Into another world

A bazillion years ago I worked for an Aboriginal publishing company in Alice Springs. We published dictionaries and language learning materials, oral histories, biographies and cross-cultural guides. The name of this post, Into Another World, was the title of one of our books, written many years earlier by Amee Glass, a missionary posted to Warburton in the heart of Western Australia’s Ngaanyatjarra country.

Last weekend I had my own cross-cultural experience, visiting a place as completely alien to me as 1970s Warburton had been to Amee Glass. I went to Canberra.

I’d anticipated something a bit squeaky clean, a bit sanitised, but not this sanitised! Where is the graffiti? The needles? The bag of prawn heads? The oozing coal tar?


Fortunately I had taken the precaution of employing cultural advisers, people who could show me the seedy side of our capital. (Note, Vicki, that in Canberra cowboy hats pass for helmets.) They even brought a surrogate Jambo for me. Peeps: meet Roddy.


We managed to find two trollies under a bridge. One of them still bore traces of organic goat’s cheese roulade and free-trade Nicaraguan coffee.


I could fill volumes with snide remarks about the differences between Newcastle and Canberra but I’ll stick to one theme: the contrasting way these two cities treat their urban waterways. Just to remind you, this is a waterway in Newcastle, my beloved Styx Creek:


How and why do they treat their urban waterways differently in the ACT? I shan’t take the easy route and moan about wealth distribution or the gulf between centralised government and regional cities. The key difference is this: our water drains into the Hunter River, thence to the harbour and the ocean, where we don’t see it any more and so don’t have to think about it; their water drains into Lake Burley Griffin where, if conditions are right, the warm, silty, nutrient-rich water is a perfect medium for unsightly and toxic algal blooms. Which they do have to look at and deal with.

A coalition of governments, councils and agencies is addressing the problem. They have focus, a shared vision, political will and dollars – lots of dollars: $60 million at last count. What could you do with $60 million? You could do this, for a start:


This artificial wetland is in O’Connor. About a dozen years ago it was just a flat, grassed parkland. The coalition of good forces created the wetland, and others like it, to help filter the water that enters the drains that feed the lake. Reed beds capture the nutrients and pollution, the sediment drops in the pond, the shrubs and trees not only help to stop erosion but also provide a beautiful shady retreat. (Those ripples are from Roddy having a cooling dip.)

This other wetland we visited was more recent, maybe only a couple of years old. It’s the Banksia Street Wetland that feeds Sullivan’s Creek. I know this because I took a picture of the elegant, informative and unvandalised sign along the bicycle path.


But the biggest and most ambitious of these wetlands is at (I think) Lyneham. It is bloody enormous.


It’s not finished but the main landscaping is in place; once the reeds and shrubs grow up it’ll look fantastic. The wetland is a kind of gigantic pool fed by smaller creeks; in large flood events the water ponds, dropping its sediment and nutrients, before spilling over a vegetated weir.


They still have a bit of the “keep out” mentality shared by all litigation-averse organisations.


But that’s a fair call as the catchment system is different down there, it really is like going into another world. Even the graffiti has a social conscience.


In a postscript to this blog, as I was about to click “Publish” I got a link from one the cultural ambassadors. It’s a recent press release from Tony Burke, the federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. How about this:

We want to start working to make sure our urban rivers look like rivers not drains. You can’t look after the oceans without caring for the rivers that flow into them.

Ooh. Ooh. I’m getting a warm feeling inside. A warm, federally funded feeling. I’m going to write me a letter …

5 Responses to Into another world

  1. Vicki says:

    Everything about Canberra looks so upmarket compared to Newcastle! Just as well I never go there to compare… though I do like the look of those bike hats!

  2. The richness about this country is that our regional cities and our capital cities ARE all different and all enjoyable because if this. I love Canberra and yes, it has it share of bogans as you’ll find out if you try for a pleasant stroll around Civic late at night.

    • Mark MacLean says:

      Point taken. Slagging off Canberra’s almost too easy, and I’m certainly no advocate for homogenised cities. BUT … at an infrastructure level the disparity between Canberra and [insert name of any Australian regional city] is so mind-bogglingly huge that, when you come from one of those cities and spend time in Canberra, it’s almost like a slap in the face.

      The point of the post is not that I criticise Canberra but that I applaud it for its wetland rehabilitation. I simply want this to be the benchmark of care and investment for ALL cities, which is far beyond the case at the moment.

  3. deb says:

    You know it was SA I believe that first invented the wetland, creek reclamation idea – a world first design I think. I’ve also seen excellent creek reclamation around Lake Macquarie -but they have a green mayor yes? I love the one near me at Dickson precisely because apart from all the good enviro biz it does it also provides a very used recreational space for everyone, including dogs that used to swim in the drain on hot days. And if there are bushfires in this bushy city, a real constant fear, they offer a place for ‘Elvis” helicopters to fill up. Thanks, Great rave. It’s these thins that are make life bearable here. I’ve been her 30+ years and still chafe to live near a beach ie Newcastle.

    • Mark MacLean says:

      Ooh, Jambo and I might have to visit South Australia next!

      You’re right about Lake Macquarie; it does offer the best and worst examples of how to treat an urban waterway. I think the parallel with Canberra is that, like Lake Burley Griffin, the folk at Lake Mac get to see exactly what happens when they don’t look after their waterways, whereas Novocastrians have the “luxury” of having all the bad stuff flushed out to sea. Which is why our surfers tend to be our most committed environmentalists.

      Thanks for the heads up on SA.

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