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 …