoming saltwater to crest, but it did. About a minute after I took these pictures the tide surged inland.

Luckily I’d climbed up the metal rungs on the concrete banking and was walking along the grass by that point or I’d have been wet up to the ankles.

This afternoon things had calmed down. There were even moments of dappled sunshine between the showers.

It was a relief to know that in a world of constant change, some things stay the same.

Old man river


One of the state’s coolest, wettest summers has drawn to a close and autumn has taken over. Everything’s in the last flush of growing and ripening: this choko vine on Boreas Road will soon have taken over the entire bus stop.

It took until the very end of February but we did eventually have a few hot days. I wouldn’t call them stinkers but they were dank enough to need a fan in the bedroom one night. But by the time the Knights were hosting the Broncos the change had already started pushing through. As I walked along the creek towards Broadmeadow at dusk a cool gust came at me downstream, pushing with it a squall of dried-out leaves. They looked like rats or mice in the half light and the noise of them rolling against the concrete sounded like thousands of tiny clawed feet. Creepy.

The slasher’s been through the gasworks again. I normally like the long grass but at this time of year I’m also aware of, as my late father-in-law would have described them, the old Joe Blakes. Closed in shoes and long pants for me, whatever the weather!

On the plus side the slasher makes things visible that were hidden before. But there’s always a minus side: this blue-tongue was starting to pong by Saturday afternoon.

Beyond the pong stage was this dead bird I found on the roof when doing a gutter check. It had one green and one white plastic band but they weren’t proper birding bands, which are metal and numbered. The photo’s been popped off to the Hunter Bird Observers Club to see if they can identify it for me.

And so back to the creek. The flush has cleaned it out again; there was just this lonely soccer ball bobbing around by the Chaucer Street drain. But I know that, even as I’m writing this, it’ll be filling up again. Like the seasons, that river just keeps on rolling along.

Hmm. Is that a song?