A fresh start


“It’s nice to be away, but it’s just as nice to be back.” A mind-numbing platitude, the type that parents come out with and cause their children to tear their eyes out. If I didn’t actually say it on Wednesday, when we got back from a two-week jaunt, then I certainly thought it. Of course, those banal platitudes become statements of fact after a certain number of years. Now that I’ve officially achieved my dotage, sayings like “As long as you’ve got your health” are self-evident truths against which no argument can be brooked.

This time last week I was knee-deep in the Little Snowy River at Mitta Mitta, Victoria.


The water was crystal clear, and thankfully it wasn’t knee-deep everywhere as the colts from North Melbourne and Fitzroy VFL teams were camped on the banking. Take two competing footie teams, add youth, testosterone, alcohol, a beating sun and a rope swing above a swimming hole with submerged rocks and, hey presto!, you’ve got summer in Australia.


The other waterway I happened upon was the Yarra.


Concrete banks or not, they really know how to incorporate a river into a community down there. Is there anything comparable in NSW? Perhaps the Parramatta River at Parramatta, which has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years.

After we collected Jambo from the boarding kennelg the two of us went down the creek to see what we’d missed.

Not much, as it turned out.


And yet it was still quite lovely to be down there. The rubbish was different and yet the same: a stroller thrown off the Chatham Road bridge, a busted brolly.


The Mother of All Baubles. This one was so big that I put a Coke can next to it so that you’d have some idea of the scale. It was huge, industrial in scale. It can only have come from somewhere like Waratah Village.


Actually, looking at it in picture form doesn’t quite fill me with the same sense of awe. Maybe you had to be there.

I came across this blue bag, “For a better environment”. It must be somehow greener than a green bag. I wonder how. I won’t make any comment about this particular blue bag not being at all good for the environment as once I commented similarly on a discarded coffee cup, an “eco cup”. I pretty quickly got an email from the manufacturers pointing out that the cup itself was über-eco in its environmental credentials, but they could not be held responsible for the donkey that discarded it. Same same.

I don’t think there’s anything eco about Nokia phones. In fact, aren’t our phones and iPads and laptops filled to the brim with Rare Earth and precious metals and other things mined at great cost and danger in faraway countries? (For the record, the back, battery and SIM card were gone.)


So it really was the usual old stuff, just a bit different and moved around a bit, yet it was still lovely. Jambo chased the cormorants off the litter boom by the TAFE, had a swim in the beck and finished off by chasing a few rabbits around the gasworks.


In a couple of days’ time these walks will be part of the routine, but this first one of the new year had a freshness to it that was an absolute pleasure. It was nice to have been away, but it really is nice to be back.

Where to begin?


Such a varied weekend, so much stuff happening. It is, as young folk might say, “going off” down the creek. (Young people might not actually say that, if they ever did, but I heard a Young Person say it once and so it’s now locked in my head as Young Person speak.)

It’s been interesting on the litter front. Outside the gasworks I discovered what I immediately took to be the belt buckle of Diana of the Island of Thermiscyra (aka Wonder Woman), but when I Googled images of Wonder Woman I didn’t see any evidence of a cardboard belt buckle with a W crayoned onto it.

Further investigation revealed that, during one of Marvel’s many reinventions of Wonder Woman (this time in the 1960s):

Wonder Woman surrendered her powers in order to remain in Man’s World rather than accompany her fellow Amazons to another dimension. Becoming a mod boutique owner, the powerless Diana Prince acquired a Chinese mentor named I Ching. Under I Ching’s guidance, Diana learned martial arts and weapons skills and engaged in adventures that encompassed a variety of genres, from espionage to mythology.

A mod boutique owner would not make belts out of cardboard. No, this cannot be Wonder Woman’s belt buckle. So who’s is it???

Anyway: swans. I saw my first ever cygnet down the creek the other week. According so my Ash Island sources there have been lots of swans breeding this year; indeed, a family of six made it up the creek to Chinchen Street. Jambo, bored with chasing ducklings, went belting after them.

I hate to think what would have happened to him if he’d actually managed to catch up with them. His doggy paddle was no match for their lazy gliding, and when the pen and the cob reared up and hissed he made a quick retreat to the banking, from whence he barked with impotent terrier fury.

The cygnets, not yet fledged, were perfectly camouflaged against the filth and junk by the litter boom.

Unfortunately the swan family had gone by Saturday afternoon. That was the day when, at 4 pm precisely, the Twitchathon kicked off. The Twitchathon groups birders into teams of four, many of whom charge around the countryside confirming sightings and doing birdy things. There’s a great show about the Twitchathon, featuring members of the Hunter Bird Observers Club. The HBOC has a great record in NSW, with last year’s winners being the Hunter’s very own Menacing Monarchs.

I bumped into one team at the TAFE. The City Chicks were dead giveaways: heads flung back and binocular-ed eyes boring into the treetops, water-resistant birding book in one hand and checklist in the other. We had a great chat (no birding pun intended) about birding, and our favourite apps, and the creek. I officially award each of these lovely women a special Hamilton North Blog Wonder Woman Belt of Awesomeness.

I went to talk to another reading group about The Book this week. It’s always interesting to have people tell you what they think of what you’ve written. I’m thick-skinned with broad shoulders (not literally) and don’t mind a serve, but everyone was very generous. And they gave me a bottle of wine! How good is that! Thank you!

I also got a great little postcard from H-FOOT. I don’t know who you are or what you do, but H-FOOT I loved your card and your message. It’s things like that that make me happy.

And, to cap off a happy-making weekend of general goodness, I came across my first Christmas bauble of the season. This is definitely early, and looked as though it may well have been banging around the creek since last Yuletide.

Seeing it reminded me that, a year ago, I was busily trying to finish a book about Styx Creek, wondering whether anyone would ever  read it. And I was also getting ready to turn 50.

Life: it just keeps on going.

Earth Week, 1976


I’ve had the great good fortune to be contacted by Kevin McDonald. Now retired, Kevin has devoted his professional and personal life to environmental education in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

The photo below (first published in the Newcastle Morning Herald in September 1976) shows Kevin and a group of Islington Public School students taking water samples from the reach of the creek behind the school; that is, the part of Styx Creek opposite the TAFE, just before it connects with Throsby Creek at Maitland Road.

The project was part of Earth Week in that year. Kevin, who was senior lecturer in biological and environmental sciences at the then Newcastle College of Education, says:

The project was part of a wider program of urban environmental education, and the then teacher-in-charge of the Awabakal Field Studies Centre, Brian Gilligan, produced a set of notes in booklet form. At the time, I was President of the Association for Environmental Education (NSW) and we had urban E.E. as a theme at our annual conference (in 1976).

The Herald article that accompanies the picture says, “Throsby Creek at low tide is an unpleasant site”. Well! A lot’s happened since then. Heavy industry has pretty well moved out of the city, but the pollution produced by individuals seems to have increased. We might not have to close the windows if the wind’s blowing the wrong way or hide the washing from clouds of soot but what the steelworks no longer provides we seem to have made up for in spades.

This evening there was a warm northerly barrelling downstream. Just by the confluence of the old Styx Creek (the “Chaucer Creek drain”) and the “canal” I came across this mini version of the Pacific Gyre, an aggregation of drink bottles, busted thongs and empty aerosol cans all caught up behind the skeleton of a rusty mattress that the wind had clothed with leaf litter and sticks.

It’s disheartening to come across this amount of trash. Have we learned nothing?

I think we have. There are many things that are worse in 2012 than in 1976 but there are many things that are better. As I sat supping a schooner in the Honeysuckle Hotel after a day spent muralling at the Museum the Trevor Dickinson I was reminded that the hotel was once a post-industrial nowhere land, the site of a disused power station. It took people with vision and energy to make the magnificent foreshore precinct a reality. We can do better. But then, I  guess I’m just a Pollyanna.

On an unrelated note, I was pleased to find this Christmas bauble the other morning. Every time I think “That’s it! Bauble season is over!” I find myself surprised by yet another of these cheerful little reminders of  Yuletide. It is impossible not to smile at the uselessness of a bauble. Even the word …

Christmas Eve and Day


Our Christmas Eve tradition is to have fish and chips with friends at Bar Beach, followed by beach cricket and a couple of beers. It was a perfect day followed by a perfect evening that defied the pessimistic forecast of showers, a day so good that we stayed dark. By the time we got home Jambo was VERY ready for a walk and so, even though the light had gone, we set off down the creek to the railway bridge and back.

In the western sky was Venus, while over the east was Orion, the Hunter. Orion’s belt was one of the few constellations (or parts thereof) that I could ever pick out in the northern hemisphere when I was a boy, and it’s comforting to see those familiar three stars here on the other side of the world.

The darkness allowed me to focus on the sounds of the creek: crickets and cicadas rasping out tziiit tziiit tziiit, crrrk crrrk crrrk; traffic rumbling over the Griffiths Road bridge; the hoarse roar of the venting fans in the tin shed in the fuel depot that spin round, night and day, all year; fruit bats bickering in the Richardson Park figs; one final lonely coal train, with a driver on triple time.

The morning, Christmas Day, and we followed the same route, though everything was different. The only highlight was a Heineken keg bobbing around in the early morning high tide.

The family went to the beach again in the afternoon. There were squally onshore winds, though the water was still beautiful and refreshing. But the story in the creek, when Jambo and I went there that afternoon, was different. Those same onshore winds had blown the litter that had been held up by the boom back upstream, some of it as far back as the Chatham Road bridge. It looked horrible.

I counted two boogie boards, nine tennis balls, two huge rolls of bubble wrap, two soccer balls and I stopped counting the drink bottles somewhere in the mid thirties.

Then, redemption. My very first post in this blog was a photo I took in January of a discarded Christmas bauble and I wondered then if it was a fluke. Fortunately the Christmas gods smiled upon me and sent this little red bundle of joy to take the edge of the cigarette packets, busted toys, Fanta bottles, broken foam boxes and Ironlak aerosol cans that otherwise decorated the creek like a bedraggled tree.

Merry Christmas to everyone who’s followed or commented on the blog, bought the book, or bailed me up on the street to pass on an interesting fact or funny anecdote. See you down the creek in 2012.