It’s nobody’s problem


Herald journo Ben Smee did a neat a piece on the litter in the Carrington mangroves, with a talky bit to camera by your’s truly. After much detailed investigation Scoop Smee discovered that all that mess in the Carrington mangroves is, in fact, nobody’s problem.

Well I’m glad that that’s sorted!

Much to the relief of the not-responsible organisations we had a tropical low on Saturday, the day the story appeared, and so the creek filled with a torrent and conveniently washed all that nasty litter away. To somewhere else, somewhere where it’s someone else’s responsibility. Maybe the UN. WHO. ASIO. Who cares, as long as it’s not us.


It was a mighty powerful flush all right. This branch probably doesn’t look much here but I can assure you it was bloody big. I took this photo on Saturday afternoon, getting Jambo out for a leg-stretch between squalls.


I was told that the tides on the Gold Coast were huge. They must have been pretty big here in Newcastle too as I was amazed to see the tide pushing back against the deluge this far up the system; it wasn’t even high tide for another few hours.


I was also amazed to see this lot. Plastic bottles really are to floods what cockroaches are to nuclear armageddon.


What does it take to get rid of them? (Did someone say “container deposit legislation”?)

This story does have a kind of happy ending. Ben’s article prompted a bunch of staff from Port Waratah Coal Services to get out and do an emu bob around the mangroves. Nice bit of PR for the coal loader, the volunteers did some great work and we all get a cleaner mangrove. I just hope we can somehow keep on top of the problem, that some authority will put their hand up and take responsibility.

As a small postscript, I sent an email to PWCS asking whoever received it to pass on my thanks and congratulations to the volunteers for getting out there and making a difference. I received an automated reply that said: “Thank you for contacting PWCS. Please be aware that emails delivered to this mailbox will not be read/actioned until Monday 7 January 2013. If the matter is urgent, please call the PWCS 24 hour Community Enquiry Line ,4907 2280, and follow the prompts. Thank You”

It’s reassuring to know that it doesn’t matter how big the organisation, it still takes some bunny to turn off the automatic email response when you get back from holiday. Wonder how many emails they’ve missed in the last seven weeks!


Islington Junction Box


If you’ve ever found yourself stuck at Clyde Street lights as a coal train lumbers past (OK, so that’s everyone in Newcastle) then you’ll have had a few moments to contemplate the Islington Junction box.

Poor old thing! The Wife and I were discussing it just the other day, trying to remember when it stopped being manned. (She said “staffed”, though when I challenged her to name a single lady signalperson she knew she was cornered. Ha!) She certainly remembers seeing the “signalperson’s” car parked down the side in recent years, but no more.

Islington Signal Box

Then, in the strange way that these things happen, some scamps sent me these pics of the inside. So that’s what it looks like! I’d bet a dollar that very few signal ladies would be able to wrassle any of those levers back and forth. Is that an iron spiral staircase in the background? And a comfy viewing armchair? All very intriguing.


I’ll take it that this is the reverse view, not that there’s another entire bank of levers.


I got a few pics of discarded rubbish and general detritus too. It’s all very poignant, a whole stack of attendance books that were probably filled in with great care and diligence over many months and years.


And, I’m not sure if this is reassuring or not, a list of instructions.

ISB instructions

“Noooo! DOWN! I said 164.500 down, not 164.376 up!”



Reed beds and mangroves are often described by natural resource management people as the “kidneys” of our estuaries, filtering out the rubbish in the freshwater system before it hits the ocean. If that’s the case, then the mangroves around the Carrington board walk must be ready to go on dialysis. I was down there the other day, taking a stroll with the Jambo and The Wife. The state of the place is enough to make you weep.


The vast majority of the litter that ends up in our waterways, and hence our reeds and mangroves, consists of discarded plastic drink bottles. Which makes the challenge by Coca-Cola Amatil, Schweppes and Lion Nathan to the NT’s container deposit legislation hugely galling. As though these guys aren’t making massive enough profits from fizzy water with sugar in it? (You can sign the GetUp! e-petition supporting the NT Government here if you’re up for it.)


The Styx is the collection point for several smaller creeks and waterways. Hunter Water subbies out the job of picking up the bottles, syringes, polystyrene cartons and other junk to a private company. I see the guys often, out with their whipper snippers on the banking, doing emu bobs with garbage bags or in thigh waders down by the TAFE. They do a sterling job but, in the face of the tsunami of litter that thoughtless people send their way, they’re always going to be fighting a losing battle. I mean, look at this from a couple of months ago:


But amidst the gloom, a small moment of … well, not exactly happiness, but certainly surprise It was Froggy! The last time I saw this little guy was in August 2012, by the railway bridge.


Somehow he’d managed to hitch a ride on a flood down past the TAFE, under the Maitland Road bridge, down the Throsby and into the Carrington mangroves. He’s a survivor!

Though of course he’s a survivor because he’s made of non-biodegradable unobtanium or something. So, hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so pleased to see him after.

(But I was pleased really!)

How to waste time


As a Master Timewaster (I’m not a procrastinator; there’s an important difference) I could provide many hints and tips on ways to noodle away an entire weekend on nothing much in particular. But if I were to drill down to the single uncontested killer time-wasting activity ever thunk of, then it would be “staring at old maps”. Holy Moses, I could spend a lifetime on that.

So imagine the mixture of delight and horror that coursed through me when Russell tipped me this link to the Uni archives (damn you, Gionni di Gravio!) of a 1910 map of Newcastle. (I provide the link here, but warn you to click with care. You may suddenly find yourself unkempt and unshaven at your keyboard in three days time, wondering where the weekend went.)

Here’s a screen shot of the full map:


And here’s a zoom in that I bodgied together of the Hamilton North (aka Newtown) area, showing the newly cut “storm water channel” and the area where the gasworks and fuel depot now sit:


A few things that struck me:

  • My house ain’t been built yet.
  • The rail bridge over the creek is noted as an “iron bridge”, but those over the creek at Chinchen Street and Maitland Road were wooden. Wonder when they got replaced with the concrete jobbies?
  • The crossing over the rail line to Hamilton was via Baird Street.
  • There’s a small creek running through what is now Smith Park, at exactly the spot where Smith Park always floods. Go figure!
  • The whole area was barely developed a century ago. So much has happened so quickly.

Another thing that struck me is the elegance of the drawn map. As much as I love Google Maps you can’t go past an olde worlde hand-drawn map. Just gorgeous.

Thank you, Russell, and Gionni!

We look after our own


The last time I was in a union was over 20 years ago. I was in the Missos (Miscellaneous Workers) when I was in Alice Springs, but after I left town I opened a bookshop, and worked freelance, and for one reason or another I’ve been self-employed (and unionless) for two-plus decades. When my son got a job at KFC they joined him up for the union (the “they” being the union, not KFC) and stuff started coming through the letterbox, which I read studiously and my son studiously ignored.

The hard work and sacrifice of unnamed thousands of people in the union movement gave us many of the things that we now take for granted in our working and domestic lives. But, like Feminism, the current generation is not interested in the history lectures, the finger wagging and the general curmudgeonliness that men and women of a certain age are prone to offer on a free and regular basis. But they’re still out there, the unions.


That phrase, “we look after our own”, is at the core of what unions are about – the good bits and the bad. A song of roughly similar name, by Bruce Springsteen, became the anthem for Obama’s medical insurance reforms in the USA. Though I’ve never considered myself much of a Springsteen fan I do appreciate his ability to create driving, anthemic songs with lyrics that really connect with his audience. It’s an audience that’s usually represented as the disenfranchised, blue-collar workers of the American Rust Belt, though it also scoops up a goodly bunch of the denim-wearing right-on middle classes. I think. I may have just made all that up.

We don’t have a terrifically great record of looking after our own in the Hunter Valley, at least not when it comes to our flora and fauna. We’d cut out all the red cedar for a hundred mile radius within twenty minutes of the first timber-getters arriving, and our koalas and emus are just about out of habitat.

I was surprised to see the glossy black cockatoo listed as “vulnerable” in Michael Roderick and Alan Stuart’s list of threatened bird species of the Hunter. I’m sure I’ve heard them squawking past, with that distinctive “wheezing and grating” call of theirs. My wife recently found this yellow-tailed black cockatoo feather, which was at once exciting and a reminder that I haven’t heard a glossy black call for a long time now. Too long.


At least the grass and scrub and lantana in the gasworks is thriving. There are too few places in our cities that are messy and unkempt enough for our birds, particularly insectivores, to thrive. It’s a paradox of modern living; if we are to look after our own – our birds, snakes, frogs, butterflies and bandicoots – we’ve got to stop looking after other parts of our world. Put simply, we need more derelict places where Nature can take its course. We need more of this:


And this.


Rotting sleepers, lantana, cotton weed. Rubbish? Invasive pests? Yes, but in the absence of anything else they’re also lifesavers. And compared to the concrete wasteland inside the creek, a bit of lantana scrub is heaven.


It’s a dilemma for me. I can’t stand to see the decay that’s taking over the old Gas and Coke building (more on this to follow) but at the same time I really feel protective about the general dereliction, lack of care and oversight that’s made the rail lines and the gasworks into a thriving park for urban wildlife. Until we start to genuinely look after our own, or own will have to look after themselves in the gaps we leave when we stop caring.



Bumped into Dave and the boys down the creek the other day. I wanted to get a nice flashy pic of his ute barrelling up through the beck and sending water spraying out from the wheel arches but it takes time to realise the moment, get the phone out, enter password, open camera … oh. The moment’s gone. And then Dave pulls up and tries to charge ten bucks for the privilege! Bah!


They’re not the only ones doing “improvements”. The other week, as I rounded the creek and got the full disaster of the Styx in my sights – a mile and more of pure straightness, just as Nature never intended – I saw a couple of hi-viz jackets bobbing around in the far distance. Turns out it was a subcontractor replacing a couple of panels in the banking.


Quite how the powers that be pick the ones to keep and the ones to replace escapes me. Dave reckons it’s based on cracking at the lower edge, but those panels up by Hamilton North School all look pretty solid to me, while the ones down by the railway bridge have just about disintegrated.

But, hey, here’s a duck.


I think it was a juvenile with a foot injury. It couldn’t make it to the water in time and, even though Jambo chases birds with that relentless doggie optimism, even he was nonplussed by this chap. Oooh kay. I’ve got one. Now what?

And now that I’ve got us onto birds I can talk about the brown goshawk that’s appeared around the gasworks. (I rather like that: the gasworks goshawk.) It seems that the gasworks can support a range of raptors at any one time; the other day I saw a kestrel, a black-shouldered kite and the brown goshawk all perched or patrolling within a fairly short distance of one another. But no bigger raptors for a while now: no peregrines or swamp harriers. As the man said, “Why is it so?”


The recent rain flushed away all the rubbish, so it’s no longer my problem. (Hey surfers of Newcastle: a gift from Hamilton North headed your way!) There are a couple of new trollies but the bottles have yet to start building up by the TAFE litter boom. Curiously, a chair and a purple ball appeared. This ball was like a marker for a few days, slavishly following the tide up as far as Chatham Road then whizzing back down to Islington.


Then … gone. Maybe a walker picked it up and took it home.

The picture of the gas holders in the previous post generated a lot of feedback. This archive pic is much older, and the lens that’s been used makes it quite hard to orientate, but I think it’s been taken towards the rail bridge looking towards the back of the admin building. What do you knowledgeable folk think?
gasworks panorama

Something’s afoot


Last year, Jemena Pty Ltd (the Melbourne-based gas retailer and owner of the Clyde Street gasworks) threw a bit of money at the site. Bores were sunk so that monitoring could take place of the pollution levels in the water table, the old admin building had fresh panes of glass installed (which were promptly knocked out) and there was an effort to keep the lantana and grass down to a point where they weren’t a terrifying fire hazard to the folk next door at ELGAS.


Then it all went quiet.

Well, they’re at it again.


First, a big black rainwater tank appeared, and now this lot. Viro soil? Huh? Google isn’t much help. Does anyone out there know what on earth viro soil is? Is is like enviro soil, but even more concentrated and awesome? Or could is it that the nice lad with the texta forgot to scrawl “en” in front of “viro”?

I’m very interested to see what a couple of tanks of viro soil will do to the place.  There’s so much coal tar soaked through the soil that it would cost a mint to rehabilitate the whole site. If any reminder were needed of just how industrial it was, then check this out:

gas holders clyde street

Russell put me onto this pic in a previous post. It really is quite amazing to see the gigantic gas holders dwarfing the admin building. And what’s that two-storey building in the background, on Chatham Road or Emerald Street?

As an aside, I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. He covers gas production and coal tar (p. 179, if you’re keen) and I was interested to see how coal tar was converted into kerosene, and how it was, in Bryson’s words, “the basis of the modern chemical industry”.

Leaving us with a postmodern mess to clean up. Go viro soil!